This is a story of a love that grew between a very Catholic thirty-something widowed mom and a crew of very rough men who were not only physically dirty but rough in all the ways blue collar guys can be. They drank, they cussed, they smoked (and not only cigarettes), they did other things there is no need to mention or think of, some of them engaging in varying degrees of what one might call debauchery. I didn’t care though. And I was right not to.
They all knew me because my brother, Mark, had worked with them for many years though he was now in a different part of the production department. The crew had worries about my coming. First of all, I was female and they were and had been an all-male crew for twenty-five years in a job that isolated them from the rest of the paper, the rest of the world, most of the time. The press room is it’s own little world with its own culture and social structure, its own legends, history and lingo. How would a new, small, alien being fit into all that? They were also worried because my job would be very tough physically and I am a very small person. How would I manage — and were they going to have to do my work for me? Could I handle the rough environment, their dirty mouths, their nasty talk, their supposedly bad manners? They knew I was very religious…really, really religious. What were they going to do? How was this going to work? Would I try to convert them or get them to pray with me?
I was worried I wouldn’t be any good at this job, which was basically being their helper, “the Catcher” and catch-all, doing whatever was needed in that loud, filthy, fast-moving place, to help them every day. (Don’t worry I held my own. I think this helped a lot in getting along with them).
To start with, I made a goodwill gesture by sending muffins for them with my brother a few days before I was to start. I got an e-mail from my future foreman that they were the best muffins they ever had and they ate every one of them. Still, my first day in the Eagle press room, the crew was nervous and could hardly talk. I could tell they were uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure what to do about it. But the first thing I did was laugh at their jokes. They were very funny guys. I got them to tell me their wild stories from back in the day when they were all young and played crazy games and pranks on each other and were generally very bad. I laughed at the stories too, which surprised them. I said I was going to write a book of “Eagle Legends.” They said not until they were all dead.
They still seemed to be nervous by the afternoon of that first day so I waited until the press was rolling, until we all had our head sets on, so they wouldn’t have to look at me, before I brought anything up. This way they could just go on being busy while we talked so it would be less tense. I pushed the button under my right ear that would let them all hear me. “OK,” I said, “What’s the matter with you guys?” Silence. “Do I make you nervous?” They looked around at each other.
Finally Mike said, “We’re trying not to make you mad, or make you cry. We’ve been trying not to cuss or say anything bad all day.”
I thought about it.
“Well, I know I am supposed to but I really don’t care if y’all cuss. So that’s not going to bother me. Just don’t talk dirty to me and we’ll all be fine.” They thought they could comply with that. And they did.
Not only that but they were such gentlemen in the true sense. I already liked them. In fact, they turned out to be the best guys in the world. They still are.
I was in the lowest place, certainly, but the lowest place is not so bad when the people above you make little platforms for you to stand on so you can reach things, when they make a big deal about everything you do right, when they clap when you come out for the first time dressed in your blue pressroom uniform, when they are rapturous about everything you cook for them, and laugh at all the things you waste time on (like the day I decorated all their coffee cups and another time I figured out each of their Captain Underpants’ name, and that one prank I pulled that was pretty funny if I may say so myself).
I obeyed them with love and devotion and all my work was to help them and keep them safe. When I mopped behind the press I did it to keep them from slipping. When I helped them at my end of the press (catching and stacking the bundles of paper as they came out) and agreed to go for hours and hours on a long run without a rest when they had a heavy day, it was to ease things up for them and help them get their work done smoothly. I found out this was how they worked, too, they each worked for the sake the others.
They loved me and I loved them. We were happy.
I listened intently to their problems, put Band-Aids on their wounds when they got hurt (pressmen get hurt a lot,) and they tried to help me with my troubles, comfort me when I cried, and make sure I didn’t lose my keys.
Ways we confronted the culture clash between us were playful and respectful. When they used the Lord’s Name in vain, I smiled and said, “I LOVE that guy!” At first they stared at me but then they laughed.
When my rosary broke they thought that was very funny and tried to figure out how I broke it. (Praying too hard for them?) Red fixed the rosary for me with the tools for tiny parts in the workroom. He asked me how to say the Hail Mary. He never made it all the way through the prayer without a joke you wouldn’t like. But when his dog was bitten by a rattlesnake he said he couldn’t remember what to do with the rosary, but he had held it up and asked God to please help Chester. Chester, happily, is alive and well. I gave Red a rosary. It still hangs in his truck.
I made fun of them about how they couldn’t get anything done when the female electrician was there and they kept tripping over things. They laughed too.
As to the question about handling gossip…truly, I loved them so much, I didn’t care what they said. But I teased them that they gossiped like Jr. High girls, which made them laugh. They did try not to “talk mess” around me though, since I explained I wasn’t supposed to. “I can’t be doing that,” I said… and I tried not to.
If they messed up and talked about anything dirty, I had playful ways of dealing with that too, though it hardly ever happened. One time I said, “OK let’s talk about sex then!” They were very uncomfortable. I started talking about Theology of the Body and got my Bible from my backpack and started reading them the Song of Songs with a big smile on my face that was totally authentic, I promise. You wouldn’t believe how bashful, sheepish and embarrassed they were and how much they balked at the steamy language in the Song of Songs. They didn’t really want to talk about sex. They just wanted to be gross, I guess. I could not stop laughing about their reaction, and they wondered why I was so crazy.
We laughed at each other. We laughed at each other a lot.
Eventually if they had something they wanted to say that was “bad” they would tell me to turn off my head set. So I would roll my eyes and turn it off. After a while I did not have to turn it off so much. We liked to make each other happy that’s why.
