The Holy Trades
In the old days, the community’s holy proprietors influenced every aspect of each member’s life. Your work assignment was the first mandate handed out to the incoming spiritual seekers, former addicts, and repentant criminals. Able to check all the above boxes on my spiritual resume, I was placed on an outside work crew as soon as possible.
Your holy job from the Lord was non-negotiable. Our back-breaking work supported the commune’s religious work amongst the poor and the handful of disciples in the community to whom God had assigned a loftier role. When not hugging the poor, these secret saints pedaled the Consumer Stone magazine, a religious pulp fiction periodical printed whenever the staff felt led to work.
Only those with creative talent were given vocations to match their heavenly bestowed gifts. For those of us assigned to the commune’s roofing crew, lack of brains and spiritual incorrigibility appeared to be the leading prerequisites for selection. Driving to work, sitting in the back of the roofing truck in the middle of winter, I dreamed of being one of those saints.
When you work in the construction trades, the elements influence every aspect of the job. Extreme temperatures on either end of the thermometer can warrant layering multiple garments for warmth or working butt naked. Even using the restroom with numerous zippers could be a matter of life and death. Without the proper clearance, a careless zip could sever a finger or worse. As painful as that sounds, it would pale compared to the brutal taunting you will take from your fellow workers.
Unable to endure the elements, the weak threw in their towels, becoming fodder for Jakefront, the dreaded building supply business. Owned by one of the great money changers of mythical lore, Tock ran his prison on gallons of free coffee and stale donuts. Within weeks of incarceration, the strong and tough became soft and weak. Strong-arming the prisoners with visions of the poor and Old Testament threats, the disciples obeyed Tock’s will when he was in hearing distance.
For those chosen by the Lord to live a life of hard labor, we battled the weather, the job, and each other, but we always drove home as friends. No matter the temperature, the friction of laughter, usually at someone else’s expense, has kept us warm and bonded for years.
My introduction to the holy trades was spending many summers on the city’s roofs mopping hot tar for Jesus. Sweating and tanning for God, we protected the town from satanic water damage. We worked hard for the Lord, especially when Zeus, God’s appointed musclebound foreman, was watching us.
The penalty for slacking was a physical beatdown; only hardened criminals could survive. Standing on the edge of the roof for a quick gulp of Gatorade, Zeus’ long hair and beard blew in the wind of Lake Michigan. His eyes never stopped; he could smell laziness a mile away.
Zeus was unstoppable in his pursuit of aesthetic waterproofing beauty. He had a feminine touch with the torch for a tough guy, a real artist applying modified bitumen products. A disciple of the Lord and powerlifting, Zeus was the head of the community’s anti-bodybuilding movement. They talked a lot of crap about bodybuilding, publicly mocking Arnold Schwarzenegger at every chance. The community’s powerlifting faction even insinuated that it was bodybuilding “activities” that doomed Sodom and Gomorrah.
Zeus loved to work. He screamed this mantra of hard labor to those not so inclined at the moment. We whispered amongst ourselves that he also used his religion of hard work as an excuse to avoid going home to his wife. Secretly anointed Jarbella the Hun by the community’s fearful, she kept Zeus on a tight leash. After putting their kids to bed, the door of Jarbella’s country living dungeon closed shut. We prayed for Zeus all night, breathing a sigh of relief when he showed up at breakfast the next morning. We never mentioned Jarbella’s moniker in public for fear of Zeus. Even the Incredible Hulk had to be concerned with a slip of the tongue.
Within days of entering the community, every single brother learned to avoid the food donation room down in the dingy basement. Jarbella tried to rule the room with an iron fist. Only Karina, an energetic African American woman, kept Jarbella in her place. Karina was the queen of donations. Her hoarding and carbohydrate kingdom infuriated the Hun, making a chance encounter with Jarbella in the basement even more deadly.
The verbal beating and conjuring of fear would make your life a living hell. Statistically, it was safer to mop five-hundred-degree tar in Daisy Duke shorts and bare feet than to be on the wrong side of Jarbella.
On long and brutal work days, our holy labor would dwindle into long bullshit sessions at the water cooler, followed by even longer bathroom breaks. Even Zeus was ready to revolt after a pseudo-hippy freeloader from Arkansas carelessly burned off his prized beard with a propane torch. After Zeus crushed the slacker, he incited mob rule in the shadow of the water cooler.
Zeus’ stories of revolution still float above the north side of the city. When word of our sinful insurrection made it up to the community’s pastors, they called a secret meeting in the dark tower. Only frequent deliveries from Uptown Restaurant and Siam Cafe interrupted the pastor’s fiery discourse and prayer.
When word finally came down from the top, we were to meet after dinner. I was downright scared. Fearing it was my last meal in the kingdom, I ran up to the greasy corner spoon for the last meal of pizza and hotdogs. Filing into the small room used during the day as a kindergarten for the community, we sat on children’s chairs and benches. A few pastors and our roofing boss from Central America sat at a long table. The Brown Noses, the zealous muscle of the pastors, guarded the exits.
After a lengthy prayer, a tall African American pastor slowly stood. One of the community’s beloved pastors, Don, was from a small church on the city’s south side. He and his wife joined the northside Jesus Corporation before I arrived in 1985. Don had the tough job of delivering bad news. He kindly laid out the heinous acts of our sinful sedition.
