Decline and Fall

Two days after Christmas I showed up to my job site, a shitty job they call “commercidential” (residential with commercial on the street level). The roof hadn’t been sealed on time and it frequently rained indoors. These future $5K per month apartments were full of studs that were lousy with sinister black mold. My foreman was very surprised to see me that morning, which was confusing, because he’s a really sharp guy. I attempted to chitchat with him about how his Christmas was, and tried to jog his memory a little that I’d been in school the week before.

“I think you better call the Superintendent,” he said, finally.

I made the call and got sent home for the rest of the week for absenteeism. My Superintendent forgot I had school the week before Christmas and decided I had gone derelict. I repacked my tools and left, privately fuming since I would never go disappear quietly or in a half-assed fashion.

I tried not to be too upset, because the standards were so low and contradictory at this company that hoofbeats mean zebras and not horses, because they’re almost all zebras. Drunken, disorganized, half-assed zebras, sneaking a butt in the sanicans. As I loaded my tools back into my trunk, I internally huffed that WHEN I’M THE BOSS, I’d at least take the time to make a phone call to see what’s happening, if previously the apprentice had always arrived upright and sober. I went home and applied for unemployment for the week, since I was indeed available for work.

After New Year’s I was assigned to a new site, with a new foreman who had been with the company for a few months. I was told that this new boss was AWOL during New Year’s weekend so they weren’t sure if he was going to show up. I was out of the doghouse with my Super at this point since it quickly became too crowded with others to keep any one person in it for long.

There was another apprentice, Matt, who had loads of experience and was being illegally used as a foreman on various jobs, and a traveler journeyman who had some interesting ideas about how Hitler’s death was faked and how he was hidden in the aftermath of the war. He was really incensed they were wasting his Hitler Time on Discovery with programs about mermaids. MERMAIDS! What a ludicrous idea.

I was feeling burned out on the merry-go-round of moving from site to site, waiting for deliveries of parts and supplies that would never come. I had that apathetic January feeling. January, the longest, darkest month without holidays to alleviate it. Inevitably my work pants are tighter in January until I start racing up and down stairs again. I was tired of working with drunks and weirdos, and the constant, incorrect gossip that was being circulated about me at this company.

As a result I had made a resigned New Year’s resolution: stay out of it, whatever IT is. Finish the rotation and never return here again. We don’t need to talk about Hitler, what the Super told three people about me but did not address with me directly, the disastrous country-western song that is many journeymen’s lives, what does this rash look like to you, and so forth. I had lost some of my optimistic buoyancy, my tendency to joke to change the subject, even my ability to hear what was being said if it didn’t pertain directly to work. My headspace vacillated between fuzzy and pissed off.

The three of us (me, apprentice foreman Matt, and cuckoo Hitler guy) had ever been to the site before and shot the shit for ten minutes to see if the new AWOL boss, Seamus, would show. The job was another commercidential, but one that did not rain indoors. It was in a neighborhood that was doing that slow Seattle flip towards more reasonable density levels. We did that shuffle to decide who was going to call the shots for the day. I was leaning towards Matt since he was one of the only people I’d encountered at this company who had the 3 Ss: sane, sensible, and skilled.

Much to my relief a plan was forming, and I was looking for what seemed to be the most complete set of blueprints when someone clomped down the parking garage ramp towards us.

“Whoa,” he said, by way of greeting, dropping his tool bags on the ground. “I haven’t been here since before Thanksgiving.”

“Are you Seamus?” Matt asked.

He was. Our new boss smelled like a distillery and swayed slightly. This didn’t bother me. I generally give people a pass on Mondays or after holidays, because everyone has a crazy night sometimes. He was unshaven and his clothes looked more like a pile of rags than most journeymen’s. He looked like The Dude and a Hobbit had been Brundleflied together, and then used to clean the undercarriage of a farm pickup. His eyes were bloodshot to the point where they might have been burst blood vessels rather than just irritation, but they still had a little sparkle in them.

