Paul Smith, 4/27/2020
Current Occupation: Retired Civil Engineer/Superintendent doing some part time estimating
Former Occupation: Civil Engineer
Contact Information: Paul Smith is a civil engineer who has worked in the construction racket for many years. He has traveled all over the place and met lots of people. Some have enriched his life. Others made him wish he or they were all dead. He likes writing poetry and fiction. He also likes Newcastle Brown Ale. If you see him, buy him one. His poetry and fiction have been published in Convergence, Missouri Review, Literary Orphans and other lit mags.
In my fourth year of school at the big university north of Chicago, I was a pre-Senior. Only engineering students got to be Pre-Seniors. It was because we were co-op students, students who went five years instead of four. We worked a quarter, skipped a quarter, adding another year to our time at school. We earned money to help pay for our high-priced schooling. Being a co-op was one more thing that put us even farther out of the mainstream, further out than the other engineering students. I knew nearly nothing about the adult world. Here was a chance to learn.
I took the train to downtown Chicago. The engineering company that took me on had offices in the Chicago & Northwestern Station Building on Madison Street. That was pretty convenient. I got off the train, walked about a half mile through diesel fumes into an elevator that took me up to floor with hundreds of people doing what I thought I might be doing in a few years. Their heads were down. They concentrated, they drew straight lines, curved lines, lines that required templates to be drawn, all put on sheets of plastic paper called vellum or mylar. I was taught how to erase the right way. I was taught by patient older men who stared at me, wondering at my awkwardness, my half-eager, half-resentful approach to a new world I could see would take years to master.
I met Vito. Vito was from Italy. He was a lawyer there once. Here he was a draftsman. All the legal things he learned in Italy didn’t apply here. He told me why he left home. I forgot the details. He had to scrape up a job. Somebody liked him and got him a job here. I liked Vito, but I just didn’t like sitting next to him. We both faced a glass partition. The other side of this wall was a corridor. All I saw was the opaque window and the side of Vito’s head.
I didn’t like the other engineers, either. They were OK, I guess. I was going to be like one of them. Maybe I would design dams like they did, dams all over the world, sitting at a drafting table looking at a non-translucent partition, wondering what was on the other side.
“You know what this is?” Vito asked me. He held up a flat metal thing with holes in it. I sort of remembered it from our engineering drawing class two years ago. “It’s an eraser shield. When you erase, use this thing. You cover up what you don’t want to erase, and erase just what you want.” He was showing me the ropes. Vito had a large oval head, specks of hair and a wart toward the back of his bald head, glasses, thick lips and a soft voice. Whatever he had done in his life had made him patient and tolerant and willing to explain things to young people like me. Everyone liked Vito.
I liked Vito, but I didn’t like the partition, or the corridor I couldn’t see, or the large heavy sheets of mylar, or the prints made from them that checkers would mark up in red pencil when errors were found on the originals. Vito got these paper copies hauled back to him, full of red ink. He would take his eraser shield and his eraser, erase everything wrong, and then draw and print new lines in its place and send the originals back to someone to check it again. Vito would do this the rest of his life.
I was not going to do this the rest of my life. I was going to do this until I got through school. What I would do after that I didn’t know. I would not take the train in from Evanston to downtown and walk to the elevator the rest of my life, staring at the pretty girls in the vast open rotunda of the Chicago & Northwestern Train Station, inhaling the burnt smell of Garrett’s Caramel-Crisp popcorn sold in the terminal, smelling smoke from the diesel locomotives, watching shafts of sunlight descend to the marble floor from the rotunda’s upper windows, smelling the sweat of thousands of people making a living doing things maybe they didn’t really like. I had nothing to put in its place, though, and that was a nagging question. I didn’t like the cafeteria. I didn’t like the freight elevator. I liked the sound of the girl’s voice on the office intercom. It was a voice that sounded like mine, young and inexperienced. I liked it when she said, “Paging Mr. Hans Hasen.”
Hans Hasen was a tall, strict German or Austrian engineer with a thick accent who had assigned me to work next to Vito. I guess I was afraid of him. I knew he knew I was totally green and had to be shown nearly everything. I saw him about once a week, when he would show up and say something like, “And how is the co-op student today, Vito? Is the student cooperating?”
I guess this was high humor up in the high Alps or wherever Hans Hasen was from. I would smile at Mr. Hasen and was always left thinking I didn’t smile a big enough smile, because his mouth always seemed to turn to a frown. Vito would nod and smile. I almost looked forward to being Vito’s age, when a half-smile would be enough to get by on. It was nice when Mr. Hasen left.
