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FOUNDATIONS

I

The closest I’ve ever been to becoming a grown-up was at age twenty-two. Man, I was so close! But, as life would have it, circumstances that shall be revealed and examined in the following pages conspired against me, gently forcing me to get off that train not long before boarding it. I can’t be sure whether it was for better or worse; and, since I’m not in possession of a crystal ball and I consider imagined counterfactuals to be a dangerous mental exercise, I’m left with an unanswered question, and a peculiar episode in life. One that, as many others, may as well have been a dream; not for lack of significance, but for lack of documentation; causing me, just like a dream, to reconstruct as I go along, drawing from the memory of events whose veracity I can’t guarantee, but are real insofar as I believe them to be.

Stories have a start, and, if somewhat arbitrary, my first job interview is a perfectly logical one to this particular story.

It was morning. It was some day of the week. It was cold. It was unnecessarily raining. Now, rain is not an uncommon occurrence in my city, so it shouldn’t have been surprising or upsetting, but even us fervent atheists assume that we can count on the gods to extend us a gracious hand on momentous days and refrain from making it rain. I was already sleepless and nervous. I was already running late. So, the rain, as I said, was completely and utterly unnecessary.

The architecture firm where I intended to make my debut as a productive member of society was one of the largest ones in the city. I bet that for some folk that’s encouraging. Not for me. For me, it was intimidating. I had nothing to offer to these people, what the hell was I doing there in an outfit that didn’t suit my childish face and a wet folder containing a curriculum vitae that may as well have been a letter written and signed by my mom reading “He’s a good boy, I swear”? It’s in these moments when I recur to my favorite affirmation: life is absurd, life is absurd, life is absurd. Didn’t work that day tho. “You are absurd, you are absurd, you are absurd” is what I heard back.

I stepped into the building like a cow steps into a slaughterhouse, certain of the outcome, the only hope being for it to be quick and painless. And quick it was, but painless it wasn’t. Everything was too bright and clean and professional; I can’t work in an environment like that. “Are you looking for someone?” asked the front desk lady, which I interpreted as “are you lost? are you looking for your dad?”. “I’m here for an interview” I replied in a quavery voice. She picked up the phone and asked the person on the other side if he was expecting someone. He clearly had no idea what she was talking about. “What do I tell him?” She asked. “OK” she said and hung up. “He’ll see you in a minute” she told me and pointed me in the right direction. The interview had no reason for existing, as neither of us wanted to be there. Thankfully, little more than a minute had passed when the interviewer dismissed me with a “thanks for coming, we’ll call you if a position opens up”.

I was lucky to have been born into a generation that still believed facing your fears was a good idea, so instead of being discouraged by the nefarious experience, I decided to grab the bull by the horns and get myself another one of them job interviews before the post-traumatic stress disorder settled in. A couple of weeks later I got one. This time for a construction company.

 

I can’t say I was better prepared this second time, but for some reason I felt comfortable and in control. I knew I had gotten the job almost instantly and my suspicion was confirmed shortly after by means of a phone call.

Those were the only two job interviews I ever attended. A 50% success rate. Not bad I’d say.

On my first day at my first job, I discovered that one of my five bosses was a distant uncle of mine. I also discovered that this person existed and that he was a distant uncle of mine. He walked into the room while one of the other bosses was struggling to explain my job to me, stopped his march, glanced, squinted, frowned, deliberated, pointed, paused, and lastly, spoke: “are you Jaime’s son?”. “That I am, sir” I replied. I can’t seem to speak like a normal human being for even a second. “Do you know who I am?” he inquired. “Can’t say I do” I replied. I was gonna justify myself by explaining that I was terrible with faces, names, or anything involving memory of any kind, but my guardian angel slapped me in the face, reminding me that I shouldn’t downplay my capacities to my boss. For all he knew, my only flaw is that I have no flaws and my not remembering him was due to him not making a lasting impression on me. He then proceeded to explain the way in which we were related, but at that point in my life I still hadn’t delved into my rather branchy family tree, so I got lost on the first person (out of five) that he mentioned and simply nodded and said “aha” a couple of times. “I hope my job doesn’t involve remembering the way in which we are related” I joked internally. Nowadays I would have said this to him, but my twenty-year old self wasn’t quite there yet. In those times most jokes remained internal or came alive in the form of a whisper to the person standing next to me. This person sometimes chose to repeat said joke aloud, gaining the popular laugh. I half rejoiced; half bridled. He ended this brief family history lesson by saying that he didn’t know I had applied for this job, otherwise he would have put a good word for me; which seemed like a dumb commentary  to make in light of the fact that I had already gotten the job without his help; I appreciated the comment anyways since I knew that it came from a good place, and it was comforting to know that I had gotten the job all by myself. Plus, now that I was there, my place was somewhat secured by this unexpected coincidence.

