Today, while in a cab which itself was taking me to the station, to grab a train to the airport (gotta fit all three in), I saw what used to be a particularly familiar sight. Two workers, men from what I can tell, carrying a long copper pipe between the two of them. The worker in the back holding on to the pipe itself, steadying it, making sure it doesn’t move. The front person, however, just had it resting on his shoulder. You know, like how a cool guy carries a copper pipe. This is a fairly common trope in construction. Being tough, being manly, is achieved through a lackadaisical attitude towards these sorts of things. Safety? Proper care? A cool worker cares not for these things.
And I should know, I used to be one.
I’m not sure I’ve ever written about it, and if I have, I never dove right in. So, let me say here and now that my background, and indeed my formal education beyond the high school I barely made it through is in skilled trades. I am a journeyman glazier, the fancy book learnin’ way of saying glassworker. My father did this work, and his father before him. I am a third generation Glazier. From there, I went on to learn how automatic doors work. From there I formed my own company installing and repairing automatic doors, I even worked as a locksmith for a spell of time. I was a jack of three trades. And while I was very good at this, it’s one of the few things I allow myself to be braggadocios about, it never allowed me to be happy with or proud of myself.
I have also nearly died three times doing this work. This is not hyperbole, but a statement of fact. The first time was working in a glass cutting shop in Red Deer, Alberta. I was the lone worker in there, safety and the like being something that was somewhat lacking, and my job was to use a machine to take these big 12’ x 12’ sheets of glass off the racks, put them on a table, and cut them into various sizes and shapes. All in all, not a bad gig. I used to spend a lot of time by myself listening to REM, drinking pot after pot of middle of the road coffee and cutting glass. Also, occasionally myself. Until the day I was grabbing a sheet of mirror off the rack. What you’re supposed to do is make sure you’ve broken the air seal between the sheet you need and the sheet you’re grabbing. This way you avoid catastrophe. What I did instead was, while singing along to Orange Crush by myself all jacked up on coffee in the back room, wheeled my machine over to the stack of mirror, grab that first sheet on the rack, and immediately was filled with the notion of ‘oh fuck’. The whole rack of mirror started swinging at me, I reached my hand out to push it back and felt the weight of 52 sheets of glass meeting my hand. I figured this was it. My glass picking up machine fell backwards under the weight and pinned me against the all. 52 sheets of mirror broke against it, leaving shards and chunks of broken glass everywhere. Maybe due to the loudness of my boom box, or partly to being engrossed in her southwest santa fe salad, the woman working at the front desk didn’t hear the crash, or my cries for help. I crawled out through a field of broken mirror and walked up front, cuts all over me. I asked her if she had any tape.
The other two times were more benign I suppose, once I fell off the top of a 6’ ladder and fell 2” away from a chunk of rebar that would have impaled me, and once I rolled my work vehicle on the highway. I was hit in the face by a tube of caulking when I was upside down in the air, in a fun insult to injury move.
The thing about all these incidents is they could have been avoided. If I had taken time and care, if I wasn’t obsessed with the perception of masculinity, these incidents, and others like them, could not be nightmares I live over in my head from time to time. But I felt I needed to perform in this way, cavalier as I was with my own personal safety, if I was to pass in male society. See, I learned what I knew about being an adult male from these figures. I came of age working in construction. When I started sweeping the floor in my dads shop, I was 6’2” tall and around 160 lbs. I was described as scrawny on more than one occasion. I yearned to be seen as male because that was my way to solve an identity crisis that others were projecting on me. Scrawny meant less masculine. Less masculine meant feminine. Feminine meant weak. And to this day, the thing I have the hardest time shaking is a sense of weakness. I yearned for strength, and in my misguided worldview that meant forcing myself into a masculine mold.
I have long misunderstood the concept of strength.
My father provided me a vision of this masculinity, but only through the lens of this environment. My mother has had a chronic illness most of my adult life and has never been able to work. My dad worked long, hard hours to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table, and I have never begrudged the fact I almost never saw him until I went to work for him. More than anything, all of my male role models as I was growing up were the kind that rest a brass pipe on their shoulder without looking at it. Because being lackadaisical is cool. Being flippant is tough. I absorbed all this because I was eager to take in something, anything, that resembled guidance into a life I felt compelled to live.
I write a lot about my obsession with masculinity. Part of that is me processing that out loud, part of it me clearly misunderstanding how to be masculine at all.
I was also flippant with my own care because I simply did not care. I didn’t really care if I was healthy, or in one intact piece, because I did not care about myself in any real way. In my years of denial, I would tell myself I was simply suicidal. I also came out as trans for the first time when I was 21 years old and would do so again multiple times over the years between 21 and 35 when it finally took. Somehow, I never saw my intense depression as in any way tied to the sleepless nights I would have, the intense dreams of being myself.
Imagine having a dream where you are truly yourself, your body is your own, and you are self-aware enough to interact in that world. I used to dream of not being a “male” anymore. Then imagine waking up in a body that you feel fundamentally disconnected from, putting on your construction pants and going to work to talk shit about women with a bunch of other angry dudes for 10 hours. This gave me a distorted view of women, and of myself and my own inherent desires. I saw myself, my real self, as less than, not equal to or great than myself. The alligator was eating in the wrong direction (what, y’all didn’t learn that > is an alligator?).
Doing this work in the way that I approached it was slow motion suicide. I wasn’t taking care of myself, to the point that I lived every day in intense physical pain. My back was twisted, tailbone impacted. I had cuts and bruises all over me most days. I would spend days unable to stand or walk properly. I was in poor physical shape, but I made no moves to correct this behavior. My body was a rental car: it only needed to last for as long as it was needed. This was not something designed for great distances.
Eventually I got out. My father, wise man that he is, said to me one day in a very non nonsense fashion “doing this work is killing you, and I hate to see you do it. You’re depressed all time time”. He didn’t know the half of it, but all the same, his point hit hard. I got a gig doing something else entirely. Within 6 months I would come out as trans. When I was unable to blame my job for the reason why I was in pain. Or why I spent every night floating in a bathtub by myself with a plate of junk food and a bottle of bourbon as my only companions. I finally snapped and broke and had the flash in my head of “if you’re going to live, you need to start”.
And I did. It feels gauche to wrap this up with an analogy for wrapping my hands around some pipe, but all the same. I finally took the necessary steps to take better care of myself. Being trans, being queer, is my personal version of wearing gloves or protective eyewear. It’s realizing asking for and listening to help and advice is better than plowing through on your own. It’s relying on others and opening yourself to new experiences. And hey, it’s been a hell of a lot of days since the last incident.