After a little flailing and consultation of some notes that looked like they were written in hobo code, he made a shocking announcement: “You guys, I can’t lie. I’m super hungover.” We shrugged and said some variation of, “It happens.”

“I had the craziest fucking weekend,” he went on, scratching his scruffy face with dirty fingernails. “I’d been on the wagon for months and then I fell off this weekend. I met this girl on Tinder, and we got a cabin up the in the mountains. She’s younger than my daughter. But then she just split on Monday! It was like REALLY crazy, like…well, I probably shouldn’t say any more than that because…” he trailed off, looking at me. I had been standing back and off a ways, since no one was really speaking to me anyway. The other two men swiveled their necks to look at me.

“It’s ok, I’m a grownup and have children. I know what sex is,” I said. They laughed. Matt gave me a little “oh jeez” cringe since he’s not an asshole.

Working with Seamus was challenging. He was determined to do everything the hardest or most disorganized way. Non-industrial sites are kind of shitshow in that the hallways are basically big enough for residents to walk through and carry a couch through and that’s about it. Every corridor is a a tangle of painter’s hoses and paint pumps, plastic or other protection that is ripping or otherwise becoming a hazard, spiderboxes, power cords, garbage, and so many fucking electricians that you can imagine if you turned on a bright enough light they would scurry like roaches.

“Let’s get my cart and bring it in,” Seamus said. Seriously? I thought. Due to all the obstacles, I imagined carrying the cart everywhere we went in the building instead of rolling it, completely defeating its purpose. Not even the electricians brought their carts in, and those motherfuckers always have about seventy carts.

“We’ll pull my van around,” he said. I took a deep breath and saw the dice roll in my head. On one hand, Seamus was still clearly drunk if he smelled that strong and was still slurring a little. On the other, we were probably going around the block, tops, and traffic hadn’t picked up yet. I snapped my seatbelt and tried to crack the window as the wave of liquor and tobacco fumes made me a little queasy.

We got to a street loading area and opened the back of his company-issued work van, which looked like a giant had reached down, turned it over, and shaken it before setting it upright again. I’ve seen many work vans that have hasty stacks or the unfortunate situation where a soggy box of bolts has given up and ruptured. This was less mess and more an indiscriminate hoarder’s drift of everything you could imagine: Caulk tubes, fasteners, random pieces of angle, various invoices and delivery receipts. Vintage, half-eaten sandwiches. Pieces of hi-vis clothing. Safety glasses. Beverage bottles and cans. Tangles of rope. Sheet metal screws of various functions, lengths and diameters. Jimmy Hoffa’s toe tag.

But there was a cart, and we retrieved it, along with some other tools. Of course we carried it everywhere we went, up the stairs and down the hallway like a palanquin.

“See how useful this cart is,” he insisted. I do not, I thought, but kept quiet.

I soon got a taste of his so-close-but-no-cigar style of work. A few days later he taught me how to make an escutcheon to act as a firestop when duct travels between floors. This is basically a frame that helps seal the hole that’s cut in wooden floors that can slow flames and smoke from jumping up or down a storey. I knew it should have been sealed with fire caulk, but he sealed it with something flammable instead since we didn’t have any. I’d be willing to bet he did have fire caulk somewhere, but wasn’t willing to risk hepatitis or getting lost diving through his van for it. When I did offer to really go looking for the correct part or material, or to clean something up, he invariably told me we didn’t have time for that.

As we worked, Seamus told me he was afraid to work with me.

“WHY!” I said, expecting to hear something stupid I usually hear, like “YUR A GURL.”

“I heard you got Pickles fired,” he said.

Pickles was a guy I heard accurately described as a “17-year-old in a 50-year-old’s body” by a foreman, Tom, who had watched him videoing women’s butts at a university job blatantly and mere feet from them. Pickles had the ~Aloha spirit~ and put hibiscuses on everything he decided belonged to him, which looked like shamrocks, especially as he used a green pen to make his Zorro mark. I was told he would work a few months until he got laid off for general uselessness, and then would go park his bare nutsack on Hawaiian nude beaches.