After a month of staring at the glazed partition and Vito’s left cheek and left ear, I had enough. I went to Hans Hasen’s office and told him I wanted another drafting table, one behind where I sat. That way I could look to my left and see the other engineers down the aisle, a long aisle that eventually led to a window. The window overlooked downtown Chicago. If I sat at this other drafting table, I couldn’t really see much of downtown, but I would be remotely connected to it. That’s all I wanted, a small link to the outside world where I would belong some day.
“So you will like seeing the back of Vito’s head instead of the side?” Hans Hasen asked.
“I want to see more than just that partition.” He made it sound like I had something against Vito. I didn’t. I just felt claustrophobic.
“Very well,” he concluded. “Move your things to your new desk. “And have Vito show you how to draw that anchor bolt detail for the powerhouse, the standard detail.”
That went great. Now I would draw an entire anchor bolt detail, embedded in concrete for a big dam in Venezuela. This was more than just making changes on rebar lengths. I was excited and decided to ask Vito about the anchor bolt detail before moving my things to the next desk back. He showed me a detail from another dam in Washington State. It was on copy paper, with no red corrections. “Make one just like this.”
Then I moved my few things to the desk in back and told Vito, “I’m tired of looking at that glass wall.” Vito nodded slowly like he understood. Then he went back to work.
Word got out that I liked the sound of our switchboard operator’s voice. Now that I could see more of the other engineers, I talked to them more. So one day I heard this soft, silky voice call my name over the public address system with a request to call the switchboard. So I did. I called and gave my name.
“It’s me,” I said.
“Who is this?”
I repeated my name.
“Someone asked for you,” she said. Her voice stopped. Here was my chance to talk to her.
My throat was dry. I didn’t know anything to say. “It’s really hot out today, isn’t it?” I said.
I put down the phone, red-faced. The whole aisle full of engineers exploded with laughter. Even Vito laughed. It was the first time I’d seen him laugh. Genuine mirth overtook his face. It was like he had completely forgotten he’d been a lawyer once and now did drafting. His belly rolled like the ocean he’d crossed to get here. Then his jolliness was gone, and Vito went back to work.
What I liked best was getting off work and taking the freight elevator down to the terminal. There was no front door on the elevator, which was always crowded because everyone, not just me, liked getting off work at five o’clock. It descended rapidly. I never liked standing in front because just one little nudge from someone behind me would push me into the guillotine of floors rushing past and would decapitate me. But everyone stood stock still in it. I got to realize that trust was part of this adult world, trust that your fellow workers would not hurt you, trust the elevator would work properly, trust that your train would arrive and depart on time, trust that the terminal would smell the same way day after day, trust that you felt good inside after doing something eight hours you didn’t like a whole lot.
At school we learned nothing about trust. We were engineering students. We learned structural mechanics, vectors, strength of materials, unsaturated soil mechanics, calculus. I had a chance for an elective junior year and wanted to take Russian Literature and was surprised when the university approved my request. I thought they might say no just for the fun of it. I didn’t know people weren’t like that. Other engineers didn’t take Russian literature. They took more engineering courses.
I worked on my anchor bolt detail for two days. It looked exactly like the one from the dam in Washington State. I proudly showed it to Vito, who nodded. I’d expected him to say something nice about it, but all he did was nod. He told me to wrap it up with a rubber band and put it in our ‘out’ tray. Then someone would retrieve it, check it, and I’d get it back soon. If there were any corrections, they would be in red. In the meantime, Vito gave me other copies of drawings with the red marks, and I made small corrections, under his tutelage. Drawings were for dams all over the world – Washington, Oregon, Pakistan, Wisconsin. Sometimes my mind got excited thinking of all the places I could go to some day as a civil engineer, places other than this building, with its fluorescent lights, tile floors and public address system. That other world, the one I wanted to be a part of, seemed remote and far away. One day we were showed a short film in a meeting room about how the contractor had started the Venezuela dam. The film showed some of our engineers eating lunch near the Rio Caroní. They were eating plantains, a kind of banana and fish. I never heard of anyone eating fried bananas. Maybe, as I explored the world, I would go everywhere except Venezuela. I wasn’t eating any fried bananas.
The next day my anchor bolt drawing came back. Actually, it was the paper copy of it, all marked up in red.
The copy was full of red ink. I had done everything wrong. I could feel my temples break out in a sweat I was so taken aback. I sat at my drafting table, contemplating Vito’s head. It was bulbous and melon-like, with a fringe of grey/white hair that went from one side to the other. I hesitated showing him the red-inked drawing, but had to. Maybe he knew who corrected my drawing, the drawing I’d worked so hard on.
