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Hands Across the Working World

Kelly Candaele

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…mill hands, farm hands, factory hands…hands….hands…hands…

 — Eugene Debs

Ironworker Devonte Merrifield makes sure he takes care of his hands. He jokingly points out that the strength of his marriage depends on two strong – and sometimes soft – hands. “My wife complains because I can’t rub her back anymore because of my calluses. My hands can be a little rough,” he says, lifting his hands and smiling.

Merrifield is in some ways similar to my electrician father who believed that the feel of a person’s hands might indicate something about their character. Shaking my father’s hand was not merely a polite ritual. The absence of thick pads of calluses was, for him, one indication that you might not be contributing much to society.

Merrifield knows that what he does with his hands is deserving of a measure of respect. His identity is partly bound up with what he calls his “working man’s” hands and the confidence drawn from meeting the challenges of apprenticeship. When I spoke to him recently at his home in Palmdale, he described himself as “blessed” – fortunate to have found his way to Reinforcing Ironworkers Union Local 416 one day while he was out looking for work.

When not on a construction site, he delights in planning a European trip with his wife and strategizes with his 11-year-old daughter Nyah about how she can accomplish her dream of attending UCLA. There is talent in Nyah’s hands too, she is an adept drawer of whatever captures her gaze.

For Merrifield to make good on the promises to himself and his family, his hands and body have to stay healthy. Grabbing a section of iron rebar from his garage, he shows me how to thread the bar into a support column — emphasizing that a metal sliver in the hand can put you out of work. “We have to use our brains and be smart about how we work,” he says. “We have to last 30 years out here.”

“Out here” includes the Wilshire Grand Center in downtown Los Angeles, where Merrifield gathers every morning at 6:30 a.m. with his fellow ironworkers to start the day. His journey from Palmdale to Wilshire and Figueroa starts at 4:30 a.m.

Filming at the Wilshire Grand, I often point my camera towards the hands of the building trades workers. When I ask them what they like about their work, most invariably answer, “I like working with my hands,” and that they prefer “working outdoors” – as if allergic to the claustrophobic environment of the office cubicle. Marvin Barra, an apprentice with Pipefitters Local 250, told me that he was looking forward to making a living with his hands as long as he maintained “two good ones.” Not always having “two good ones” is a fear that every tradesperson lives with.

“Using our hands and using our brains is part of everything we do here,” International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers apprentice Leon Zoltzman commented recently at the construction site where he was laying out a line of conduit around rows of rebar. Zoltzman attended closely to his hands as he adapted his pliers to the resistance of the wire and the shape of the conduit.

In a world filled with constant distraction and the shallow appeal of “virtual” landscapes, grappling with material things helps craftspeople, according to writer Matthew Crawford, create a community of skilled practice while keeping their minds in productive relationship to their bodies.

Asking construction workers about their hands is a roundabout way of opening up a conversation about the meaning of their work. The quick and supple fingers of youth eventually give way to hands that, while slower, make up for it through accumulated manual wisdom. If hands reveal our character, they also display our persistence.

“There are times when I lose track of time out here,” ironworker Sefi Edery says, acknowledging that there are long stretches when hands, tools and materials merge into the flow of work. While the aches of his hands and legs might jolt him back into awareness of the slower passage of time, the moments of complete immersion in work can be a form of meditation.

Today the Wilshire Grand stands half constructed. In the evening, when most of the workers are gone, it is an iron and concrete skeleton, a stoic monument to our ingenuity. During the day, when the workers are busy, spectators stand for long periods of time watching from across the street as the building moves imperceptibly upwards, as if struggling to escape the demands of gravity. It is both mysterious and pleasurable, comforting in the way in which we are consoled by its familiar form.

Unfinished structures or works of art, such as Michelangelo’s Slaves, transfix some philosophers and art critics because, in their view, these works mirror the ongoing artistic struggle or the fractured nature of the human condition.

But at the Wilshire Grand, there is little sympathy for the fragmented or the unresolved. The workers who have families  bring them here to see what they have created, buoyed by the psychological satisfactions of completion. These men and women – who understand how self-respect is earned through skilled and committed practice – finish buildings with their callused hands.

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