I had worked with Pickles in an attic for a couple days in September. It was one of those stupid jobs where you have to take two days to move an installed unit up two feet and over two feet because of some change in the drawings.

Tom (who later told me about the butt-videoing), was not our boss that day, but stuck his head up in the attic to say hello and see what we were doing. He eyeballed me and Pickles attempting to work together, with me hustling and Pickles mostly sitting and staring into space, trying to figure out how to reconnect something he had just disconnected about an hour ago. Tom and I said our “nice to meetchus” and as he descended the ladder I heard him loudly ask my boss, “Are you TRYING to get Pickles fired for sexual harassment?”

I had gotten Pickles’s number early. I would just push back hard and treat him like the little bitch he was. I had spent so much time verbally abusing Pickles that by the end of the job he was a huge fan of me, thought I was hilarious, and had nicknamed me “Five Star.” He had gotten increasingly disgusting as the job went on, in spite of the fact that I usually keep things PG-13 with guys (other than liberal use of the word “motherfucker”) so I don’t open the door to any sexual talk.

“I did not get Pickles fired,” I matter-of-factly told Seamus as we wrestled the cart down another clusterfucked hallway. “He told me I should suck his dick and it got back to the VP, and the VP fired him.”

Seamus looked surprised by this revelation and got thoughtful for a moment. Honestly I was more irritated by the fact that Pickles told me I should start going to the gym as he sat in the attic staring into space and changing the music while I made most of the reconnections after the unit was in place. Our boss told him he should spend less time “getting swole” since he obviously had no energy to work.

Thankfully, Seamus changed the subject after that. He told me a lot about his life. He enjoyed crabbing. He was in the middle of a divorce and his wife was in another state. His grown daughter lived in Oregon and was trying to set up therapy for him, since he was so wracked with anxiety he could barely function. I couldn’t think of much I wanted to tell him about my life, and deflected a lot of his questions. I was still in my New Year’s resolution coping mode. He tried to add me on facebook but I wasn’t there.

I felt like I was a ghost who existed only to hang spiral and mark off days on the calendar until I could leave.

A few days later Seamus arrived to work and said, “Seven days.”

“Sorry, what?”

“I haven’t had a drink for seven days.”

It was January 8th. I was a little surprised since his appearance, focus, and alertness had improved a little, but he still seemed to have new burst blood vessels in his eyes and I thought I still smelled alcohol on him most mornings, but shrugged it off. You get what you get with this company.

“How do you feel?” I asked.

“It’s nice to wake up without a headache.”

“Hang on to that feeling,” I said. Play the tape forward, I thought.

Another guy who had the 3 Ss as a worker, Jason, showed up on the site that morning to make electrical connections to the fans we’d installed. He was one of those calm, warm, together guys who I was always reassured to see and I wished I worked for him, but he was on the electrical side of things, not HVAC. He was tall and had a goatee and liked to tell stories about his little daughter.

Seamus and I were waiting for a delivery and were blocked with nothing to do until it arrived. Seamus barked at me to do some menial things in front of Jason, which seemed out of character, and I took the hint and beat it. I cottoned to the fact that Seamus didn’t want it to look like he wasn’t working his apprentice in front of a reliable old timer with the company who had the Super’s ear.

I went to the basement and dicked the dog for a while. Moved trash. Organized duct. A while later I circled back to the room where Seamus and Jason were. I walked in on that thick wave that said a serious conversation had been taking place that had nothing to do with work. They turned to look at me.

“Delivery’s here,” I said, feigning ignorance.

After Jason left, Seamus and I were on ten-foot ladders making connections in the entryway with the duct transitions that had finally been delivered.

“Sorry I made you do dumb stuff earlier,” he said from the other side of the duct. “I just wanted to look busy in front of Jason.”


“You want to hear something funny?” he asked me.

“Go for it,” I said, bracing myself for anything.

“I was at an AA meeting a few months ago by my house, and you know who was in charge of it? Jason! He’s been sober for like 15 years.”

