Monday, April 13, 2009

What I've Learned: Steven Coffey

Steven Coffey, photographed in the author's kitchen in East Greenbush, NY.

Construction Manager, 45, Albany
By Emily Catherine Massa

You got to be mean. And I’m mean. I’m a carpenter by trade, but my vocation is construction management. To be a construction manager, you have to know how to technically do everyone else’s job, so you know they’re doing it right.

A lot of people in construction aren’t in it by choice. All they care about is getting home to the five o’clock cure. If they could be doing anything else, they would be. So you have to be very aggressive and patient at the same time. I’m basically a kindergarten teacher.

I’ve been doing carpentry since I was a very young man. My uncle was a builder. I got into the Marine Corps right after high school. I got out, went to college, and got a degree in Geology. My whole class was hired by Exxon. But I was a former specialist-in-nastiness, so I was more valuable to them as a Marine than a geologist. They said they were going to put a rifle back in my hands, and I just wasn’t having it. So I came back, and started to build. I love it.

I’ve been shot twice. So I know all about it.
I started a development on my own and I needed money for everything. There used to be this “Money to Lend” feature in the New York Times. I answered one of the ads, and it was all very official. There was a lawyer and lots of paperwork.

But before I knew it, I was getting money in suitcases. Cash. It was just like in the movies, except these guys had real guns. But that didn’t really bother me. They didn’t shoot very well.

Drink your beer. I was renovating a bar on Lark Street, The Griffin. It was the end of the day, we were all done, the bar’s ready to open. I was sitting at the bar with the owner, his bartender, and my foreman having a beer. I hadn’t been drinking for a couple of years, so mine was just sitting in front of me. All of a sudden, this guy drags his girlfriend in off the street, down the stairs, beating her. Just horribly. Wailing on her.

So I looked around and said, I’ll take care of this. I went over and intervened. In three-tenths of a second, I’ve had the guy’s arm twisted up behind his back and was tormenting him. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in the emergency room. The girlfriend had gone over to the bar, picked up the beer I wasn’t drinking, and cracked me on the back of the head with it.

I should have drunk my beer. It would have been lighter.

When a German shepherd looks at you, it like they’re looking at your soul. I had this ninety-pound, solid black, German Shepherd I used to bring to the construction sites. Albany was pretty rough then. He would sit in front of the door and guard. If someone new came, he would just look at them. I’d had to say, Oh, let them in for him to move. That dog was so good.

Both of my daughters are excellent carpenters. I could never stand the thought of somebody watching my children, so they would come to the site with me. When it was nap time, I would put a blanket in one those construction tubs, and they would take naps in the tubs with bulldozers and people hammering in the background.

There used to be a lot of drinking on the job. One day my wife came by the site after work to take the little one home. The house we were working on was perfectly blank, just plain floors and sheetrock. So in the middle of this empty room is an empty beer can. And the little one walks up to the beer can, looks at it, and says Aww fuck! And my wife looks at me and says That’s it! And that was it. My girls developed some foul mouths being on construction sites. But it hasn’t hurt their personalities.

I’m never going to retire. I’ll give up working seven days a week, but I’ll still build one or two houses a year. That should keep me fine; I don’t need anything to retire on. Really, it’s all for my kids.--