The tribe wasn’t talking, at least not to me, and not in English when I was nearby. Larry the foreman wasn’t interested in holding my hand. His hands were full of index cards with pencil runes scrawled on them. Hitler’s stunt double, and Irwin Corey’s red-headed nosemining love-child, seemed of doubtful utility. The girl from Flashdance wasn’t going to show up anytime soon and show me how to weld between dance numbers. I was going to have to, as Peachy Carnehan says, “brass it out.”
Nowadays, dorks on the Internet enjoy playing the The Dunning-Kruger card in blog comments at 3 AM to try to settle things, but the concept isn’t useful out in the real world. It wasn’t a useful thing to know before the Internet, either. Everyone in the Dunning-Kruger experiment was a college kid — i.e., someone full of themselves for no reason. Saying that stupid people think they’re smart, and smart people think they’re stupid, is simply a way for people with an IQ of 105 to attempt to sidle up to people forty points north of that and say, “Isn’t that guy with an IQ of 103 a dolt?”
The people educated people think are really stupid — people with dirt under their fingernails –don’t “think” they’re smart. They are smart in the only way that matters. They know what they’re about. They don’t go on Jeopardy and expect loading dock questions. Conversely, if you’re a welder and can’t weld, your enthusiasm for French poetry or something equally useless wouldn’t enter into it. So I might have been the smartest person to ever enter the zip code I was in, but I most certainly was the dumbest fool in the room. There’s only one way to keep score. Style points can’t weld things. So I hitched up my britches, got in line at each work station, and when in Rome…
I did as the Romans did. Badly. I couldn’t pass for Roman, but I could have at least ridden the short bus to an Etruscan elementary school after a while. At first I couldn’t get the electrode to spark, then I welded it to the brass fixture. I used ten pieces of filler rod to everyone else’s one. My work had more bubbles in it than a frappe, and was more lopsided than an election in a dictatorship, but I stuck with it. I drove home every afternoon in a trance, then slept in my dirty clothes on top of my bedclothes until the next morning. That’s when I discovered that a little help would have gone a long way. I woke up on fire. And not the good kind of fire that can be extinguished, either. The sensation was the same, though. I went to the bathroom and pulled off my shirt.
I’d worn a long sleeve shirt — cotton; even I knew that any sort of polyester version would ignite if welding sparks hit it, cotton just smolders — a welding helmet, and leather gauntlets. But I didn’t know enough to button my shirt all the way to the top. I’d left a triangle of flesh exposed to the ultraviolet rays that welding likes to bless you with without you noticing, and I’d burned a big Bass Ale logo onto my chest. It hurt like taxation, with the lemon juice of sheepishness ladled on it. I buttoned my shirt over my own personal superman logo, and slowly abraded it off over the next couple of weeks. I swear I can still make out its outline all these years later, whenever I’m shaving that fool’s face in the bathroom mirror.
Day in, day out, I hung in there, no more than that, and no one talked to me in any meaningful way. Amish couldn’t have shunned me more effectively. At lunchtime I sat alone and ate my pasty sandwich at my shabby desk while the easy laughter of the other men drifted in through the open door as they stood out in the blazing sun and ate burritos from the “roach coach” that pulled into the lot every day at lunchtime. I slowly morphed from a gibbering Irishman into one of those fellows that lives in a barrel and eats thistles and drinks from puddles and waits for wise men that never show up.
Like all places with a rough and tumble workforce, everything worth a farthing was locked in a big cage, which was lorded over by a human guard dog. There was a very calm and quiet young fellow in charge of the place. He was a short Messcan. There were tall, lordly Messcans about, too; they looked like Andalusian Senators or something. But he looked like Mexico before the Europeans showed up. He was dark and doe-eyed and taciturn, and had been trying to grow a moustache unsuccessfully since he was born. He sat at the neatest desk in the building, knew the protocol for everything without hesitation, and spent most of his time reading. He was not required to do anything except hand us stuff, and keep track of it all. All of a sudden, I was informed that he’d been keeping track of me, too.
“Do you know why they don’t like you?”
I briefly considered feigning ignorance of this Everest of quiet contempt I’d scrambled up and down every day, but I thought the better of it and just said, “No.” Which was the truth.
“They don’t like you because you took their cousins’ job. Their brothers’. Maybe their fathers’. Who do you think all those cholos in the lobby were when you came in here? They need to weld. You don’t need to weld. You don’t even know how to weld. You could do what you like. You took someone’s place.”
I was sort of stunned. I’d been in unions that cared less about whether you were part of their brotherhood.
“They would have gotten over that, I guess, eventually, but they know that you hate messcans, man.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Who says I hate Mexicans?”
“You think we all steal.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Every day you bring all your tools home. We see it. Every day. You think we’re all thieves.”
There was a long pause while I processed this information. I imagine I had a look of wonder and astonishment on my face that wouldn’t be equaled until much later in my life, when another, smaller version of me appeared, coming out of my wife. That would be quite a long time, as she was currently in ninth grade.
“Do you really think that if I could do something else — skin diver for Roto-Rooter, rottweiler dentist, anything — that I’d be a welder in the desert? You must be crazier than I am. And let’s get one more thing straight. I bring my tools home every night because every single goddamn day I figure today is the day that I can’t take another minute of this godforsaken filthy oven, and I’m never coming back here. Every day I bring my tools home because I might need something fairly sharp to kill myself with when I get home. If I thought you’d steal my tools, I’d have left them here and prayed you’d steal them, if it meant one less day working in this dungeon.”
The next day, they came in a gang, and dragged me bodily out into the late morning sun, the parking lot shimmering with the heat like a cookie tin from the oven, and they hugged me and bought me burritos from the roach coach, so spicy that they made me shiver, and after work they hauled me all over their town and got me drunker than a fiddler’s whore, and the next morning I threw up chicken mole and Tecate in the john, and the man in the cage said, “Now you’re one of us, jefe.”