Shovels, Sweat, and a Glimmer of Hope

How a Day of Dirty Work Changed the Life of One Homeless San Diegan

Two weeks ago, I answered a Craigslist ad for a construction job seeking applicants who were “good with a shovel.” Though my dirt-moving skills had never been officially tested, I was sure I qualified. 

After showing up to a house in San Diego’s North Park neighborhood, I started digging trenches alongside three men, one of whom was named Yoshi. As we filled wheelbarrows with earth, and took turns running them up a ramp into a ramshackle wooden trailer, Yoshi told me that he was newly homeless at 26 years old. He’d been a barista before Covid struck, and the pandemic had caused his job to dissolve. Fortunately, San Diego’s Convention Center was serving as a makeshift shelter, and Yoshi was staying there while he got back on his feet. 

When Yoshi told me he’d never done construction work before, he and I were side by side, scooting on our stomachs toward the back of a dank crawlspace. With a small jackhammer (which had to be operated almost horizontally to avoid hitting the floor a foot above us), we began digging a trench, fifteen inches deep, that was to run the perimeter of the crawlspace. Dirt from the trench was then scooped, either by gloved hand or small shovel, into a long plastic tub with a rope tied to it. Once the tub was full, either Yoshi or I would shout “Good!” to a man at the crawlspace’s entrance who would then pull the rope until the tub reached him. After this, the man would lift the tub out of the hole, dump it into a wheelbarrow, and poke his head back beneath the house to slide the empty tub across the ground to us. 

A day of this work was gruelling and monotonous. Occasionally, Yoshi or I would emerge from the house's anus for a drink of water or slice of pizza (graciously provided by the contractor). When in the crawlspace—over the rat-ta-tat of the jackhammer—we told stories and threw jokes around to lighten the mood. After what felt like an eternity, five o’clock came, so we shut off the headlamps, unplugged the jackhammer, and army-crawled toward the light at the end of the filthy hole. 

While standing in the sun, squinting so our eyes could adjust, Yoshi and I dusted ourselves off and talked about how good the impending shower was going to feel. He daydreamed aloud of his post-shift beverage. “That first beer is gonna taste so good.” Wiping his forehead, he added, “It’ll be a treat. Not like usual.” When I asked what he meant, he said that he was used to drinking out of boredom. “Or just smoking weed, sitting around, watching TV and feeling sorry for myself.” 

That night, Yoshi drank to victory, a fattened wallet, and to ease his sore muscles. I know this because I’ve worked with him several times since. After the crawlspace job, the contractor was so impressed by Yoshi’s work ethic and attitude that he hired him full-time. Yoshi and I have since moved on to another house, which we’re demo-ing with the help of a middle-aged Louisianan. 

On our lunch break the other day, between bites of a burrito, Yoshi told me that construction work—though unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and challenging—filled him with purpose. He said that he felt good at the end of each day, like he’d accomplished something. He felt like a man; and he joked that he wished he could see some of his male coworkers from the coffee shop try to swing a sledgehammer or lift a several-hundred-pound cast-iron bathtub. “They used to complain about lifting a ten-pound bag of coffee beans.” 

Yoshi said this with drywall dust caked inside his nostrils, and his statement got me thinking: If the construction job brought Yoshi such pride, maybe it’s possible that constantly challenging and exerting oneself is a cornerstone of fulfillment. 

(Before any baristas get angry with me, I respect the coffee job and know several people who love that work, but Yoshi was looking for something different. In fact, he’s even talking about starting his own construction company someday). 

We live in a society where the majority of what we need is available at the click of a button. If you want it, someone will bring it to you. If you don’t want to do it, someone will do it for you. As a result, if we feel so inclined, we are able to spend as little effort as possible on a daily basis. The reward for this conservation of energy is convenience, but there is also a law of physics that says energy cannot be created or destroyed. This being the case, is it possible that the energy we conserve must manifest in other ways? 

Maybe as swirling thoughts that target the thinker. 

Maybe as a need to lash out at someone at the grocery store, or leave a nasty Yelp review for no reason. 

Maybe a key to happiness is not hoarding one’s energy, but spending it in a helpful way—releasing it into the world—giving as much of ourselves as possible before our wick burns out and we fade away like Yoshi’s barista job. 

Obviously, we must take breaks to recharge the batteries. I’m not advocating self-induced exhaustion. But I am saying that deep satisfaction may be the result of spending our precious and finite energy on work, relationships, raising children, creating and sharing art, charity, physical activity, learning, or whatever else we might find to be worthy outlets. 

Whether or not this is a universal remedy for some of our modern-day maladies, it seems to be working for Yoshi, and that’s good enough for me.

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