In college I landscaped for the University of Michigan Grounds Department, working with a grounds crew of girls my age—other students at the university who, like me, wanted a campus job, but not one involving a cubicle with a computer and fluorescent lights pulsing overhead. During the warm months, we were responsible for planting and weeding the flower beds outside of the buildings, and sometimes inside, in the case of the odd courtyard garden. While our friends pursued internships in air-conditioned city buildings, or lounged around their parents’ suburban pools, we stuck around Ann Arbor and spent our summer days hot and dirty, in mandated steel-toed boots. After work it wasn’t uncommon to run into a crewmate walking around town in a skirt or a flowery little dress, or something pink—which was strange, because we were all sort of tomboys, but it was as though spending so much time in dirty work pants forced us to compensate with an ultra-feminine transformation once we got home.
While we student workers lived near campus, the permanent workers typically commuted up to an hour each way, driving in from small rural towns for the perks and benefits of a full-time university job. These men—and they were mostly men—drove American cars, hunted, and wore things like Detroit Lions hats and NASCAR T-shirts. We were thrilled by their rugged working-class maleness, so different from the guys we palled around with at school. We circled them warily at first—sitting separately in the break room, avoiding eye contact—but before long came jokes and nicknames, and once on a lunch break a guy named Tom drove me through campus in his overpowered black Pontiac, speeding down the straightaways to show me what the car could do.
And it went both ways; this exoticizing was mutual, their fascination and wonderment just as acute as ours. They stared and flirted with impunity, making no secret of the way they talked about us—these college girls, these mouthy young women who used bigger words than necessary, who drove foreign cars and relished the opportunity to learn about and handle tools, machines, and heavy equipment. For the men, these things were as normal as a toothbrush or a remote control. Did they know that the bulk of us had been raised by soft-handed middle-class men with neither the skills nor inclination to maintain and repair things? Our fathers were intellectuals and hippies, paper-pushers and bureaucrats, men who had worked hard to separate themselves from the manual labor legacy of their forebears.
We called them RGs, for “regular guys,” and they undoubtedly called us something equally objectifying, likely far more crass. We flirted with them in what we probably imagined to be oblique and understated ways. After our morning breaks finished, we idled in our truck before leaving the yard, watching them in the shop as they ran mower blades along a grinding wheel, sending out a terrific bursts of sparks. We admired the way the RGs manipulated the backhoe with a surgeon’s precision, lifting a load of dirt or gravel from one area and moving it delicately to another without dropping a bit. As part-timers we were only allowed to use the front-end and skid loaders, the smaller pieces of heavy equipment for which a commercial driver’s license wasn’t required. We hoisted warm lumpy buckets full of mulch from the big piles behind the shop, dumping them into the back of our truck, sometimes miscalculating and hitting the bucket against the truck’s ladder rack with a tremendous clang. This kind of thing was particularly nerve-wracking if the RGs were anywhere within earshot, because as much as we enjoyed charming and perplexing them, we were all fairly earnest young feminists who in many ways didn’t want to be treated like girls. Even if in other ways we did.
As we set the table, I said to Drew’s mother: “I hear your husband’s a master plumber,” in a bright tone that I’d meant to convey: It’s nice when men are good at things.One of the RGs was a middle-aged divorcé with a Tom Selleck moustache who, as the story went, had been caught by his wife in a bowling alley parking lot in a compromising situation with one of our predecessors. A bowling alley parking lot. Was this guy for real? Had he been so overcome with lust and so devoid of good judgment that he made it with her in a car outside of the Bowl-a-Rama? Uncanny. We loved it.
One night we invited the bowling-alley guy and a handful of the younger RGs to hang out with us after work. I remember how shy and awkward these hulking muscled men suddenly seemed, perched on second-hand folding chairs on the porch of a college apartment on a campus they maintained. We plied them with beer and questions, demanded to know what they said about us, in their trucks and in the break room. Nervously they went around the circle and enumerated our virtues one by one: Great lips. Nice upstairs. And to a pair of girls who were friends but bore absolutely no physical resemblance to one another: We thought you two were sisters (beat) and that was kind of hot.
A couple of them came to another party a few weeks later, and we drank beer and kissed them. The shorter and nicer of the two put his arms around me in the kitchen and said: “I want to come into town and hang out with you alone sometime,” and I just smiled and said nothing. The taller one got drunk and pushy in a way that made one of our friends uncomfortable, and I remember her emerging from a bedroom with a look on her face that broadcast not so much fear as irritation, unused as she was to boys trying to overstep physical bounds. The boys we hung around with were kind of arty and sexually ineffectual, and generally waited for us to make the first move.
