I heard a piece on NPR just now about apprenticeship and somebody mentioned digging a ditch. On Labor Day in America today I celebrate the time I spent the day digging a forty foot long ditch in the East Bay in earth that was like cement due to several years of drought. This was back in the 1970s. The signs in California bathrooms read “if it’s yellow, it’s mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down”. Sekhnet’s friend Uncle Tony had a sign in his rustic bathroom that expressed a similar sentiment: “on these isles of sun and fun, we never flush for number one.”
I was in my early twenties, broke and strong. A friend negotiated the job for me. This guy was a genius negotiator, always getting the best deal possible for himself. I don’t know what his motivation was in making this particular deal, but as I remember it I was paid $20 for the long trench I was supposed to dig. I didn’t kick. I needed the money, and twenty back then was like a hundred today, and headed out in the morning with a borrowed mattock and shovel.
The job required not only strength and determination but great delicacy, as it turned out, and a certain amount of ingenuity. I was digging around a thin water pipe, buried about a foot deep in the hard ground, that connected the house to the water main. I had to work around the old pipe, which was about the thickness of a big toe. I discovered on my first swing that my friend had negotiated an absolute shit deal for me. The heavy mattock hit the earth and barely dented it.
It took a while, but using the pick end of the mattock I was able to poke holes in the baked earth on either side of the pipe and then sculpt out little chunks with the flat end, carefully working away from the pipe. I worked shirtless under a decent sun, and I remember feeling glad that it wasn’t too hot out. It was slow work, impossibly depressing at first, but I made steady progress from the sidewalk toward the house, across the the baked brown expanse of hard dirt that was previously a lawn. I probably sang as I swung my mattock and later, and more to the point, my pickaxe. My friend had dropped off a pickaxe with a handy sharper point, after he came by to check up on me during his lunch break. The pickaxe helped.
It was just one of those days in the life of a young man with big dreams. I was about three feet from the end of my work, had skillfully dug a channel around the thin pipe, and had maybe an hour left. The muscles on my back were starting to twinge a bit, and I had slowed my pace. The end of this shit day of work was quite near. It had been a long and productive eight hours or so so far. I was taking a few breaths, leaning on the mattock, when a friend rode up on her bicycle. I told her I was almost done and started back to work.
She was one of these people who know everything. She is the expert on everything, without exception. It turned out, according to her, that it had taken me so long because I was going about it all wrong. My form with the mattock, apparently, was ridiculous. To stop her unwanted lecture I smirked and handed her the mattock, which I’d been using to lift out the dirt the pickaxe had loosened around the pipe. She told me to watch carefully as she showed me how it should be done. She raised the mattock high over her head, almost tottering backward at its weight. Then she brought it down hard, directly on the center of the ancient pipe.
A geyser of water shot up high into the air as the pressurized water made its hissing escape. The long trench immediately filled with water, the baked dirt of the former lawn was now mud. I never heard her drop the mattock as I turned to kick her as hard as I could in the ass. She was off on her bicycle before I could take any revenge at all, outside of hurling a few curses at her as she sped off.
Thinking about it now, I realize that fuck who offered me $20 for that job got exactly what he paid for. I have wised up over the years, finally casting out people like the great negotiator, a highly successful businessman who resembles nobody as much as Trump in his need to win at all costs and his inability to maintain friendships that are not purely transactional. The know-it-all lasted a few years longer, but in the end, the spectacle of her pummeling her feeble husband became too sickening to endure.
I will always fondly remember that day digging that ditch in Albany (or maybe El Cerrito). Oddly enough, I had a date that night, in those free love days. I cheerfully rode my bike a few miles to Berkeley where I was going to have sex with a young woman I’d known for some time. It was the first time we’d gone to bed. I recall, in the middle of things, literally while we were making the beast with two backs, she had to excuse herself to go pee. She may have had some kind of urinary tract infection, I think. I don’t remember the rest, I may have fallen asleep while she was in the bathroom leaving some mellow yellow in the bowl.