Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Limey Kay, Part Two

My previous post about Limey Kay caught the interest of a lot of people, including a newspaper, the Half Moon Bay Review. Their reporter Greg Thomas came to La Honda and interviewed me, and then I took him to Limey's house. Here's a link to the article he wrote.

Everybody who encountered Limey came away with a story to tell. I won't repeat what was said in the Half Moon Bay Review article, but here are a few more details.

Most of the Limey tales involve Limey with a gun, such as the time Limey held a gun to the head of a Hells Angel. For weeks thereafter Limey was on the lam, hiding out as the Angels sought revenge. Meanwhile Nancy Kay, Limey's wife, asked for mercy from her old friend Sonny Barger, who was head of the Oakland Hells Angels. Eventually Sonny called off the manhunt, and Limey came out of hiding. (In case you don't know, La Honda has always been something of a second home for the Hells Angels since before the days of Ken Kesey.)

Other stories involve Limey laying a gun on the bar and demanding a beer, or Limey with a rifle threatening a neighbor's dog, or Nancy waiting until Limey passed out from drink and then tossing his gun in the lake. But here's the thing: Nobody has a story in which Limey ever fired a shot.

James Adams, who gave me the old Stiletto hammer that I posted about here, says that Limey's real name was Hubert Allan Kay. I'll let James tell it: "The name 'Limey' was supposed to have been because he raced English flat-track motorcycles on no-brake bikes. The real reason for 'Limey' was because his Mom was English and he would go to England with her in his youth.

"Limey had, at one time, 22 feral cats. [Descendants of those cats still hang around the woods near his cabin.] The cats knew they could trust him. He'd take Jody, his infant daughter, out with him to feed them in the mornings. He'd spend more money for huge bags of cat food than he'd spend at the bar, which was a lot.

"He had a feud with the town of La Honda, and poured concrete over the water meter box. It was years before the town got a reading."

Some La Honda houses (including mine) suffered major damage in the 1989 World Series earthquake. Limey's brick house was no exception. When he repaired it, he left a memento. The writing on the abalone shell says EARTH QUAKE 89.

Another La Honda resident has this memory of Limey: "One of the first summers we were in La Honda, I was gardening. It was morning and Limey walked down the street and we spoke - just small talk. The next day, I was gardening again and Limey stopped and handed me a flower. He said something like, 'I know you like flowers so this is for you.' I don't even think he knew my name but his gesture touched my heart. We had heard that he was impolite, sometimes dangerous and that his personal health habits were somewhat unacceptable. But I never saw any of that side of him. I'll always remember him as the old alcoholic who wandered down the street and was gentle and kind."

And then there's this story from another resident: "I had a white Samoyed husky. He was not fenced, nor were most dogs at the time. I tended bar at Venturi’s, and my dog would sometimes wander down to the bar to pick me up from work. This was fine for a long time. Then we started seeing a pair of shepherds. Apparently the shepherds were building their gang/pack. Limey had a great rabbit warren and maze in his yard on the hill across from my house. One day I came home, and there were all of Limey’s rabbits, dead, scattered all over the street and my front yard. Apparently the shepherds gathered up a bunch of compatriots from up and down the neighborhood and they raided the helpless rabbits. I was scared silly. I didn’t know what to do. So I got a shovel and buried them all. It was scary. Apparently Limey wasn’t at home at that time. So that night I went to work. After a few hours, into the bar comes Limey with a rifle over his shoulder. He told me that the next time he saw my dog in his yard, he’d shoot him. I was scared, but he was absolutely right. I kept my dog inside. Within a couple of weeks, I learned that the pair of shepherds were shot [by a rancher, not Limey]. So my dog went back outside, and life returned to normal, and Limey never said another word about the incident to me."

Some of Limey's best work was hidden from the public inside his own house. I have a couple of examples here. He made a lovely passage between kitchen and dining room.

How did he keep those bricks in the arch from falling down?

It's a small cabin - one neighbor calls it "the Hobbit House" - with a small dining room, and yet at one end of the dining room Limey built a fireplace in which you could roast an entire pig. Imagine sitting at a dining table just a few feet from a full roaring fire.

He used brick as a baseboard and as a windowsill.

Limey usually had a toothpick in his mouth which he'd soaked in brandy the night before. If you wanted Limey to show up for a job, you enticed him with a six-pack of Coors. It was generally the cost of getting an estimate - or doing any kind of business with him. And when he worked, he started the day (at 6:30 in the morning) mixing mortar and drinking Coors, even in the cold of winter.

