Red Dust,
Blue Sky

by Renée Lemans 
as told to Emily Hancock

 

Working Girl

 


Working Girl, (c) Sandy Thacker.

Renée was the only female on a construction site in New Mexico the summer she turned 25. She threw adobe and laid bricks for an apartment complex near Santa Fe. On that site, she learned to stand her ground -- and found the strength she needed to prevent something terrible from happening. This is her story.

New Mexico held a real awakening for me. It's a place that welcomes you and opens you to your imagination. A strong, deep connection transported me to the land. Each time I walked on the land I felt as if the colors and scents had brushed up against me.

When I got there, I asked myself what I would like to do. At first I thought I wanted to be a carpenter. A tile setter I met knew of an opening. I went to the site and met the supervisor, Milo. I told him I wanted to be a carpenter. He said he had an opening for a clean-up laborer. I looked at him and said, OK, I'll take that opening, just as long as you know that I want to be a carpenter.

Every day I would finish before the others. I would never ask Milo for more work. He would just have given me clean-up work. So I would always go to a carpenter and say, Milo gave me this work to do and I've completed it. It's going to look awful if I do nothing for the rest of the day. Could you give me some work to do? And he would. So Milo always came upon me working with a carpenter. Finally he let me pick up extra carpentry work. I was lucky. Milo was a softy.

Then the person who was cutting brick left because of a family crisis. Milo came up to me and said, What do you think about cutting brick? I said, I think it's a great idea. I had never seen a brick-saw in my life. In fact, I didn't even know that bricks were cut with a saw!

All I knew was that I had to cut the bricks for the edges of the floors and for the cuts around the heating grates. I discovered that the men had been taking broken pieces of brick and stuffing them into corners. They didn't know how to use the brick-saw either!

So I devised my own method for cutting bricks with the saw. I figured out how to weaken the brick to make the cut and taught myself how to use a brick chisel and hammer and became to brick-cutter for the site. I'd come home every day covered with brick dust. My hair would be a brilliant red.

After a short time, Milo let me lay the bricks as well as cut them. You do that with a brick carrier. It's a simple, flat bar with two flat ends that hold the brick, and another bar that raises and pushes the free end up against the brick. The only thing that's keeping those bricks housed is your grip.

We laid a thousand bricks a day. You carry the weight of the bricks in your bones. I was always strong, especially in my arms.

The men had a hard time watching me do that kind of work at first. I was the only female on the site. They saw this little 5 foot 3, 118 pound girl carrying brick.

A couple of days into it they were cursing me out and giving me a hard time, deriding me to my face and to each other. I realized that if I took that on, I'd be done for. So I kept on laying brick, just faster. Eventually they had to pick up their brick carriers and lay brick too. It worked itself out. I changed my relationship with them by doing my work, doing my job.

But there was another key to our friendship. The people who were laying brick and building adobe were Mexican. Every once in a while the federal agents would come to the site to check for illegal immigrants. The men would run into the bushes and hide. So I ran and hid too. Once the federales were gone, they came out of hiding. And they started cracking up, laughing. They asked me why I was hiding. I told them that I didn't feel it was right that they had to hide. They had as much right as I to make a living.

Right then and there, we became fast friends. And of course, they then told me that while they appreciated me hiding, they next time the federales came, I should stay on the site instead of hiding in the bushes, because otherwise there would be no one working there and they would wonder! They took me under their wing after that.

On slow days I ended up throwing adobe with them, and that was a beautiful experience. You form a relay line and one person throws a rectangular block of adobe to the next. I was at the end of the line, so I would throw the adobe up to the person who would lay in on the wall. That was quite an honor. It was also really fun. When we got to the top layer of the wall, I couldn't reach. I couldn't throw it high enough. I was too little. Everybody laughed.

There's a beautiful harmony to working in a certain rhythm. It was a gorgeous feeling, an incredible sense of cooperation and comraderie, working together.

When we finished throwing adobe, the concrete contractor showed me how to do concrete work. The first time I tried to life the wheelbarrow filled with concrete, it wouldn't budge. I watched the men and realized that the center of gravity is on the wheel, really low. I started wheeling and building forms and surveying then. I did patios and sidewalks and driveways, that kind of thing. I even did foundations. It was fun.

I loved using my hands and my body. I loved seeing my work. I liked building homes. We were building a love apartment complex, 100 apartments with adobe walls, brick floors, tile bathrooms and kitchens, sugar-pine beams. Quite beautiful. I liked everything about it.

The others could see how much I loved the work. They used to laugh at me because I would trot from one activity to another. It was like falling in love, that same feeling of joy, exhilaration, infatuation. I was in love with the work. I'd found my calling.

At some point, Milo hired another woman. She'd been a gym teacher and wanted a change. She worked on a different part of the site, so I didn't know her. There was a slow down in the work, the men didn't have much to do. They began talking amongst themselves. They were planning to rape her. They were egging each other on and goading her. The concrete contractor didn't know what to do to stop it. He thought I would know.

So I told him, they know how much I like them and I would never want to harm them. But you let them know that if they lay a hand on this woman, I will turn every one of them in to the federales.

They stopped harassing her after that. One by one, they each came and apologized to me.

Now, twenty years later, I use all the skills I learned on that site in my work designing gardens. Landscape gardening involves intimately working with the earth and discovering the beauty inherent in nature. It's a sensual connection to matter.

This month I am building a wall 85 feet long. I love doing stone work, fitting the stones together into the wall. The stones are all different shapes. After a while you get familiar with all the stones on the site, and you just say, Ah, this stone! and you pick it up and it falls into place. You carry the stones and their shapes in your body.

With this work, I feel enraptured like I did in New Mexico. There I felt like jumping up in the air, clicking my heels. Gardening brings me a deep peace and healing. It's a modulated love affair...


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