It was summer. I was working with Johnny Ragucci over at the Harbor Towers on one of the 250 horsepower boilers. There was some problem with it. I don’t know what. And I didn’t know what then either because I was just a first-year apprentice. Nor did I know why they needed a boiler in the summertime. Anyway, John was hopscotching across the electrical terminals with his multi-meter. I didn’t know why. When I interviewed for the job, the service manager, a friend of my father’s, asked what I knew about electrical. I told him I didn’t know anything. He laughed. “Just that a motor has two wires coming out of it. Right?”
I said, “Yeah.”
But I lied. I didn’t even know that.
After Johnny got the boiler going, he asked if I wanted to go get something to eat “over at Senantinees.” “Senantinees,” he said, with the emphasis on the second syllable. I didn’t know what Senantinees was, but I said, “Okay.” We hopped in his cargo van and drove over to the North End, where Jonny lived. He told me a story about the time his truck got ripped off. “It was sittin’ right in front of my place,” he said. “And some little fucking punks in the neighborhood stole it. And I thought, ‘Okay. Fuck it. They can have it this once.’ They found the truck down in Jamaica Plain. Empty. Right? So I get all my shit replaced by the insurance company except better shit than I had in the first place. And I’m good to go. Right? And then the little fucking punks do it again. And I know who they were. And they know I know. So, I put the word out on the street. ‘Bring my truck back with all the tools in it. Now. Or else.’ Right?” The next day, he told me, his truck was sitting in front of his place again. Good as new. All the tools present and accounted for. Because, you see, Johnny Ragucci was what you’d call “connected.” And he lived in the North End, at the time an almost exclusively Italian neighborhood, the safest neighborhood in the city.
He parked his van in the empty spot in front of a hydrant and we walked along Hanover Street which was crowded with people. There was some kind of festival going on with music and loud conversation and the smell of grilling sausage all around. “What’s going on?” I said.
“Senantinees,” said Johnny.
A banner on a nearby building read “Saint Anthony’s Festival.”
We sat on a wall near St. Leonard Church and ate our lunch. Halfway through, Johnny sighed, sat his sub sandwich down on the wall and reached into his shirt pocket. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll help you out. You look all confused all the time. Look. You want to know a secret?” He drew a picture on a leaf of the small notebook he had pulled out of his pocket. There were two vertical lines, one on each side of the page. And then there was a horizontal line connecting the two vertical lines. Then, along that line, he drew a circle and then a few other hieroglyphics. “These two?” he said, pointing with his ballpoint pen at the two parallel, vertical lines, “These are your power. Right? And this here? This round thing? This is your load. That’s, like, a motor. Or a relay or something. Right? That’s the thing that's gonna do the work. Right? And these things? These are the things that, if they’re made, will give you power to your load. Okay?”
“Made?” I said.
“Yeah. Closed. Like, a closed switch. Like a light switch or something. You can have a hundred switches. It don’t matter. And it might look real complicated when you’re looking at it, but it ain’t. It’s real easy if you think about it like this. It’s just a line. A straight line. With a bunch of switches in it. That’s all.”
I remember it because it was the very first time I understood what an electrical circuit was. The way he put it, so simply, was the way I tried to look at all my troubleshooting problems from then on. “It’s simple,” I’d tell myself. “It’s just a straight line. That’s all.” And, in most cases, I was correct. Straight lines will get you places in a hurry. You need to know how a thing is supposed to work. And you need to know what is stopping a machine from working that way. And you need to rope that stray calf, running off at odd angles from the herd, and lead it back to the straight and narrow. Neat and tidy.
