Friday, December 16, 2011

365 Jobs: Bag Lady of the Suburbs

December, 1987

I'm working on a man's shower.  I go out to my truck for a tool and find a crazy lady peering over the tailgate into the bed.  My first thought is that she's looking to steal something but all I say is: "Hello.  You need something?"

She jerks back and says, "I live in the house next door up the hill."  She's old.  She has red scars on her arms like they'd been shot full of holes.  "This is my dog."

A scruffy mutt is dropping a pine cone at my feet.  He looks up at me expectantly, wagging his tail. 

The lady, too, looks at me expectantly.  "He wants you to throw it for him," she says.

So I do.  Again and again.  While I'm playing throw-and-fetch with the dog, she says, "I could use a handyman to fix a drain plunger.  And a screw came out of the vacuum cleaner.  The furnace doesn't make any heat.  The dishwasher caught on fire and I had to pull the plug.  I could make a whole list of things."

"Uh huh," I say.  From inside the house I see the homeowner glaring at us.  I'm charging by the hour to fix his shower, so I'll have to adjust for the time spent out here.

The woman is speaking: "I’ve been reading the instruction manual about how to drive my car.  I haven’t driven it in four years but I have to go to the dentist tomorrow because my tooth fell out.”  She sticks a finger in her mouth and makes her cheek bulge where the molar is missing.  “Did you think it only happens to children?  Happy Hanukkah, huh?  I like your shirt.  Now that I’ve sold the property across the street finally I’ve got the money to fix things up.  I only need you for an hour.”

I say, "What you've got sounds like it will take many hours.  Several days."

Suddenly she’s angry.  She draws herself up straight and says, “Listen, buster, it will take less than an hour because I say so.  I’m the boss.  Get it?” 

Back inside the house, the man says, "I see you met Nelda.  You wouldn't know it, but she could probably buy half of San Jose.  She owns six houses on this road.  For God's sake, don't work for her."

"I can't work for her.  She already fired me."

"Lucky you."

Back home when I'm unloading the truck, I realize I'm missing a toilet auger.  It had been sitting in the bed.

After a flash of anger, I feel sad for Nelda.  Is she really going to ream her own toilets?  She's a lonely lady with an old dog.  If she were poor, I'd help her for free; but she's loaded and she stole my tool — a rusty, smelly, ten dollar tool.  She's a bag lady without the bag, with property.  How do you help somebody like that?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Flossing the Deck

Today's job is cleaning out the cracks between the boards of my deck.  Since I have about a thousand square feet of decking with a dozen giant redwood trees dropping duff all over, flossing is a big task.  For 30 years I've done it on my knees with a screwdriver or a putty knife or by running my power saw with an old blade.

This year, I googled "flossing the deck" and found this wonderful tool.  

Deckhand tool
I called up the guy who invented it, placed an order (he'll talk your ear off), and I'm pleased to report that the Deckhand tool is worth every penny of the $35 I paid for it ($25 plus shipping).  It works fast and handles well.  It saves your knees.  What used to be a multi-day job I can now do in a few hours.  Fantastic!

Flossing the deck

And hey — Santa!  If you're stumped for a holiday gift for the somebody-who-has-everything, I bet your somebody doesn't have a deck flossing tool. 

(I paid for the tool.  I get nothing for endorsing it here.)

Monday, December 5, 2011

365 Jobs: Murder of a Client

Friday, September 23, 1988

Isabella my favorite decorator calls and says, "I've got a strange one for you.  He's an alcoholic.  He's wealthy but you never know when he'll drive off a cliff.  Get your money before you leave.  Are you game?"

It's a new-looking community behind a security gate in Cupertino.  The units are conventional, what you get when you build tract houses with a dose of quality.  Large garages, no trees.  Sterile.

Bob is an old man.  He smokes, shuffles around, and mumbles "God damn it" a lot.  He's white.  His girlfriend Lisa is fresh, young — looks about half his age.  She's black.  She says she's studying for the Law Boards.  On the wall she's framed her undergraduate degree: Princeton, 1979.

Lisa Hopewell, Princeton Class of 1979

Lisa lives here with her two kittens — and Bob.

The white kitten, Lisa tells me, has just been declawed so he mustn't leave the house.  Without claws, he's defenseless. 

"And the other?" I ask, indicating the black kitten.

"That little pussy has claws," Lisa says.  "She can take care of herself."

Okay, this is weird.  And none of my business. 

I remove a valence and install one of those multi-globe lights over the bathroom sink.  I'm good at this.  I work fast.  Unfortunately, the faster I work, the less I can charge for labor — just the minimum service call.  I use these small jobs as loss leaders because they often lead to bigger jobs later on.

Every time I go out to my truck for a tool or supplies, the black kitten climbs in.  Mewing, purring, curling up and beseeching me with kitten eyes, she's either very friendly or desperate to escape.

