michael michael michael

Blue Collar, Blue Scrubs BLUE COLLAR, BLUE SCRUBS

"Our ears are battered by the thunder of the jackhammer. Our noses, thick with filtered grime, can still smell the sweet exhaust from the compressor running wide-open next to us. Our throats and tongues are dry and raspy from inhaling the desiccating clouds of limestone. Little pieces of grit coat our skin. We can feel them in our hair, under our shirts, down our pants, in our boots. They flow in rivulets of sweat that drop from our chins and wrists.

As I heave another piece of concrete onto the truck, I glance back to the spot where, twenty feet away, Rosie is bent over to pick up the next rock. The sun is behind him, and as the sunlight filters through the soot and dust, it catches a drop of sweat poised on the tip of his chin. Time stops for a moment as the drop glistens in the thick, dusty air. The glimmering bead of sweat looks so startlingly fresh and pure as it hovers there, swells and then drops to the ground."

"Being from a family like mine makes things difficult. I am surrounded by such good people—so good that it is intimidating. Everywhere I look there is some larger than life, legendary character: my father's father, the alcoholic, who beat the booze; my mother's father who left the family farm at age 13 to seek his fortune in British Columbia; my uncle, a tail gunner on a B-17 who got killed in the war; another uncle who carried a machine gun in Patton's third army—typical West Side guys whose toughness in fights, whose valor in the war, whose exploits on the gridiron, whose devotion to their families have set the bar so high that I wonder if I will ever measure up.

But I don't really allow myself to think much about it. It's easier to throw rocks and drink beer. The problem is that I've been throwing rocks and drinking beer for too long, and more and more I find myself longing to involve myself in something bigger, something more meaningful.

I just don't know what that would be."

"He raises his bloodshot eyes and fixes them on me. "I'm tellin' you God's own truth. You don't wanna listen, that's your business, but don't you fuck with me. I'm too old to be fucked with. And pretty soon you be old, too. And there ain't nothin' you can do about it. But you can do somethin' about this." He gestures around us. "You can spend your life on the breakout gang throwin' rocks like the rest of us no account fools, sweatin' our lives away, waitin' to be throwed on the junk pile—or you can get out before it's too late.""

"Okay. So I have to go back and take some pre-med courses. That's doable. But then I think, What am I, nuts? Taking all those pre-med courses is not something I could knock off in a few weeks. I'd have to go back to school for two years! All that work, all that tuition, all that time—on the outside chance that some medical school might let me in?

It's too bad I didn't take those science courses in college. It's too bad I didn't major in pre-med. It's too bad I didn't do a lot of things—but I didn't, and that's that. Get over it. It's time to accept the fact that this door is closed. It's time to move on.

But I can't move on. I try, but I can't, and now I'm stuck with this stupid, hopeless dream of becoming a doctor. I'm about to throw away two years of my life chasing a dream that has very little chance of coming true.

Well, no one's holding a gun to my head. No one is saying I have to do this.

But a line from Tennyson keeps running through my head. "Tis not too late to seek a newer world," the aging Ulysses tells his men.

Maybe, just maybe, it's not too late for me, either."

"This whole decision about going to medical school is harder than I thought—and I haven't even done anything yet. I'm not sure I even have the tools to make the decision. What do I know about medicine? What do I know about anything? I'm in uncharted territory. I'm the octopus who wants to fly—it's not like he has a lot of other flying octopuses he can go to for advice. I can't just walk into some office somewhere and exchange my pick and shovel for a stethoscope and a reflex hammer.

Today at lunch I see a dragonfly, a big, old, hoary prehistoric-looking thing that has no business living in the twentieth century. It looks like some fossil you would see etched in a sedimentary rock on the banks of the Tigris or Euphrates. Its body is so bulky, so ungainly, so primitive, that even when I see it in the air, I can't believe it can fly. I watch it for a while as it hovers then darts around the edge of the canal, unconcerned that it is ugly, unconcerned that it shouldn't be able to fly, and unconcerned that, by rights, it should have been extinct centuries ago."

"I have a long road ahead of me, going back to college for two more years. It seems like an eternity. I have to take four tough science courses, and I have no background in science. It all seems so improbable, so incredibly risky. What if I go through all that and still don't get into medical school? After all, who's going to want some Joe Schmoe construction worker in their medical program? Just because the octopus takes flying lessons doesn't mean anyone's going to give him a pilot's license.

But it's a challenge, just like breaking out two thousand feet of concrete in one day. I have to forget the distractions, forget the pain, forget the logic. I have to put my head down and work.

Asses and elbows, I think. Asses and elbows."

"I knew this stuff would be hard—but not this hard. I am becoming almost paranoid about studying, deathly afraid that I must master every nuance of every footnote of every sub text in every book. But time is a limited resource and I have to learn to be better about rationing mine. I spend four days studying my brains out for a 10-point quiz only to realize that I have a two-hundred point test coming up two days later.

It's one thing to tell yourself that you have to memorize everything on this page. You can do that. But try to tell yourself that you have to memorize everything on these forty pages. You threaten yourself. You flog yourself. You tell yourself you are a gutless wimp if you don't master these pages. You know there is a limit to what you can demand of yourself, but lowering your standards is not going to get you into medical school.

Nothing matters, nothing. Not your friends, not common sense, not exhaustion, not the verbalized concern of your parents, nor the concern-masked-as-ridicule of your brothers. They don't get it, you tell yourself. They don't realize that if you don't master this stuff you are screwed. If you don't get a 96 or more on this test then you won't get an A for this quarter which means you won't get an A for the semester which means you won't get into medical school, which means you have failed. And you have invested so much time and energy into this quest that to fail means everything. Fail and you might as well jump off a bridge."

"I close the library, not just most nights, but every night. I walk home through silent streets, wondering where all the snow went, wondering when the trees started to bud. Over the past three months there have been blizzards and tornados and eclipses. Water mains have burst in my own neighborhood. Wars have been fought in Asia and Northern Ireland. Planes have crashed in Europe.

Revolutions have occurred in South America; and I know nothing of any of it. Nothing matters to me anymore except beating the shit out of chemistry and physics. That's what it has become for me. Those courses aren't stepping stones or pathways, they are mortal enemies. I hate them. I want to destroy them. I will fight them with every bit of strength and courage I have; for if I don't, if I let them win, I am done. My dream is over."

"I've learned a lot of things at Scalese, things they never taught me at Notre Dame. I am twenty-four years old, five-eleven, 190 pounds. At one time I thought I was pretty hot stuff. But I didn't know what tough was until I started working here. Not one man in a hundred walking the streets of Chicago would last a day out here throwing rocks, but Scalese has a dozen of them: young, strong, intemperate, spoiling for a fight, ready to accept any challenge. There are guys here who stand five-six, weigh a hundred and forty pounds, and can outwork, outdrink, outswear, and outfight me and ten guys like me any day of the week."

"That night was my introduction to a remarkable world—not just of alcohol, but of the companionship of working men. At O'Dea's there are alcoholics who come for the booze, and teetotalers who come for the camaraderie. There are single men on the prowl, and old bachelors who stammer and blush on the rare occasion when a woman comes in. There are carpenters who can recite great swaths of Shakespeare, and ironworkers who think Chekhov is something you do in the bathroom late at night when no one is around."

Mike Collins ©