Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Nine Men on a Roof

It began with the seriously grim clouds that moved in like an invading army on Easter afternoon.

Soon hail was bouncing off roofs and lawns and piling up in the street. The hail started out dime size. Then it grew. By the end, some of what was falling was the size of baseballs.

At NOAA.gov they show how hail is formed.
The hail pelted a wide area for more than an hour, but it only took a few minutes for it to change economic realities in these parts.

Once hail reaches quarter size the damage is assured. No prophet was needed to predict what would happen next.

Money would flow from insurance companies to thousands of other people.

Until the clouds came that afternoon, many of these people had been sitting around under-employed or unemployed.

Now they were dialing numbers on cell phones and looking around in the garage for their tool belts.

Millions of dollars' worth of roofs would have to be replaced in our fair city, including my own.

The roofers were about to arrive.

Rhythm of the Roof
Last week nine men came at 8 a.m., unloaded ladders, and started in. They removed all the old shingles. They nailed down a new under layer and they covered that with a sort of foil wrapper. On the second day they nailed down the new shingles. Not with pneumatic or electric nail guns, but the old-fashioned way. With arms and hammers.

During this time the temperature hovered near 100 degrees with not a cloud in sight. The shingles they were putting down were black. Can you imagine how hot it was up on the roof?

My wife and son and I were inside the house. We listened to the rhythm that had begun to take over the neighborhood. From early in the morning until near sunset somewhere there was the sound of...

Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!

The ceilings vibrated as the roofers walked around above us and dropped new stacks of shingles on the roofing deck. We shrugged it off. Since moving to what I sometimes call the Apocalyptic Plains, this was the third roof we had replaced after a hailstorm. Three roofs in 14 years! Think how upset they must be at the insurance company.

My roofers took breaks in the shade every couple of hours. They drank lots of water. Most of them were Latino, but it wasn't true that none of them spoke English. A polite, brown skinned man knocked on the front door and asked me to unlock the gate to the backyard so he could collect debris being pushed off the roof. He didn't say "por favor"; he said "please."

I found myself thinking about these men and how this might be their chance to make good money until, finally, the last roof gets replaced, probably sometime in the fall. It's steady employment, six days a week.

At the same time I'm guessing that relatively speaking the money isn't exactly staggering, only a fraction of the substantial amount the insurance company is paying out for the roof. There's the cost of the materials and the money the roofing company is going to take. After that the rest of the money is divided nine ways. How much does each man get for two 12-hour days of work? I'd guess $200.

Then I was thinking of how much money those of us make who have college education and never work with our hands. We usually have a pretty good health plan, too.

My thoughts led me face to face with a well known paradox: the worse the job and the harder it is to do, the less it pays. Examples: coal mining, garbage collecting, putting on roofs.

The better the job and the easier it is to do, the better it pays. Ask most managers, accountants, and college professors.

There are some exceptions. Doctors make excellent money, but many of them work ferociously hard. And there are some unionized factory workers who draw high wages that somewhat compensate them for how hard and mind numbing is their work.

But still it's odd how humans things arrange themselves economically in a way that might seem to be counter intuitive. I remember as a kid thinking that the hardest, nastiest jobs surely had to pay the most.

A roofer, for example, ought to receive an annual salary decent enough that he could live in a house like the one whose roof he's putting on instead of renting an apartment or living in a fallen down two-bedroom bungalow.

And you would think anyone who is lucky enough to indulge in the pure pleasure of playing football or basketball or hitting a golf ball for a few months out of the year, and is compensated further with the adulation of adoring fans, wouldn't need to draw a mind boggling salary in the multi-millions on top of that.

That's not how it goes.

Why My Father Always Said, "Go to College, Son!"
I listened to the hammer blows coming through the ceiling above. I watched sweaty men coming down the ladder smiling. I saw them sacked out in the shade for a mid-afternoon siesta. I heard them the next morning singing songs as they started to work at 7:30. 

There was time enough to compare the roofing crew to myself sitting in my bathrobe, punching some keys or reading some books, or driving over to campus to sit around a table and say a few words in a meeting.

I was glad that the men didn't seem to detest their work. At the same time what I felt was the farthest thing from envy.

As the years go by, if all continues as is, each month lots of money will flow into my bank account. A much lesser amount will be deposited into those men's accounts (if they even have bank accounts). I'll sleep well at night while their bodies will ache. I'll stay employed even if the skies are always sunny. To add to it all, I'll probably live longer than them because my semi-protected lifestyle and access to extravagant medical care is amenable to longevity.

I and millions of others who proudly button the white collar are, in a sense, gaming the system, a system that quite often pays a person more to do less. How did we manage it? I'd say the key factor is that we got college degrees. This allowed us to turn our backs forever on crap jobs that pay crap wages.

But getting a college degree isn't an easy proposition. Never mind getting good enough grades and test scores to be admitted and all the studying once you're enrolled, college is an expensive undertaking. The university where I teach is like others--it raises its tuition every year at least 7%, even during a recession. Students grumble, pay up, incur more debt, and keep on enrolling. Why? Well, I now have a more vivid way of thinking about this economic outrageousness.

As is often stated, the cost of college these days is a trade-off. It's a matter of enduring steep financial pain in the short term so as to reap larger rewards, in the form of higher income, later. But I appreciate more than ever that it's not just about the money. A B.A. or B.S. degree is a form of bulleltproof vest. It also allows one to avoid certain kinds of lifetime pain--the body and soul-grinding forms.

College tuition is the price you pay not to go to work every morning in a crowded white panel van. It's the price you pay not to have callouses on your palms. It's the price you pay not to pee in  a can during the day. It's the price you pay not to come home filthy sometime after 8 p.m. every night.

It's the price you pay to stay off my roof.

So the next time it rains and my ceiling doesn't leak, I'm going to sing the praises of these most worthy of men. Those roofers, working class heroes who climb up and down the steep hot slopes most of us will never know. - V.W.


  1. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

    We've become a society that tends to look down upon those men and women who get their calloused hands dirty doing tasks that each and every one of us take for granted.
    Our school system completely ignores the trades and spends far too man resources to prepare student for college.
    It's certainly not bad to expand one's knowledge of the world but it's vital that we have people in this nation who can DO the things we need.
    Because of this severe lack in our school system - we've created an underclass of illegals who will do those jobs because they not only know how but because they can get those jobs when no other applications step forth.
    Heard a lady on Rush from Wisconsin who said she's been begging for help on her dairy farm and nobody is stepping forward.

    Let's all push for vocational training in our schools!

  2. The days I drive up and down Westpark Boulevard/Houston I see those men who have not been hired to do roofing...I have the idea they would be very grateful to be up on a roof in our 104/record breaking heat earning something. I pray they will, indeed, be "picked up" for day labor, brought back and then PAID, rather than dropped off w/the truck roaring off before their feet hit the ground. Lord, have mercy.