I dated an RG one summer. His name was Drew, and he worked in the produce department of a grocery store where our grounds crew regularly stopped during lunch breaks, to grab food and cool off in the air conditioning. For several weeks that summer we drove around in his truck and listened to country music, and hung out with his best friends: a couple my age who already had a baby, something that seemed to me at once remarkable and terrifying. On the Fourth of July, we watched fireworks in a small town at the house of one of his co-workers, where the television blared audience-less in the living room, and kids streamed in and out of doors and jumped on a trampoline in the backyard, and our habits and views were repeatedly referred to using the adjective “city.” As in: You’re so city.
I went to his parents’ for dinner one night, in a small house in a suburb of Detroit, with lots of pictures of Drew and his siblings on the walls. His father was a master plumber, and when Drew told me this I thought it simply meant that his Dad was good at plumbing, like that if something went wrong around the house he could fix it, no problem—he was a master. As we set the table, I said to Drew’s mother: “I hear your husband’s a master plumber,” in a bright tone that I’d meant to convey: It’s nice when men are good at things. “He is,” she responded, in what I would later recognize as having been a matter-of-fact restatement of the obvious. She went back to setting down forks, and we finished setting the table in silence.
I don’t know when I learned that a master plumber was a professional distinction, and not just a household honorific, but I still cringe when I think about how ridiculous I must have sounded to her. And I wonder whether she’d felt suspicious and protective from the get-go, and later said to him I told you so and encouraged him to call the daughter of a friend of hers from work.
It didn’t last. Though Drew was funnier, kinder, and had far more integrity than most of the slightly jerky, bookish guys I’d dated previously—and whom I continued to date for the next several years—he didn’t have any immediate plans to go to college, and didn’t have the same questions and concerns about the world as me. And in the crudest terms that make me shake my head disapprovingly at the hubris of my younger self, he didn’t read enough. Partway through our courtship, he began to bring over a paperback copy of Emerson to my apartment on nights when he slept over, as though guessing that a lack of interest in books could be a deal-breaker for me. But he never read it, because who would, especially on a summer night in your early 20s with a new girlfriend? I figured the book for an unread relic from a community college class, and the poignancy of the gesture made me want to cry. Despite my insistence to myself and others that these things didn’t matter, they did.
My grounds crew stopped going to the store where Drew worked, my crewmates sensitive to the awkwardness of the situation, and sufficiently flexible in their lunchtime destinations. As our paths now had no reason to cross, I never saw Drew again. He remains a haunting presence, though, in the sense that I’m pretty sure I wronged him, and that I was, at the time, so enthralled by what I perceived as my burgeoning sexual allure that I cast him aside more carelessly than I should have. I immediately started dating a friend’s older brother, an urban planner who lived in Detroit and knew a lot about techno music.
In wintertime, we shoveled the snow that blew in from the Great Lakes, covering the campus in unwieldy white drifts. We salted the walks and cleared the staircases and wheelchair ramps that led up to the buildings. We wore navy blue jumpsuits to protect our bodies from the cold and our clothes from the salt, rummaging among the stacks at the university’s stores to find small sizes that would fit us. On certain blizzardy mornings we started at 4:30, earning a few hours of overtime. At 7:00 we stopped for breakfast at a diner near campus that served early-morning Hunters’ Specials, and jockeyed for spots at the counter with the guys who’d been out plowing. Time-and-a-half put everyone in a good mood and we joked loudly and generally made our presence known, we, this motley crew of burly RGs and co-eds in our too-big jumpsuits, a pile of snow-sodden hats and gloves piled steamily in the center of each table.
On those winter mornings, the falling snow silenced everything but the scraping of our shovels and the sound of salt skittering across the newly exposed surfaces. I was clearing off a patio that ran the length of the practice rooms outside of the Music School, and I remember pushing my shovel along in a steady line, and the way that the grating rush of metal against cement was momentarily and beautifully punctuated by the contents of each room I passed. And so a fragment of an aria would give way to a virtuosic passage on the piano and then a soaring cello melody and on and on for as many practice rooms as there were, each perfectly soundproofed from one another, but pouring out music through the glass that separated me from them. I walked in one direction, then listened in reverse as I shoveled another line back towards where I’d started. It was like walking past a series of discrete but connected snapshots offering only a momentary flash of the sublime that was being created inside. And as one sound faded another began, but they never overlapped.