John Cooper was photographed by Antonio Perez in January 2000 as part of the CITY 2000 photodocumentary project. He’s shown in a section of Deep Tunnel near 134th and Torrence. I interviewed him last summer at my office downtown. Afterward I walked him out to his car, a deep green Cadillac DeVille.
My name is John Cooper. I’m a laborer in what they call the Deep Tunnel. It’s designed to stop a lot of the flooding in the neighborhoods, in basements, and in the underground facilities that are downtown. The project I’m working on right now is what you call an overflow, for backup water; when you have so much rainwater that it has nowhere to go, they have designed this underground sewer to catch all the excess water and release it days after that. It also has some-thing to do with keeping sewage from going into the lake, but I really don’t know how that part of it works.
This particular tunnel, we’re 340 feet down. When I first went down there I thought I was in outer space, because of the lights rotating on the mining machines and stuff like that. You have to have fans to pump the air in, and meters for your oxygen. You have some occasions when you have to come out of the hole. Like electrical fires–you can’t stay down there because the smoke is too intense. You don’t have any room for error down there, because you can get killed in an instant. You got the big machines, the big tools, and the heights you have to work at–you’re swinging off rebar and off these machines and sometimes you have to lean out. You have your harnesses on, but you still have accidents. Matter of fact there was a guy got killed in December. Three days before Christmas. They were in this drift, which is an off-ramp to the tunnel itself. And they were pouring concrete in this form. They have this thing they call shooting the rabbit, which is kicking out the excess concrete to clear the slick line. And for some reason this guy walked in front of this thing just before they shot, and it just kicked the back of his skull off. You have to keep your mind on what you’re doing at all times. The pay sounds good, but it’s very dangerous.
Right now I make $25.70 an hour. And there’s plenty of overtime. It’s a hard job, but it’s a good job. It’s year-round. If you’re working on top, you’re laid off for about four months out of the year. Underground, you’re working year-round, because you have a temperature that’s bearable and things don’t freeze when you’re that deep.
In this particular picture I’m behind the mining machine. A mining machine is a big facility that has a lot of diamond-blade cutters on it. It cuts the rock to the shape you want it. We have one that’s as large as 35 feet in diameter. This one here is 27 feet. It’s going through solid rock, and the excess rock is just kicked back to a belt line, and this belt kicks it back up to the top and then it’s distributed out. The mining machine is in front of me. The photographer is standing between it and me. Behind me, that’s where we’ve already worked. You can see pipe and stuff–that’s the hole that’s already been bored. That hose I’m holding is part of the air line that I was pulling up to connect, so the machine could have pressure. It runs on air pressure and hydraulics and water. It sprays water on the rock as it cuts.
What you call a push is seven feet. Which takes about 45 minutes. In one shift we can get about a hundred feet. You got about 20, 25 guys on a shift, and you’re running 24-hour shifts.
That was a seven-mile tunnel, a three-year project. We’re just about at the end of it right now. Then they have an extension that goes from where we are now to Des Plaines, which I think is 11 miles. Then you have another job that started in Gary, Indiana, a couple weeks ago. The plan is to get it all connected, throughout the city. They also have a plan where they’re trying to connect the one that’s in Chicago to the one they’re working on in Milwaukee. It’s maybe a hundred-year job or something like that.
I was born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Before coming to Chicago I was a cook. Just a small restaurant, we cooked what you call soul food. I guess I got into it through my father. He loved to cook. He passed away in 1990. He and my mother separated when I was very young. He was in the service most of his life–32 years. He was in the army for 9 years, and he came out of the army and went into the air force. He was traveling all his life. That’s one of the main reasons he and my mother separated, because he was never there.
I left school early, I didn’t graduate, unfortunately. Because my mother had five kids, and she had to have help to feed us. I became the man of the family. I dropped out of high school in the 11th grade and went to work doing anything I could find to help out. Because she was having such a hard time, and she was kind of sickly too, and trying to work. She’d clean houses and stuff like that. She wasn’t a very well educated woman. I did anything from washing pots and dishes to foundry work. I was 19 years old when I really started cooking. I did that for about five years, until I was about 24 years old, and then I came this way.
I came here accidentally because my sister and her husband moved here in the 60s. His job transferred him. He was operating a crane in Jackson, Mississippi, if I’m not mistaken, and they needed someone here, so they brought him and he brought his family. I came up and visited one winter when I was having problems with my first wife, and I came back a second time in 1970. When I came back in 1970 I was introduced to a job at Sears and I just stayed here after that. I worked for Sears for 21 and a half years.
