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work safe or die trying final

For a while there I was driving like a serial killer. No music on. Car stereo off. Hands on the steering wheel and just thinking about whatever book I was writing as I approached my construction site. My commute isn’t that long, and it felt good to have that half hour of silence. I usually planned out what I was going to write on my cellphone during my coffee break and my lunch break. 

The work day goes by in a blink. And all day every day there is the noise of steam and machines and people talking and joking.

Writing a novel is like playing pinball. You flail around. Some things you react to. Other things are out of your control. Have fun. 

One thing I can control is finding a few minutes of silence. A few minutes to ‘make something’. There probably is too much thinking about it, and not doing enough of it (insert any pet creative pursuit), but there’s also so much clatter and wind and distraction happening all day every day that a conscious effort has to be made to find spots to fit in the quiet, the thought, let alone the actual making of the art. I try to find a window here and there where there’s nothing but the sound of my own heart, my breathe, etc. Reset button. My car is loud though, it’ll explode any day now. 

For a while, I liked to drive with the window up and the world quiet as I rolled along in the darkness, not in the fast lane–the middle lane, not caring who passed at a faster speed in the lane next to me, not minding who I came up behind and slowed me down. The point of the quiet drive was to zone out, check out, vanish, disappear. If someone driving ahead of me on the highway slowed me down that was a blessing. I might make it to work fifteen minutes early. I make make it there zero minutes early. I might make it there fifteen minutes late. It didn’t matter.  Much of the world is out of my control and I need new tires, printer ink, ideas that aren’t made of unmalleable lead, dopamine flooding the neural pathways by itself, birds to return to the winter trees, warm socks-not wet from the dryer, patience, the sound of traffic rising and falling like perfect waves.

Every morning I’ve ever commuted out of NYC, I’ve walked down the steps in my building with a ceramic coffee cup in my hand. This is before sunrise. This is when I’m practically the only person on the road and everyone is streaming into the city as I am driving out of it. When all the other people in my building are sleeping and I feel like a ghost in this prewar building (I should read my book in the fallout shelter). Walking down the stairs, work boots echoing off the marble, I feel like I’m waking all of them up. 

I used to have a cartoon shark mug that said Florida on it. But one day I put the mug on top of the car for a second and when I started driving away, I’d forgotten all about the mug. I like to think I at least got over the George Washington Bridge with the mug still on the roof of my car. The the mug smashed into dust across the Jersey line.  Here’s why I use a ceramic coffee cup instead of a travel mug: ceramic coffee cups clank together in the car if I leave more than one or two in there and I’ll take them out of the car to get rid of the noise. Also, I won’t wash a travel mug, it’ll just sit there with a little bit of left over coffee and milk and sugar in it and when I finally find the travel mug in my back seat, I’ll have to throw it away because there will be a biohazard growing in it. Here’s another thing I do: I buy tupperware and throw it away after each use. 1/4 of my yearly salary is spent on tupperwear I don’t reuse. Namaste, man. 

Here’s why I sometimes get up at 3:30am to write instead of 4am when I get up for work: it’s quiet on the earth and something like a dream slips in. Half asleep and not caring if it all makes sense. Figuring it out later. 

I had a talk on the phone last night with a friend who lives in Colorado and we talked about writing a novel, and how it doesn’t matter how good you make the first draft. Just that you get to the end of the first draft. Every book I’ve ever written, I’ve fixed them up in two or three or four passes. No matter how you get the first draft done: one long blitz of a week where that’s all you do, waking up earlier in the morning and writing before work, doing it on your lunch breaks consistently … All it matters is you actually do it. 

On the way into work, I try to watch the sunrise.

Sometimes I watch the sunrise and it’s real nice.

Other times the sunrise sucks balls.

But each time, it’s a sunrise. And that means we lost another night. That another day is on its way. 

I drive my car down the New Jersey turnpike and can’t help when all the ugliness out the window becomes rose tinted and glimmering, and actually makes me happy to be on my way to my job.

I’m back with the music now. I’m not doing the silent serial killer drive. I’ve got my stereo going loud. And I’m singing along loud. This morning I was listening to Paul Simon sing the song Obvious Child. He went to Brazil and recorded Afro-Brazilian people playing hypnotic drum cadences and then sang a sweet and sad song about how life is made of a zillion forks in the road and you never know what could have been, but also the present is beautiful because you made it. You survived. It’s like each time the sun comes up, you can look out the window if you’re feeling extra corny you can go, “Ah look at that, another night is over, but I survived.”

I played that song and I played it again and the sun poked up over smoke stacks. The sun poked up over the Meadowlands, Giants Stadium. The sun changes the black to purple and the purple to blue and blue and blue until the clouds weren’t dark spots on an orange sky. Weren’t gray on a pink sheet.

My car has 133,000 miles but I’m going to get to 200,000 and if I get to 200,000 I’m going to try and get to 300,000. Nothing shiny and new is going to make my life any better.

I passed the toll plaza where I got in that horrible accident last year and I’m not sure if I ever told you about that.

I was driving along, approaching that tollbooth, a tractor trailer was in the lane next to me. A car driving slightly in front of the tractor trailer, but two lanes over from me. The woman driving the silver Nissan did a U Turn in front of the toll plaza at about 35 miles per hour, trying to cut across three lanes of traffic, to go back the other way, south instead of north. I hit her, T-boned, front of my car crashing in her driver side. But we were alright. There on the side of turnpike. The other drivers zipping by like flashes. And the old woman weeping. She sat in my car and we waited for the cops to come. We listened to the stereo.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“It doesn’t matter, it’s just a car. I don’t know what I was thinking either.”

When the cop finally came, he was a real tough piece of shit. When the lady explained to him that it was her fault, she was trying to do a U-Turn, he said he was going to cut up her license. But that didn’t happen. A wrecker came for her car. I was able to bend my aluminum fender off my tire and drive my car to the body shop. I’m happy the air bags didn’t go off. The air bags fuck you up. The sun went down, dipping behind the strip malls and savage yards, the bridges to here and away from here, the Arthur Kill River, the refinery, the port, me, you, everybody we know. 

Sometimes at my job, I work night shift. I work outside. So I’m out there in the sunset. And usually up in the air, overlooking all the surrounding cities. Linden, NJ. Newark. Elizabeth. Jersey City. Staten Island. New York City in the distance. I watch the daylight go away and the electric lights rise up from the houses, the streets, the lights out on the highway. The skyscrapers marking the edge of the edge. But sometimes at my job, I’ll be working in an area that’s not too lit up by anything more than the moon. Midnight crawls by. 2 am. 3 am. 4 am. And then there it is in the smallest increment, the light returning. The sunrise coming. And there’s the day. There it is. Say ‘Hi there, new day.’

You can stay up all night long and wait to see the sunrise or you can just wake up an hour before it happens and watch it. Those things are not the same.  

Bud Smith
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About The Author

Bud Smith

Wrote: F250, Tollbooth, Calm Face, Dust Bunny City, among others. Lives in Jersey City, NJ. Works heavy construction.

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