When I finish, Bob is gone.  Lisa inspects the work and says, "Hey.  You're good."

"Good" in this case means you can't tell I've ever been there.  She writes a check and follows me out to the truck.  I roll down the window, hand her the black kitten who has nestled into a cup holder, and I drive straight to the bank as Isabella instructed.

At the bank, they tell me the checking account has closed.

I call Lisa.  She apologizes profusely.  I return.  She pays me cash.  She seems like a spacehead.  Maybe she's stoned.  Anyway, an hour wasted.

Tuesday, October 4, 1988

Isabella sends me back for more work behind the security gate in Cupertino.  Another woman is working there, hanging wallpaper.  I'm installing wall sconces and an overhead track light.

While we're working, Bob and Lisa get into a shouting battle.  After cussing each other out, Bob yells, "You're a junkie!"

Lisa says, “That’s right.  I’m addicted to your love.  If you don’t quit, you’re going to die of cirrhosis of the liver.”

Bob: “I don’t drink that much.” 

Lisa: “You’re an alcoholic!  You quit AA, you quit every treatment program...” 


“I haven’t had a joint in so long...”

The wallpaper lady finishes up quickly and somewhat sloppily.  Outside she tells me, "I'll never go back there.  Ever!"

I should probably feel the same.  These people are out of control.  But when I finish, as Lisa watches Bob writing me a check, a calculating look comes over her face.  "Could you replace these downlights?" she asks, indicating the living room ceiling.  "Is that all right with you, Bob?"

"God damn it," Bob says.

Apparently that means yes.  Lisa and I make arrangements for me to come back.  I give an outrageously high estimate — I'm not interested unless the money's good.  She accepts.

I don't know what Lisa's game is with the lights.  The robotic tone of her voice as she told Bob "I'm addicted to your love" sounded as if she were reading a line — badly.

Tuesday, October 18, 1988

Lisa is home when I arrive; Bob is out.  Good.  It's easier to work when they're apart. 

Everything goes well, working fast, but the blankety-blank electric supplier short-counted me and I have to drive to San Jose and back to pick up another can for the downlights, wasting an hour on a hot afternoon.  When I return, unfortunately, Bob is there.  He and Lisa commence fighting.   

She taunts him: "In eight days you're going to jail.  You got a string of DUI's.  They caught you driving with a suspended license.  You ready for jail?  They're gonna fuck your butt."

Bob throws a bowl of soup at her.  He’s shaky. 

In the kitchen is a placard: 

It is better to have loved and lost. 
Much better. 
I get paid and immediately drive to the bank and cash the check.  I never want to see them again.  Good money doesn't justify shit karma. 

January 10, 1991

Isabella calls and says, "Remember Lisa Hopewell?  She was murdered.  Isn't that awful?"

Immediately I ask, "Was it Bob?"

Apparently it wasn't.  At least he was never mentioned as a suspect, though Lisa was described as a "caretaker" of his "upscale condo" in Cupertino, and she was killed in that condo, and the killing had sexual overtones.  (The condo is not the same place as the house where I worked for them two years before.)

It's a gruesome story.  Lisa's hands had been tied behind her back.  Her face was bound with duct tape.  She died of suffocation and from knife slashes to her throat and vaginal area.

And then the wrong man was convicted of the crime.

Fingerprints on the duct tape led police to Rahsson Bowers, a drug dealer.  Bowers originally blamed "two white guys" for the murder, then changed his story when detectives suggested the name of Rick Walker, a former boyfriend of Lisa Hopewell.

On the stand, Bowers claimed that after smoking crack cocaine, Walker had forced him to wrap Lisa's face with duct tape.  Bowers described Lisa repeatedly gulping as she died. 

Bowers cried on the witness stand.  The jury was visibly moved.  One juror had to ask for a tissue.

Rasshon Bowers was found guilty of second degree murder.  Rick Walker was convicted of first degree murder.  

Bowers had lied.  He'd made a secret plea deal with John Schon, the Santa Clara County prosecutor.  Another witness, an ex-girlfriend of Rick Walker, also gave false testimony against Walker (after being coached by Schon) in secret exchange for lenient treatment of a drug charge.

In June 2003, after 12 years of hard time in San Quentin and Pelican Bay, Rick Walker was freed on the basis of DNA evidence, the result of dogged work by attorney Alison Tucher, the only hero in this sordid tale. 

From every house, there runs a sewer.

(Information about Lisa's murder comes from
, from the San Jose Mercury News, and from the Princeton Alumni Weekly.)

Monday, November 28, 2011

365 Jobs: The Chris Craft Cure

Tuesday, November 28, 1994

Isabella, my favorite decorator, calls and says, "I need you right away to install cable in my bedroom so Henry can watch TV in bed."  Henry is her husband.

"That's an emergency?" I ask.

