Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2007 | With their faces shadowed by hard hats, the workers at the construction site for downtown’s Hard Rock Hotel resemble ants on a farm, anonymous hard workers with particular tasks to complete. They’ve been here since the sun was low, and at 9 a.m., the place is bustling.

But looking closer, the workers can be distinguished by who’s laying floors, who’s clambering up scaffolding, who’s spreading drywall. And even closer, there are faces under the hundreds of hard hats, stories and lives represented by the hands and muscles used to get the job done.

And this one, this one working on the second floor next to what will be the ballroom, this one is Jose Powell. He’s 19, an apprentice, a high school dropout who got his diploma in January. To learn his story is to catch a glimpse into the web of construction trades workers here, the thousands who have work because of San Diego’s insatiable real estate and tourism appetite. As they assemble small pieces of a big picture for particular sites, they themselves fit into the grander, gleaming image of renovation and development in the region.

On this recent morning, more than a hundred workers are here for drywall work alone. The industry constantly regenerates, with an apprentice for every three journeymen on a typical site, among the 2,200-some unionized drywallers in the county. The din of the machines barely allows for shouted lessons and technique demonstrations, let alone any room for soul-baring.

And that’s OK with Powell, for whom at least one ear is often plugged with an iPod earphone. His 19 years have been peppered with foster homes, juvenile hall and jail. He moved in with Danny Castro, the Standard Drywall Inc. foreman on this site and the dad of one of Powell’s best friends, and started working drywall in April.

He earns double, even as an apprentice, the hourly wage for his previous two jobs as a produce stocker at Albertson’s and a frozen yogurt server at El Cajon’s popular Yogurt Mill. In November, his wage will climb to nearly $17 per hour. The job is far from boring, Powell says — there’s too much to learn.

“You just start working and then you ask questions,” he says from a chair outside the Subway restaurant around the corner, where he and several others have wandered for their 9:30 break.

His co-workers tease him, calling him the Karate Kid because of the black bandana peeking from under his hard hat. They tell a visitor his “billion different” nicknames are largely unsuitable to share with the present company. Powell barely smiles, embarrassed.

When the break ends, he climbs back to the second floor and hoists a box of all-purpose joint compound — sheetrock — over a bucket. A grayish glob oozes out of the box.

A nearby journeyman, Mark Webb, squeezes an orange sponge filled with water into the bucket. Powell picks up a stomper, a sort of souped-up potato masher, and starts to mix. He kneads the mixture a few times, then Webb steps in and helps, asking for another squeeze-and-a-half from the sponge. Powell takes the stomper again and they declare the mixture perfect, the consistency of pudding.

The men assemble spreading tools and climb onto a mechanized lift. As it lurches upward, Powell grabs for the rail, his sea legs still developing.

Webb uses a tool called a skim box to spread a 10-inch wide layer of the mud on the ceiling. Powell follows him, reaching a small spatula out to cover studs. Castro approaches the lift and demonstrates for him a graceful wrist flick that looks borrowed from a cake decorator’s repertoire.

Powell tries to imitate it, getting closer and closer with every swipe.

Outside, earlier, Castro said Powell’s not the first guy he’s done this with — taken him into his home, given him a spot as an apprentice, done “his bit.” One thing he won’t tolerate, though, is messing up. You get in trouble, you’re out, he says.

Powell has known trouble.

He went to a foster home when he was 8 years old, when his dad was in prison.

“We didn’t really have any rules in the house, and I think someone called [Child Protection Services] or something on us,” he says.

He and his brother, who was 9, went to one home, and their two sisters, then 4 and 5, went to another.

After rotating through several foster homes around the county, he was adopted. When he was 17, he took his adoptive parents’ car for a joyride, he says. In the meantime, they’d called the police, who took Powell to juvenile detention for a two-day sentence. He got in a fight, which extended his sentence to 18 months. He had to drop out of Grossmont High School.

After he was released, his brother called him for a ride one night. Powell picked him up, and was soon pulled over. His brother had two stolen guns, and Powell was charged as an accessory. He went to jail for four months. Powell despised the fact that his brother got him into it. He had only 12 credits left until high school graduation.

“I had no idea,” he says of the guns. “It’s four months, wasted.”

He hasn’t talked to his brother since.

And this time, when he was released, he joined a workforce assistance program at the East County Career Center. The center recruits dropouts — of whom there were more than 5,500 in the 2005-2006 school year, the state Department of Education says — who face barriers to getting good jobs. Incarcerated parents, poverty, trouble with the law: Powell fit the program well. He finished high school, learned to draft a good resume and to budget. He got the Albertson’s job last summer. And now, he’s living with Castro and working this job, saving to buy a Ford F-150 truck.

When he was a kid, he didn’t think much about what job he wanted when he grew up. A lot of foster kids don’t really care, he says.

“There’s nothing specific I wanted to be,” he says.

Now, he’s thinking about college, a two-year program to become a nurse. They make $32 an hour, he’s heard.

It seems Powell’s thinking in the future tense for the first time.

A bit before lunch, Powell pulls one iPod earphone out when a visitor asks what he’s listening to.

“Right now, it’s rap,” he says. “An artist called Baby Boy.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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