Jesus Tellez, twenty-four, is a workhand for a concrete company out of southern Connecticut. Tellez has worked in construction since he was nineteen, traveling around Connecticut and neighboring states as a neon-clad workman. His days begin between four thirty and six o’clock in the morning, depending on the location of the jobsite. Tellez and his father carpool to work in a faded-blue, Ford F-150, driving on dark Connecticut highways to beat the morning traffic. They drive to the sound of their yawns and the rattling of tools in the bed of the truck; the two chug cups of scalding gas station coffee and play loud banda music on the radio to keep themselves awake. Once they get to the site, Tellez gathers what he needs for the day: a hard hat with his name on the rim, rubber boots to stand in the concrete, a tarnished hammer at his side, and, now, any paisley bandana he can find to wear around his face.
As businesses remain closed and unemployment skyrockets, construction continues in Connecticut. Connecticut’s neighbors, Massachusetts and New York, two of the hardest-hit areas in the country, have been forced to take stringent precautions with working through COVID-19, especially in their major cities. In New York City and Boston, nonessential construction has been paused until further notice, but emergency projects proceed, such as the development of affordable housing, infrastructure, and hospitals. Construction in Connecticut is still operating, but of course must follow the national guidelines known to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
At most construction sites in Connecticut, small cohorts of workers in green and orange safety vests can be seen passing through the framework of iron girder, their faces veiled by masks, either provided by their employers or made at home. Gloves are only taken off for coffee and lunch breaks, and hands are sanitized by depleting dispensers at the porta-potties.
Concrete workers are responsible for the foundations of buildings and this comes at the early stages of construction. This means that most of Tellez’s work is outdoors and that he is at the mercy of the fickle New England weather. Construction workers are usually outdoors and always on the move; this is partly why development continues. Governor Ned Lamont is allowing for public construction projects to continue, where it is possible for workers to maintain social distancing. However, this decision doesn’t come without concerns for sites where workers are in close quarters. Lamont has said, “I do worry a little about the indoor construction if you’re in a tight situation. Right now, we’re doing that on a case-by-case basis. But if you can’t keep that six feet of social distancing, you shouldn’t be doing that construction.”
On Crown Street, in New Haven, the constant noise of machinery occupies every corner. The morning coffee break is when Tellez notices the changes from the pandemic. Groups of workers find areas to take five, sitting on their coolers or five-gallon buckets. They share their snacks and examine the unfinished building that surrounds them, discussing how to proceed. Occasionally, sirens wail through the empty roads, reminding these essential workers of what surrounds them. The pandemic has become the new form of small talk, replacing the old standby of unpredictable New England weather. Sports highlights are swapped for statistics on the virus, shared at a distance in multilingual conversations held over ham and cheese sandwiches or thermoses of menudo.
To Tellez, the silence is as dispiriting as the virus. “I keep my distance from people, but the banter is the same. In my opinion, it should increase. We can all use a good laugh, especially if we can’t see each other smile.”
The pandemic has forced the world to contemplate death on a daily basis. To some, Tellez’s use of humor as a coping mechanism might seem like gross escapism, but because these are unprecedented times, he believes that to worry now is to suffer twice. “Never before has something big like this happened worldwide during modern times, so the future we’re heading into is full of new kinds of challenges. Humor has always been the best way to breaky away from sadness or boredom.” Tellez recognizes standard procedures to combat the spread of the virus, keep six feet distance from others and always wear a mask— but Tellez believes that more could be done. At this point, he hasn’t been at a jobsite where someone wasn’t infected with COVID-19, adding a level of anxiety to each day. To relieve some of that anxiety, handwashing stations are placed on every floor, ensuring their accessibility to the workers. Tellez bites into his burrito, holding it by its foil wrapping, not allowing himself to be taken by fear; he has work to do and he knows it will be easier to do if he remains positive.
Everyone has a sense of when their break is over judging by their stiffness of their limbs or the restlessness of their foreman. Thermoses are rinsed with water bottles and screwed shut. Tellez’ hard hat bobs on top of his head and his glasses begin to shake off of his nose. as he joins his coworkers’ laughter, which cuts through the industrial din of his worksite. He concludes his breaks with slapstick impersonations or openly asserting a coworker’s laziness to regain comedic momentum for the rest of the day. Yale’s gothic buildings stand at a distance in view of his performance. Whenever the throes of the pandemic seem bleak, Tellez stops to ask himself and the world, from the top of skeletal structures, “Have you considered laughing?”
Samuel Sandoval is a staff writer and photographer for Blue Muse Magazine
Samuel, thanks for this terrific portrait and for being so engaged in many of the readings the Writing Minors and English Department put on after we all shifted to remote learning and lives. I appreciate all you do for the department.