When I was about seven years old, my mother bought an advent calendar for us kids. It was a Tasha Tudor picture of animals nesting for winter in and around an enormous tree, bare of leaves. I think there was snow on the ground and there was a party going on in tunnels and burrows beneath the tree. There wasn’t any candy behind the doors, just pictures of little squirrels and chipmunks and stuff, which, along with counting the days until Christmas, was enough to keep me enthralled with that calendar. I remember I had this idea that there was a certain class distinction between different groups of animals. I think there was a goose and a gnome or something, which were above ground and therefore represented the upper class, but down deep beneath the earth were the raccoons, which were the lowest class. The raccoons had a jug of something which I was old enough to understand. They were drunk. But they were also the happiest of all animals in that advent scene. Above, there was a shining table set and all sorts of complicated and ornate implements and glasses and pictures. But the raccoons only had a hole. And a jug. And they were the happiest. And that’s what I wanted to be. It would be the poor, simple, alcoholic life for me! Which, I suppose, sprung from the Irish blood in me, which led me toward that great lie: It’s fun to be poor and drunk and simple-minded. I didn’t think about the advent calendar again, but I chose an apprenticeship in the trades over college. And I chose a simple, practical wardrobe over Members Only and Polo and Calvin Klein jeans. Who would pay thirty dollars for jeans? Who?! I had this idea that I could carry a lunch pail to work. Simple work. Honest work. Hard work. And I’d work hard all day. I wouldn’t have any aspirations toward promotion. And I would have no prospects. But I wouldn’t need them. At the end of the day, I’d come home to my family. And we wouldn’t have much, but we’d be happy. And probably drunk.
Before age seven, when this false combination of poverty and intoxication and happiness twisted itself into a tight braid in my mind, my mother read Robert Frost to us. We liked to hear about the birch trees bending over like women or whatever. And we liked to think about walking in the woods and choosing a path. And being a tramp in mud season. And building a wall. We liked to think about these things. She read Huckleberry Finn aloud, and we took that journey down that mysterious river. And we had those episodic, elliptical thoughts of adventuring in the world. She read a lot of books to us. And they didn’t involve straight lines or raccoons under a tree. They brought us to the edge of that swirling cauldron of what might be our singular, shining, amazing, mysterious future.
It took me five and a half years to get my journeyman’s. A year and a half of being a filter boy, driving round in my cube van changing air filters, and four years of apprenticeship. It was a great five and a half years. And I was learning a lot. And I got drunk a lot. And I guess I was happy enough. But the lines were beginning to encroach upon me. There were vertical lines. And horizontal lines. And I was fitting right in there. Each hour I worked was broken up into five or six boxes on the check: Federal tax. State tax. Social Security. Pension. Annuity. At the end of the week, my check would be broken up into similar boxes: Rent. Groceries. Entertainment. Gas. Electric. My time was certainly broken up into boxes. Seven of them. It wasn’t hard to predict the future. All I needed to do was complete the graph and extend the ray.
I was working on a rooftop. It was a startup on some job downtown. The boss on the job, Dave McNarry, told me to check the fuses. “If they’re upside down,” he said, “or backward, make sure you straighten them out. And write a note. Make sure you record each upside down and backward fuse you find.” These fuses weren’t some kind of special fuses. They were just cylindrical fuses. They would work perfectly well one way up or the other. One side facing out or the other. The journeyman was trying to make a fool of me. He wanted to laugh about it later. I knew that. But I checked the fuses. It was cold on the rooftop. The wind howling. At lunch, everyone gathered inside near the boiler room and emptied our paper bags. Dave would be there. Being a douche. Eating his lunch. I made the same sandwiches every day. Salami and Swiss on wheat. And then I’d have some kind of fruit. And my big splurge was buying something to drink from the Coke machine. And I was sitting there on an upturned bucket, wearing coveralls and work boots, and I was looking around the room at the other guys and nobody was talking except Andy, another kid about my age, who was telling me, "Never give up that union card, man. Never! It's like gold, man! I knew a guy who gave up his union card. . ." And nobody seemed especially happy and I didn’t seem especially happy either. I wanted to talk to someone. I wanted to be like Jack Kerouac. Or Jesus in the temple. I wanted to upturn the tripods and gang boxes and go running outside into the beautiful street – cobblestone – and stray from this life that seemed so straightforward and simple. I had made a mistake. I was living the life I had imagined when I was seven years old. And without the poetry, it wasn't enough.