Rose Swartz - Photo Essay
It Takes All Kinds: Carpentry & The Cesspool, Portland, Oregon 2018
5:30am. NW 6th and Glisan. In the thick of it. Streetlights and neon smear together into a pink blanket of misty rain. I park on 4th and cross the avenue full of tents and trash and piss and syringes. A man in puffy coat and sweatpants flashes a gold-capped smile at me, makes the universal symbol for blow-job. I keep walking, fast and tall in my work boots. I wear my hardhat to and from the job each day, even though I could keep it in the trailer like the guys do. It makes me feel more brave or anonymous this early in the morning. There’s a line for the public bathroom, which I doubt people use for defecation, since the street itself smells and looks like a sewer. Cadres of homeless, disenfranchised, transient, and addicted maw and scream down here day and night. The guys I work with call the area surrounding our job site “the cesspool.” Inside the fence, beyond the scrim with the general contractor’s logo, the iron workers smoke and roll up their sleeves and pant legs; the carpenters swear and laugh and boast; and the one funny old painter man prays.
In the pre-dawn rain, the crane swings to life. Lights from the tower illuminate the near-finished health department headquarters. Us carpenters stand in a circle, stretching and getting lined out for the day. From across the yard we hear the gurgle of walkie-talkies. The crane operator drops the jib of the crane down into the yard and two roofers rig up a pallet of foam. As the foam rises from the ground, dozens of displaced rats weave frantic figure eights around the roofers’ boots. Minutes ago, the two men were tough looking brutes with tattoos up to their ears and scraggly faces, but now they are small children imitating ballerinas. The foam had been sitting out all autumn and must have made a cozy home for the rodents. We wrap up stretching and turn to have a laugh. One of the roofers catches my eye as we gawk. “It’d be ok if you were screaming your head off, cuz you’re a girl,” he shouts across the yard, “but I know I look like a fool, screamin’ like a girl while I’m a grown-ass man!” I grin at him and shrug.
At 6am I walk across the yard with the other carpenters and greet Kay, the laborer who guards the entrance to the building. She slips a miniature Snickers in my palm as we quickly side-hug. Kay is one of the few other women on the job and the only person I ever purposely touch at work. The building is 10 stories, and the interior is nearly buttoned up. There are some who have been working here for nearly a year. Some guys can’t handle the cesspool because of what it brings up from their pasts. Most of the others thrive on the spectacle. On breaks sometimes you’ll see a group huddled near a window, watching for action. A couple weeks ago there was a stabbing directly below one of the exterior scaffolds. One morning a guy threw a knife at the balcony of our building and nearly stuck one of our workers in the arm. At orientation, the office guys told us not to interact with the public as if it was Jurassic Park: “If you don’t look them in the eye, they can’t see you,” type shit. Most of us would have to call BS on that one.
10am and I’m on the fifth floor, dropping off a cart full of exterior studs. An old-timer leans next to the open scaffold door. Once he sees me, he points to this week’s new apprentice and proclaims, “20 years old and he’s never seen anybody shoot up!” The old-timer chuckles and pats the kid on the back and half rolls his eyes at me. They both turn their attention back to the street. I too look down at the road below, between the train station and our building—the road we’ve learned is nicknamed Shooter’s Alley. Territories made of cardboard, trash bags, tarps and blankets divide the sidewalk into makeshift cubicles. People nod off, people bicker. Police cruisers roll by countless times a day. Twice a week some company from the county comes and bleaches the sidewalk, picks up the paraphernalia. By the next morning, it always looks the same.
“Check it out,” says the old-timer, “I’ve never seen somebody do it like that before.” A young man sits below the alley’s one scraggly tree, nodding off with a syringe jammed in his neck. He’s about the same age as our new apprentice, who I look over to. The apprentice’s eyes resemble two melting scoops of ice cream. “He’ll probably have this burned in his mind forever,” the old-timer offers, “right bud? Ha, ha.” The apprentice doesn’t reply, just keeps staring.
“Maybe it’s good for all of us,” I say, trying to sound optimistic or something, “like a PSA but… in real time?”
“Sure is,” says the old-timer, “I brought my grandkids down here last weekend, wanted to teach them a lesson. We live out in the sticks. It ain’t like this out there. They didn’t believe me when I told them what it was like. But, whooo-eee, I showed them somethin’ alright.”
Most of June and July, the breaktime entertainment was a woman we called “The Dancer.” She had a big system of tarps and tents set up by the light rail. She’d get high then cavort for hours in and around her tarps. I wouldn’t say she was without skill. If you squinted hard, she could have been part of some festival, or a parade float that had sloughed off all decoration. One morning, the elevator operator tells us that he asked her about the dancing, about her life.
“Wait,” interrupts a plumber, “you TALKED to her? She’s your FRIEND?”
“No crime in talkin’ to people,” counters the elevator operator, “besides I was curious. I spend my whole day in this little cage looking out at the street, goin’ up and down. Feel like I know half these people already. Might as well find out what their deal really is, instead of imagining it all on my own.”
“Alright, alright,” says another guy, “well what IS her deal then?”
“She just likes to get high and dance. That’s her form of recreation. You go home, drink beer on your couch, watch tv. She gets high and dances in her tent. It takes all kinds.”
“DAyyyyumn.” Some of the guys shake their heads. Some laugh. The elevator reaches the penthouse. A few days later, the dancer’s tent is gone. Some smart-ass asks the elevator operator, “Yo bro, where your girlfriend at? You take her home to dance?”