"Yes.  On Thanksgiving morning he woke up blind.  He thought he must be dreaming.  Then he tried to touch his eyes because he thought they might have disappeared or something.  He didn't blink because he couldn't see his fingers coming, so he touched his eyeballs.  I drove him to the hospital which was a trip because he likes to sleep cool and he was so angry and upset that he wouldn't let me dress him.  So I walk him across the front yard and get him in the car and of course he won't even put on a seat belt so I throw a blanket over him and he starts thrashing and I drive this naked old blind man in the front seat of my car to the hospital without a seat belt and you know I'm a fanatic about seat belts.  It was a stroke.  A mild stroke.  His eyes still work but his brain lost the pathway."

There are pathways in Isabella's brain that seem to get lost, too.  As she says, sometimes she's "totally blond."  Other days, she's simply smart.  If you were to divide the world into Yes and No, Isabella is a Yes person.  Today, though, she's understandably flustered.

I ask, "Are you okay?"

"Do I sound okay?  I'll be okay if you'll come over today and install the cable."

"Can Henry see now?"

"No, I told you, he's blind as a bat."

For some reason I say, "Bats can see."

"And so will Henry as soon as you install the cable."

An hour later I'm at their house, letting myself in.  Isabella and Henry are at the hospital. 

It doesn't take long.  My drill bit hits the wall cavity on the first try, and I stuff the cable through the hole.  I know their crawl space by heart.  I do small jobs at Isabella's house for free in exchange for all the work she sends my way.

That night, Isabella calls.  "Thank you," she says.  "He's sort of starting to see.  It's the powerboat races."

Henry loves powerboats, especially old wooden Chris Crafts.

1928 Chris Craft Cadet (from Wikipedia)
Isabella continues: "He couldn't stand it that he couldn't see the boats, so he reorganized his brain.  That's what you have to do after a stroke."

Medical science, as filtered through Isabella and implemented by me, has restored Henry's sight.  

"Call me if you need anything," I say.

"Yes," Isabella says.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Review: A Carpenter's Life by Larry Haun

I wish I’d known Larry Haun.  From his writing he comes across as one of those spry, sometimes cranky, remarkably ageless carpenters you meet from time to time who love their work and understand the deeper meaning of their craft.  Best of all, his passion was for creating durable, practical housing.  Not McMansions.  Not ego-castles.  Just shelter, a basic human need.

Here’s the purpose of the book in Larry’s own words:

I can’t help but wonder about the relationship between people and their homes.  How do these vastly different dwelling places affect the people who live there?  How have I been shaped by the houses I’ve lived in?  Who and what would I be if I’d been born in an upscale mansion or a shack by the river? 

His knowledge of practical housing came first hand.  In western Nebraska his mother grew up in a sod house and later taught in a straw bale school.  Larry worked as a production framer in the 1950’s tract housing boom in Los Angeles at a time when production framing was just being invented.

Larry avoids the cult of exquisite wood craft.  He used power saws and drywall and makes no apology.  At the same time he cares about sustainability and green values while laughing at the self-canceling concept of a 10,000 square foot house that was certified “green.”

In A Carpenter’s Life he discusses twelve houses in twelve chapters, from his mother’s “soddy” to the quonset huts he built during World War Two to post-war tract houses to Habitat for Humanity houses to his own small, simple house in which he raised a large family.  Most interesting are his personal experiences with each form of construction.  Least interesting are his occasional sustainable ecology rants, which become a bit too frequent near the end of the book.  Not that I disagree with him.  It’s just that if you’re reading his book, most likely you’re already among the converted.

Larry Haun
There are photos and drawings, but this is not a glossy book about glossy houses.  If you’re seeking a holiday gift for a non-glossy carpenter (and, ahem, you’ve already given my own book Clear Heart), you might give A Carpenter’s Life.  I doubt if it’s in many stores.  I ordered my copy through Amazon, and here’s a link if you want to do the same.

For more information, there’s a glowing review of the book here in the New York Times.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving Poem

Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving Day is
     for lizards that scuttle over logs,
     big-bellied spiders that creep in my woodpile,
     fungus that forms a bright wedge of slime.
Thanksgiving Day is
     for life in every corner,
     wet cells sucking nourishment, giving birth,
     teeming through every grain of earth.

We drink water once swallowed by Jesus,
breathe atoms once blown by Buddha,
share the light of stars
     with unknown beings
     on undiscovered planets.
For this light, this water and air,
     this brotherhood
     of countless souls
I give thanks.

I wrote this poem after visiting my wet woodpile on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1982.  I showed the new poem to a friend and was shocked when he said it was "dark" and "creepy."  I meant it as a celebration of life.  Most of my firewood consists of construction scraps from something I was either building or demolishing — and then burning.  The same atoms, cycling endlessly...

