Scratching out a living

Joe Burke

Photo By Josh Indar

Joe Burke works for Marcus construction, which regularly contracts with the city of Chico to lay down new sidewalks. When we met up with Joe he was just a little bit steamed about a stretch of concrete he and his crew had just put down the day before that had been defaced by a gang of key-wielding high school kids. A word of warning, kids: The next time you feel like writing"Chico High class of ‘08” in the wet cement, keep an eye over your shoulder. Something tells us you don’t want Joe to catch you in the act.

How long have you been doing this?

25 years.

What’s the trick to it?


You probably don’t like it when the kids draw in your cement.

Well, it sounds neat and everything, I mean, I did it when I was a little kid. But the city will not accept that. They’ll make us tear it out and replace it.

You can’t just smudge it out?

Sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t. I mean, if you look up there, they gouged it real good in a long section. We have to tear it out and replace it, and that’s thousands of dollars. And the boss has to eat that. [Reads the sidewalk.] “I am Rick James"—some of the stupid stuff they put down…

Is it against the law?

Sure it is. They’re defacing public property. The city’s paying for this.

What would you do if you saw a kid right over there getting out his screwdriver?

[Smiles.] I’d ask him kindly not to do it. Or his parents can pay for it. We did some stuff in Yuba City, and we caught a kid with a metal stake writing his name in it. We went up and said, “Little boy, where do you live?” He says, “Right there.” Knocked on the door, said, “You ought to watch your kid more, mister. This just cost you a lot of money.”

Do you ever see adults doing this kind of thing?

All these college kids. Sorority girls are the worst. We did a bunch of stuff across town, you know, right in front of all the sorority houses a couple winters ago. Oh, yeah. They all came out and wrote their little names in it. I mean, it sounds cute. But it’s just that the city won’t buy it. Either that or one of us has to sit here and watch it [while it dries], doing nothing, and this is prevailing wage. My boss doesn’t want to pay me 37 bucks an hour to sit here on a lawn chair and watch all the pretty girls go by. [Laughs.] That wouldn’t be too bad, but it doesn’t work that way.