Oftentimes, as a journalist, you don't know where your next story's going to come from. This latest one came from my driveway.
That's where I had a quick chat with one of the gentlemen who'd been working on my roof for the last few days. The job was complete, and he and his partner were packing up to head out. I chatted him up, and asked him if anybody had ever told him that he looked a bit like Billy Bob Thornton. (I'll go ahead and call him "Billy Bob" from here on.)
"Yeah, I get that some," he said. "Also, some Mexican boxer," he added, laughing and squinching up his face as he shoved his nose to make it appear broken. I jokingly apologized for not being a boxing fan and therefore not knowing his other alter ego.
I asked Billy Bob how long he'd been with the roofing company, which is based in South Florida. (I live in Tampa.) He was sharp, and obviously intelligent. He looked you in the eye when he talked and paid close attention to what was being said. I figured him for a veteran.
But he'd only been with the company for about a year, he said, and frankly he was looking for something more. But Billy Bob was an industry vet, all right. Actually used to be a superintendent for a construction management firm down in Miami that built dozens of retail stores for a well-known phone carrier during the boom times. But that was all over now, said Billy Bob.
I told him what I did for a living, and that I'd heard there were some major projects starting up down there, mostly apartments and even condos, I thought.
Yeah, said Billy Bob. But when one of those starts, "about 500 guys" try to get on, he said, smiling but shaking his head as to imply it was hopeless. I gathered those "500 guys" he talked about likely weren't all laborers, but quite a few were former superintendents, too, desperate for work.
A glimpse of the boomtown of Dickinson, N.D.
Billy Bob, who told me was 40, said home had originally been Michigan, where he started in the construction business before heading to that boomtown of Miami. (Interesting sidenote: his father used to work for General Motors. Used to be if you worked for GM, you were set for life, Billy Bob said. Instead, his retired father recently lost some of his benefits.)
It's certainly not surprising Billy Bob ended up in Miami. But he seemed like he'd given up on going back there. He lived from an RV, so anywhere was possible.
As it turns out, Billy Bob said a friend of his had a line on a better-paying gig in one of today's boom markets—North Dakota. Oil drilling* is the reason for the surge there, and it could be going on for another 20 years, he said. In addition to the drilling-related work, the newfound surplus of domestic fuel is driving the need for more civic infrastructure, such as houses, roads, schools and even firehouses, said Billy Bob.
The pay was halfway decent, $25 an hour, and the hours would add up nicely working seven days a week. Working every day didn't bother him. It's not like he'd have anything else to do or places to go out there, after all. And he has a commercial drivers license, so that would help, too.
But he wasn't sure about it. The $25 an hour was fine, but he told his friend he'd probably keep looking for something that paid like he used to make. More problematic to Billy Bob was the fact that workers lived in "tent cities," he said, even in the winter. I can't share the words Billy Bob used to describe what he thought of that, so I'll leave you to guess.
He was an interesting guy. I wished I could've talked longer, but I had to get back to work and he obviously needed to hit the road. I shook his hand and thanked him for the work he'd done, and then did the same for his partner.
It's a little strange. Even though the world had kind of let him down, in a sense, I didn't really feel too sorry for him. Bankers and finance guys and greed in general had caused the boom and then the bust, and construction workers like ol' Billy Bob were left to deal with the aftermath. He was frustrated alright. Things weren't working out the way he'd hoped and thinking about all that was starting to irritate him.
Maybe I didn't feel too bad for him since I thought he was intelligent and obviously had some decent work experience. He was a friendly guy who I could see someone hiring. Things would work out for him, I guess I thought. That was probably naive on my part.
As he got in his truck to drive away, I remember thinking, I bet he ends up in North Dakota after all. At least for a little while, maybe until winter hits.
I turned to walk away, but called back, "Good luck with everything!"
"Yeah!," he said. I think I heard him chuckle at that. Good luck, Billy Bob.
* Originally, I mistakenly cited natural gas. - Ed.