People were scared of Limey because he was gruff. If he spoke, he mumbled. And yet he often showed kindness. If your car was stuck in a ditch, Limey without being asked would pull you out with his monster jeep-like vehicle which he called The General.

Limey seemed to have a soft spot for animals and children. Besides the cats and the rabbits, I remember the goats he used to keep in a pen. My children would feed them carrots through the fence. And if anybody drove too fast up our narrow little road, Limey would flag them down.

I wish I had a photo of the brick shower that he had downstairs. Unfortunately, the plumbing was less durable than the brickwork, and the whole thing had to be destroyed. I wonder how he waterproofed it. Has anybody ever heard of a brick shower? It was certainly an appropriate spot for his use of abalone and other shells. Like Limey himself, that shower was rough, unforgettable, flawed, and one of a kind.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Herbert Hoover's Bench

[Here’s another story from my past. Once again, it takes place in 1973. I read this aloud last night at the Moon News Bookstore in Half Moon Bay where I’ve been reading every couple of months - a great store, by the way. I’ll be reading there again on September 25, if anybody would like to come listen. Bring something of your own and share it, too. It’s an open mic - but you have to call in advance if you want a spot.]

Herbert Hoover's Bench

Jan Anderson was my landlady. I was her handyman. She’d been on the planet since 1892. We called her Jan when she was friendly and Mrs. Anderson when she was acting like a landlady.

One day Jan showed me a bench. Or at least, she said it was a bench. All I saw was a rotten pile of wood. “Can you fix it?” she asked.

“No. It’s too far gone.”

“Herbie Hoover gave it to me.”

“Herbert Hoover? The president?”

“This was after he got fired.”

Jan had run a taxi company. When Mr. Hoover left office, he settled in Palo Alto. Upon his arrival in California, he called for a taxi. Jan sent her best driver, a man who was polite and reliable, and that driver never came back. Hoover hired him as chauffeur.

Jan and Mr. Hoover met frequently. She owned a peanut factory next door to the taxi company, and Mr. Hoover used to wander into the taxi office with a bag of fresh roasted nuts. “Want some?” he’d always ask. He loved peanuts, but he was not an interesting man. “Not a conversationalist”, Jan said.

Jan grew up among the fruit orchards and dirt roads of the Santa Cruz Mountains near Los Gatos. She rode a donkey to school. Some days the donkey would stop at a creek, bend down for a drink, and then buck her off into the water. Furious, she would chase the donkey, which stayed just out of her reach all the way home.

Jan grew up fast. At age 11, she confided to me, she was “fully developed” and grade school was a humiliation. She transferred to a new town, lied about her age, and graduated from high school at age 15. She wanted to be a pharmacist but found that nobody would respect a female in that field. She found few opportunities for a woman to do anything except making babies, at which, she said, she was a failure. With peanuts and taxis she found some success.

To me she seemed a piece of living history. She remembered the 1906 earthquake - it ripped her house into three pieces. These days, a widow, she lived at the edge of the Stanford golf course on land that Leland Stanford had been “furious to discover he didn’t own,” she said with satisfaction. She rented cheap cottages and invited tenants over for whiskey sours and conversation. I happily obliged.

“Did Herbert Hoover flirt with you?” I asked.

“No.” She sighed.

“Did you flirt with him?”

“Well of course!” Even at age 81 Jan was a coquette, especially after a couple of whiskey sours, sometimes batting her eyes at me. Once after a third whiskey sour she showed me two nude photos of herself, taken by her husband on a hill near Half Moon Bay. She’d placed hands in strategic places and smiled warily at the camera. Quite the babe. Now with failing body and bad cooking she could still summon the come-hither smile but carried the permanent smell of urine and burnt cheese.

Jan told me that Herbie’s wife, Lou Hoover, used to call for a taxi about once a week, and she always asked for Car Number Seven.

One day Jan pulled the driver of Number Seven aside and asked, “Why are you Lou’s favorite?”

The driver just smiled. “I’ll never tell.”

After Lou died, the driver revealed that Lou used to smoke in the taxi. He’d give her a pack of cigarettes and drive her around for an hour while she smoked. He also bought beer for her, which she drank in secret at home. Herbie wouldn’t have approved.

“So that’s the worst you have on the Hoovers?” I teased. “His wife smoked cigarettes and drank beer?”

“Sometimes what’s normal is the scandal,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Scandal is what people are ashamed of. Some things are accepted, so they aren’t tittle-tattle.”

“Like what?”