(Update: I was going to post the poem on Thanksgiving Day, but at the last moment once again I thought it would be too dark and creepy.  In the light of a new day — and much too late — here it is.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Diary of a Small Contractor

Monday, November 3, 1986

All day
shaping lumber with a
clear heart.
I've built a cabinet and a laminated-wood countertop: cutting, gluing, clamping, sanding.  A pleasure.  Now, just before bed, I want to apply a first coat of finish.

To many woodworkers, the use of polyurethane is a mortal sin.  I'm sympathetic.  In fact, my favorite wood finish is good old tried-and-true linseed oil, a 100% natural product.  But tonight I'm finishing a bathroom countertop which will be under constant assault.  I'm going with poly. 

A long time ago I used poly-euw (as we call it) for some other project.  I ended up with half a quart unused, so I poured it into a jelly jar and screwed the lid down tight.  Air tight.  Exposure to air, of course, makes poly harden.

Now the lid is frozen to the jar.

As a child I learned a trick from my mother: she used to open the stuck lids of food jars by tapping the handle of a butter knife along the outside of the lid, glancing blows in the direction she wanted it to turn.

Mother knows best.  In the basement where I'm working, I don't have a butter knife handy but I do happen to have a 22 ounce framing hammer in my tool belt. 

Tap.  Tap.  A few glancing blows on the lid. 

It still won’t come off.  I rotate the jelly jar in my hands, tapping.  I make dents in the lid, but it just doesn't —


Broken glass in my hand.  Poly-euw all over my clothes, the worktable, the radial arm saw, the basement floor.  Poly-euw mixed with blood.  Sticky.  Smelly.  Gooey.  Unwashable.



“I can’t do the poly tonight,” 


“I just broke the jar.”


“I was just trying to open it.”

“With what?”

“A framing hammer.”

Bless her, she keeps a straight face.

Stripping off my shirt and pants, I throw them in the trash.  Rose wipes and then binds my hand with gauze and tape.  Then I go directly to bed. 

Maybe it's a message from the wood sprites.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Lit Night in La Honda

On the last Wednesday of every month, we hold Lit Night in La Honda.  We meet in the bar of the Cafe Cuesta (formerly Sullivan's) for beer, wine, dinner and audience-friendly words.  I'll be reading as usual, along with a mix of pro and amateur writers.  Poetry (including the always-popular cowboy poetry), amazing stories, and the occasional one-person drama.  For the folks in Australia and Slovenia, I'm giving you extra advance notice this time.  Y'all come!

365 Jobs: Peace and Love and Wall Thermostats

Diary of a Small Contractor, Day 23

Wednesday, October 29, 1986

An early morning consult.  Taylor is an intense, speedy young man in blue jeans and a black mustache.  In less than an hour we plan about $2000 worth of small projects in his glorious house, a beam-and-stone castle with a broad view over Silicon Valley.  Whenever I name a price, Taylor immediately says "Okay" so quickly that I wonder if he heard it.  He gives me a business card: he's an electrical engineer, a manager at Hewlett Packard.  By my reckoning he's about 24 years old in a ten-room house with no wife, no kids.  King-size bed. 

Standing in the driveway we agree to a timetable for the work.  Taylor zooms off in a shiny black Porsche.  Hesitating for a moment under the quiet redwoods, I can see sunlight glinting off tiny windshields on a fabric of highways from Palo Alto to San Jose.  A whole world is zooming off.

It's 1986; I'm 39 years old.  I've just bought my first computer, a Mac Plus.

From Taylor's tony estate, next stop is Sonny’s bungalow right next to the rush and rumble of the Bayshore Freeway.  Lovely red-haired sparkle-eyed Lorraine, Sonny's wife, is dealing with a three-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son.  Lorraine says she always thought she wanted seven children, but now she’s wavering.  “But don’t tell Sonny.  The minute I show the slightest doubt, he’ll run out and get a vasectomy.”

In one long day I install a sink, a faucet, a garbage disposer, a dishwasher, a vent fan, plus switches and outlets.  Sonny arrives at the end.  He's been out installing doors — his niche.  I tell him the parts cost a hundred dollars.  From his wallet he whips out a hundred dollar bill.

Sonny can’t stand to have anyone do favors for him.  This was an even trade, and he knows it, but still he won’t let me leave without giving me a screwdriver, a bran muffin, a cup of coffee.  Sonny is probably the most generous person I've ever met.  He's also a hardworking hippy, if you can handle such a combination of terms.  Sonny is part of a whole cadre of hardworking, hardplaying freaks in the crafts.  After the Haight came the diaspora.  They learned skills, found niches, and held onto their values.

From Sonny’s, next stop is an apartment complex near Stanford University.  Most of the residents are foreign-born students along with their spouses and sometimes their grandparents.  They don’t know how to use garbage disposers or dishwashers, and as the maintenance guy I end up performing some very simple repairs while trying to teach non-English-speaking housewives from Thailand and Paraguay and Nigeria how to use an American kitchen.

