From the Director: Trench

None of the guys I worked with wanted me there. They drove Dodge trucks, I drove a Volkswagen Fox. They lived in Tinley Park, I lived in Chicago. They were meaty, I was longhaired and skinny. They would be at this throughout the year and likely their lives, I would leave at the end of the summer and head back to school. 

Every morning I would clamber down into a trench to straddle a large concrete pipe and wait for the next pipe to swing toward me. I would, as fast as I could, slather tar around the male end of the pipe as it hung in the air. Then I would shout to the guy running the backhoe, “more my way,” or “back it up a little,” or “lower, lower,” and I would try to guide the pipe dangling from a steel cable attached to the backhoe’s claw into the pipe I was straddling. 

They ignored me or messed with me for sport, and they said things around me and to me that I’m still not sure what to do with. I hadn’t really heard people talk this way before—not so regularly and naturally—and I definitely hadn’t been on the receiving end of so much casual but real invective. And every morning I would get back in the trench, squeezed between crumbling earth walls and loose large concrete pipes, and I would trust these guys to swing heavy concrete objects my way. 

In those two months, I didn’t say much more than “down,” “back up a little,” and “okay.” Mostly I tried not to screw up or stand out, which meant, in part, listening to the guys I worked with. At first, I listened because I had to in order to do the work. Then I listened harder, differently—not to do the work but to understand the guys who were doing it. 

I believed then and I believe now that they wanted to make me uncomfortable—to unsettle me, to let me know that they were in charge and I wasn’t. They wanted to jab at me for all the ways I was different from them. They wanted to scare me, and sometimes they did—but weirdly, maybe inexplicably, I found myself listening more rather than less. 

I thought of my time with these guys when I read this passage in Javier Marías’ novel A Heart So White: "Listening is the most dangerous thing of all, listening means knowing, finding out about something and knowing what’s going on, our ears don’t have lids that can instinctively close against the words uttered, they can’t hide from what they sense they’re about to hear, it’s always too late" 

What exactly was I doing, there in the trench with a concrete pipe swinging toward me, with my ears wide open? 

As Marías says, it’s dangerous to listen. But it seems to me it can be more dangerous not to. When people hurl offensive words, threatening words, dangerous words, they show that the thoughts behind these words are already there. I believe it’s better for these thoughts to be spoken aloud, than to be simply, maybe quietly, acted on, and better they be spoken to people who will listen and perhaps push back—in that moment and over time—than to people who will unconditionally or unwittingly reinforce. 

In my own limited and contingent experience, listening to people talk, no matter how repellent the words or the beliefs behind them, has been a move in the direction of safety. A threatening verbal exchange is still in the realm of language, not the realm of force, and, even though it rarely feels this way, it’s often an exchange. From a school hallway at eight through public encounters as I near fifty, I’ve seen that being listened to can deflate a threatening talker’s vitriol, both right then and over the longer term. It may not be the safest course for every situation or for every person, but more than I would have thought, listening—especially in tense and difficult moments—can disarm. 

I wouldn’t have put it this way there in the trench, but now I think that there are moral reasons to listen and also prudent reasons to listen. Even if, as Marías says, it’s always too late. 

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