“Oh no, Seamus, you can’t tell me that!”

“I can’t?”

“It’s anonymous!” I said.

“Oh no,” he said, coloring. “Oh no.” He dropped his wrench, which thankfully didn’t hit anyone below.

Later that day he showed me a text from a new Tinder prospect. He had moved on from New Year’s girl.

“Do you think I fucked this up?” he asked, waiting for me to read their light, getting-to-know-you conversation. She seemed sweet and I said so.

“I think it looks fine,” I said, truthfully.

He scratched his scruffy face with fingers that had lines so deep they looked more like cracks, with dirt ground into them and under his nails that he had brought to work with him. I tried to imagine him cleaned up and on a date. What would he talk about with a woman? When our crew joked around Seamus didn’t notice or catch it. He usually seemed to be in a hazy dreamstate.

We spent the next couple of weeks moving from site to site, wherever the fire was and wherever the general contractor was most pissed at our company that day. We had to decipher any notes that were left from other guys, find parts, get an earful of how and where we were holding up parts of the project. We had to figure out what we had on site and what was missing and needed to be ordered from the shop. This usually took most of the first day. By the time we were ready to receive an order and work on hanging duct we would move again.

The first day we were in Maple Leaf there was an electrician there kicking 80s music all day.

“That sounded like Oingo Boingo,” I said.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “My wife…my ex…dated Danny Elfman a long time ago. She’s from California.”

“Huh.” I had not expected that.

On our second day in Maple Leaf, Seamus gave me a run of spiral to hang, then holed up in an upstairs unit. I knew he was supposed to be drawing parts we needed but I figured he wasn’t. At some point I had to track him down and found him with a thick stack of bank statements and other financial papers. Like everything else in his possession, they looked wrinkled, ripped, like they’d been kept somewhere damp.

“I’m sorry, I just have to deal with this financial stuff…the divorce. Can you keep busy?”

“I get it,” I said. I watched his hands shake he pawed through the stacks, trying to put things in order.

He kept disappearing out to his company van, saying he needed to get some odd or end or paperwork. When he came back, he smelled more strongly of alcohol than he did in the mornings. I watched his mood change, too, and become steadier. He was less coherent by the afternoons but seemed calmer. His hands shook less.

On Friday we were moved again, back to the other site on our rotation to work on the sheet metal-lined shaft that pulled the exhaust out of the garage. I had been working on the shaft with an older journeyman who was relaxed, funny, decent, and appreciated my efforts. To finish we were supposed to line and waterproof the top of an exhaust shaft.

Tom, the foreman who told me about Pickles’s butt-videoing antics, greeted us on the site and let us know that Seamus had attempted to call in sick that morning, and said he had the flu. The superintendent had threatened him, basically saying get out there and get it done, or turn in your work van.

Seamus arrived about 45 minutes late and was in bad shape that morning. He seemed to have had a tiring and stressful week with all the pressure to finish these little projects that had a thousand loose ends and, as a bonus, me, a sullen third-year who was mostly in malicious compliance mode at this point. He looked drawn and was a weird color, and gave off the faint odor of alcohol as usual after his week of sobriety. He looked like it hurt to blink.

Open book that he was, Seamus immediately told us the Super had threatened him with being fired. I did my best attempt at receiving this news as if it was new information. He had wanted to take cold medication but only had “the sleepy kind” at home. Tom attempted to banter with him a little, and getting nothing back, took off to do his work. I had the feeling Tom was there to report back to the Super about how Seamus was looking and when he showed up.

Seamus’s plan that morning was to climb up to the icy roof immediately and get cracking.

The roof shaft, once uncovered, was an open hole, three by four feet with an 18” curb surrounding it, like a chimney with no terminal chimney stack. Eventually it would have a large fan set near it to suck fumes out of the garage. The shaft ran straight down seven storeys, to the parking garage. Naturally, with my company’s dedication to safety, there was only one harness and rope between the three of us.

