It’s a big deal in the bricklaying world — the downtown $90 million brick job at Harbor Drive and Market Street — a.k.a. CityFront Terrace, future site of 321 condominiums, 13 stories of abundant living, and more importantly, for construction workers, 400,000 full-sized, 12-by-4-by-8-inch bricks that somebody’s got to lay.
It’s not easy, hereabouts, to come across 400,000 bricks. East Coast builders use 60 bricks per person per year. Out West, it’s 3 bricks per person per year, according to brick supplier Dave Hollingsworth, president of Lake Elsinore’s Pacific Clay Company. This means, citizens, that we’ve got a 57-brick-per-person deficit every damn year right here in San Diego, which is one of the principal reasons why sophisticated East Coast people laugh at us behind our backs.
But — cut to the good news — help is on the way, and in recognition of that happy fact, and to assist in the proper celebration of Labor Day, it seemed essential to talk to bricklaying hands, right at ground zero, right on the biggest brick job ever to hit San Diego, and find out what — on a really big brick job — workers have for lunch.
The construction gate for CityFront Terrace faces Union and Island Streets. The general contractor, Koll Construction, has a sign posted at the entrance. It reads:
Warning: This is a construction site.
Yes: Hard Hats
I’ve arrived a little before noon, pace before the gate, listen to sounds of diesel engines as they grunt, wheeze, pop. Diesel clatter broken by the jarring rat-tat-tat of two jackhammers. A small Champ forklift makes a U-turn, kicks up oil-stained dirt. A Case loader, plywood sheets rigged to rusted steel bucket, backs into the site, marched along by its piercing, annoying, high-pitched safety alarm.
Two workers walk towards me, one barely 18, another maybe 40 years old, both wearing white T-shirts, brown work pants, both with Buck knives sheathed and fastened on their belts, both lugging white plastic buckets crammed with power tools and thick industrial extension cords.
The pair tramp over to the shade of what looks to be an abandoned warehouse and hunker down. The older man passes a filtered cigarette to his partner. Heads bowed, two sets of eyes stare at the sidewalk, the universal look of a working man waiting for a teamster.
The older man asks the younger, “Are you broke?”
Unlined, stoic face brightens. “Yup.”
Bass voice. “Well, it’s two days to payday, you’ll get paid on Thursday.”
A boy’s voice, working hard on learning a man’s accent: “I’ll be all right.”
“How long you been in the trades?”
“Just starting out.”
“What trade are you?"
“I’m a laborer, nine bucks an hour. Most money I’ve ever seen. Pick up trash, that’s fine with me. Super said we got a big two-year job in Del Mar, La Jolla, some place like that. Says we can move over there. I don’t reckon I got to be worried about being laid off anytime soon.”
A young woman arrives driving a ten-year-old Mustang, pulls up, asks the men, “Do you know where they usually take their lunch break?”
Older man leans back. “What does he do?” “He’s a bricklayer.”
“He’s up in the building.” Tanned, meaty face peers across Union Street to the unfinished skeleton of CityFront Terrace. “It’s cool up there.”
I walk through the gate past the fancy Koll Construction sign and alongside it, the working man’s sign, this one scrawled in black ink announcing “Psychic Zoo.”
I shuffle along to the job trailer, borrow a hard hat from a secretary. It’s a few minutes past noon, a canteen truck has nudged its way onto the construction site, 30 men line up for burgers, Cokes, fries.
The building hasn’t been closed in. Today, there are ten stories of poured concrete floors and exposed supports. Red construction cage elevators run up and down partially finished walls. ! find the nearest one, pop up to the third floor, step out, gratefully accept the cool, breezy, surprisingly moist air.
Tiptoe over construction litter — discarded strips of wire and 2-by-4 ends, cardboard, screws, nails — head to the west wing and a group of 20 men eating lunch. The workers sit in a large semicircle, hard hats on the floor, feet kicked out, bodies lying back against stacks of drywall, bricks, building struts, a dozen Igloo coolers scattered here and there like rocks around a river campsite.
I approach, explain my mission, ask a thin, blond-haired, maybe 35-year-old man nearest me, “What are you having for lunch?”
“I got an apple.”
I peer into red-and-white Igloo. “Okay, you got leftovers, some chicken, some rice, what’s this?” point to crumpled plastic bag hidden underneath a ball of napkins.
“Chips. That’s my yogurt there, and I got a banana.”
“Did your wife pack that?”
“Yeah,” he laughs. All the men laugh.
Move to the next man, sitting cross-legged wearing a torn blue T-shirt, brown Carhartt’s, summer work boots. “What have you got for lunch?”
“Potato salad and a turkey sandwich.”
I look into his Igloo, regard $500 bucks worth of electronics. “Do you snack on that pull-out car radio?”
He laughs. “Too many thieves on this job. That stays with me.”