It’s dark when I arrive at the apartments.  Everyone is cooking dinner.  I smell rice frying here, pork baking there.  One of the units has “an electrical problem.”

It’s a bad light bulb.

Another unit has a "broken heater."  It's turned off.  I try to teach a Croatian-speaking grandmother how to operate the wall thermostat.

I'm not sure she gets it, but she seems satisfied.  She gives me something that looks like stuffed grape leaves.

It's 7 p.m.  I've been working since 7 a.m.  It's the era of Ronald Reagan.  The Fox Network has just launched.  I drive through rain to pick up 4 gallons of milk at a Menlo Park supermarket where, selecting vegetables, there is a lovely young couple.  Menlo Park, by the way, is the headquarters of Sunset Magazine.  Back home, on the Mac Plus I write this:

He wears an ill-fitting gown   
in this Sunset Magazine town.
She's dressed as a peasant.
The effect is pleasant
and flamboyant in this middle class store
of homeowners writing checks, wanting more.
This couple wants less.

Her hair needs care.
His beard is straggly, partly bare.
Age: about nineteen,
faces fresh, eyes keen.
The decade of their birth
was a struggle on Planet Earth.

In this cornucopia of Wonder Bread and Froot Loops
they choose rice, wheat germ, and chocolate soup.
On one hand he wears an embroidered glove.
What does he know of the Sixties, the Summer of Love?
Naive, laughed-at, sincere. . .

. . . back then, it was me
cruising the ghetto A&P
in paisley and sandals
for peace lighting candles
and what I mean is, God bless you, young couple
as your bubble of idealism washes down
a sea of weary shoppers in a too wealthy town.
My cart fills with yogurt and imported beers.
Somehow we saved the planet these nineteen years.
So much we learned!
Now it's your turn.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

I wrote that poem 25 years ago.  The Menlo Park supermarket is now a Safeway so vast you can get lost in it.  The young couple of 1986 would now be age 44.  Perhaps they have children, teenagers.  The Sixties are four decades gone, a time as distant and unreal to a present-day teenager as the Roaring Twenties were to me.  

Much of the world becomes middle class.  We are wealthy but feel poor.  We live better than medieval kings — better food, softer beds, longer lives.  In every castle we have music and jesters at the push of a button.  We have dishwashers, garbage disposers and wall thermostats.  Do we want more?

So much has changed.  And so little.

Friday, November 11, 2011

365 Jobs: Good Craftsmanship is the Lack of Botch

Diary of a Small Contractor, Days 17 and 18

Saturday, October 18, 1986

Surrounding the ultra-wealthy center of deep Woodside lies a territory that is merely well-off and sometimes, on the periphery, downright normal.  Today I'm in shallow Woodside working for normal people, spiffing up some closets. 

Magda is a chainsmoker, a “financial advisor” whatever that is — a tough-looking woman whom I wouldn't want to cross.  Her house is set on stilts clinging to a steep hillside.  The structure is solid but small.  The bathroom has been remodeled and is a knockout.  The bedrooms are plain.  The kitchen is an eyesore, poorly laid out.  The living room is falling apart, awaiting a remodel.  They seem to be upgrading the house piece by piece as money allows.

For Magda I install two sets of sliding mirror doors.  Easy.  Takes less than an hour, and I do a perfect job.  In this case, a perfect job is one that nobody will ever notice — the absence of botch. 

Next, Magda wants me to install a pair of birch doors on a sliding track for another closet.  These doors are solid core, heavy, easily scratched, difficult to carry without banging into something.  I install the track, the rollers, take meticulous measurements.  I place towels over sawhorses, scribe my cuts with a knife to prevent chipping, slide my power saw over paper to prevent rub marks on the wood.  After three cautious hours, the doors are hung — and one is nearly an inch shorter than the other.

Sacré bleu!

I had meant to trim 7/16 inch off each door.  Instead, I trimmed the same door twice!

So I have to trim the other door 7/8 inch too short, which means I have to lower the track that suspends them, which means I’ll have to buy and install a wider apron to hide the track, and I’ll have to eat the cost for time and material.  The doors would’ve looked better with the extra inch.  And I was so careful! 

So far Magda's husband, Kerry, has spent the entire day on the sofa flipping channels on Saturday afternoon television — a football game, an old movie, a panel interview, a standup comic.  Magda's gone out, so I tell Kerry I need to discuss a small problem with the doors.  From the sofa Kerry waves me off and says, “I’ll never drink again.  Until next time.”

A few minutes later, Magda returns.  I tell her we need to discuss the doors.  Without waiting for an explanation, Magda stomps to the bedroom and pushes the wooden doors along the track. 

"Why do they stick?" she asks.  "They're too hard to push."

Aha.  She hasn't even noticed the door length. 

