Monday, October 15, 2007

Working Men

There are always the old men.

Men in their 60s; working men all their lives. Their greeting to one another is, "how's work?" None of my friends would greet each other like that. Some of them, I'm not even sure what it is they do to make their money.

Work, job, career -- for the old men there was no distinction. My great-uncle Charlie was a train conductor. My grandfather worked in a tool factory. One worked on a grounds crew, one was an engineer, one sold insurance. It was their work.

There are always the old men, but they are not the same old men. The old men I first knew were born in the darkling years of the 19th century. When my grandfather and great-uncle were in their prime, most men didn't go to college. Unless you were going to be a scientist or a minister or something. It was the odd kid from the neighborhood who got himself into college. The rest of them, they went to work.

Now it's different. Jim, who was the night watchman in our building, died suddenly a few days ago. He worked like the old men I knew: He cared about it, but in a way you wouldn't notice unless you paid attention to him. And a lot of people didn't. A lot of us came in to this building treating it like the sad joke it is to have a career making money for other people, disguising it as a positive political good or a public service. We came to nickel and dime the owners just a little more than they did us on a given day.

So people kidded Jim, and he kidded them back. The women appreciated him more. The older women, coming to and from their cars, at night, sometimes in bad weather. Jim had a way of knowing where they were and what they needed. He had that tall, beefy build of a man who had been strong when he was young, but hadn't been young for a long time.

I learned that at his memorial service. They gave a memorial service for him, and the room filled up and every single person who was there was someone he worked with. When they found him slumped in the alley after the stroke, nobody knew who to call. He didn't have any family. A niece in Pittsburgh or something. Had to give the word to unhook the ventilator.

People he worked with who didn't even know each other sat knee to knee in the banquet room of the restaurant that was part of his "beat." The owners weren't there. The managers were, though, and the secretaries and the waitresses. Nobody was sure if he was a Christian or not. Some thought he might have been Irish. Another security guard who happened to do a little preaching on the side gave a reflection on the Sermon on the Mount, and it was one of the best damn bits of memorializing I've ever heard.

At my first wedding, we invited a lot of people from what was then my office. Within five years I was working somewhere else, and if I still had that wedding album, I'd be at a loss to name some of the faces in it. It seems silly now to include co-workers in something theoretically personal and meaningful.

It would not have seemed so to Jim, I think. He was only 13 years older than I, but what a world apart.