“No,” the operator answers in his forever-deadpan “I did not.” His mustache twitches a little. “Why don’t you ask Kay about her next time you’re down by the gate.”
Kay guards the job site and guides all the truck drivers with deliveries in. She gives dog treats to the transient people’s dogs and wakes up the kids sleeping on the corner in the morning when we have to set up the barricades. She sprays down the sidewalk with a hose when it’s hot and the smell of decomposing shit and drugs and junk food starts to perfume the air. Once I was down there spotting for a guy on a boom and a young man who was already shirtless whipped his dick out, started waving it at Kay and I. I turned the other way, speechless. Kay unleashed a litany of harsh obscenities that sent him scurrying across the heavy mid-day traffic. It does take all kinds.
A few days later, somebody asks the elevator operator about the dancer again. He just shakes his head, looks at the ground. “You didn’t hear?” He sighs. “They found her strangled to death in her tent last week. No reason, no motive, no suspect.” A chorus of mumbled “shit”s and “oh man”s circles the elevator. Then, for the first time in recent history, there is silence in the cage until we reach the penthouse.
The west side of our building is a few yards away from a six-story halfway house. Working on the exterior, we’ve gotten asked for scrap metal so many times that we’ve all just started to pretend we’re deaf. Sometimes randos yell out that they like my “construction outfit.” One morning one of the plasterers forgot a tool and ran back to grab it from his truck. On the sidewalk by the halfway house there was a woman in the middle of a psychotic break who was basically fucking the sidewalk to death. The plasterer politely avoided her by walking closer to the halfway house. Something wet dripped on his shoulder and he instinctively looked up. Open-mouthed and open-eyed, he was slimed by a liquid believed to be either alcohol-vomit, alcohol-piss, or the contents of some rubbish bucket containing both. He returned to the job site sodden and pasty. We could all smell him before there was time to explain. Kay saw the whole thing and helped hose him off. Our foreman gave him a clean shirt and let him have the rest of the day off. Besides death or injury, that’s probably the worst thing that could happen down here. Everyone steers clear of the sidewalk after that.
Late summer brings triple digit temperatures and harsh wildfire smoke. Our foremen include the air quality and heat index warnings as part of morning meetings. At starting time, the sun is a smudgy red ping-pong ball at the tip of the crane. At quitting time, the sunset floods the smoke-clogged air the color of a dreamsicle, but it’s a bad dream. People limp by, sweatier and more haggard than usual. Some wear respirators, some tie bandanas around their faces. Everyone is on edge.
One day I take Steel Bridge home and see a shirtless man with chains wrapped around his torso limping towards me through the haze. It reminds me of the movie Total Recall for some reason, but I’m too tired to give it a second thought. We just keep working, laughing when we can, and hoping the air will clear. Eventually, the temperature will drop, and the rain that this region is famous for will return.
From mid-morning until quitting time, from August on, we heard the wild, unmuffled cries of a woman stationed roughly at 8th and Hoyt. They call her The Screamer. Her screams are unvaried and come in triplicate. “Heeeelp, haaaalp, heeelp.” All afternoon. All week. All month. All fall. Maybe forever. We imagine this must be what it’s like to be coming down off whatever she is on. By mid-September, our jokes and patience wear thin. The foremen say her screams are even louder on the ground by their trailer. One of them comes to visit us out on the scaffold more often and admits that sometimes it’s just to get away from the intensity of her cries.
Every few days, The Screamer is hauled off somewhere, or gets her fix, and is silent. One time, we don’t hear her for a week. Maybe she’s been cured or hauled off for good. Those of us who’ve been on the job for a long time keep count of the overdoses, fights, arrests, and vermin like some kind of perverted job site bingo. Three arrests, two overdoses, and four dead rats all before lunch break is my personal best. We start to think that the screamer is gone, that we can take her off the imaginary bingo card. But come Monday, she’s back at it again.
It’s freakishly hot for October and we’re miserable on the scaffold, installing the last of the steel around the windows. After acclimating to the cool weather, the heat seems extra abrasive. And the woman’s screams more so. The guys can’t help themselves but yell “haaalp” back in her general direction. I bite my tongue and bite my tongue. One day, returning to the Fraco from grabbing material, I swing the door open as she is launching into an extra-loud series of HEYEEEELPs! “Why!?” I yell, dropping the bucket of clamps and screws on the deck, “why couldn’t somebody have fucking strangled her instead?”
The men that I’ve spent the last four months working 60-hour weeks with all stop and stare up at me, surprised. “What?” I say, “I’m fed up!” There’s a pause. And another. Like the guys have never heard me swear or yell, even though I know they have.
“Hey,” I look over at one of the guys I’ve worked with on every job since I started three years ago.
“Do you remember when I was nice?”
“Ya.” He grins a little bit and shakes his head, almost looks disappointed.
“Hey guys, I just want you to know I used to be nice. I didn’t even know how to yell. Like at all. Right?”
“It’s true,” he agrees, “she used to be nice.”
“Well,” I sigh, “not anymore, I guess.” I pick up the bucket of clamps and screws, tie off my safety harness, and clamber down to the plank where we’re working.
“HEEEEYAAAAAALLLLP!” I yell as loud as I can, setting the whole scaffold of heat-exhausted carpenters into a chorus of identical screams.