“What if we wait until the sun comes up?” I asked. I imagined Seamus’s typical lack of coordination, scattershot attention, the darkness, and the ice all working against us.

“No,” he said. “The inspector’s supposed to be here Monday and we need to finish this pronto.” In addition to dealing with a man who was disorganized, forgetful, incoherent, and stumbling, he was now panicked about losing his job.

I carried my tools and other items up to the roof: fasteners, a rotohammer, the one harness that I knew I’d give to the funny journeyman who had to work inside the shaft and needed it more than I did.

Although the thing about a harness and rope is that either you need it or you don’t. You can’t predict the day you’re going to fall.

I put the tools and supplies I thought I’d need within reach so I could minimize walking around on the roof. Seamus got very serious for a moment.


“What?” I was putting handfuls of hit pins in one of my pouches, trying not to seem annoyed.

“SJ!” I stopped and looked up. “I’m going to need you to do something today.”


“I need you to NOT fall down this hole.”

I laughed a little. I couldn’t help it.

“I’m serious!” Seamus said. “I need you to NOT. FALL. DOWN. THIS. HOLE.” He looked like he was having trouble focusing his eyes.

“Ok, Seamus,” I said. I think he was trying be serious and give me a little safety peptalk, but it just sounded silly, like when someone tells you not to die. Great, why didn’t I think of that? I could see the small rectangle of light that was the garage floor at the bottom of the seven storeys.

Seamus was focused in for about 90 minutes, and then started losing it as the sun was coming up, sparkling on the sheets of ice that would be annoying puddles by the afternoon. I could tell he wanted to smoke. He began throwing tools, not at me, but in an uncoordinated manner in my general direction. I was leaning over part of the shaft hole when an extension bit hit me in the thigh.

“Ouch,” I said, more surprised than hurt. I mostly wanted him to know he was throwing things.


The typical trips to his van that had begun on the Maple Leaf site resumed. Tom called me from the other side of the roof and narrated. He told me he watched Seamus walk to his van, dig through the back, walk halfway back to the site, dig through the mess in the front, drink something, walk halfway back again, and resume digging.

“It’s been like this,” I said. “He doesn’t seem safe working around a hole.”

My phone rang and it was the Super. He wanted to know what I had been observing with Seamus and scolded me for not telling him sooner. I mentally shrugged this off since the standards of this company were arbitrarily enforced and people with more authority than me had seen Seamus in action.

“Do you think I should drug test him?” he asked me. I told him I didn’t feel comfortable making that kind of call; I could only tell him what I’d seen.

The Super told me they had a joke about Seamus at the office. One day Super had called Seamus and asked him what site he was currently on, and Seamus said he didn’t know and had to figure it out. The Super and the Owner would call to each other at the office: “What room are you in?” “I don’t know.” I didn’t think this was very funny and wondered out loud if something medical was going on with him.

Super enlisted Tom to come watch Seamus for a bit and get him away from the open hole. Tom was one of those guys who’d been working in his dad’s shop since he was about twelve, so whipped up some flashing quickly while sending Seamus to do something else.

“This shaft has been done all wrong,” Tom said, matter-of-factly. He had more conversations with the Super about Seamus and confirmed what I said: Seamus was acting confused, was uncoordinated, kept disappearing to his van and was drinking something.

In the afternoon, Super came out to deliver the drug testing paperwork. The idea is that the day you are handed paperwork, you go give a urine sample at a clinic on your way home. If there’s an accident or other immediate concern, you leave work and go get tested immediately.

It was Friday and I was glad a long, stressful week had ended. I was in the bathroom bleaching my hair when my phone started being pounded by texts. It was Seamus.

anyway don’t know everything yet but [Superintendent] rifled through my van looking for alcohol none there and said I needed to get a blood alcohol check. So I did and 0.0 is the results….I was sick today.

It’s 5:35 pm and finally made it home

They kept coming in. My hands were in gloves, covered with chemicals, and I was annoyed that he was texting me on a Friday night, so I ignored them. I needed to stay out of things for my own mental health. I figured I would see him Monday or not. Not my problem.

