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Mike’s been like a second father to me. Now our relationship becomes more equal. His shop lasts only a few weeks longer. He shuts it down after he finishes the current job.

When the declining economy forces people to cut back, Mike and I lose more than our construction jobs. Our American know-how and ingenuity goes out the door. Who’s going to stand with us, the blue-collar workers who make honest livings in their trades?

On my way home from school one day, I decide to stop by one of the many inexpensive furniture store chains. As I browse through the various showrooms, I notice a bookshelf in the corner. It’s poorly assembled with sloppy joints. The backing is loose, and the veneer is peeling away. What a disgrace.

“Is there anything I can help you with, sir?” the sales associate asks innocently.

He comes off as an unenthusiastic slacker who could not care less about furniture. His mop haircut didn’t help.

“You guys know this bookshelf’s fallin’ apart?” I ask.

“Oh, really? I’ll have somebody take a look at it.”

“This thing’s light. What’s it made of?” But I already know the answer.

“Particle board and veneer.”

The look on his face is priceless. His smirk says, “Why do you think it’s only $20, dude?” I wonder if the company trains its employees to handle questions like these. I want to ask him where this stuff is made, but I spare him the embarrassment.

Even though Mike’s company went under, we stay in contact. He’s kind enough to let me use his shop for my personal projects. The one piece of advice Mike always gives me is, “Dave, whatever you do, don’t get married.” I can’t help but laugh. His marriage seems to be as solid as a plank of ebony. No matter how bad things get, he always finds a way to lighten things up.

A couple of weeks after Mike’s company shuts down, I manage to find another woodworking position in San Diego. It’s just not the same. Transitioning to a big commercial cabinet shop is rough. There’s 50 guys packed into a warehouse, compared to just Mike and me. The company’s main goal is to push as much material through the shop as fast as possible. I had become so accustomed to moving at my own pace, but that’s now working against me. I can’t do quality work, yet I am not making my quota of finished pieces. As an artisan, I’m getting it from both ends.

Five or six months go by. I cruise down to Mike’s shop to start a new side project, an heirloom-style photo album for my brother, the traveling photographer. Mike is now working for a large corporation as a project manager in the construction department.

“It’s not a bad gig,” he explains.

But the recession is still hammering me. “I just got laid off. Again.”

Mike has a dumbfounded look on his face. “Are you serious?”

I’m going to give school another shot, I tell him.

“Good for you. After a while, a career in woodworking tends to put a damper on doing it as a hobby anyway.”

College has always been intimidating. In 2003, I was put on academic probation at the end of my third semester at Mesa. But now I’m back. I walk to my first class. I sit down and take a deep breath. The professor walks in. It looks as if he’s going to keel over right in front of us. He must be 80 years old. I already miss the sounds of the woodworking shop. As I listen to his droning voice during the lecture, I catch myself daydreaming about what I want to build for my next project. I turn in the first assignment, but I feel no sense of accomplishment. All I receive back is a paper covered in red ink.

There’s no comparison between an English essay and a creative masterpiece. There’s a spiritual connection that occurs between me and my project, as I fight through bloody fingers, sore muscles, sweat, and splinters. It builds pride in a craftsman. People who work with their hands know what I’m talking about. A desk job just doesn’t cut it.

I force myself to find a positive outlook about school. Although the transition to full-time student may be tough, I know it will benefit me in the future.

Once again, I head down to Mike’s shop, during Thanksgiving break, to make some alterations on my entertainment center. He has more bad news.

“They just laid me off, as well as 70 percent of my crew.”

“This is getting ridiculous. I can’t believe they got rid of you. You’re the best guy they got.”

Since I finished my last project last year, in late November, I haven’t worked in Mike’s shop. I miss it. I’ve convinced myself I’ll be back one day when school slows down and I finish an internship. I notice my hands are getting soft. No cuts or calluses. These hands don’t belong to a working man. ■

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