“Herbie had a sign posted at his ranch: HELP WANTED. NO JAPS OR NEGROES NEED APPLY.”

“He had a ranch? I thought you said he had a house in Palo Alto.”

She looked at me darkly. “Now you’re the expert on Hoover?”

“No ma’am.”

“He loved peanuts.” She ran hands through white hair, once blond. “Can you take me for a ride?”

“Where do you want to go?”

“A little hill I know. Near Half Moon Bay.” She smiled like a kitten. “There’s something I want to show you.”

“I can’t today. Sorry. Did you ever ask Mr. Hoover to take you to that hill?”


“What did he say?”

“Same as you: ‘Not today.’ He was a gentleman. Anyway, if he’d said ‘Yes,’ I don’t know what I would have done.”

“You might have kissed him. Just for fun.”

“I might have. And then we’d have tittle-tattle, he and I. Everybody should make some gossip. So what can you do for this bench?”

“Burn it.”

“Everything rots.” She sighed. “I’m next.”

“Not yet. There’s still time to make some gossip.”

“Go ahead. Burn the bench.” She winked. “And some day, you’ll take me to that hill.”

“Yes, ma’am. Some other day.”


[About those two photos: Yes, they’re the real deal. But Jan is not her real name, and I've changed some details. I asked the (mostly female) group at Moon News if I would be a cad to post those photos, and they unanimously said it would be okay and in fact, given their impression of Jan’s character and the fact that Jan showed me the photos in the first place, they suspect Jan probably would have wanted me to post them. Jan died 25 years ago, had no children, so who’s to hurt? Jan’s spirit still hovers over the shady acre of land that Leland Stanford forgot to buy - though now it’s got McMansions on it. If anybody thinks I’m doing wrong, please leave a comment or send me an e-mail, and we can discuss it. I was very fond of Jan and wouldn’t want to hurt her in any way.]

Monday, July 21, 2008

Limey Kay

Limey Kay was a stonemason, a bricklayer, and a colorful character. He was also my neighbor in La Honda, California.

All around La Honda and the Santa Cruz Mountains you come upon samples of his work - a brick fence post, a barbecue, a chimney, or a wall.

Limey had a distinct style. Often he mixed abalone shells among his bricks.

Sometimes he added scallop shells and mussels.

Often he added a whimsical touch.

Limey's old house, which is just up the street from my own, is an eclectic mix of brick and stone reflecting, I suppose, different stages of his growth as a craftsman.

It's a small house, but it has six chimneys. No two are alike.

Consistency and symmetry were of not much interest to Limey Kay. Neither were foundations, so some of his work hasn't held up particularly well.

Every day I'd see Limey walking down the road past my house on the way to Applejacks, our local bar. He moved like a cat. I always marveled that a man so old, who had spent his life lifting stones and bricks, could be so limber. Alcohol, apparently, works as a lubricant ... for a while.

Limey could be your sworn enemy one day, and the next day he could hand you a flower. He didn't always have the firmest grasp of finances. One day he walked into our local realtor's office and said, "I hate to do it but I'm broke and I'm gonna have to sell my house." The realtor replied, "Limey, I hate to tell you but I already sold your house for you - three years ago."

The house remains. It's on a steep hillside. Landslides and earthquakes and falling trees have done their damage. The current owner, who loves Limey's craftsmanship, is working to restore it.

Limey died in 2005, but his gun-toting, hard-drinking, cantankerous, fun-loving spirit lives on in La Honda, as well as examples of his craft. He was a folk artist, a pain in the butt, a one-of-a-kind stylist, and I salute him.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Yoo Hoo!

[Time for another tale from my past. It's only barely connected to carpentry, but at least the connection exists. The year is 1973.]

“Yoo-hoo!” Fingers tapped on glass. “Hello! Yoo-hoo!” A little white-haired woman was at the cabin window.

I’d been staining shelves. Wiping hands on my T shirt, I stepped outside.

She bobbed up and down like a bird. “Oh at last - I was beginning to wonder if anybody - would you tell me - we’re lost... Where are we?”

Good question. I lived in an odd little bohemian paradise, a cluster of broken-down cabins on a nameless frontage road, one block long. To make us easier to find, I had painted orange letters on a board and tacked it to a telephone pole: FAR OUT. At the road’s other end I tacked another board: FAR IN.

Immediately real estate developers, who lusted for the property, called the place Far In Far Out. The year was 1973; property values were soaring. We were tucked between the Stanford Golf Course and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in a pocket of cheap rent and hippie lifestyle surrounded by wealth and academia. If you have to live in poverty, think location, location, location.