"That's a light-duty track and roller set," I say. 

She frowns.  "It's what they gave me at the door store." 

"For solid core doors, they should have given you heavy-duty track and rollers."

"I'll get them," Magda says.  "And I'll give that salesman a piece of my mind."

I pity that man.  But I benefit from his mistake.  At least for a while.

Tuesday, October 21, 1986

When I return, Magda has the new heavy-duty track and new wheels for the closet door that I botched — and she still hasn't noticed that they're nearly an inch short.

To my delight, the new track and wheel combination requires nearly an inch more space.  My botch is perfect!  The doors are pre-trimmed!

Magda also asks me, as long as I’m there, to try to make some recessed lights fit into her ceiling.  I say okay.  She goes off to work and leaves me a bakery roll and a cup of coffee.  Nice lady.  Seems tough as nails at first.  But nice.

Whoever installed the recessed lights didn’t cut large enough holes for them.  His error becomes my pay.  I spread a dropcloth, remove the cans, resaw the holes, replace the cans, pick up the dropcloth, clean up some dust that settled on the floor.  Like most craftsmanship, in this case doing it right means doing nothing showy or creative — nothing you'd notice — it means simply the lack of botch, followed by a good cleanup.

It takes four hours to do the additional chores.  All billable.

Sometimes, everything works out.

Friday, October 28, 2011

365 Jobs: Afterwards, It's Still There

Diary of a Small Contractor, Days 10, 11, and 12

Wednesday, October 8, 1986

The porch is rotten.  Rusty doorbell button.  A dog barks.  The person opening the door has an undefined body: shirt, blue jeans, short hair — what gender?

“Hello,” I say.  “The owner asked me to look at two small decks.  She said they needed rebuilding.”

“Oh yeah.”  The voice of a young woman.  So, okay.  Female.  “The one you’re standing on.  And another.  Out back.”

She leads me through the living room.  She smokes.  The air stinks.  Massive stereo equipment, stacks of tapes.  A ratty chair.  Rock posters on the walls.  A bookshelf sagging with college texts.  A fine old oak floor covered with scratches and stains, ruined. 

The back porch has termites.  No concrete pad.  Wood in contact with earth.  I take measurements, then return through the stale air of the kitchen and living room.  I measure the front porch, where somebody built a nice pattern into the handrail, though now it’s wobbly. 

The young woman is lifting weights in the living room, taking breaks to puff on a brown cigarette.  Half the books are in German.  Rock music is blasting from the stereo.  In one corner there’s a playpen full of toys.  Otherwise, there's no sign of a child.

The house is a crime.  Absentee landlord.  Careless renters.  At a nearby pay phone, I call Carol, the owner, and tell her that the two porches are well on their way to becoming two piles of termite turd. 

Carol asks, "When can you fix them?"

"I'm booked up for a couple months, but I've got the rest of today.  I could juggle tomorrow, free it up.  Two days would do it."

Carol laughs.  "Somebody told me, if you want to get a job done, call a busy man.  You sound like my guy."

Her reasoning sounds flawed, but I'll take it.  Cash flow, needed.

As I lift off the boards, dismantling the back porch, I start to wonder how far the termites have spread.  I’d better inspect the house to find out where, if ever, the destruction ends.

In the crawlspace I see evidence of termites and evidence of repair.  No active infestation.  The foundation, however, is crumbling away.  Good grief.  As if termites ate the concrete.  The grade beam is turning to powder.  I can pull it off with my fingers — by the handful — like a sandcastle built wet but now dry.  There is practically nothing holding the house up.  If the earthquake chooses this moment to strike, I’m a goner.

Back outside, the almost genderless young woman is straddling a motorcycle.  I ask her to leave the door unlocked for me.

“What for?” she says as she pulls on a helmet.

“So I can use the bathroom.  The telephone.”

She laughs.  “No way,” she says.

Well, shit.  She’s a renter.  She lifts weights and reads books.  There’s a shadowy man who comes and goes in a van and never speaks to me.  There’s another woman living in the garage who ordered me to move my extension cord so it wouldn’t crush her plants.  “They may not look like much to you,” she says, “but they mean a lot to me.”

Actually, I’d admired her plants, especially an oddly shaped purple flower.  I’d intentionally placed my extension cord so as not to hurt the plants, but somebody moved it, perhaps the shadowy man.

I tear the porches out and leave them in a pile in the yard.  Mix and pour two concrete landings.  When I leave, both the front and back doors are three feet above the ground. I could build a temporary step, but I don't.  Take that, motorcycle mama.

At night I call the owner and tell her that before I build porches over the exposed foundation, I should do something to brace it.

To my surprise, she agrees: “Let’s do it right.”  I didn’t expect such an attitude because nothing in that house is right.  She must have recently bought it.  Maybe she doesn’t know what a wreck it is.

