Back when I was still in creative writing classes, we did an idea that was something like this: take any regular, ordinary, “boring” topic and write an informal essay on it (not the stuffy, dry kind of essay that we all got assigned in middle school–the kind of essay that just gives you the liberty to talk about a specific subject at length in a non-fiction format). For previous examples of what I’m talking about, check out my post on mowing lawns or my post on box elder bugs. For this week’s writing exercise, I’m going to do something similar, but my topic for this week is concrete, mostly because I’m around it all day and it’s all I see as I gaze out the window at work.
Although concrete has been around for centuries (its early roots can be traced back to the Roman Empire and even to the Egyptian pyramids), it might as well have been invented last month for all I knew–my first day at work, mysterious phrases flew back and forth from one end of the office to the other, phrases like standard manhole, grade rings, Grade III RCP, cracked nipples…everyone but me spoke this unintelligible, foreign language, and they spoke it with such speed that it was all I could do to keep my brain engaged enough to nod and smile like I knew what they were talking about. After days of confusion, I finally gave in and asked one of our estimators to show me what all of these words meant. He pulled out a complex maze of drawings and dimensions and tried to give me a 30-second run-down of all the complexities of The Manhole, which is probably our main product (next to all the people wandering in looking for window wells). Making the connection from brain to movement, I nodded my head and smiled once again, then ran to my office to look onto the layman’s source of all knowledge: Wikipedia.
Manholes are basically man-size underground chambers (or vaults, as wikipedia says) that are used every several feet underground in order to grant an access point for maintenance and repairs on underground utility lines. There are hundreds of them in our yard–several tons heavy and stacked right on top of each other, looking in all their glory like concrete representations of the Olympic rings, except they’re not hooked together and they go on as far as the eye can see (or at least as far as the length of the parking lot). Priced at a couple thousand dollars apiece, they loom impressively in their expensive, heavy glory, casting nets of shadow over the crunching gravel.
Back in the shop, where all the magic happens, a haze thickens the air–a haze from the welding sparks, from the mixing machines, from the cutting and trimming and shearing of concrete. Each day, my desk has a thin film of white dust that somehow turns my fingers black upon contact.The cement creates its own powder upon drying (or at least this is my theory), which then swirls around and around in the surrounding air until it finds the nearest tactile object to settle on–wood, clothing, hair. Each time a storm rolls through, the winds kick up a furious cloud of concrete dust that coats and covers all the cars parked out in front–it’s a marvelous sight, really, the tempest of grey and ivory that swirls and kicks until it shields the eyes of each car’s windowshield from its anger.
But I just sit here and watch, locking the outside door against the blasts and blinking the dust out of my eyes, safe in my space.