Threatened with eternal damnation for attempting to destabilize Nirvana, we publically repented. Walking back to my dorm room, I hoped the Lord wouldn’t come back while I slept so I could prove myself worthy again. Inadvertently, we would buckle down for a bit, but our active servanthood would only last until the next week of one-hundred-degree days.
Lying under the roofing truck to find the only shade, we ate a smashed stack of government peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches. Nobody talked; the government-issued peanut butter caked our tongues, making it hard to form words. In silence, we cohesively prayed for a month of rain to rival any biblical plague.
As the sun began to set on the horizon, Zeus would call the day. We would race down the ladders with malicious intent. Running to the beat-up truck packed with tools and rolls of roofing felt, we fought for a prized seat in the squished cab. The hairy driver, Berry, would pick the winner forcing the rest of us into the back of the truck.
Known As the King, Berry resembled a cross between a Hell’s Angels biker and Sasquatch. The King drove away without warning, sending dirt and gravel everywhere. Drinking cup after cup of warm Gatorade to ward off leg cramps, we rolled through the north side of the city. Using a megaphone lifted from the church’s event closet, we peppered the startled pedestrians with off-the-cuff remarks.
Pulling in front of the commune’s main building, we jumped off the roofing trucks creating a scene. The scared neighbors ran inside their sketchy six-flats, and our fellow disciples in the front yard chided us with insults. We rambled through the busy lobby guarded by a massive dog as old as Moses to get to the packed dining room, praying that it wasn’t Three-Bean-Bake again.
Moving to the carpentry crew made me feel like a real person in the commune. Members began to say hello, and some even remembered my first name. I loved being a carpenter and still own my first hammer. With carpentry being the last vocation for Jesus, the pressure to perform excellent work and save the world at the same time could be downright exhausting.
In the holy trades, the electricians sit on top of the mountain. They work with intelligent-looking tools and handle high voltages that can kill you. Electricians give carpenters a free pass at the donuts due to our ability to patch the holes they continually make in the drywall. Roofers sit on the construction fringe due to waterproofing’s importance but must live outside the city’s gates. Plumbers stand alone because they wade in poop for a living. The trades possess powerful magic, creating a camaraderie that lasts generations. War and prison run a close second and third.
At the end of a long day, with the sun setting on the lip of the city, you unbuckle your heavy tool belt and breath. Walking off the job site, you leave a little piece of yourself. Though on a bad day, you could easily rationalize why Jesus chose crucifixion over pounding nails.
On the cusp of taking over my own truck, the community’s leaders called us down to the dining room. We thought it was another pep talk. Entering the quiet dining room, the commune’s business gurus sat at the head table between the church’s pastoral bookends. Noticing something was amiss, we finished our breakfasts in silence. Tock, the infamous snake charmer, stood, weaving a vision of endless treasures that would be created by closing the outside work crews and expanding Jakefront, the church’s building supply penitentiary.
Tock continued his passionate plea, mesmerizing the ordained powers and the company brown noses who helped fan the stench of discipleship. When the authorities handed down God’s will, they determined that I was more valuable to God by selling building supplies than following His son’s vocation and saving the world.
With our sentences dealt, I rambled out to the truck with the other prisoners in a daze. Those with an aptitude for building boxes performed their sentence at the cabinet shop. Run by a fanatical German, the prisoners under his tutelage became some of the world’s best box builders. A few third-world countries have even recognized their work.
With our final days together dwindling, we began removing various tools from the trucks if we had to make a break for it and build something. With possession still being nine-tenths of the law in Chicago, we felt that Jesus supported our heists.
Months later, while sitting in my sales cubicle at the building supply store, I tried to pull a splinter out of my finger. Picked up from a warped 2X4 in the warehouse, I notice how soft my hands have grown. Feeling vulnerable, I look up at a picture of Jesus over my desk and repent. I promise that I will wear work boots on my next day off.
Then it hits me, why would Jesus choose to be a carpenter, a job customarily negated to those not up for the collegiate lifestyle in an intellectual sense? Jesus’ GPA in high school must have been stellar unless he chose to get bad grades to fit in with his future disciples.
I can see the teacher lounge at Nazareth High, all the teachers sitting on worn couches having coffee and bagels, talking about the upcoming year.
Bursting into the lounge, a peppy Jewish lady yells, “I have Jesus this year!” The other teacher's nod and smile in affirmation. The math teacher remarks, “I’m so jealous; I had the Lord in Calculus last semester, He’s so kind, and all semester, I was never sick or hungry.”
A pretty teacher puts down her coffee, “I don’t know, Jesus is great, but I felt He was judging me every morning.” A few teachers smile, holding back chuckles.
“What’s so funny,” the teacher asks. An older pretentious busybody chirps in,
“Maybe it’s because you’re committing adultery with the janitor in his chariot before school.”
The young teacher jumps up, “How would Jesus know that?” The lounge grows silent; one by one, the teachers burst into laughter.
The lounge door opens. Walking in, Harriet, a middle-aged teacher, looks scared. She places her food into the full refrigerator. The other teacher’s laughter ceases, and they avoid eye contact with Harriet.
Under his breath, the math teacher whispers, “She has Satan this semester.” Shaking their heads, one teacher speaks up, her voice trembling, “I had Satan last year; he’s, he’s such an asshole.”
Centuries later, I can understand the Lord’s decision to leave the trades. Jesus helped create the whole universe in six days; how could He spend eternity in a cubicle?