"What you really need is to jack up the house and build a whole new foundation.  It'll cost big bucks, though."

"Will you do it?"

"You need a different contractor for this.  I just do small jobs.  Since the house is in Palo Alto, the permit will be a nightmare.  It'll take months.  I can place some piers.  That'll remove the time pressure."

"Do what you can."

Thursday, October 9, 1986

I pull out the old concrete.  By hand.  Amazing.  Whoever mixed this stuff must’ve used the wrong proportions.  Too little Portland cement.  Impure water.  Something.

I mix a fresh batch of Quikrete in a wheelbarrow and pour it.  Then I shove two pier blocks into the puddles of concrete and wedge wood between the piers and the sill.  One corner of the house has already sunk an inch, and I don’t try to jack it up.  At least it won’t sink farther.

Next, I rebuild the front porch.  It goes up fast. 

Two Stanford students are practicing football plays in the street.

The motorcycle mama who wouldn’t unlock the house for me yesterday, today gives me a black cherry seltzer to drink.  On the wall by the telephone is a photo of her and another woman and a baby, all three naked, smiling, in a bathtub.  Definitely not genderless.  I feel like a voyeur.

Two mothers bathing
with one baby.  All look up
smiling at the man.

My hands are eroding.  The fingers crack and peel.  Copper Green, dry Quikrete, they do a job on your skin.  My thumb has a big tender bruise from a misguided hammer.  A nail scratched one knuckle; rebar scraped one wrist.  You can't always wear gloves.  Now I rub my hands with jojoba oil while contemplating the completed front porch.  It’s simple but solid.  Honest, plain, strong.  It’ll outlast the house. 

And that’s one of the reasons I like this kind of work:  afterwards, it’s still there.

Friday, October 10, 1986

This is my third day on a two-day job.  I had to postpone and reschedule; some clients are sore.

Today I'm under time pressure because I have to pick up my son at five o'clock.  On the back porch I cut one board badly but use it anyway leaving a half inch gap where there should be a tight butt joint. 

I load up the twuck with leftover lumber and concrete plus the debris of two porches with the wheelbarrow on top.  Then I pick up Jesse, my son.

With Jesse beside me in the front seat, there's probably a one-ton load in this half-ton pickup.  The truck sways from too much weight.  After four miles on Page Mill Road, greasy smelly smoke starts rising from below the gearshift knob.  It fills the cab.

I open the hood.  A cloud erupts, escapes.  It seems to be coming from underneath the engine instead of the radiator.  No, now it’s coming from the rear sparkplug.  How can steam be coming from a sparkplug?

I fix houses, not engines.  I know enough to use a rag as I open the radiator, but no steam rushes out.  It’s empty.  Bone dry.

Two hundred feet away is a large brick house which looks very rich and very private and very not to be messed with, but bless them they have a hose faucet right by the road, so Jesse and I without asking permission form a bucket brigade filling a Coke bottle and a thermos over and over until the radiator is full.

No water is dripping out.  Hoses tight. 

What happened?  How’d I lose it?

I wince, thinking of the mis-cut board, the half inch gap. 

I drive on.  We fill the Coke bottle and thermos, just in case.  A few miles later, the engine is overheating.  I’m now at the foot of the mountain.  I stop, empty our spare water into the radiator.  I teach Jesse how to open the radiator cap.  Jesse, by the way, is ten years old.  Today is his birthday.

Smoke billowing from
beneath my little truck on
a road leading home.

At the top of the mountain I’m overheating again.  There’s a gas station.  Jesse opens the hood for me.  I try to show him how to set the bar to hold the hood open.

“I know,” he says, and sets it for me.  So far, he's known a lifetime of car trouble.  It's normal for him. 

I re-water, then coast seven miles downhill with the engine off and arrive home with the radiator still cool, still full.

Back home, my wife has left notes all over the house.  A plan has developed: to celebrate Jesse's birthday, my wife and daughter and younger son have hiked to the Sierra Club Hiker's Hut which sits on a mountain ridge in Pescadero Creek Park, not far from where we live.  Jesse and I are to join them there.  We'll spend the night.  Perfect.

I shower and change.  Jesse gathers supplies. 

You can only reach the Hiker’s Hut by hiking.  Jesse and I, wearing backpacks, carrying flashlights, climb through the woods up the side of the ridge starting in a grove of creekside virgin redwoods, rising through oaks.  There’s no moon.  Through a break in the trees I see bright stars.  I say, "There's Cassiopeia."

Jesse walks ahead.

I hear a sudden sound from the dark woods.  I stop, spooked.

Jesse says, "It's a branch falling, Dad." 

Things fall apart.  Even trees.  Half inch gap.

Jesse hikes fast.  I’m getting winded.  My backpack gains weight as I ascend.  I want to protect Jesse from mountain lions in the forest, or at least from falling branches, but I can't quite keep up with him.

