Most Essential: Notes from the Turf War

By David Egan

WESTWOOD, CA – They’ve been wearing masks since before you heard of COVID. Donning uniforms that say we have work to do. Together they prevent the collapse of your lung and your apartment, and perhaps Western civilization as a whole. But on the streets of Westwood, California, a turf war has broken out among them: the construction workers and the nurses.

It’s a silent standoff for who runs the streets. On the corner of Gayley and Le Conte, at the intersection of two construction projects and down the street from the UCLA Medical Plaza, nurses in smocks and construction workers in safety vests travel in packs, among themselves, like wolves of the urban jungle. One construction worker, Todd Jenkins, said he never understood the 7pm applause for nurses during COVID.

“Essential workers?” Jenkins said. “Who built the hospital? Who built their homes? Starbucks gives free coffee to healthcare workers. But we’ve been out here all along, risking our lives. What I’m saying is a free Fat Jerry would be nice. Maybe a large drink. Medium would be fine.”

One nurse, Marianna Malone, said the Coalition of Westwood Nurses has been writing a petition to consign all construction work to the nighttime. This “Sunrise Initiative” is named for their request that all construction work be halted at sunrise and resumed again at sunset. The blockage of traffic and sidewalks (when large vehicles pull out of driveways) as well as the pollution of noise and air have led over 200 nurses to deem this a necessity, not only for the social fabric of the community but also for the health of Westwood inhabitants.

“National Institute of Health,” Malone said. “2018. Dr Girija Syamlal. One of every four construction workers smoke cigarettes. What does this mean for the pedestrians of Westwood, inhaling secondhand smoke against their will?”

Jenkins said the petition does not surprise him.

“You see propaganda all over the city,” Jenkins said. “Across from Ralph’s. It says ‘Thank A Nurse.’ Where’s the ‘Thank a Construction Worker’ sign?”

The bus stop display poster in question reads: “THANK A NURSE, 310 853 2471, LEAVE A VOICEMAIL.” In response, a group of construction workers drafted a sign to be posted on the wood panels outside the Gayley site: “DON’T THANK A NURSE. THANK A CONSTRUCTION WORKER.” While they sat by the worksite outlining the project, one construction supervisor put his foot down.

“What the hell are you doing?” he shouted, knocking the Sharpie Magnum out of one worker’s hand. “Only Magnum you’re ever using! Snug Fit condom Sharpie Micro [redacted]. Back to work!”

With tensions high and fates uncertain, I contacted a nurse and a construction worker, Alex Bensen and Harper Jones, arranging a meeting at Habibi Cafe to discuss the turf war and its potential resolution. To disguise their identities I ensured the nurse was male and the construction worker female, because everyone knows that boys don’t help people and girls don’t build things.

Jones ordered chicken kabob and patates sanya with falafel and french fries, and Bensen a breaded chicken breast platter and a feta cheese and tomato salad, which I recorded in my notebook, catching the attention of the besmocked nurse Bensen.

“So you’re, what, a journalist?” Bensen asked. “I have to imagine there are more pressing stories to report.”

A comparison to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict fell flat. I said my goal was honest discourse, to host an essential meeting of the minds at Habibi, a much-needed reconciliation between disparate parties.

“What time is it?” Jones asked. “This is great, David, but I need to pick up my kid.”

In the end, neither Jones nor Bensen conceded their claim to the streets. Toward the end of our discussion Jones asked what I study. “English,” I said. “Why?” she asked. “Your English is fine.” I was rendered speechless. What to say? That I’m “passionate” about the study of literature? That expressing truth and beauty through the written word is the “behest” of civilization? Accused of navel gazing, goading sources into a fabricated conflict, and of fake news, I found myself questioning what it meant to be a journalist, and indeed what it means to be human.

“Look,” Jones said through unswallowed falafel, vexed. “We’re out here at 6am while people in this town are sleeping off a hangover and spending $13,000 a year of their parents’ money to studying fucking English.”

She picked up a chicken kabob with her large hands and took a bite. I sat between Jones and Bensen as the sun set on another evening in Westwood: a construction worker, a nurse, and what was I? Jones’ words hovered in the air like hookah smoke.

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