Jesse “B” Brownlee is an unassuming sort. The family man lives quietly, is polite to neighbors, and by and large minds his own business tending to proverbial hearth and home. Still, he stands out.
For instance, you can’t miss him at a backyard barbecue in his South Minneapolis neighborhood.. “B” (that’s what he goes by) is a strapping, good-looking, dark-skinned guy with an easygoing air and a bodybuilder’s physique. Usually sporting a dapper do-rag, he’s hard not to notice.
Breadwinner for a household of himself, his lady, Francine Rolan, and four youngsters, “B” shoulders considerable responsibility. This in the face of a continually worsening economic climate that, despite having officially ended more than a year ago, has now been nationally dubbed the Great Recession. He does so with a subdued demeanor that takes life in stride.
“B” puts it simply: “You have to deal with what you have to deal with.”
He’s employed by American Engineering Testing, Inc. as an engineer assigned to run “the [Central Corridor] Light Rail Project, so far as all the concrete testing and everything — the light rail that’s going in from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul. I go around to different job sites doing testing, whether it’s soil, masonry, steel inspection. Pretty much any everything the job may need.”
Simple enough for him to understand, but some of us don’t know the difference between testing concrete and taking a quiz in class. Just what does he test for? “In concrete, we test for air, the ratio, make sure it’s the right [amount of] water to cement.” He also tests the air, of which it turns out there are different types.
“Concrete has entrapped and entrained air, so we make sure it has the [correct amount] of entrained air. Make samples to test for stress.” He spells it out for the layperson: “Entrapped air is just the natural air that’s inside [concrete]. Entrained air is [through chemicals] put in, because between the winter and summer, concrete contracts and expands. [Without] the right amount of air, it can crack too little or too much. We actually want [it] to expand and contract, to [adjust] to changes in weather.”
Not exactly grunt work, this calls for a given amount of smarts. “B” wasn’t one day simply handed the job in his lunch box. He took it upon himself to apply, as it were, the appropriate ratio of initiative to opportunity.
“The way I got started is kind of funny,” he explains. He was doing temp work, sweeping floors at a testing firm. He took a look around at the guys who were getting paid better to do less and, heeding the adage that “A closed mouth don’t get fed,” spoke up.
“I told my supervisor, ‘I want to learn that.’ About a month later, they started training me. I got certified. After that, I kept learning more, growing in the field.” He worked 12 years at Stork Twin City Testing Corporation before moving on to where he is now.
“B” doesn’t feel today’s economic crunch as badly as someone living hand-to-mouth. Nonetheless, he has to watch where the money goes. The children range in age from four to nine, years in which, every time you turn around, one or another has grown out of his or her clothes.
Take, for instance, shoes. When you can handle it, spending more means wasting less. “Sales are good, but you want what you get to last as long as possible. It makes more sense to, instead of getting cheap shoes for six dollars, to spend $40 on footwear that won’t wear out.”
There’s also health to consider. As a growing child’s support for the arches go, so goes support for that child’s spine. They can avoid back problems by your putting good shoes on their feet.
So far as food shopping goes, “Since we have a six-person household, we do try to shop at cheaper places.” He and Francine hit retail meat outlets as well as large department stores that sell in bulk. There’s also the almighty gas tank to fill. Accordingly, they buy groceries at a supermarket where, when they rack up enough points on a card, it cashes in at a buck-off per gallon when they pull up to the gas station.
Here and there, it all adds up. “If there’s something we need for the house, we’ll go online and compare prices first, before we just run out and buy it.” Bottom line, he says, “I have to think twice and be careful where I spend my money.”
How well does “B” feel President Barack Obama is solving the recession? “I think he’s doing the best he can, really. I don’t see too many leaps and bounds, but I do see some steps. When they had the cash-for-clunkers [car rebates] and things like little tax breaks, that will help people out.
“I have a job and do well, but in the long run we’re still struggling.”
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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