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Gender + Sexuality

'Journeywoman: Swinging a Hammer in a Man's World'

Kate Braid's new memoir recounts her tumultuous love affair with construction work. An excerpt.

Kate Braid 20 Dec

Kate Braid is a poet, teacher and author whose book, Journeywoman, was published this fall. This is the second book she's written about her experiences working in construction. The first, Turning Left to the Ladies is a book of poetry that was published in 2009. Braid has written multiple books of poetry and has taught creative writing at Simon Fraser University and University of British Columbia. During her decade and half as a journeywoman, Braid kept scrupulous diary entries of being a woman doing "men's work". Reprinted with permission from Caitlin Press.

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'I feel fine. I have built a wall': Kate Braid, author of the memoir 'Journeywoman.'

[Editor's Note: The construction site with its sweaty foremen, rickety ladders and lonely lunches was a lot of things to Kate Braid. It was a paycheque, a battleground, and it was home. As Braid chronicles in her memoir, it was a place where she felt her contribution mattered -- she could see it. Four walls and a roof; the tangible incarnation of a day's hard work. Her 15 years working in the trades weren't easy. As a lumber piler she was refused promotion, told the job was too hard. As a general labourer building houses she was harassed by men and came home each night fuming. Often the only woman in any of these jobs, she was lonely.

In this chapter, "The best man for the job," Braid is living out of a small cabin with no running water on Pender Island. She's finished her first real construction job. A summer in the hot sun has left her skin tanned and muscles tight, and now Braid can finally revel in a job well done. But just for a second.]

At the official opening of the Island Community Hall and School, the gym is crowded with people admiring our work. People I've never seen before say how beautiful the new building is, and I feel gloriously, personally responsible for this marvel. I feel as if I've just had a baby. And there's more. Ted, the carpenter I've most enjoyed working with, has asked me to work for him as a carpenter's helper. It's a promotion, a job that calls for a little more skill and pays a bit more, too. We agree I'll work part-time, and the rest of the time I'll finish, by long distance, the two courses that remain for my master's degree. Then there'll be just the thesis to write.

Ted asks me to get a phone so he can call me on the days he needs me, but after almost two years without one, it feels weird to have a disembodied voice in my house. I keep asking the first caller, "Where are you? Really, where are you?"

Ted's company is called Salish Construction. I hear through the grapevine that one of his partners is not happy Ted's hired a woman. When I talk to the unhappy one the next time I see him, in the bar, he pushes himself far back in his chair, crosses his arms over his chest and says, "I won't be working with you." And he never does.

Learning on the fly

On the morning I start, Ted says, "We're building forms." I don't know what a form is but I've learned enough to keep my mouth shut. I'll find out. The men -- three of them -- build, while I bring materials: nails, two-by-four, ply. A form, I learn as I watch it rise, is like a jelly mould, only instead of adding sugar and colour to water, you add sand and gravel, mixing it before you pour it into the form. The Jell-O that sticks it together is cement. The trick to building a form, Ted tells me, is to build in negative: what juts in on the form will jut out on the final product. You have to build it strong, too, he says, so the walls won't bulge or break under the pressure of the wet concrete.

On the morning of the pour, there's a strange tension in the air. This is a big job, so instead of mixing it by hand as he usually does, Ted has ordered pre-mixed concrete from the batch plant on Salt Spring Island. As we wait for the cement mixer to arrive, carpenters flutter around the walls -- a nail here, a brace there -- and Ted calls me over to where he's putting together some kind of wooden shield with a brace on the back.

"Backboard," he says, and asks me to build another one. My first solo project! That morning he'd shown me how to "toenail" -- drive the nail at an angle -- but now that everything's in a hurry, I can't seem to hammer. When I finally get it done, I'm amazed at myself.

Ted calls for an early coffee break, but the instant we hear a groaning on the road, the carpenters are up and ready. The truck is huge. I've noticed these strange vehicles in the city, looking like monster martini mixers. All the concrete in that truck will have to be moved, one tiny wheelbarrow at a time, into the forms.

The driver lowers a slide and releases a stony soup that rattles into the first wheelbarrow lined up to catch it. My job will be to hold the backboard that directs the concrete in between the form walls. I put all my weight behind it but the first time the mix thuds against my back- board, it's as if a sumo wrestler has hurled himself against me.

"Hold it!" Ted yells as he struggles to keep the grey mix pouring into the form. He's barely finished when someone else yells, "I've lost half a load! Get that backboard over here!"

I race along the platform to where the man is swearing, fighting to keep his wheelbarrow upright. I barely manage to put my shoulder to the board before the load hits and rattles down into the wall.

There are three of them and someone is always yelling. There's no gentle in their voices, no "please," and my feelings are hurt until I get caught up in the excitement.

"Puddle!" Ted orders and hands me a long, thin stick. "Up and down!" When I stand there, confused, he takes the stick out of my hand, not unkindly, and jabs it repeatedly into the freshly poured mix.

"As deep as you can get it!"


