Decades ago, I was rocking on the porch of a Victorian house we had rented for a week in Cape May, New Jersey, our beautiful summer city by the sea. I was alone when I looked up and noticed the way the ends of several beams came together in a corner of the porch ceiling.
You would never notice this detail unless you had too much time on your hands, which I did that day. The carpentry of that wooden marriage was absolutely perfect, and I wondered about the long-gone person who had done this wonderful work. I reached for my notebook and wrote these two sentences:
A hundred years from now, they will gaze upon my work and marvel at my skills, but never know my name. And that will be good enough for me.
I nodded again at the work, smiled, and went back to looking around. When we got home that summer, I had those two sentences put onto a lot of T-shirts, which we sold. I called it the “Century of Pride” shirt. We sold enough of them over the years to put our daughter Kelly through Notre Dame. Thank you very much.
We are surrounded by inspiration because so many tradespeople take extreme pride in their work. You may be one of those people. If you wipe a solder joint correctly, even though the carpenter is going to sheetrock the wall and no one will ever see that beautiful joint again, you are one of those people. You do such things because you care — not only about your reputation, but about the building in which you are working. You want both to last.
The Lovely Marianne and I spent another week in Cape May last June, this time with our daughter Erin, her husband Drew, and our grandgirl Bridget. We walked the city and marveled at the beauty of the Victorian houses. We’ve brought Erin and her three sisters here each summer since they were born, and now we also bring the grandkids.
In 1970, the city turned Washington Street into a pedestrian mall and we always spend time there visiting the shops, the restaurants, and the bars. There used to be an Italian restaurant that we visited each year. It was the last building on Washington Street and it was a BYOB place. The food was terrific and you always needed a reservation during the summer months.
Several years ago, that place closed and with no reason given. We were all sad. But then another Italian restaurant opened in its place and we decided to give it a try. The food wasn’t as good, and neither was the service. We never went back.
On our next visit that year, I noticed a sign on their front door. It read, “Children are not welcome.” I showed that sign to The Lovely Marianne.
“How long do you think they’ll last?” I said.
“Maybe a year. Maybe two,” she said.
And that’s just how it went. They were gone before you knew it.
So there we were back in our summer city by the sea last June and smiling as we saw a gut-renovation taking place on the two-story building that once housed a wonderful restaurant. The contractor had installed large windows in the side of the building and they moved the staircase from near the front door to the center of the space.
“What do think it’s going to be?” Erin said.
“I don’t know, but if it’s a restaurant, I hope they have a good HVAC contractor. Look at all that glass. The heat gain is going to be spectacular in there.” Erin nodded in agreement.
The place was locked up. I looked in the first-floor window.
“I hope it’s a restaurant,” Marianne said. “Maybe Italian.”
“We can hope,” I said.
We walked by on the following two days. No one was working. But then on the third day, I saw that the door was open and two men were in there working on the sheetrock. I asked the younger of the two what the space was going to be. He looked at me with sleepy eyes and said. “Huh?” I repeated my question and he said, “I don’t know.” So I asked the older guy and he said that it was retail space. “Women’s clothing,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said and we walked on, a bit disappointed.
A few blocks later, I said to Erin: “How can you possibly work on a construction project, especially in this city where history never stops whispering in your ear, and not know what you’re building? That young guy didn’t know what he was building here. How can a person be like that?”
“SSDD,” Erin said.
I smiled at that well-worn acronym, but then Erin said, “Same sheetrock, different day.”
She’s good that way, my daughter. I’m forever glad she bought our business. She gets it.
Some people — and I find this is more true of younger people — don’t care about where they’re working nowadays, just as long as they’re working. They could be in a palace, a cathedral, or a modest home where children will soon play. They see only another pile of sheetrock, or a pile of pipe that needs to go in. That’s sad.
But I don’t think it’s their fault. I think it’s the fault of many of the older people who work with the young these days. The older people show how, but they often don’t tell them why. And I’m not talking about why the sheetrock and the pipes need to be straight. I’m talking about why this building is here, and how we are building something that will be here to serve others, and will probably be here after we’re long gone.
“A hundred years from now they will gaze upon my work and marvel at my skills, but never know my name. And that will be good enough for me.” That’s what I mean. Pride.
When the twin towers went down, I wrote a column for this magazine and titled it, “An American Cathedral.” It was about two Local 638 steamfitters, one young and the other much older, working in that building. The older guy drew arrows on the steam risers. Up and up and up. I brought both men to life through imagination, but I based the story on reality. Listen:
When the building was still just a deep hole in the ground and Mike had begun writing on his pipes and pointing his arrows toward the sky, his partner would laugh at him. “You’re gonna need a lot more crayons,” his partner would say.
“Ah, you’re so young,” Mike would say. “Don’t you know what we’re doing here, lad?”
And his partner would laugh. “Here we go,” he’d say.
“The work outlives the man, lad.” And Mike would nod and smile. “We’re building an American cathedral here, lad. An American cathedral! It will rise to the heavens and be here forever. Long after we’re dead and gone people will look at our work and admire what we built. This is a special place, this one.”
His partner would shake his head and laugh. “You saw the drawings. These things are just big boxes, Mike. They’re gonna be as ugly as sin. To me, they’re just next week’s grocery bill and next month’s rent.”
And Mike’s eyes would gleam and he’d say, “Ah, but you’re wrong, lad. This one is much more than a paycheck. This one is special. We’ll never be the same after this one. Mark my words. You’ll see.”
Before One World Trade Center opened, Brian, the HVAC contractor, called and asked me if I would like a tour of the place, including a good look at the mechanicals. I was honored. He called me because I had written that column about the two steamfitters so many years ago. He never forgot it, and what it meant to do the work.
When we finished the tour, Brian slid back a hidden door at the very top of the building and revealed a long concrete wall upon which every person who had worked on that magnificent building signed his or her name and jotted a thought to go along with their signature. I stood there and read quietly. And I smiled.
And then Brian handed me a Sharpie.
“Your turn to sign it,” he said. That brought tears to my eyes.
Find the magic and share it with the young ones. Help them understand that what we do is always important, and lasting, and that it matters. It’s more than just a paycheck. It matters. We touch history. We touch people’s lives.