The woman smelled of lavender powder. Still bobbing up and down she said, “We’re thoroughly lost. The Oakley Heights Country Club - the clubhouse - we had directions but we couldn’t find it -”

Leaning against a white Bentley sedan, quietly mouthing a pipe, stood an old man. The car was waxed to a gleam. The man and woman were dressed as if for a wedding.

I tried to give directions. “Keep going down this road. Make a left at the second traffic light. Then you’re on Sand Hill Road. Go about two miles...”

The woman clasped her hands. “Do you have a car? - we’ll follow - we’ll reward you - we’ll drive behind - we’ll make it well worth your while - we’re late you see - we’ll pay you handsomely -”

“Just make a left at the second traffic light and about two miles -”

“Now which way - do we go right or left - did you say there was a traffic light?”

“Continue down this road. At the second light -”

“Are you an artist?” She was studying the cherry oil on my T shirt and bare legs.

“No, ma’am. I’m a carpenter.”

“Oh. What a pity.” She shook her head. “Well. Is it on this road? Which way?”

“Turn left at the second light.”

“How many lights are there? Could you drive in front - we’ll reimburse you - it’s my birthday - they’re giving me a party - it started at six -”

It was already seven-fifteen.

“Follow me,” I said.

She clapped her hands and - I swear - jumped in the air. “Oh goody,” she said.

My Volkswagen wouldn’t start until I opened the hood and unstuck the throttle. Now my fingers were black with engine grease. I drove slowly along Sand Hill Road. The Bentley followed at a distance and then - as I saw in the rear view mirror - it stopped at the side of the road. I parked and walked back to them.

They were out of the car. The man was pointing with his pipe. His voice was whooshy and I couldn’t understand. Then he folded his arms and sucked on the pipe, waiting for something. He looked like an owl.

“He thinks he recognizes it - that building back there,” said the woman. “We were here once before - everything looks different now - there weren’t all these houses - this road -”

“That’s not it,” I said. It was an office building, newly built, and it wasn’t even occupied yet.

The owl whooshed and pointed again with his pipe.

The woman stood on tiptoe and cupped her hands over Owl’s ear. “THAT’S NOT IT” she shouted.

Owl nodded his head, whooshing and pointing. He looked at me. I shook my head.

We climbed back in the cars.
I knew where the golf course was. You can’t miss it. But I’d never noticed a clubhouse. Turning off Sand Hill Road, Oakley Heights turned out to be a fantasy land of gigantic houses among dainty landscapes, swans floating on a mystic little lake, a manufactured waterfall. But no clubhouse. The road turned a corner and came to a sudden dead end.

I was wearing rags. On the radio: “The World is a Ghetto.” My car was a junker with a GET NAKED bumper sticker. People who live in places like this hire security guards to keep out people like me. The woman was clutching a handful of dollar bills. “Take this,” she said.

I refused.

“Ask somebody,” she said.

We drove back through the surreal landscape to Sand Hill Road where I spotted a barefoot girl struggling to push a shopping cart uphill. I called from my car, “Where’s the entrance to the Oakley Heights Country Club?”

“How the crap would I know?” she said.

“What did she say?” the old woman called from her Bentley.

“She said it’s this way. Follow me.”

We drove up Sand Hill Road for the second time. When we passed the empty office building, the woman stopped again, Owl whooshed and pointed his pipe, I shook my head, the woman tried to press her dollar bills into my hand, I refused, and we drove on. And yet again a mile later she pulled off, Owl pointing, dollars waving, my head shaking. We drove on.

I found it.

How could I have missed it?

We stopped in the parking lot. I could hear music from the clubhouse, some Carpenters song. A man in a topcoat and top hat walked toward us, grinning, with a handful of balloons. People were staring at me, frowning. For some reason when I awoke that morning, I hadn’t dressed in club whites. The woman offered money. I refused. She insisted: “Please. You must.”

Finally, to make her happy, I took two dollars. “Happy birthday,” I said.

“You’re welcome,” she said.

Monday, July 14, 2008

32 Ounce Framing Hammer

So it's an old Stiletto hammer, and I should have known that. Thanks, Stephen. I see that the largest hammer you can now buy from Stiletto is a 21 ounce model with a steel head. But man oh man! The one I'd love to hold in my hand, to test its grip and its balance and its reverberation (hopefully its lack of reverberation) is the titanium 15 ounce model which they claim drives with the force of a 28 ounce steel hammer. If I'd had one of those in my younger days, I might be able to lift my hand above my shoulder now without wincing.