"Takes out bubbles," and he's gone. For a few minutes I puddle, the motion strangely sexual, then, "Backboard!" someone yells. I like it. I like the rush of concrete, of using all my strength to make the mix go where we want it to. After a while, I begin to know what's coming, who'll need the backboard next, and they hardly have to yell for me at all. Whenever there's a pause, I puddle. When the truck is empty and the carpenters are putting final touches to the walls, one last wheelbarrow full of concrete waits to be placed. I pick up the handles, knowing to let my arms go long and stiff so my legs can take the load. Wheeling wet concrete is like steering a huge pan full of wet dough into the oven. Only heavier. I'm almost at the wall -- I can do this! -- when the wheelbarrow takes an alarming swing to the right. I throw my weight left to counter it and succeed -- too well. The load shifts wildly leftward, and to my horror two-thirds of it slops to the ground. That morning I'd proudly put on the T-shirt my family gave me last Christmas. "The best man for the job," it announces in bold white type, "may be a woman." I cross my arms over my chest. When I look up, Ted is grinning.

"We were saving that load for you," he says. "Too full for the rest of us." Then, amazingly, he ignores the spilled concrete. "Bang the forms with your hammer!" he orders, and hits the nearest wall to illustrate.

I'm confused. Haven't I just made a big mistake, maybe an expensive one? Yet nobody's mad. Nobody, at least for now, is going to fire me. My right knuckles are swollen and blue from a knock I gave them during the pour. My right wrist throbs, and when I go home I'll put an elastic bandage on my right arm from the pain of so much hammering. But I feel fine. I have built a wall.

'Definitely unladylike'

On Monday morning, when Ted says, "We're going to strip the walls," I cringe. "Strip," he'd said, but no one snickers. I don't ask "What's stripping?" I watch the men out of the corner of my eye and allow my body to shadow Ted's as he tears down the lumber we put up the week before. When he lifts an arm to bring his hammer down hard against a brace, I let my hammer fall the same way. His hammer is faster but I push to keep up. I don't think; I mime construction. When only the sides of the forms are left, Ted lays his bare hands on the top row of shiplap and pulls hard. The lumber falls, and without a pause he moves to the next. Like his puppet, I go to the opposite side of the wall and pull. Nothing. I pull harder. There's a faint sucking sound but the board stays put. Ted's already halfway down the other side. This time, rather than a steady, polite pull, I jerk with all my strength. The shiplap surrenders with a slow-motion ripping noise and comes away slowly in my hands. Beneath it, like sculpture, the wall is a smooth dark stone that shows a few tiny bubbles and the imprint, like a negative, of wood grain. It's beautiful.

All morning I stand in a muddy ditch and throw my strength into ripping boards off concrete with my bare hands. The product is beautiful, but there's something alarming about the process. In the planer mill, and on scaffolding at the school, I'd learned how to move my body in big, exaggerated motions as if swimming through air. But the movements of stripping concrete are even bigger, force me to open wider my arms and legs. It's almost rude. Definitely unladylike.

Maybe that's why, next time I go to the city, I end up in the lingerie section of my favourite second-hand store. I don't know what I want until I see it -- an old-fashioned silk nightgown that hugs me all the way down, from the slightly tattered beige lace at the shoulders, across my breasts and belly to my ankles. I never wear it for lovers, only when I'm alone, after my bath. I can float around the cabin and out onto the deck feeling elegant and, above all, feminine.

One evening after dinner, as I sit admiring the peach sunset outside my window, my eyes fall on the jar of flowers Jeanne has brought me, sitting on the table in front of me. My dinner had included pickled beets, and when I spot a drop of the deep red juice splashed on a yellow dahlia petal, I begin to cry. I have no name for the sharp voice that increasingly underlines each day. Who do you think you are? it whispers. What kind of a woman does this work, anyway?

Yet I love the work. I love its sense of order: First comes A. You can't build a roof without a foundation, so B must come second and only then can we build C. Last week we poured and stripped the foundation.

On Monday we put the joists down and, over that, a plywood floor, and for a few days the carpenters have been building a sort of wooden box for which I bring endless two-by-fours and ply and nails. When we lift it, we've built a wooden wall. Ted laughs when I want to take a picture.

Finding friendship

I'm drinking too much, I know, but I go to the bar three and four times a week now, for company. One night I get into a discussion with two of the carpenters from the school about the gym ceiling. One of their wives says irritably, "There are the men, talking shop again."

And the crevice that has been deepening inside me gaps open. I've been caught up in the exciting talk about building, yet I'm also interested in what the women have to say. Where exactly do I belong? All the definitions have turned upside down and I'm afraid I'm going crazy again.

Then I meet Judy.

Ray Hill (from the school) and his wife, Beth, have become friends. I'm at the end of a weekend visit to their place on Salt Spring Island and Ray is honking at me to hurry so we don't miss the ferry when another woman arrives. She's about my age, tall with brown hair to her shoulders and an open face with alert eyes. I like her immediately.

"You have to meet our friend Judy Currelly," Beth says. "She works as a bush pilot."

"Bush pilot! I'm a construction labourer!"

Ray honks again. "The men," I say. This is urgent. "How are the men?" "Mostly fine." Judy tells me it's only the odd man who gets as far as the door of her plane before he sees it's a woman pilot and refuses to fly with her. And then?

"I fly without him."

"If you don't come right now...!" Ray's yelling.

Judy and I shout phone numbers at each other, and all the way home I pace the ferry deck. It isn't any particular thing she's said; it's my vast relief at meeting her. I'm not alone.  [Tyee]

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