At 36, I Left a Long Career in Construction To Become a Writer

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I always imagine people’s jobs as how you would describe it to someone when you are introducing yourselves at a bar. Hi, my name is ______, I do _______ for a living. Little madlibs as conversation fodder between fictional strangers.

Hi, my name is Niko, I do Writing for a living.

But that wasn’t always my answer. I’m an educational failure. Despite being an accelerated learner and part of the gifted child community, high school held diminishing returns for me, and by the time I failed to graduate, the writing was on the wall. People stopped approaching me and asking what my dreams for the future were. The question became: What do I intend to do now?

Dreams were for closers, and because I would have to come back and give high school one extra year, my prospects shut their doors. I was working my job at Men’s World (forever LOL) selling mens fashion, but even that was starting to fall by the wayside. My boss once took me aside and told me when he hired me he thought I was popular and knew how to dress myself, and he was sad to discover that neither of those facts had ever proven true. I had been making it up as I went along, and now I had been found out.

My father is a Glazier, a glassworker. His father before him, a former pilot for the Royal Air Force who immigrated to Canada after the war. There, he converted an old firehouse in Vancouver into a glass shop and taught my dad and his brother an impromptu family business. My dad started working in glass when he was 13. Now well into his seventies, he still works in glass. My father knew I’d been dressed down by my boss at the mid-scale mens fashion store and thought surely anything was better than that. He told me he would pay me more to sweep the floor at his shop, which was a better prospect than continuing to be criticized for my lack of fashion prowess.

If anyone ever gives you a reasonable out from the world of retail, take it.

I was 18 when I bought my first pair of work boots, put on a clean pair of faded Levi’s 501s bought with a now-defunct 10% staff discount, and walked into my dad’s glass shop, a big room with bare concrete floors, two big bay doors leading out to a parking lot, and walls lined with open crates full of glass. Racks mounted to the wall glimmered with fresh windshields for old vehicles. In the center of the shop, between two massive glass cutting tables, was my fathers tool crib, his pride and joy that was always impeccably organized. Unless someone put a tool back in the wrong place and raised his ire. Everything in its place and a place for everything.

The guys I worked with were Men in a different way than the kind that shopped at Men’s World, a new taxonomy of guy opening up to me in an instant. They were loud, brash, strong, crafty, adept, and reckless. Unafraid of personal injury or consequences for ignoring rules. Here, too, I would have to make it up as I went along, becoming more adept at pretending I knew who I was and what I was doing and why. I could barely hold a hammer when I started working in that glass shop, the smell of stale coffee, sweat, and dust lodged in the walls and the floors and the door of the bathroom. I learned to adopt a masculinity that was never mine but I knew belonged in this place.

I got good at this kind of work in short order, good in a way that felt rewarding and tangible and real. I could fix a broken window with efficiency and grace, stand back and marvel at the wonder of what can be accomplished with these two hands. What was broken is whole again. I went to trade school as soon as I could apply, and for six weeks a year I learned about drawing accurate architectural drawings by hand, how to do fractions in my head, the history of glass, and where the good hot dogs in the building were.

I was a Red Seal Journeyman, endorsed and certified by a board of professionals to have been trained to a national standard of competency, when I was 23.

I have nearly died at least three times while at work. Not in the hyperbolic sense of my boss asked me to do so much filing I could just die. Actual literal death. I have been pinned against a brick wall as about ten 12’ x 12’ sheets of glass smashed against the glass moving machine I was stuck behind. I rolled my work van off the side of a highway in the dead of a Yukon winter — before we had widespread cell coverage — and I had to walk in the freezing cold to find a vehicle to drive me two hours to the nearest hospital. I fell six feet off a ladder and hit my head on the ground, inches away from a piece of rebar that would have impaled me if I had fallen any differently. This doesn’t even cover the numerous scars scattered on my body from various hospital trips for stitches from loose glass that split my hand — or to have my eyes flushed out because there was glass stuck in my cornea.

