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Highway sign holder has tedious job

Staff writer

Roberto Gonzalez made sure he brandished the bright orange “SLOW” sign well above his head on Tuesday as the American-made truck barreled east toward the construction zone on K-150 near the Marion County line.

He was lucky because this vehicle was slowing down. Some drivers won’t apply the brakes until they are 10 feet from Gonzalez and his sign. He cautiously walked out from the shoulder of the road to the yellow line separating the lanes. Usually the only reaction he gets from commuters is a glare from an impatient driver, or maybe a wayward cursing rant.

Still, he wants to be safe. He gets to go home this weekend to Wichita and he does not want to make a trip to a hospital in between.

Gonzalez knows without him doing his job, the workers on the mechanic caravan behind him — a row featuring a material transfer vehicle, an asphalt layer, and three rollers — would not be able to do their jobs. But he holds no illusions … he holds a sign, sometimes for hours. That morning he made the trip out to the centerline dozens of times.

It was a turn of fortune for Gonzalez who was working in his preferred order. He was out on the sign that morning. When the day was at its hottest in the afternoon, he knew he would be driving one of the pilot cars, enjoying his time in air conditioning.

To break up the monotony he had Wiz Kalifa bumping at a low hum from the iPod in the front pocket of his neon vest. He spoke of music as a man who wanted to be easily entertained. He said he likes a little bit of everything, except country.

The majority of coworkers know it’s nice to have something to speed up time but whenever an inspector comes around, Gonzalez makes sure to turn down his music.

No doubt about it — Gonzalez has a boring job, but it is a job. One he’d like to keep. His father hooked him and his brother up with positions at Cornejo Construction. Gonzalez has heard that when the weather cools Cornejo will look to make layoffs. He’s trying his best to do as much as he can to make himself indispensable. Currently his most marketable skill is that he speaks fluent English.

It’s a stereotype Hispanic construction workers have to deal with. Gonzalez has Caucasian coworkers come up to him regularly, speaking slow and deliberately as if he only understands every other word. He doesn’t get bent out of shape. He only passively explains that he understands them perfectly.

He knows why this perception exists. Many of the workers behind him today can barely put together a sentence in English. Recently, he was approached by a Mexican in a restaurant who assumed he only spoke Spanish. That surprised him a little.

It’s part of the job, and he’s trying to make the most of it. It resembles how he takes his breaks. Gonzalez was opportunistic. He had a red cooler sitting next to him on the gravel shoulder. While the traffic was in motion, he quickly wolfed down bites of cold chicken fingers. Back on the sign, he still had a smudge of honey mustard sauce stuck to his patchy beard.

Gonzalez is 28 and working as best as he can to hold down a job, doing whatever it takes.

Last modified Aug. 9, 2012

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