Richard got me a kid chair to put with everyone else’s in the formans’ office so I could have my own seat at our morning meeting even though the catcher is not usually a part of that at all. I didn’t find that out until later. I just assumed the meeting was for me too and they treated me like I was supposed to be there. They accepted me. They let me in.
One of them had trouble letting me in. That was Luis. I could hardly get him to talk to me. But I found out he liked whistle candy and got him a big box of it. We played with the whistle candy and slowly started talking. We ended up great friends. Whistle candy is one of our inside jokes.
I loved hearing about their lives, and Mondays were my favorite days because I missed the guys over the weekend.
One time they were talking about a new girl that was working up front and I asked if beauty was kind of healing for them because they liked looking at her so much. They liked this a lot. “Yes,” one of them said, “I guess you could say that.” They were all smiling. They thought I was funny. And I thought they were funny too. We knew how each other was. And it was all fine.
I got mono one time and they kept calling me to see about me and ask when I was coming back. One time my brother got on the phone, “Get back here! They are right back to the way they used to be before you came! They’re awful!”
I loved that these guys had been together all their lives, watched each other’s kids grow up, had been there for each other in bad times, had played maybe a thousand or more basketball games together and remembered every one of those games and could tell you about it, as well as every repair they had done on each others’ cars and motorcycles and houses and plumbing and so on. They were the best press crew in Texas, and rightly proud of the excellent work they did. They were honorable guys in so many ways. There was so much good and beauty in each of them.
They came to like me too and accept my quirks and oddities — like the way I don’t eat meat, (or drink, or date, or smoke, or do anything fun as far as they could tell at first), the way I will cry easily, don’t take criticism well, the way I daydreamed and lost count of the bundles coming out or how many skids I stacked at times. I alarmed them by blowing bubbles on the roof when we were supposed to be putting up the Christmas lights (and people on the busy road were staring at us and the publisher was sure to hear about it.) I glazed over when people talked about boring stuff like engines, money or tools.
I got mad at Wayne from the mail room when he refused to take a cookie from me and stalked past me without a reply. I put a handful down his shirt.
Wayne and I learned to live in peace. He shakes his head when he sees me, and I call to his attention how much I love him- “See? I love you so much, I didn’t even say anything when I saw you! Not even good morning!”
The guys put my impulsive loss of temper at Wayne into verse. Never mind about that.
When I made fun of them they thought it was great. One time they went too far teasing me and I went in the bathroom and cried and wouldn’t come out. They were totally freaked out until I did come out. When I finally did, they were so sorry and I just wanted them to forget about it and not feel so bad.
Usually when I showed evidence of my shortcomings, they would start laughing and say, “We gonna tell them Carmelites you said that!” Or Mel would tell me I would have to go to Confession that Saturday if I didn’t stop that. “I’m surprised at you!” he would say. When I got on their nerves, Jason would start asking if it was 2:45 yet. “Isn’t it time you went to pick your kids up from school?”
I tried not to annoy or offend them. I want to be good for them and they want to be good for me. At the same time we accept one another. I think this is a good balance.
On my birthday one year they wrote me a song, “Our Angel,” and performed it at our morning meeting. Bob played guitar and they all sang it to me. I cried, I was so touched. I could barely stay in the room with all that love, appreciation and acceptance. They understood. They had to tell me it was OK . “Just listen.”
One time Red had said they wanted to heal my broken heart. I hope they know they did. They brought me out of myself and loved me and helped me be part of life again.
I remember all their middle names. I remember their birthdays. I make them cakes every year for their birthdays still and one of them (usually Mike or Mel) will call me on mine on behalf of them all. I ended up marrying the only one of them who was a complete atheist. (That was Bob, and he ended up Catholic).
They have fixed my cars, helped me around the house, cared about my kids and at times have fathered them when they needed it, and are still there for me though I have not worked there officially for a few years now.
When I bring a cake there for one of their birthdays they stick to the tradition I started of singing Happy Birthday to the birthday person and telling stories about him. If I forget, they remind me.
Now and then they remind me that my rosary that I prayerfully hung on one of the press motors when the press was down one terrible night, is still there, (at this writing,) melted into the metal that got so hot during the crisis. I think that is symbolic. We are melded into each other’s hearts.
Looking at them one time, and thinking about who each of them was, I prayed to Jesus about them, that He would bless them and not worry too much about some things, because the good things were so good. I reflected that He knew them better than I did and loved them better too. He brought us together and He knew what He was doing. I realized that I was finding Him in them.
Maybe that’s what “bringing Christ to the workplace,” or any place, really is. Maybe when you look for Jesus in others, you transmit His love and grace in a mysterious way the Spirit knows. If you find Him, you give Him, and receive Him, too.
Jesus said, “Whoever hears you hears me.”I hope it also means, “Whoever loves you loves me,” because I love those guys. And they love me. “Where my disciple is there will I be also.” We all turned out to be disciples even though maybe some of us didn’t know we were. “Wherever there is love, there is God,” said St. Thomas Aquinas.
So what is the advice in this story? “Look for God in your co-workers so they can see Him in you,” or “Find Jesus everywhere,” or maybe, “ Stop being so uncool.” After a while Jesus shines out on both sides. It’s easy then.
If you’re reading this, guys, I love you! Get back to work too!
* Dear Reader, please take a moment and pray for my guys. <3
* Originally this article was published in the Flos Carmeli, the Provincial Newsletter of the Secular Discalced Carmelites of the Oklahoma Province, which is wholly unrelated to Austin CNM except for our brotherhood in the Catholic Faith. I was asked to write about “Bringing Christ to the work place,” as a Carmelite, and to offer advice about dealing with the everyday worldliness, gossip and rivalries lay people encounter at work. I decided to tell you a love story instead, and maybe the story would cover some of those points.