When I write these memories down now, I cannot remove myself from the badge of pride each brush with oblivion brings me. Somewhere, deep inside the caverns of my soul, there lives some broken part of me that doles out points for each time I believed myself so strong that even death could not claim me. Most of this was careless, the passive death wish of someone who never once considered themself to be really alive.

I never wanted to do this work, but I was good at it, and it feels so nice to be good at something after a disappointing run of people asking what my plan was now that I had let any potential I had fall by so many waysides. I was good at working with my hands, and I had grown from a clumsy and awkward teen to a capable adult with skills and strengths and an open future. As long as I worked as a Glazier, I had options.

When I was 28, I started my own construction company. My glass career had shifted, and I had grown to be quite capable at installing and repairing automatic doors. You know when you walk into a CVS and the doors open to your every whim? I learned how they tick, taught myself their secrets, and fixed their every little failure. I knew the beating heart at the center of every magic door.

But I was increasingly unhappy. I started having panic attacks I couldn’t explain. I would go by my parents’ house for coffee and to catch up and make idle small talk about how well my company was doing, and then I would collapse to the floor and cry until my body was numb and I could no longer move. Every nerve in my body hated the sensation of being alive for even one minute more. It wasn’t that I hated the work so much as I hated myself. It was onion in the ointment that the self I hated had only done this kind of work for so long I didn’t know any other life.

At night, in my dreams, I was someone else. I couldn’t see her, but I knew her. Some ethereal vision of the femme variant of my life. Every morning, I awoke and found her gone, this other me in her place. I whispered silent curses to a cruel God who could not see themselves fit to make me right.

My dad was the first to tell me he could see how unhappy I was. My father is many things: silent and stoic, the kind of man who only laughs when he means it, but when he does, it fills the room. We never talked about our feelings; we only bonded once I started working for him, and our conversations were always about work. How work was going, how work was busy, how work was infinite.

When I eventually came out as trans, my mom asked me if I wanted her to tell my dad for me because we didn’t have that kind of relationship and things hadn’t always been easy, which is a sentence I am honestly still deciphering years later. But she did tell him, and my father told me he was mad. He was mad that I thought he would think any less of me. We suddenly weren’t peers anymore; he was my father, and he was there to ensure I was cared for.

When I came out as trans, I was still working in construction, but I was also working in the music industry, in a desk job as the executive director of an arts not-for-profit. I started to relish in the act of being able to sit at a desk and work at a computer and not have near-death experiences. I was working my last big contract for an international company who had binders full of policies about harassment and inclusivity and other pages no one ever really read clearly. The news of my transness traveled, and I could hear whispers in the hallway behind me as I stood on ladders, wiring doors to open like magic at just the right speed, setting their hearts just so.

One of my employees at my new desk job had a husband working in the same building, and he wondered aloud what the big deal was considering that stack of binders with carefully written legal policies in the main office. A week later, someone put a note under the windshield wiper on my 1995 Nissan Pathfinder that said if I kept coming back to this jobsite they would kill me in the port-a-potty.

I’ve nearly died in nicer places.

A year later, I moved away from the Yukon, off to Toronto, where I had no real prospects or education. My emotional and physical state were frayed, the end of a rope that had met the business end of a lighter one too many times. I did a little consulting here and there to make ends meet and spent the majority of my days on Twitter avoiding any real responsibility. Somehow, avoidance is where everything changed.

When I was 36, Huffington Post Canada, which no longer even exists, reached out and said “hey we love your tweet about this protest happening at a library, would you be interested in writing an op-ed about it?” and I jumped without thinking of my own safety. I had never written anything for anyone, but the lesson I knew from my decades of experience was to always act like I belonged, and when they asked what I wanted the HED and the DEK to be I said oh i don’t know, whatever you think is best because I had absolutely no idea what the fuck they were talking about.

Someone on Twitter said “this is great Niko” in the replies of that article, and it is surprising how far you can run on the single praise of a single stranger. I decided I had to pursue this line of work if I could. I maintained a healthy side hustle of doing home repairs for queer and trans people in Toronto for a bit of spare cash as I built my name as a Writer in the endless sea of people who put Writer in their bio on the internet.

