My uniform is a box cutter and gloves. When I’m on the job, I wonder what else to wear. The men around me wear stained shorts and baggy tee shirts.
I laughed when I told people I was going to be an electrician. They laughed too. Well I’m not actually going to be an electrician, I would clarify, I’m going to move boxes and unload trucks for electricians. The term the workers use for it is a “ground guy,” but I never knew if I had the right to that title, being a woman. I didn’t know if I should change it, like how people change job titles based on gender, like waiter or waitress, actor or actress. Was I a Ground Girl? But I was paid to be a ground guy, and ground girls didn’t exist. When I asked for the official title of the job, my boss said to “just use the term laborer.”
I don’t think I would have gotten the job if my Dad wasn’t the project manager for the company. I asked him what I should do for a summer job, and he suggested I be a ground guy. They pay well, he told me, fifty bucks an hour. I asked him if I could do it, if the work was too physical for me, to which he assured me I would be fine. A few days before I started, I began to feel anxious, like I was about to take a test I hadn’t studied for.
“Dad, are people in the office talking about me?”
“Are you asking me if the guys don’t think you can do the job?”
“Yeah, people are talking. But you’re going to be fine. Just prove them wrong.”
When they asked, I told my family that I was working for my dad’s company over the summer. The most common response was, oh, as a secretary?
I was thankful my dad trained me. Together, we headed to North Jersey in his silver truck, holding matching travel mugs filled with too-hot black coffee. I wore work jeans and a grey tee shirt with the neckline skimming just under my neck, gloves with blue plastic covering the palms.
Dad taught me how to take out lamps from light fixtures, change the bulbs, and take out the banister. Whenever I did something wrong, I would sweat as if I was failing a test I knew I would fail. Throughout my entire life, I learned that women didn’t do things like this. I knew I was out of place. That the world would see me changing bulbs and think, that’s out of her league. Or giggle and say, how cute.
I stood at the top of the ladder, popping cylindrical ceiling lamps into their socket. A heavy man in work boots and an orange shirt stood at the end of the hallway, sipping coffee and looking at me. Looking at me twist and struggle. I didn’t look at him, but I could feel him smile. I don’t know if he was smiling because he was laughing at me or enjoying the view.
Dad taught me how to peel lamps. This means taking lamps out of their boxes and separating their stickers into another box. I was good at this.
I wasn’t officially hired yet, but I have to work a full day so the guys could see how I did. By “guys,” I mean the two male bosses, and all of the other men I was to work with. I woke up before the sun, even beating the sun at its job. With the lights off, I dressed in jeans with hard denim and a shirt that did its best at covering my curves. I put on hard-toed work boots and tied my hair at the back of my head. Without realizing it, I tried to de-sexualize myself, as if my clothing were a disguise.
The job site was at a Catholic school that hadn’t changed its lights since it opened in the fifties. I pulled around to the back parking lot, where only my car was present. After fifteen minutes, a white van with an orange latter strapped to the top of it whipped around the corner and parked into the spot next to mine.
When the man from the van walked over to me, I introduced myself. I always had a strong handshake — my mother taught me how to grip hard when I met someone new. She told me, the harder the handshake, the more they will take you seriously.
He shut his car door behind him and held out his hand. “Hi, I’m Tom. Are you Keith’s daughter?”
We shook. “Yeah, I’m Keith’s daughter.”
He laughed. “Oh man.”
“I can’t believe your father is making you do this.”
“He’s not. I asked him if I could.”
“Listen, I have four daughters. I even told him that I wasn’t going to let you carry heavy boxes.”
I had to think about whether he was trying to be nice. “I’m going to be fine,” I said, in a way that made me seem cute. I cocked my head to the side playfully and added a sweet laugh at the end to punctuate my sentence. Note: I’ve never been cute. Even when I was young, I wasn’t cute. I was always straight forward, and from the time I knew how to be serious, I was. But, there I was, trying to act cute. Coy. It bubbled out of me, like cute was a fight or flight response.
Tom nodded his head, “Alright. Let’s get started.”
There were two electricians on the job and two ground guys: I being one of them, and another one being a boy, younger than I was, with long hair. Tom told us to start peeling the lamps. On the wooden pallet were boxed lamps, held together with tight plastic wrap. Both Tom and the other ground guy used their hands to rip the plastic. As sweat beaded on their foreheads, I just used my box cutter to glide through the plastic and watch it fall to the ground. “See, this is why we need a woman on the team. We use brute force. They use their brains.” Tom smirked at me with approval…they were we, I was they.
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This day I worked in the rain, laying down heavy plastic mats for a lift to drive on wet grass. We changed the outside lights of a warehouse. I got mud on my forearms, and the wispy hairs around my forehead were matted with rain, dirt, and sweat. After two hours, I took a bathroom break.
Walking inside, I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t see any bathrooms – just boxes stacked like mountains and men pushing metal carts. To the left was an office in which one lady sat, tapping at a computer. I knocked on the doorframe.
“Hi, sorry to bother you. Is there a restroom I could use?”
“Yes, yes. Follow me.”
The men’s bathroom was down the hall. The women’s bathroom was across the building. On the white door was a sign made of computer paper, peeling at the edges, with thick black sharpie strokes that read: Women’s Bathroom. Men stop stepping in.
I didn’t ask what the sign meant, and I assumed that the lady escorting me had written it. I felt angry, but I didn’t know why. I kept silent, and went back to work.
I got used to it, and they got used to me. Those that thought I couldn’t carry heavy boxes saw that I could, and the “are you sure you’ve got this?” questions ended (for the most part). I made inside jokes with some of the guys. Like when I laughed at Tom because, his ringtone on his flip phone was a Spice Girls’ song. Or when Jim started calling me Popeye when I would carry more than four lamps at a time. And when Luis showed me pictures of his two-year-old daughter, and told me how funny, she was when she bossed him and his wife around. When Jorge forced me to eat his potato chips, because if he came home with his lunch box still full, his girlfriend would “beat his ass.”
They began to call me “one of the guys.”
When the first paycheck arrived, I was sitting at my Aunt’s kitchen table. She asked me how much I made, and I showed her the glowing screen of my phone that read my bank statement with a big number, a number I had never seen under my own name before.
“That’s amazing,” Aunt Lola said. But when she said it her voice didn’t match the expression, like “amazing” wasn’t the word she was looking for.
“I know. It’s crazy. At this rate, I’ll be able to pay a year’s rent with money from the summer.”
“Someone could support a small family on this.”
“I know.” I sat back and thought about my mom. About how she was a single mother before she met my dad. She would have been able to survive on her own if she’d had this money available to her.
I put my phone down, “There should be more single moms working this job. Its perfect school hours, seven to two p.m. the latest, and it is great money.”
Aunt Lola shrugged her shoulders.
Adriana DeNoble is a young, American writer living in Rome, Italy. She has studied fiction writing at both Columbia University and University of Oxford and is currently studying English Literature at John Cabot University. Her fiction and creative nonfiction can be found at Thought Catalog, GASHER! Magazine, 805 Literary Magazine, and the print anthology, A Number of Letters.