It seemed like a place to really strive and do some of the things that you want to do in life. There’s really no jobs in the southern states. Well, they have jobs, but they don’t pay anything. For instance, I worked one construction job down there, laying pipe, and it was hard work. You really didn’t have to have skills, but they didn’t pay anything, it was a non-union job. You could do the same job up here and you’re in the union, and you’re getting a good pay scale. You don’t get that in the southern states. If I was doing this job in Tennessee right now it would be about eight dollars, nine dollars an hour.
I’ve lived in Austin for 20 years. I’m in a kind of a neighborhood where we have a block club, and everybody watches after each other, so it’s pretty nice. It’s a pretty quiet neighborhood. Two blocks away there’s a lot of gang activity, drugs and stuff like that, but in our couple of blocks, if anybody has problems, we have meetings and stuff every month. The area really is not that bad. And hopefully things are getting better; we have an alderman who stays about a block from me, and then we have a state trooper who stays north of me about a half a block. It’s still kind of a mixed area. You got whites and you got Latinos moving in there.
When I first moved there, I was the second black family in the neighborhood. But there was no problem. All of the neighbors were friendly. They came in and gave us a little welcome-to-the-neighborhood get-together and stuff like this. I was surprised, because most of the time you get a white moving into a black neighborhood or black moving into a white neighborhood, you usually get some kind of trouble behind it. But for some reason we didn’t. The area was all white, and all of a sudden it changed from all white to just about all black. But it wasn’t a panic–the people who moved just had their reasons. One lady that moved, she was a retired airline stewardess, and she was just moving to Florida and so she sold her home. And then this one doctor who lived next door to me, they were Filipinos and they were going back to where they came from. That one doctor saved my wife’s life. My wife was riding the exercise bike in the basement, and the seat collapsed. That rod was about this long, it went up the side of her leg and into her stomach, tore her bladder and stuff all up. And I didn’t have any idea where to go. The first thing I could think of was going next door, and just lucky he was at home that night. We thought we’d lost her. He got that rod out and he subsided her enough to where he could get the ambulance down there to her.
I wasn’t raised to be what you would call racial. I try to treat you just like I would want you to treat me. Most of my friends are white. On the job you got all kinds of different guys, and in the close quarters that you’re in everybody gets along well. You don’t have no feuds about colors, or I don’t want to be over here because this guy can’t speak my language. Everybody works well with each other, because you really don’t have any choice. I have to watch your back just like you have to watch my back. ‘Cause the same thing that happens to me could happen to you.
I have no regrets with the way I’ve been treated. Anything that happened to me, I would say I did it to myself. Nobody made me leave school, I had to leave school on my own, because I figured my mother needed my help. Which she did. It’s no one’s fault that I didn’t go back and continue my education, because I guess I had just as much opportunity as anybody else did. But I chose to do other things. And as far as I can say right now I’ve done pretty well for myself, so far. Right now I’m 56 years old. I’ve been doing this for the last ten years, and I’m planning on working another five. The union has a retirement fund and you can retire at 50 years old if you really want to. I’m planning on going into real estate investing, try to see if I can make money that way. Buy a building, fix it up, rent it out.
How did you get into the union? Did you have to know someone?
I was what you call persistent. It took me about a month to get the job. Once you get the job then you pay a fee to get into the union. Then you just keep your dues and stuff up and it’s automatic.
I got laid off from Sears. They had a dispute over contracts so Sears closed up the warehouse and left us out in the cold, in June of 1990. They downsized. Laid off 250,000 employees that particular year. Here in Chicago I think it was 394 people. So I was streetwalking, looking for work. I think my wife got sick and I took her to a clinic, and I saw a job site; it was on Lake Street and First Avenue in Maywood. Something drew my attention over there, and I told my wife, I said, This is where I’ll be working at. So the next day I went out there, and the guy said, Well, we just hired two or three guys, we don’t need anybody right now. And one guy told me, The way you do this type of work, if you really want a job you just have to keep coming back, just keep coming back. So they had three shift rotations, I was out there three shifts. I was out there at 6 o’clock in the morning, at 3 o’clock in the evening, and 11 o’clock at night. I did that for a month. Every day. Three times a day. When it was raining, I’d be standing out there with an umbrella. And eventually they got tired of looking at me and put me to work. I just got lucky, I guess.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Antonio Perez.