Harry Breeze starts another door jamb

Years ago before I ever started college--before I even considered myself college material--I worked a few years as a journeyman painter in the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades (since renamed to omit the inherent sexism of "brotherhood"). I spent the better part of a year helping to construct a high-rise hotel. It had 714 rooms, a number I can easily remember because it matched Babe Ruth's home-run record. Anyway, each of those rooms had two metal door jambs, one for the entry and one for the bathroom. But that was just the rooms. There were countless other jambs in that hotel for offices, service kitchens, linen closets... I would guess there were close to 2,000 door jambs in that hotel.

And there were only two guys assigned to paint them: Harry Breeze and me. To be precise, Harry was assigned to paint them. I, a lowly second-year apprentice, was assigned to sand and prepare them for Harry's brush, a task that involved chipping off loose bits of concrete and clods of dried mud. Then I sanded smooth the flat red factory primer until my fingers (each uselessly wrapped in masking tape) couldn't feel a thing.

Day after day we went through the same routine. I'd outfit myself with various grits of sandpaper and Harry would fill his paint pot and spin out his sash brush. You might think this an excruciatingly tedious job, but I always preferred doing the same thing day after day to a series of different, short-lived tasks. It was easier to switch off, to daydream. It made the day pass more quickly.

For almost a year it was just Harry and I moving up that building floor after floor, with the paper hangers a floor below and the carpet layers a floor below them. One Friday afternoon about 30-minutes before quitting time, I was covered in red dust and leaning against a door jamb talking to an iron worker who was welding handrails in an emergency stairwell. The iron worker, whose name I've long forgotten, looked down the debris-filled hallway and saw Harry at the other end. He just shook his head and said, "Look, there's Harry Breeze starting another door jamb."

I am not sure why this memory has stayed with me over the years. There was a kind of wonder in the man's voice, but more a sense a comic weariness. More than once as I've started in on some job I've done countless times before, I've heard that iron worker's voice in my head. It seems to be there this morning as I set out on another go-round of teaching. Look, I think, I'm starting another semester.


Mike said…
So am I, Steve, so am I. Let's hope we don't do 714 semesters in a row!
Dr. C said…
Thanks for sharing, Steve. Here's to another semester.

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