Real Conversation at Work

"I was there..."

by Molly Martin

Originally published in Tradeswomen Magazine Vol 3 #4, 1983

Joe is talking about death. “I don’t know how to say goodbye,” he says.

I look up from the electrical outlet I’m installing, bending a piece of half-inch pipe as he continues.

“Say you have a good friend who’s dying,” he says. “How so you say goodbye?”

I’m suspicious. These men think that because I’m female I’ll mother them. I’ll listen to their problems. Let them cry on my shoulder. Tell them everything’s alright. I resent the emotional drain on me. What do I get in return? They wouldn’t listen to my problems, and I wouldn’t trust their intuition anyhow. Besides, I wouldn’t risk making myself vulnerable to them. My usual strategy is to remain emotionally distant. Change the subject. Work, the weather, anything but intimate details. But Joe never talks like this. I’m curious.

“Do you have a friend who’s dying?” I wonder.

“No, no, no,” He lights a cigarette and runs a hand through gray wavy hair. “That was just an example. It’s hard to say goodbye even when you hate the bastard and never want to see him again. How would you do it?”

I fit the pipe against the wall. Perfect. “I suppose I would just say goodbye. This wall isn’t concrete, this is sheetrock. How am I gonna anchor anything to this? I didn’t bring toggle bolts.” I pound the wall nervously, vigorously listening for studs.

“Well, what do you think happens when you die? Do you believe in an afterlife? I think, when you die, you die. The human body is like a machine. It just wears out and that’s that.”

I find a stud, position the pipe, set my level on it, then screw in a strap which holds it in place. “That’s an appropriate point of view for a stationary engineer. Just keep throwing WD40 at it until it wears out.”

But he’s serious. “That’s another thing I never understood, the Catholic hell. I’ve had a running battle with hell for years. Are you religious?”

“Naw,” I search through my toolbox for channel locks to tighten the compression connectors. “Seems to me just the fact that there are so many religions in the world and most of them claim to be the only true one is an overwhelming contradiction. Besides, if I were to choose a religion, the first question I’d ask is whether it’s sexist. That wouldn’t leave me with a lot of choices.”

The door opens and the roar of the pump station engulfs the office. Jesus, one of Joe’s corps of engineers steps in, in mock military fashion. He was once a transexual, presenting as female, taking hormones and planning gender reassignment surgery. But, since hospitalization after a bad traffic accident, he’s gone back to being a man. Jesus has shown me pictures of himself as a woman. Beautiful then, he has since become rather paunchy, and I find it difficult to visualize him as female. I can imagine his thick, black, curly hair in a shoulder-length style. I think his movements could be convincingly female. He’s short enough to pass. But how, I wonder, did he manage to conceal his heavy beard and the inevitable five o’clock shadow.

Jesus wants to know what kind of pizza we want for lunch. After weeks of pestering, Joe is apparently buying. Jesus hates anchovies, Joe hates onions. I say I want onions and anchovies.

Joe hands money to Jesus and hunkers over his desk, lighting another cigarette and puffing intently. “I can’t wait till I can retire from this place. I’ll have twenty years this year.”

“How old are you?” I push the steel fish tape through the pipe to the junction box at its end.

“Fifty-two in August.”

He looks 65, I think. A handsome man whose skin has aged, whose hands and jowls are puffy from too much drink. I’m certain now that Joe is drunk, and I’m alarmed. His reputation as an alcoholic is well-known, and he makes no secret of it, but I know he’s been sober for a year. And, while he’s made light of it, I know that staying on the wagon must have been really tough.

“When in our lives do they let us know what life is about?” he asks the wall thoughtfully. “When do we find out what we’re supposed to do with our lives? Here I am over 50 and I still don’t know what I’m doing here. What do you think the point is?”

I hook wires to the end of the fish tape and marvel at being a participant in this conversation. Must I really try to explain the meaning of life to this man?

“Well, I can’t say I know the answer to that. I think we all start off just trying to survive,” I offer.

“You kids can’t understand,” he puffs. “I can’t explain it to my kids, either. You never consider what it’s like to get old.”

I pull the fish tape back through the pipe, careful not to strip the wires’ plastic insulation. “Joe, you underestimate me. I’m not a kid. At 35, some people might even consider me middle-aged.”

As I’m hooking up the wires, Jesus signals that the pizza has arrived. We walk through the plant past massive motors and pumps whose function is to supply water to the city of San Francisco. Even with the coffee room door shut, their constant humming provides background noise. Jesus has set the table and pulled up three chairs.

“Just like a Mexican. Where’s my change?” Joe admonishes. Jesus is an American citizen but grew up in Mexico and speaks with a heavy accent. Joe turns to me. “I can say that to him ‘cause I’m Mexican too.”

I don’t believe him. “Where’d you get those blue eyes, Joe.”

“My father was Polish. He went to Mexico to work in the mines, met my mother, and they moved to New York. He was a no-good bastard, but I loved my old man.”

Jesus serves the pizza, opens cans of soda. The phone rings and he goes to answer it in the office.

“I really care about people,” Joe chews and ruminates, “but what do I get. They stick me out here and give me crazies like that faggot spic to work with.” He gestures in Jesus’ direction.

Joe’s display of prejudice surprises me. He is a well-liked boss, and I always thought him equally enthusiastic about his employees. Besides, I know Jesus to be a conscientious worker, and certainly more sensitive than any other man I work with. Having been both a man and a woman in the trades has provided him with a unique perspective. He’s earned my loyalty.

As I debate how to raise the issue of discrimination, Joe talks on. “I would like to help people, but they would probably tell me to go to hell. What would you say if I tried to help you?”

“You have helped me, Joe. You always answer my questions without bullshitting me.”

“That’s work,” he says. “I’m not talking about work. I’m talking about life. I could help you. For example, I’d like to tell you to stop wearing men’s clothes.”

I take a bite of pizza and think how best to be diplomatic. “Go to hell, Joe.”

“You see, that’s what I thought you’d say. There’s something else. How would you feel if I told you I want to kiss you?”

I’m furiously running my hand through my hair, willing myself (unsuccessfully) not to blush, and simultaneously pushing my chair away from him. Where the hell is Jesus? Joe is trying to make himself understood. He waves his hands, shakes his head. “Now don’t get me wrong,” he blunders. “Do you know what I’m trying to say?”

“Yeah, I know,” I try to affect calm. “You’re saying that sometimes our emotions aren’t appropriate to the situation.”

“Yes, yes, that’s right.” He looks expectant.

“Well, Joe, I would say this is one of these situations where emotions ought to be suppressed.”

Jesus returns, Joe is requested to respond to an emergency breakdown. I return to my work, shaken and angry at Joe for verbalizing his feelings. He probably won’t remember this conversation, but I won’t forget it, and our comfortable relationship will change.

As I pass his desk, I see a note, written apparently to himself. It says, “I don’t know how to say goodbye.”

This is the first of a three-part trilogy. Part two is here, and part three is here.