washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Below the Beltway
Page 5 of 5  < Back  

NONE OF THE ABOVE

"Here's another nonvoter!" This is how Ted's friend, Troy Ropp, announces his arrival. Troy is 37, with flaming red hair and a backwoods beard. Troy used to work at a Herman Miller furniture factory, but he rose so far he got a semi-management position, and he found it too distasteful to boss people around. So he runs his own tree service now.

I ask him about the election. Troy thinks President Bush made a bad mistake going into Iraq the way he did. There were other ways of solving the Saddam Hussein problem, he says. "They could have took Saddam out with a 50-caliber at 500 yards." Nods all around. A brief discussion of firearms ensues.


Ted Prus, 37, at the Muskegon, Mich., construction company where he works. (J. Carl Ganter)

Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is weingarten@washpost.com. Here is an archive of columns.

Add Below the Beltway to your personal home page.

Troy seems to have given the issues of the day more thought than either Ted or Kim. It occurs to me that what we have here might be a statistical anomaly -- a well-informed nonvoter. I press him on why he's not voting.

"Because I don't think my vote will matter." Plus, he says, politicians are all alike. "Bush is just like . . . " Troy pauses.

" . . . like that guy he's running against."

"You mean Kerry?"

"Yeah."

I look at him, he looks at me. He laughs.

"I would have thought of it if you'd gave me a little time."

On an end table in the living room is a framed picture of a pretty brunette. It's Kim's best friend, Linda, who died last December, suddenly, of a brain aneurysm. Kim can't talk about Linda without tearing up. She'd feel even worse if she weren't sure that Linda is coming back, and she'll meet up with her some day. Some people come back as people, and some people come back as ghosts, Kim says. She knows because she's seen them.

"My old lady sees ghosts," Ted had told me, out in the woods. I hadn't realized he meant it literally.

Kim knows it sounds kooky, but she sees what she sees. She thinks they could be visible to anyone, but you have to have your mind open to them, or they'll float right past. Kim saw her first ghost up close about 15 years ago -- a Victorian-era schoolgirl in high-buttoned shoes. The ghosts are people who died in the houses that they haunt, she believes. Some are mischievous; sometimes, they'll move Slate's toys or Kim's cigarettes.

Kim says she's never been afraid of the ghosts, and in some way even finds them comforting; they are a sign, after all, of a sort of afterworld, that this life isn't all there is. Nothing is final, not even Linda's death.

Ted doesn't see the ghosts, and it wouldn't be fair to say that he humors Kim about it; he simply accepts it as he accepts many things -- good-naturedly and without question. If it makes Kim happy, he says, it's fine with him. He sounds almost envious, the way agnostics sometimes talk about the devout.

The women stay inside, and most of the men repair to the back yard, for more beer and horseshoes and shooting the bull. Ted tells the others how I took a salmon egg right out of the fish's butt and plopped it in my mouth. This meets with some incredulity. I explain that in big-city Japanese restaurants, 10 or 12 of those suckers on a piece of seaweed will sell for $4. There's some derisive laughter, at the expense of big-city idiots.

Ted's friends then start ragging on him, teasing him because he's going to be famous. The cover of a magazine! Ted says the only time he's ever contemplated being on the cover of a magazine was when he was in Tennessee. Down in Gatlinburg, there was this novelty store that would take a picture of you and then put you on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Ted takes all the banter with good grace. Then someone says, "Tell him about how you're afraid of the dark." Ted smiles and nods, but he's got something to attend to in the kitchen.

Afraid of the dark?

It's true, Kim says, laughing. The same guy who isn't scared to yank his tooth out with pliers won't walk into a dark room. At night, she says, if he stays up watching TV, he'll leave the TV and all the lights on, so his path into the bedroom is lit.

And once he's in bed?

"He'll go to bed in the dark if I'm with him. If not, he'll sleep with the lights on."

MONDAY MORNING. It's a workday. Ted meets his co-workers at the small Muskegon garage that serves as headquarters for Brown Concrete Construction Inc. It's a bare-bones, guy kind of place, the only splashes of color being the obligatory 1970s-era pinup posters. One is of a woman wearing only big hair and what appears to be a frilly whalebone corset. There are also a couple of back seats from cars, propped up on the ground, which provide passable couches for slouching.

With Ted are the rest of his team -- Joe McCann, Mike Anderson and Randy Baker. Randy is telling a story about the weekend: He just moved into a nice new neighborhood, and during a meet-the-neighbors night, someone asked him whether he had any particular plans for the back yard. Randy said he was "thinkin' of getting a couple of hogs." All conversation stopped. Randy explained that it was a funny joke, but the wife disagreed, and now Randy's in the doghouse.

Andy Brown, the owner, arrives. Ted is not always great about taking orders from others, but he and Andy get along fine. Andy likes Ted because he's a good, reliable worker, and Ted likes Andy because, even though he's younger and has more money, he's not stuck up. Andy works side by side with his men. "If I've got a shovel in my hand," Ted says appreciatively, "Andy's next to me with a shovel in his."