“Well, you have to make some corrections,” he said. “That won’t take long.”
“But I copied exactly what you showed me. Who made all these corrections? I want to talk to him.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “No big thing. You have your eraser shield? You know how to use it.”
“Where’s that drawing I copied from? What dam was that – Priest Rapids?”
“I don’t know where I put it. Probably back in document control. Just make the changes.”
I was pissed. I did a perfect job drawing an anchor bolt in concrete. I had a perfect little hook on the bottom of the bolt and a lot of the little flecks you draw to show concrete. I stared at the red ink. The handwriting was distinctive. I’d seen it before. Who made corrections like that?
It was Vito. Vito did this.
It wasn’t a big thing. It was just a small, lousy anchor bolt that I trusted myself to draw correctly, then trusted a checker to check the right way and give an honest assessment of how it looked. I could have asked Vito directly, but didn’t. The next day I just stared some more at the back of his head, thinking of how I didn’t really like Italians or Austrians. I didn’t like Europe very much. I sort of liked Russia because they had good literature in Russia, the eastern part. Staring at Vito’s oblong, kidney-shaped ears, I decided I should confirm what I thought, that somewhere at his drafting table was the original anchor bolt drawing, maybe in a bunch of rolled-up drawings in a pile below it on the floor. So that night, when all the engineers and the draftsmen piled into the freight elevator and went down to the terminal, I stayed behind. I stayed behind and looked at all the drawings Vito had rolled up and stashed by his drafting table.
And there it was – the Priest Rapids anchor bolt drawing, on white paper with no markups. I compared mine to it. They were the same. I looked at other drawing copies, paper copies Vito had corrected with his red ink. The handwriting was exactly the same. I took the Priest Rapids drawing, rolled it up and put it at the foot of my drafting table.
The next morning at eight o’clock I confronted Vito. “Here is my drawing, and here is the one I copied it from. They’re the same. And you made the corrections.”
Vito’s eyes narrowed. “Where did you get that drawing?”
“You went through my things because you didn’t want to change your anchor bolt drawing?’
“I wanted to prove a point.”
“You never go through my things,” he said, holding up a finger in my face. “You never touch my things. In Palermo, you know what we do? I don’t tell you.” He squinted even more at me. “You be careful on that elevator.” Then Vito stomped down the aisle and was gone the rest of the day.
The next morning Hans Hasen called me into his office. “You’re going to the Planning Department on the ninth floor. See Jim. He’ll show you what to do. No more anchor bolts.” He smiled a very Austrian smile. I thought about asking whether I was getting punished, but decided not to. I was afraid of Mr. Hasen. I spoke up to Vito. If I spoke up to Hasen, things might be drastically worse. Hans Hasen had big thick glasses that seemed to take up all the light in the room and throw it back at you like you were being interrogated. I looked at him, and all I saw was glare. He looked comfortable, like he had just rid himself of a problem.
I went to the ninth floor and met the engineer named Jim. He was a tall, round-shouldered man with a humble demeanor representing another type of person I didn’t want to be when I got out of school. They had nothing for me to do just yet, so I was told to go to the company library and read up on some technical journals and get familiar with some dam projects around the world. I read about Francis, Kaplan and Pelton Wheel turbines. The company library had a window overlooking the rail yard at the Chicago & Northwestern Station. I could look all the way towards the suburb I came from and beyond. There were ribbons of steel carrying trains to and from Chicago, expressways full of cars taking people all over the Midwest. The sky was late summer hazy, a sullen, resentful heat blanketing the city, stretching as far as the eye could see. And the library had a clock. All I had to do was watch those hands go around, and pretty soon they would be at five o’clock and I could walk out of here the same way I would walk out in two months to study indeterminate structural analysis, fluid mechanics II, properties of concrete and environmental microbiology. I had time to think. What would my good Russian friend Lermontov do? Challenge Vito to a duel? No, I had already confronted him. I put on my thinking cap.
So I did one more thing.
On the day I got transferred to the Planning Department I stayed late again. I went to my old drafting table on the floor below and found the marked-up anchor bolt drawing. I worked late to make the changes on the mylar and put it on Vito’s desk. This seemed to be the grownup thing to do. On a separate sheet I added a sketch of the back of Vito’s head, including his tufts of hair, the back of his pendulum-shaped ears and his fuzzy dingleberry of a wart, all in red ink.
That’s how they do it in Russia.