“It looks like most of these stations need a lot of work,” Steve, his co-project leader, said.
Ashok nodded, of course they do, he thought. They’ve needed work for years, but who’s going to do it? You? They don’t pay us enough to.
Ashok saw himself as just a middleman, a ferryman whose job it was to make sure the digging, soldering, and ratcheting of the ground workers was satisfying and complete enough to meet the requirements of the higher ups. The bare-minimum requirements. He lamented the attitude, but resigned to it all the same. It was the laissez-faire system he had encountered all his life in India, from the railway stations to the government offices to the schools. Do just enough to pass the work onto the next guy, and then it’s his problem.
It worked the other way, too, when new plans and schematics, of investor demands and city codes came down. He would glance at the memos, or nod and shake his head passively as his bosses stated his new responsibilities, then digested it until there was one easy simple command he could pass onto the man doing the grunt work. It was simpler this way for every body he thought, most of all for them, those migrants who came, without papers or a formal border crossing, without even a working vocabulary of English; a passage totally unlike his. They made small change, and for that they deserved small orders.
That had all been halted now that the project was in full swing. He and Steve had spent the entire week combing the existing system for flaws, to see what can be improved on to a “platinum standard.” That was the phrase Brian had used. “No cutting corners, Ash. Nuh-uh, that’s not what we do here. This is a platinum standard.” His almost perfectly-angled face arched back into a grin as he said this, his brow, nose, and lips all pointing in one forward direction at Ashok.
It didn’t take long before an empty sheet of lined paper on Steve’s clipboard became a full notebook, dog-eared and marked with the post-its to classify station or tracking; if the problem was electrical, mechanical, architectural, or decorative; if it was a special job that needed outside contracting; what its estimated budget was, workers needed, hours, tools, and machines.
By the end of the frst day, when he returned to the office, Steve threw himself down on the chair and huffed, “Jesus fucking Christ, Ash. You really stirred up some shit.”
Ashok wasn’t too happy to spend his days with Steve, either. To start, the man smoked too much, and Steve insisted they use his car, since the company paid for his gas, and Ash relented. But it was a small, cramped sports car, the budget model that looked fetching but had the same C-class guts as Ash’s own station wagon. The entire cabin had an air that stung of cigarette butts. Ashok had to hold back from gagging the whole day. Steve’s second problem was that he swore too much. Not so much that it exceeded the other men on the site, but Steve had a more respectable position in the organization, one that gave him a suit and a briefcase. Ashok felt this required some decorum of the tongue. The day was filled with colorful phrases of all sorts, but Steve seemed to have a penchant for the saying “cocksucker” as a coverall word: he yelled it at other drivers who cut him off on the highway; he spat it at each new repair added to the list; and sometimes after he’d told Ash a story of administration politics, he’d laugh and gasp “cocksucker” through his bursts. “Seriously Ash, you don’t know what crocodiles these guys can be. Cocksuckers.” But the third, and what both knew was the biggest core problem, was that Steve just plain didn’t like Ashok, his promotion, or that Ashok had added so much hardship to his worklife.
Steve rubbed his temples again and took a deep breath. “How’s about a drink, Ash? You drink?”
“Sure,” he said. He did drink, in that he had no beliefs or rules against it. But the last time he’d sipped any booze, whisky he thought it had been, was years ago, from when it didn’t feel so embarrassing, so treacherous to his wife and his own dignity.
And it was whiskey indeed that Steve took out of his desk drawer. “Come on,” he said. They walked down the hall where in a small breakroom, there were two vending machines, one for snacks and one for drinks, and a water cooler. The trailer never had so much as a water cooler, Ashok thought, remembering the hot summer days when Reggie and Chuck mused at whether it was legal for the company to stick them in a box without hydration. Steve took two cone cups and handed one to Ashok. He poured whiskey in both, then filled his to the top with cold water.
“Straight for you?”
“Straight is best,” he replied. “No point in drinking if you don’t keep it pure.”
Ashok thought he saw an eye roll. Steve raised his glass. “To the shit you started. May I hopefully see a good night’s rest again in the near future.” They drank. The liquor, so long absent from Ashok’s throat, prickled and sent him coughing. This might as well have been his virgin sip. It burned down all the way to his stomach. He coughed and heaved, and coughed again.
“Pure, huh?” Steve said. He was chuckling to himself, too loudly for an empty office. Ashok looked up to respond, some witty remark to explain why this whisky, against all the others he of course knew so well, disagreed with him. But the coughs continued, and no words formed. Steve chuckled again. He put the cone cup to his mouth to take another sip, and mumbled “cocksucker,” sipping down the last bits.
Night work was on full swing on the outer edges of the track, where the line pierced through the city lines back into the county, knitting east and west together. On the side of the highway, towering floodlights marked out the diggers like actors on stage. Ashok thought back to the days when this was his life, when he would leave the house after a full dinner and almost fall asleep on the drive over. His wife’s food was so heavy and filled that ghee that nuzzled his brain, and he would have trouble getting up from his car and lowering into the pits under the evening sky, like some kind of grave robber. There was a peace to it he always liked. There were fewer horns, and if he was lucky, it would be in the summer months when the air was cool and sobering.
This night however, as early autumn set in, the middle of the night dipped the temperatures so far that the floodlights caught all of the fog emitting from the worker’s mouths. Though Ashok had been in this situation many times as well, he’d never enjoyed it, and now as the supervisor he felt burdened to make a case to Steve that perhaps they didn’t need to work in the cold so often.
