The New Migrants

In the harsh post-2008 economy, builders like my father live on the road.

Illustration by Rebekka Dunlap

The night before Thanksgiving, Dad’s silver Ford F-150 — bought used but dent-free — pulled up in front of my new place in Austin. He’d driven all day from a construction site in Monroe, Louisiana, where he was building, he’d reported, “some joint that serves fried chicken.”

I went outside to greet him like I had when I was a kid, when his truck would roll down the gravel drive to our red-brick house, which he’d built with his own hands next to a Kansas wheat field. In those moments at dusk, his shirt smelled like oil and sweat when I jumped into his arms; field dust coated the lashes over his blue eyes, and bits of sawdust stuck to his light-brown beard. For today’s long haul, though, he’d cleaned up; he was wearing his good black cowboy boots, and his beard, now completely white, was closely trimmed. He was smiling but looked tired in a deep way.

“Look,” he said after we hugged. “I’m going to have an adult beverage. That’s the real reason I stopped at Burger King — to get a Coke to mix.”

“I have some hooch inside,” I said.

“But look right here,” he said, and he pulled a bottle of Kentucky Gentleman from the metal toolbox in his pickup. Once inside, he pulled a few presents from Monroe out of his bag: a jar of local honey, a brass unicorn from an antique store, a feathered red toy for my cat.

Since July, he had driven to 16 job sites in Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma and now Louisiana. In October, a particularly hard work month, he had finished four convenience stores and one bar and grill in five towns across two states; during that month, he had worked 18 overnight shifts and had just four days off. This was his new life in the post-2008 employer’s economy. The upcoming week without labor was a rare gift.

Born to Kansas wheat farmers in 1955, the youngest of six children, Nick Smarsh was a natural with personal finance. His work ethic and money-saving impressed even his salty parents, who came of age during the Great Depression. Before he was old enough to drive, he owned more head of cattle than his dad did. By his early 20s, he’d already owned a foundation-building business. But it folded when the record-setting winter of 1978 left him without work for too long. You can’t pour concrete when the temperature is below freezing.

Recession struck in the early 1980s, and work in the construction industry slowed. A few years later, when I was in elementary school, he took a job hauling chemical waste from industrial sites; his second week on the job, he was almost killed by faulty ventilation in his work truck. In 1989, he and my mom divorced and sold our brick house in the country. Dad moved to an apartment in Wichita to be near construction work. I wore his company-logo T-shirts, stained and torn, as nightgowns when my little brother and I stayed there twice a week.

Having just sold the house he’d planned to grow old in, Dad resisted the American urge to buy another one. He and his new wife found a clean, modest rental home for $375 a month — even less when he did handy work for the landlord. He, my brother and I threw a football in the backyard there for 16 years.

By 2007, though, the rent had gone up enough that he looked into the zero-down mortgage craze, whereby millions of Americans were approved for home loans with interest rates that ballooned and repayment plans that scarcely touched the principal. The bank said he qualified to borrow $150,000.

“I knew that my income was not going to be able to pay for that,” he told me recently. “So we selected a $125,000 home.”

I was in my 20s by then, working a couple hundred miles away as a development director for a nonprofit that helps at-risk teens, and preparing to buy my own first home. I drove south to help Dad and his wife, whose health had gone bad, move into their new place.

The next year, of course, the debt-driven housing bubble burst. Banks stopped lending to low-income homebuyers and big-shot developers alike, and the construction industry halted. After 17 years, Dad was laid off by the contractor whose T-shirts I once slept in. So too were 34 other workers who, like my father, were older and higher-paid.

Suddenly Dad had a home loan, no equity, an ailing wife who couldn’t work — and no job. While looking for work at age 53, he exhausted his unemployment benefits and cashed in the 401(k) plan he’d paid into for years at his old company. Soon that was gone too.

Walking into interviews where resumes were piled 2 inches high, he found himself settling for lower wages and titles than he’d earned years prior — $18 an hour as a carpenter, say, instead of $22 an hour as a superintendent. And his new bosses were more likely to bid on faraway projects and put him on the road. If jobs don’t come to builders, builders go to the jobs.

In 2010, Dad took a position with a small subcontractor that often works under a national general contractor based in the Dallas area. They sent him from Wichita to San Antonio, Mobile, Birmingham, Dallas, for months at a time. The company offered no per-diem wage for food and lodging, instead booking rooms for him in dirty roadside motels rife with dangerous characters. And his paychecks often came up short.

“He said he would pay x amount, and then paychecks were $2 per hour less than that,” Dad told me. “When you’re 500 miles from home and desperate for work, what’re ya gonna do?” The company overworked him — “me alone on a job that in the past would have taken four men,” Dad said — and didn’t pay overtime wages on what he now calls “ungodly hours.” It’s an experience that, when he was living it, used to choke him up when we talked.

Facing payments for his house and health insurance — which rose to $750 a month after his wife got sick — Dad argued with his boss but couldn’t quit. Like millions of Americans in similar binds, he maxed out credit cards buying groceries. He tried and failed to get through the red tape of the Obama administration’s mortgage-refinance program. His house was foreclosed on. On a sunny January day in 2012, I helped him move into the Wichita mobile home where he still lives. We had lived in a trailer on a patch of prairie dirt for a couple years when I was a kid, so I wasn’t daunted. Dad was pleased to have snagged a city lot with good south sun for a garden.