Seamus’s flu seemed to get worse the next week. He was exhausted and pissed off that he had been tested. I don’t think he understood how erratic he seemed. On Monday he still smelled like alcohol, which I found completely perplexing.

On Tuesday Seamus had an alarmingly different look. His face was swollen as if he was on steroids and his skin had taken on a yellowish cast. His eyes were still bloodshot. He was exhausted and made us break early so he could take a nap in one of the units. At the end of break, the other journeyman and I left the room quietly, leaving Seamus snoring slightly. Later that day he found me working alone. He looked upset.

“I gotta go…turn my van in,” he said. “The results came back and I guess they found weed from New Year’s. I’ve been clean since then.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah. Well, see ya around.” He limped out the door.

“Get some rest,” I said.

I was relieved that some action had finally been taken and hoped that Seamus would finally be able to sleep off whatever was going on with him.

Then it was just me and the other journeyman, and thankfully the job was wrapping up. The rest of the week was no drama, pretty boring. On Friday the Super came out to see how we were doing and said we were doing a good job. We chatted briefly about how surprising it was that Seamus had tested clean for alcohol when multiple people had smelled fumes on him.

I got sent to some low-income housing in south Seattle, and worked intermittently since it was still snowing on and off, shutting sites down for a day or two. I worked with another foreman who was the opposite of Seamus in many ways: manic, hyperfocused, super talkative. He took a shine to me immediately because I speak fluent weirdo, and he could install me somewhere and I would work continuously until the task was done and then look for more work. He had been having trouble with apprentices and even some journeymen at this company. As the snow melted I felt a tentative sense of hope that I might get 40 hour paychecks again and even learn something.

In late January I went back to school again for a week, and made sure that I reminded my Super multiple times that I was going, even though he had stopped replying to my emails and texts. One thing I really enjoy about Union work is that at my level there are very few grey areas, so communication tends to be really open. This was just another little piece of uncertainty with this company.

I was working in the school’s shop midweek when a text came in from Tom, the other foreman who was observing Seamus on the day we were finishing the shaft work.

SJ just thought you should know Seamus was found dead in his kitchen today

Later I found out Seamus went home after being fired and took a lot of pills and washed it down with a pint of something. The autopsy showed he was also very ill with an enlarged heart, which he didn’t seem to know about. I tried to find out where his memorial service was going to be, but my Super was still ignoring communications from me. I missed it.

I was really sad for a couple of weeks after that. I had a lot of regrets about being so frozen, and not being my usual busybody self and telling him to go see a doctor, about trying not to listen to the chatter and drama of his life, and not sharing anything about my own life. About assuming that he was just another lost drunk.

I blamed myself for a while. I cried secretly in the mornings before the sun came up while I made my coffee, and it thawed me out a little. I thought about how lonely I was. I thought I needed to get back into the land of the living, to engage with my life even if it sucked right then and I disliked or distrusted most of the people around me. I had been having a run of men saying disgusting things to me, of telling me I was incompetent, of being jerked around. I even worked for a guy who literally just yelled if I tried to talk to him until I would stop.

A couple of weeks later I found a piece of cardboard in my tool bag with some of his chicken scratch on it, an address from one of the many places he’d been sent to and some other notes. He’d probably handed it to me knowing I wouldn’t lose it. I stared at it, thinking about crumpling it up and letting go of it forever. I’m very good at forgetting, about burning letters unopened as a self-preservation technique. This letter arrived open; I could not look away. I put the cardboard in a small, zippered pocket of my tool bag I never use. Keep going, I thought. Wake up. Keep trying. Keep living.

2 thoughts on “Decline and Fall

  1. It has been a rough year! I still follow your writing and enjoy it, and I’m sorry that things are rough and that you’re feeling lonely. I could tell what was going to happen halfway through your post and I felt awful about it. I live halfway around the world, but I’d still be happy to be your friend (used to live in Port Townsend!).

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