“Cold is better,” Steve had replied. “They work faster and harder just to keep warm.”
Work was going around the clock now. Soon several more sites would open up, both in the city and the burbs. The aim was to finish it quick and in one full swing, before no one, not the protestors, the politicians, the developers, the businesses pacts, nor the unions, could make a big enough fuss to complicate it. When the last track line had been built in Baltimore, the stops had been erected one by one, and the bosses in the office would mark each one with a gold star on the map, like the trail on a pirate’s treasure map. The trains started running before the entire thing was done, in order to get revenue flowing in at first chance, but that necessitated building temporary tracking to allow car switching at the end of the line. This new extension was made with even more haste and ill-planning than the earlier phases, and went into the property of the University campus that sued the MVA, and because no one could afford the tarnish of paving through school buildings (though it had only been into a faculty parking lot), all agreed next time there would be no butchering, no mess of blood and meat scraps. Instead, one, clean, swoop. Like an ax, like a guillotine.
Ashok had read up on all of this in archived newspapers he found in the office’s library. Someone had gone through the trouble of clipping every story, editorial, and cartoon about the MVA’s projects going back to the 1960s. News reporting was so much better in those days, he thought. Forward and clear. He had no trouble following any of the writing. All with the proper grammar he’d learned in school, borrowed from the British who knew it best, and free of colorful phrases that fell limp before his eyes. In it, he read of an organization long beleaguered with power plays and cronyism.
There was the story of how an accountant in the state comptroller had embezzled hundred of thousands from the surplus earning in license plate registration fees after the arrival of several factories on the harbor brought a bevy of workers. It didn’t need but a few omitted marks on the balance sheets to roll over dollars into his pocket, all back before computers seemed to rule bank accounts. Then there was the story about a wave of muggers who would corner passengers on the late night routes, when there was no one else on the bus save for the driver, the predator, and prey. This led to a decline of ridership for nearly two years, with assurances that undercover police would ride the bus all day. Ashok found an editorial stapled to the back that highly doubted the department even had the extra personnel to mount such a sting.
There were tales of potholes that were crying indicators of the state’s failure to put public safety first, signs that came detached and fell onto the highways, traffic lights that fell out of synchronicity and had cars running into each other. All of these stemmed from the same culprits: men who wanted money and were willing to cut corners to get it. Incompetent people put in charge because their dad knew a guy. The kind of dirty acts he only expected in halls of government or in global finance companies. But somehow, the allure of the roads, the power over the movement of person from place to place, had a certain attraction for the desperate and cutthroat.
Ashok would tell his wife about these scandals every morning over tea, like stories at a campfire.
“Most of these men were just crooks,” he’d said. “A man would think being greedy and lousy is a job requirement to have my job. I don’t like it. It makes me feel like I’ve put on someone else’s skin like a costume, oily and disgusting. Maybe I am like that. Maybe I’ve always been, and I just never realized it.”
“You can only be what you know about yourself,” she’d replied, pouring tea to her saucer. “You can’t be anything more.”
“I know I’m not that kind of person.”
Without missing a sip, she asked: “Could you become one?”
Ashok pondered this, watching the crane lower a great stone pipe into the ditch. Sure, he had access to so many ways to screwing over the other men and getting away rich. His contract stipulated a large expense account that he’d barely touched. Brian and Chris, the men from DC, had insisted to the administrators he have one. When he said he didn’t know what to do with it, Chris had told him, “To grease any wheels, you know? Buy lunches for reporters, pay for taxis to go from site to site without burning your own car. You know, just act more like us.”
Ashok’s most favorite part about covering the night shift though, was the simple fact that less was demanded of the supervisor. Even with the floodlights, it was hard to get the best perception in the deep holes and around the crevices of large cinder pieces. It was easy to get away with a lot of heartless and noncommittal calls on the site. He would never judge with haste or without being more than one hundred percent complete, but instead he took comfort in not having to do it all. He would smile and tell the head man, Jorge, to do what he could and leave the rest for the morning guys. It was another of those unwritten rules that he’d embraced, for a change one he didn’t completely disagree with.
Jorge clamored out of the ditch, wiping sweat from his brow. Ashok liked Jorge, who’d been with the MVA for a decade longer and didn’t mind taking all of the dangerous jobs, which usually were in the night shift. He’d long thought the man should have also had a spot in the trailer office with him. But Dave had explained once why.
“He’s too necessary on the night crew. Most of the boys who have families and home lives don’t want to be on the night crew, so the Mexicans always snatch those hours up, ‘cause they know they get time-and-a-half, and since they’re all paid under the table they’re less of a liability. You know how crazy the night shift can get. Can’t see anything, a car could clip you on the road, the guy behind the crane might forget to look before swinging one-eighty. But then they need someone to translate and make sure everything’s going smoothly. You know how the office boys are. They don’t care who’s carrying the shovel as long as they can trust the guy telling ‘em where to dig.”
The remark reminded Ashok of his favorite film, The Good The Bad and the Ugly, and the end scene where Clint Eastwood pointed his pistol at sniveling Eli Wallach and posed the same thought: “In this world, there’s two kinds of people. Those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig.”
The Mexicans did the digging at night, and the rest during the day. Ashok had also done the digging. Any man who knew the job could dig. and while there weren’t any guns waved around on this job, Ashok wondered what everyone else did have.