About a year ago, after bouncing among several companies, Dad got on with a good Wichita-based contractor. He’s still on the road just about every week, a toothbrush in the pocket of his Carhartt jacket and a portable grill in the bed of his truck. But he’s pleased with his hourly wage, relatively handsome in his profession. Money still being tight, he sometimes saves part of his $90 per diem for food and lodging by by sharing rooms with guys from his crew. That took setting aside some pride, but ended up being kind of special; he bonded with a Filipino kid who told him in limited English about his family and culture. Dad’s face has gotten its color back and has relaxed with the relief of having a steady job where his work is respected.

I offered Dad my bed, but he wouldn’t take it, and I put quilts on the sofa instead. The next morning, he pronounced my consignment-store couch the most comfortable bed he’d ever lain upon and the mild Austin air the best sleeping weather he’d ever breathed. He ended up staying for six days, his whole break.

I was glad to have him. My mom had recently died after a long, hard cancer. And aside from the appreciation such loss engenders, Dad and I align on a number of interests: history, beer, politics, live music, sports, structures. On those points my new city offered plenty and, between Dad’s long sleeps on my couch, we spent the week exploring.

We climbed Mount Bonnell, ate Thanksgiving dinner in Hyde Park, inspected architecture, watched football, saw a blues band at the Continental Club. We revealed our Midwestern roots by ordering red beers at a sports bar. We climbed past the do-not-enter chains of a hilltop brewery and took in fall-foliage views of Lake Travis.

Most days, Dad wore a black blazer over a button-down shirt tucked into belted work jeans, which were cuffed above brown work boots faded by Sheetrock mud. A gray stocking cap covered his ears. I posted a photo of him to social media: “Hipsters long for this authentic workman style.”

We went to a movie, Dad’s first time in a theater in the near decade since he’d last had disposable income. I got mad when he wouldn’t let me give some poor bastard a jump in the dark cinema parking lot. Later, I realized he had been worried about connecting a stranger’s busted car to his truck — without which, as a traveling construction supervisor, he had no livelihood.

One afternoon, Dad slammed two Bud Lights and I drove us to the Capitol.

“Look, that used to be the ‘governor’s business office,’” I said in the grand lobby.

“Where’s the governor’s urinal?” Dad said. “I gotta pee.”

As we made our way through the 1888 building, Dad described the cantilever methods used to hang stairs and the inlay methods used to decorate terrazzo floors. Downstairs, in the agricultural history museum, we solved the mystery of a rusty tool he’d found while digging the foundation for my childhood home back in Kansas: It was a 19th century hub wrench, once used to keep the wheels on the wagon.

We drove past that home many times over the years. Dad’s parents’ place was just across the dirt road, and in middle school I moved back into my maternal grandparents’ farmhouse a few miles away. Dad seethed when we passed our old place, where the family who bought it for a song still fished in the pond he and my grandpa had dug.

His last morning at my place, I helped him strategize the timing for his retirement and calculate how much money he could bring in before diminishing his returns on Social Security. I also shared a dream of mine that might affect his life: I would own a big place in the country. Lots of space for horses and chickens and dirt bikes. Next to the main house there’d be a guest house for Grandma Betty, I said. Another for him too, if he wanted.

Dad nodded but didn’t intend to take anything for free. If I could afford the land and the materials, he’d build the place. It would be a gift to himself, he said, to know his daughter had her dream home built right. He’d bring in the mail, feed the animals and chop wood while I traveled for work.

I knew that such an arrangement would be a gift to me too. Though he’s been relegated by the market to uninspired commercial construction, my father is the increasingly rare country carpenter, trained by his own dad, who learned from his. For decades, they and his brothers hammered together countless buildings in rural towns west of Wichita.

He’s worked on grand projects, too; in the booming ’90s in Wichita, he turned 19th century warehouses into an entertainment district, renovated a dramatic 1920s boathouse on the Arkansas River, and constructed luxury movie theaters. More recently, he helped make the concrete forms for a new baptismal pool at the magnificent downtown cathedral where we used to go to Mass.

I told Dad I loved that plan — him helping me build a place in the country where we’d both live — and would make it my mission, though we both know well enough how plans often go.

“Still, you gotta have one,” he said.

Before he left, he fixed the deadbolt on my front door and showed me how to do it myself. Then he put his small bag in his truck for the day’s journey east, during which he planned to meander toward a couple of casinos and a famous pecan farm.

Back in Monroe, Dad would work on the fried-chicken joint, Slim Chickens, into the new year. During those weeks he learned the nice people and bad smellsof the paper-mill town, found a decent motel with a fair weekly rate, ate his first po’boy sandwich. In January, as he wrapped up the job, he and a co-worker named J.D. splurged on a giant coconut cake from his favorite café. “We give it to Slim Chickens employees for a house-warming gift,” he texted me.

He hadn’t really built the restaurant workers a house, of course, but he knew they would spend most of their time there. When so much labor is required to pay the bills, work itself becomes a sort of home.

Sarah Smarsh has written for the New Yorker and Harper’s online, the Guardian, Guernica, and other publications. Her book In the Red, on the working poor and her upbringing in Kansas, is forthcoming from Scribner.

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Published at 11:01 am CST
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