What is it about wet cement and concrete that has such appeal, especially for males?
I recently orchestrated the equivalent of a barn-raising by calling together some neighbors to help me pour a slab for a new garage. Every man I asked made me feel as if it were I who was doing them a favor.
Even my 16-year old son, Alyosha, who regards physical labor with a disdain normally reserved for Brussels sprouts, nodded aggressively when I asked if he would work the chute of the cement mixer. It was as if he were finally getting to do the thing that would mark his transition to manhood for all to see.
I can remember, as a 7-year-old, watching my own father repairing a step in front of the house. The setting of the wooden form, the mixing of the cement in a wheelbarrow, his letting me add water with the garden hose I savored the feeling of participating in the creation of something designed to endure.
Perhaps working with wet cement is as close as some people come to being artists. Perhaps there is a pilot light of creativity burning in each of us, a small flame that is seldom nurtured because we are distracted by all the small, mundane tasks of day-to-day living.
Wet cement lets us mold something perfect, smooth, and useful.
I can still see my father on his knees, moving the trowel back and forth, back and forth, languorously making broad arcs that quickly disappeared in the wet mortar. I sensed that he took great pleasure in his artistry, and wasn't it a stupendous act of self-denial and generosity when he handed me a thin twig and told me that I could etch my name in his handiwork?
Whenever anyone on my block worked in cement or concrete (there is a difference: concrete is the really strong stuff cement with rocks in it), we kids would swarm to the worksite, quivering with enthusiasm. Of course, what we really wanted was to put a handprint, mark our initials, or embed a penny in the work before it dried.
I remember poor Mr. Strenger, my next-door neighbor, who didn't particularly care for kids in general, especially me and my scheming bunch. He had fixed an entire square of sidewalk in front of his house.
When he was done, he placed a lawn chair by the roped-off work site and sat in it the entire night, keeping watch, lest one of us get a mischievous hand in. His wife would periodically plead with him to come inside, but he remained put, this sentinel of the cement, guarding his handiwork until it hardened into something he must have regarded as part of his legacy.
And now, as I work on my slab, I am those people. My father. Mr. Strenger. And every man who has ever repaired a sidewalk, patched a step, or spackled a wall.
My neighbors and I work shoulder to shoulder, raking the thick gray mountain Alyosha creates as he guides the chute back and forth, like the Jackson Pollock of concrete. We push and pull at the rocky mash, shoving it up against the form, watching it glisten in the sun. We lumber through it in our work boots, the concrete halfway up our calves, amazed that something so fluid, so tractable, will, overnight, harden into rock.
From time to time, one of my friends and I must drop our rakes, take hold of a two-by-four, and "screed" the concrete until it is level. This involves each of us taking firm hold of opposite ends of the wood and scraping the concrete toward us while we walk backward. We shuffle the two-by-four as we go, forcing bubbles out of the concrete, smoothing the surface slurry.
The pouring, raking, and screeding having been done, the most beautiful moment of all is at hand.
I take my long trowel, kneel at the edge of the form, and, reaching out over the wet concrete, make my wide, languid arcs, as if I am icing a cake.
My co-workers stand and watch, and I can feel them at my back, tingling with envy. But it is my slab, and I am entitled to this final touch, this signature ritual that caps our labor.
Once done, Alyosha digs into his pocket and pulls out a bright new penny, which he ceremoniously sets into the work like a small copper plaque commemorating some great deed.
There are few things as satisfying as this wet-cement work.
This is what is on my mind as I head for the shed to fetch my lawn chair for the long night ahead.