The price? A mere $262.50. I had no idea you could spend that much money on a hammer.

Does anybody have one? Do you like it?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

32 Ounce Framing Hammer again

I've called in the expert - Stephen A. Shepherd of Full Chisel Blog, a man who is a walking encyclopedia about old tools. At his request I'm posting some close-ups of the 32 ounce framing hammer that I described earlier in this post.

Stephen also asked me to "clean up" the hammer, but I'm reluctant because I still might use it on the bookcover of Clear Heart if the wood grain idea doesn't pan out, and I want the hammer to show all its dings and rust as a reflection of the dings and rust in my characters' bodies. If you're an old carpenter (or even a young one), you know what I mean. Sorry, Stephen, but this is the best I can do right now.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

More grain

Again, this is the siding on my house, which I built 30 years ago.
Would any of these be more appropriate for the bookjacket of Clear Heart?
Does that vein of red in the above photo evoke the right themes? Does it look somehow phony? I didn't add any color that wasn't already there, but somebody looking at the bookjacket wouldn't know that. Sometimes reality looks unreal.
Straighter grain, mostly clear, mostly heart, weathered in blasting sun and rain, attacked by insects, preserved (barely) with borate and a transparent stain.

(Ask me about borate sometime. The stuff is miraculous.)

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Wood grain

At high noon the sun creates rippling shadows on the old redwood siding of my house.
I've been trying to come up with an image for the bookjacket of the print edition of Clear Heart (it's coming, I promise!).
Do any of these images evoke Clear Heart (clear but funky, old, weathered - and with a lot of heart)? Or am I on the wrong track?

Monday, July 7, 2008

Power tool races

Anybody who has listened to Clear Heart knows that I have a soft spot for racing belt sanders. Now an e-mail from Eric Larsen has turned me on to a wonderful Flickr photostream of power tool racing. If, like me, you are a little strange about power tools, you'll probably enjoy these photos. Here the top photo of a racing power saw is by AEther. The bottom photo is by Jeanine Anderson.

Oh. You're wondering, "What kind of tool is that?" Why, it's a corn chip launcher, of course.
(Both photos are Creative Commons.)

The Best Bad Book

Grandpa’s Fiddle by Timothy J. Halloran is the best bad book I’ve read since the African paperbacks I used to enjoy back in the 1960’s.

Grandpa’s Fiddle is best because it’s told in a voice like grandpa in his living room late at night by a crackling fire. Best because the story grabbed and held me to the end. Best because it’s a rollicking piece of Americana, a kind of folk art in the form of a novel. As much as I enjoyed this book as an adult, I wish I had a ten-year-old to share it because someone of that age could relish it, too, and the events would provoke interesting discussions about slavery, pioneers, wild horses, and raw frontier courage.

But it’s bad because the text screams for at least one proofreading, for crying out loud. It’s the second-worst self-publishing product I’ve ever encountered. (The worst was a novel named The Naked Computer by some guy named Joe Cottonwood.) In this case, though, the typos almost add to the casual, down-home quality of the storytelling just as they did in those African books I loved so long ago.

I learned about Grandpa’s Fiddle from one of my favorite blogs, People Reading, which posts photos of people reading books in cafes and laundromats and bus stops in San Francisco. One day there was a photo of a homeless man reading this book. I had to have it.

The framework of the novel is the history of a fiddle that has passed down the family line, beginning with its purchase in Africa by a freed slave and ending in Chicago in the present day. The fiddle itself has only a small role in the tale. Abraham Cooper is the slave who bargains for his own freedom, takes work as a sailor, returns to the old plantation to buy the freedom of the woman he loves, and travels the dangerous roads and rivers of pre-Civil War America. His story becomes mixed with that of an Irishman named Hoggen who is a natural horseman on the lam, pursued by a wealthy Englishman who wants to kill him. There are prophecies, Indian medicine, magnificent wild horses, hardworking pioneer women and men, frontier justice, even a blind woman with a shotgun. And once or twice, there are developments that will have you rolling your eyes, but if you’re like me you’ll forgive and accept them in the spirit of adventure.

Now, the odd thing is that I looked up the author and found that he is a lawyer practicing in San Francisco. The photo of that boyish-looking white man, an attorney for Pete’s sake, made me reconsider whether I can really call Grandpa’s Fiddle a kind of folk art. You decide. Enter the story with an open and uncynical mind, and I hope you enjoy it.