It was like that the entire first week on this job, for all of us scabs. The smell of that dusty, toxic mess stayed with us long after we got back to the motel room.

The worst part was the chemical burns. Every day, we’d get back and check out the redness around our eyes and mouths. Dark red goggle and mask-shaped lines. My wrists above the obviously inadequate gloves were constantly itching, as was the line around my waist and a spot on the back of my neck. Any place that was exposed, even a little.

That first week we worked from dawn to dusk. Tearing off the old pitch and tar roof of every flat-roofed building of the Osawatomie State Hospital complex.

Aching muscles from shoveling, hauling and raking piles of crusty old pitch and tar… the itchy, burning skin from all that chemical dust.


On top of the physical discomfort, was the constant sense of urgency.

For reasons that we wouldn’t find out until the end of our second week, the boss made it clear that we had to get this job done as quickly as possible. Each morning, we had to get up before dawn and get back to it. Fast!

It affected everyone and created a general state of anxiety.

Also toxic.


No doubt our foreman must have thought it lucky McDonalds had opened their first drive-thru window just a few years earlier so we could all get breakfast on the way. Without anyone leaving the truck.

“What would they think of next?”

Our foreman was basically a good man, but I can see now that he was trapped in a toxic situation too. He was a likable guy. Always trying to make shitty things seem just a little less shitty than they were. Each morning he mustered everything he had to put a positive spin on all this. He tried the cheerleader, the football coach, the politician… anything to get us going.

None of that mattered though.

We were all going to do the job, the way we were already doing it anyway. This crew was not a team. We were barely a crew. Every man, had his own motivations for what he was doing here, and no one was sharing. No one was looking for a common cause to bring it all together in some big “RAH RAH! GO TEAM!” Bullshit.

Oh and there was bullshit. And sure there were connections made too. It just had nothing to do with anyone helping anyone other than himself. The social effects of all this was the part that I see now as the most toxic element of this environment.

My natural good guy tendencies became my primary survival skill. The men seemed to like me, but they all had their own way of distracting themselves from the ubiquitous toxic forces. Thus, my good guy-ness was about as useful our foreman’s motivational strategies.


I didn’t really get to know any of these guys. There was no way I was going to join them in any of their distractions.

These were men who distracted themselves mostly at the local strip club. They went every, single night. Almost all of the men went there.

Well… except those two scary-looking guys who simply disappeared after every shift. No way was I was going to try and find out what they were up to.

Oh, and there was the college guy who stayed in the room reading (I tried connecting with him but he was not interested). And that one “old guy” (he was maybe fifty-years-old) who just went to bed.

I distracted myself by doing what I’d been doing the most of, since leaving my hometown.

Walking… walking was my distraction.


I had no idea how this would later help me deal with a different toxic situation back in Omaha, but for now I was just….