Fifteen minutes later, Andy and his crew have driven past those Republican cars and buses heading for the airport, and arrived at the big hole in the ground that is to become a garage.

What happens next is mesmerizing. This team of five guys has been working together for so long, there's no need for much gab. They just know what to do. While Ted and the others are breaking down the metal braces that support the newly hardened walls of the garage, Andy is driving a Skidster earth mover, flattening out the dirt floor. Joe runs a plastic drainage tube from the center of the floor through the dirt and out into a gully. Now Mike is pounding stakes into the ground to the level of a string line that Ted and Randy are holding taut, from marks on opposing walls. These are puddle stakes, leveling markers that will tell the men exactly how high the cement should be poured.

Things seem to be happening very quickly, and on a split-second schedule. They finish moments before the cement mixers arrive.

The owner of the property has race cars, and this is to be a giant garage -- room for four cars, at least. The floor is going to require two mixers, each filled to its capacity of nine cubic yards of cement. The whole nine yards.

The whole nine yards. I've lived 53 years and used that expression dozens of times, and this was the first time I had any idea where it might have come from or what it might mean. It's interesting how things that seem to make no sense can suddenly come into focus.

Take Ted's financial troubles. For several days, something was bothering me, and then it hit me. A couple of phone calls to the federal government confirmed what I suspected. As a U.S. Army veteran with an honorable discharge, Ted is eligible for a lifetime of medical care. His income is well below the cutoff point for need.

It's not a handout for which he need feel ashamed -- it's his right, same as anyone else who served his country. Most medical services, from simple doctor's visits to that MRI that will tell Ted if he's got a problem with his brain, are available to veterans for the price of a few dollars' co-payment. Ted's been eligible ever since his discharge in 1988.

When I told Ted this, he was thunderstruck. "It just never crossed my mind," he said.

Here is what crossed my mind:

Like all people who don't vote, Ted has distanced himself to some degree from the society in which he lives. It's symptomatic, I think, of a larger choice he has made. He has willed himself into a certain protective ignorance about the way life works. This intellectual callus might make some things easier to bear, but I'll bet it comes at a cost. The world must be a more terrifying place when you don't know all you can about why things happen the way they do, and why people do what they do, and whether there's anything out there that can leap out at you from the dark.

Still, in some ways I envy Ted. When it comes right down to it, there is something to be said for keeping it simple. There isn't much moral ambiguity, for example, in the birth of a garage. Nothing is abstract. Everything is, you know . . . concrete.

Here come the cement trucks, with their whole nine yards. Andy's work crew has changed into knee boots, and what will follow seems almost a choreographed work, an odd ballet performed by hairy guys in T-shirts and overalls.

The mixer, with a long delivery chute, moves in like a lumbering elephant, its trunk swaying left and right, depositing wet cement. Randy, Ted and Andy work expertly around it, wading through the goo, each with a 2-by-4, smoothing the cement into place, precisely to the level of those puddle stakes and, somehow, not a millimeter higher.

A mile away, George Bush strides to the lectern, to thunderous applause. He urges the Republican crowd to get everyone out to vote for him, for a safer America. This wasn't billed as a campaign event, exactly, but nobody seems to mind. "Step one," says the president, "is to remind your friends and neighbors that we have an obligation in a free society to participate."

The elephant-truck slowly backs away as the men continue to smooth the cement in place; as they work, an interesting alchemy plays out: The pebbly pieces begin to flatten and sink, so what first resembled wet gravel turns into oatmeal and then, slowly, into a surface as smooth as a table top.

The men are working quickly; they have to.

Across town, Bush is busy mispronouncing the name of his "friend," the local Republican congressman, Peter Hoekstra. No matter. The crowd loves him. "Four more years! Four more years!"

The second truck is gone now, and the finishing work begins. Mike whacks the puddle stakes down into the cement, so there's no sign they were ever there. With big flat hoes on 20-foot handles, Ted and Joe stand at the periphery, beyond the walls, and begin smoothing the surface even more, testing it with practiced hands, feeling for the right moment for the final cosmetic step.

Bush is mostly steering clear of the declared topic of the day, health care. It's a complicated, nuanced issue -- no match for the sexier topics of national security and tax relief, which is where the president mostly stays. We are winning the war on terror, he says, and the place goes wild. The economy is strengthening, he proclaims, with dubious authority but to raucous applause. One Republican stalwart stands to say he's mad at the president. Deadpan, Bush asks him why. Because America didn't get to enjoy his great policies over the last 30 years, the man says, and everyone cracks up in bonhomie.

With pads for their knees, Ted, Randy, Andy, Joe and Mike cautiously step onto the surface. It's just right; unyielding, but still chalky atop. They work purposefully, squatting down, buffing the surface with steel trowels, evening out any little pocks or lines. This is the final touch, and when they are done they have turned what was a pit of dirt two hours ago into a garage floor with a surface as slick as a hockey rink. It's simply perfect.

Gene Weingarten is a Magazine staff writer. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.


< Back  1 2 3 4 5

© 2004 The Washington Post Company