There was another coincidence, and this one was even greater; but to explain it, I must first mention that the job was in a city two hours away from my hometown, where I -up until then- lived with my parents. I must also mention that my grandfather happened to own a summer house in this city, which he gladly put at my disposal when I explained to him that it was for a good cause. During the interview they failed to inform me of the address where I would be doing my work as a construction supervisor, and I failed to ask about it, not because I forgot, but because I didn’t dare to ask much. Imagine my surprise when, out of all the buildings this construction company was working on, I was assigned, by absolute chance, to a building located half a block from my grandfather’s house. I doubt that I’ll ever believe in God, but if I ever do, it’ll be things like this that do it.

Construction sites are psychologists’ heaven. The power dynamics; the tension between up-down imposed authority figures expressed in the form of colored helmets versus emergent authority born out of the natural inclination to leadership and/or followship that each of us are born with; the competition, the camaraderie, the engines, the anchors, the wise, the wise-ass’, the admittedly ignorant, the loud, the quiet, all working towards a common goal. Out of the full spectrum of personalities I encountered, my personal favorite was and will always be the funny. And there were a few of those. It wasn’t a very refined humor for the most part. It was more like the throw a cake into a clown’s face kind of humor. But it would, more often than not, get a chuckle out of you and make your day lighter.

One thing was clear from day one: This was a man’s world. Not a kid’s world, a man’s world, and I sure as hell wasn’t one. I had, however, a couple of things in my favor: the main one, and the only reason why I was hired in the first place, is that I got to wear a white helmet (because I was an architect in the making), as opposed to a yellow one. If I had any doubt in my mind that uniforms matter, wearing a white helmet among yellow helmets got rid of it. The problem with the position I was in, was that as soon as I turned my back, my ears would burn with what was said about me, which leads me to my second advantage: I had a broad back for taking jokes, names, and anything that was thrown at me; and for this I have to thank the school bully, whose creativity for inflicting psychological pain via silly nicknames was admirable. I can only hope that his unmatched capabilities were put to good use wherever he may currently roam. That is not to say that I loved being called Sponge-Bob Square Pants behind my back by almost a hundred construction workers, but it meant that I could tolerate it while I proved myself worthy of trust and respect.

As somewhat of a moralist, or, at least, as someone who likes to introspect and question things, it was hard to compatibilize my desire to blend in with the guys with my desire not to behave like a pig or endorse pig behavior. But when debauchery and misogyny are the lay of the land, such endeavors require some mental acrobatics. I decided I was there to learn how to build, not to teach morals to anyone. So, when a female – and I mean literally any female- was unmindfully passing near our site, inevitably causing a stack of cavemen to pile up at the edge of the corresponding side of the cement skeleton that made up the structure of the building, I rarely participated. And in the unlikely occasion that I did, I didn’t whistle, scream or howl. And that may not seem like much, but I consider it a small victory.

Most of what I learned I learned from the two foremen, Ricardo and Esteban. Their personalities were so diametrically opposed that it was almost comedic. Ricardo was a rascal, but he hid it so well under the kindest eyes and the most innocent smile you’ve ever seen, that you would’ve never guessed it. He often bragged about having to “work that night” which was a euphemism for cheating on his wife. I don’t know if he was prouder of the fact that he cheated on his wife or of the euphemism. I believe it must be the latter because the cheating was almost a given. The guys always cheered when he said this, they found it amusing. Plus, being the foreman helps getting the laughs, even the undeserved ones. I can’t remember if I laughed at this. I want to believe I didn’t but, frankly, that seems very unlikely.

The other foreman was, as I mentioned, the opposite: a serious, taciturn, sergeant-like guy. Didn’t waste a word. Family man. He was alrite. I prefer funny people to be honest. But he was alrite. He knew his shit too. And I knew nothing. I’d go as far as to say that, when it came to construction, I was the least knowledgeable person in that entire building by far.

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