Writing became a thing I felt confident I could do, and I started to trust my reflexes more. Just as I became confident enough on ladders to allow myself to live a little risky on them — even though I did nearly die that one time. After all, what’s a little death when you consider all that can be achieved when you dance with risk in your heart? I started to write essays; I got nominated for an award (that I lost, twice). I became a Culture Writer when someone introduced me as such in an interview on the radio. I started to think about my Career in a way I hadn’t since I started a construction company when I was 28-years-old.

Writing has proven to be a safer career, when you consider all the ladder-falling and the van-rolling of my previous life, but it’s not entirely without danger. A lot of the writing I do is personal, and that requires me to not only feel comfortable putting my life and my experience out there for people to read and critique but also to face feedback that is not always positive. There are still death threats; there is always risk. I’m trans and am a Public Figure at times, and it invites a certain level of awareness on my part to make sure I never tell too much, never reveal everything. I have to be careful about photos of my home and my partner more than ever. I am happier and healthier doing what I do. And let me tell you: I love writing. But something you learn after a lifetime of working in various fields is that every job is risky.

It took me a while to be able to say I’m a Writer when people played that game of introduction madlibs with me. My fiancé would tell people I was a Writer, and I would change the subject or find a new room to be in. It didn’t feel real or earned. How had I found myself here when I don’t even have a BA or a Masters to complain about not needing? I feel, often still, like a fraud waiting to be found out. Even though I was older with no education and no contacts or ideas of where to start, I was able to find a place where I could comfortably say that I had a career, that I belonged here, and that I was happy.

Hi, my name is Niko, and I’m a writer for a living.

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Niko Stratis

Niko Stratis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in outlets like SPIN, Bitch, Xtra, Catapult and more. Her work primarily focuses on culture, the 1990s, queer/trans topics and as often as possible where all those ideas intersect. 

She wrote that piece about Jackass that you liked and also the Gin Blossoms one. 

She is also the creator and host of V/A Club, a podcast about movie soundtracks.

Niko lives in downtown Toronto with her fiancé and their dog and 2 cats. She is a cancer.

Niko has written 41 articles for us.


    • Hi Niko, thank you so much for writing this! I’m a sheet metal worker journey person for a living. I test & balance HVAC equipment, but I also just got top surgery. I’m not sure what to expect when I go back to work after recovery. In any case, I don’t plan to be there much longer.

      Anyway- I love the way you write & this particular story is so relatable/inspirational/encouraging. So again- thanks!

      • Hi AK!

        Than you for this, and congrats on your top surgery! I hope your return to work is safe and welcomed. Wherever you go next, if you do make a move, I hope it’s to something that helps you feel at home.

        Thank you for the kind words, sending you lots of love

  1. Thanks for talking about your career in the trades. My own blue collar background sometimes feels a bit at odds with my current life as an urban ghey, and it’s really nice to hear about the ways someone else is reconciling those parts of themselves.

  2. whew. one of my favorite things about your writing is how much you routinely pack into a single, understated phrase or sentence, whether that is amusing (please let’s all clap for ‘dressed down’ by the mens fashion store manager) or emotionally potent (your dad being the first one to say he saw you in your distress is- wow). the density of those moments is such a pleasure to experience as a reader, even when they hurt. the tracing of different kinds of risk here is so, so good. very glad you are here and writing.

    (side note, how is it to go through glass doors now, if you’re at the pharmacy or grocery store or whatever?)

    • hihello!

      Thank you so much for the very kind words, I truly, deeply appreciate it!

      As per your Q: it’s funny, I always find myself looking at them and just reverse engineering them in my head a little. When I’m back home in the Yukon, I find it harder just because I used to fix all of them and now that’s me or my life but I can’t help but feel responsible?

  3. This was a great read! Your insights into the struggle of gender dysphoria are a huge help to me on my profession (high school teacher). As usual, your ability to tie the strings from you and your life to the nature of your subject matter encourages me to be a more thoughtful person with those around me. Thank you.

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