Next to him is a large black man, white T-shirt hitched up over his round Buddha belly. He volunteers, “I got a steak sandwich, some dip, potato chips, and a Twinkie.”
I squint, regard the snack, and offer, “A man needs a Twinkie now and then, ’specially to pull himself through those last two hours on a really hard day."
“How ’bout you?” said to a thin, rodent-faced man.
“I had a meatloaf sandwich.”
“What’s this down here?” I point inside his Igloo.
“Of course. What’s this?” I ask, pointing to a large, covered, plastic container.
“Bean salad, some Doritos, Chips Ahoy! cookies.”
A little to one side of us is a Hispanic male, squatting on his heels, creating his own bubble of peacefulness. I ask, “How ’bout you, what are you eating?”
Accented Mexican voice replies, “Chili, fruit, sauce, crackers, some more chili.”
I stand up, take a few steps over to big, mean looking, 10,000-hours-working-in-the-sun, full-grown man. “Okay, whatchagot here?”
“I got Starkist Charlie’s lunch kit and crackers.”
“Do you have a sandwich?”
“No, I don’t like sandwiches. Had a cantaloupe and Double-Tough Oreos.”
“None of this Twinkie shit, just hard-ass Oreos.”
“You got it.”
Turn to my original guy, the mid-30s thin blond. “I’m surprised at the one-sandwich statement; everybody here seems to have one sandwich.”
“Too hot to have more. Now, Danny over there has Cracker Jacks and peaches.” laughter.
“Every day, Cracker Jacks and peaches.”
I turn to the defendant. “Danny, what is it with your luncheon menu? The men are starting to complain.”
Fiery red hair, manic grin. “Hey, I know a good thing, if these scumball roustabouts can’t see it — what can I tell you?”
I turn to the blond. “Is this a good job, like a couple-year job, year-and-a-half job?”
“For bricklayers it is. Be a couple years for laborers and carpenters too.”
“How long have you been working?”
“Been here about 13 months.”
“Hew many hours do you get?”
“Well, this is the first time in quite a while I’m getting 40-hour steady checks. Long time. Before this one, it’s been 35, 32, 24.”
“Have you been able to work pretty solid the last three or four years?”
“Yeah, it’s not too bad.”
“With a job like this do you just work it until you get burned out and then quit, or do they give you vacations?”
A half gasp,
“Oh, we don’t quit in San Diego.”
“I see, so you find a job and keep it.”
“Yeah, you can take a vacation, but there’s no guarantee something will be here for you when you come back. Going’s the easy part, it’s the coming back that’s hard.”
“What’s the shift hours?”
“Seven to three-thirty. Eight hours a day, five days a week.”
“Steady as she goes?”
“Steady as she goes.”
I look around at our campfire, study 20 working men. Turn to the man nearest me and say, “I’m surprised at the healthy, low-cal lunches. If it weren’t for all the ugly faces, you could almost swear this is some kind of a yuppie cafeteria.”
“Hey, it’s California, we try and keep a standard.”
“Do you get coffee breaks?”
“We get a break in the morning and work through the afternoon.”
“I notice a lot of people over at the lunch wagon. How come you guys don’t eat out of there?”
Voice from behind. “Too expensive. You can spend ten bucks a day down there, lust a hamburger, fries, and Coke cost you four or five bucks.”
Back to the blond. “How did you come by this job?”
“We’re in the union, and I worked for these guys before, so 1 was requested.”
He turns to his partner. “How ’bout you?” “I’ve worked for Koll on and off for the last ten years.”
“So was it one of those, ‘Well, Henry ain’t working, he’s a top hand, we’ll call him’?”
I ask the blond, “How long have you been in the construction business?”
“Jesus! I believe in your lunches! You look like 30.” I face clear, healthy face, age only partly given away by worldly eyes. I study him for two beats. “So, have you got another 20 years left in you?”
He laughs, “I sure hope not.”
Big man, six foot four, 280,290 pounds, walks into the circle, leans over, gathers his tools. The other men slowly pack up, get up, stretch, drift off to work. It’s another lunch down, three hours to quitting time.
I make my way back to the elevator, catch a ride down to the dirt. Three jackhammers kick in overhead. The elevator stops, I get out, walk towards the job trailer to return my hard hat, fall in behind two men.
Man on the right is tall, mid-30s, handsome, looks like a weight lifter. He’s chatting with his partner. “You picked a good day to come back.”
Soft voice glides out from underneath curly brown hair. “How come?”
“Ronnie got run off, we’re getting a new foreman, it’s up for grabs.”
“Christ, they’ll probably pick that limp-dick, lap-dog Earl.”
“He’s sucking for it.”
“Did you bring an extra sandwich? I forgot mine.”
“I ain’t your old lady, motherfucker.”
“You hump-ass cretin, what about that fucking pizza I bought you last week?”