With my son climbing
a mountainside at night
toward stars.

The Hiker's Hut is no hut.  It has electricity, a refrigerator, stove, running water, even hot water.  Well-built, nice details.  No half inch gaps. 

Dinner’s over but Jesse and I have spaghetti, garlic bread, salad.  Somehow my wife carried a small cake a mile uphill, only slightly smudged.  Candles.

We lie in sleeping bags on the deck overlooking a meadow on the ridgetop.  Deer settle, making beds in the oat grass.  The stars are magnificent.  The Milky Way oozes across the bowl of sky from the ocean in the southwest to the distant glow of San Francisco, northwest.

A raccoon is rattling logs in the woodpile.

Exactly ten years ago Jesse came into my life and changed everything forever.

Next week I'll go back and cut a new board.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Lit Night in La Honda

On the last Wednesday of every month, we hold Lit Night in La Honda.  We meet in the bar of the Cafe Cuesta (formerly Sullivan's) for beer, wine, dinner and audience-friendly stuff.  I'll be reading as usual, along with a mix of pro and amateur writers.  Poetry, prose, and the occasional one-person drama.  Y'all come!

Monday, October 17, 2011

More Arno Sternglass

I've talked about Arno Sternglass before.  I show a number of his paintings here and talk about his joy of life here.

Recently I bought a painting of his on eBay.  The seller had salvaged it from a barn sale.  It was mildly water damaged, but now cleaned and framed, it shines like a bright light.

Cafe by Arno Sternglass
The scene is a cafe on Third Avenue in Manhattan where Arno and his wife Lila liked to eat.  In exchange for some meals, Arno made this painting for the owner in 1971.  The owner gave Arno more credit than he had expected.  So — and this is typical Arno and Lila — they decided to celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary at the restaurant and invited 3 couples to join them.  Lila says, "We all enjoyed a fine meal and drank a lot of wine."

The cafe is gone.  Somehow, years later, the painting ended up in a damp box in a barn in New Hampshire where it had been collected — and hoarded — by a blind woman who liked to buy art work at yard sales.  For a blind woman, she had a good eye.

Here's one more painting I didn't include in my previous post.  Some of the color has faded.  It's another playground scene from Central Park in the 1950's:

Playground, Central Park by Arno Sternglass

365 Jobs: Earthquake

October 17, 1989

Today's job was rewiring a house in Menlo Park.  It was grubby crawlspace work creeping on my belly, running Romex, lying on my back hammering staples into joists.  Thinking, always, I'd hate to be down here in an earthquake.

Now I'm swimming laps.  Oddly enough after a hard day's work, there is nothing I enjoy more than swimming myself to utter exhaustion. 

It's 5:04:49 p.m.  Suddenly I'm surging on a wave.  Like in the ocean.  I'm body-surfing.  What the hell? 

I'm swept to the side of the pool.  Waves are breaking over the edge.  Aluminum chairs are dancing and rattling all over the concrete deck.  That was the sound of the quake for me — clattering aluminum chairs.  With water splashing all over the concrete deck, there is a smell like a dusty road after a summer rain.

The pool is at a private club.  My son Will, age 7, comes running to me wearing a baseball glove.  He's been throwing balls on the tennis court.  He says, "What happened?"

"Earthquake," I say.  "You feel it?"

"I fell down."

"I was in the pool," I say.  "Come to think of it, a swimming pool may be just about the safest place you can be in an earthquake.  Nothing can fall on you."

"Can I get in?"

The water level is a few inches below where it was.  The power is out.  Otherwise, everything is normal.  No damage.  What can I say?  When you've lived in California for a long time, you get blasé about earthquakes.  This one didn't seem any different, only bigger.

"Sure," I say.  "Jump in."

And so for the next half hour, I finish my laps while Will dives for pennies.  It would prove to be my last half hour of calm in the next few weeks.

Two boys also jump in the pool — with their clothes on.  Later their mother arrives.  “We fell in,” they say.  "The earthquake made us fall."

“I hope your shoes aren’t in there,” she says. 

“No, we took them off,” they say.  "Then we fell in."

After I shower and change, as I’m getting a cup of coffee, the bartender tells me that a section of the Nimitz Freeway collapsed.


Will and I drive to the Portola Valley Town Center, where my older son Jesse is just finishing soccer practice, which also continued as normal.  A soccer field — like Will on the tennis court and me in the pool — was a safe place to be.  The Town Center sits exactly, literally, right smack dab on top of the San Andreas Fault.  My 12-year-old son had been standing on it.  He said he fell down, then stayed perched on his knees watching waves move through the grass.

None of us have any idea how big the quake was.  But as I drive to pick up my daughter, on the radio we hear that a section of the Bay Bridge collapsed.

In my truck we follow the route of the San Andreas Fault along Portola Road, crossing back and forth over the fault line, then continue on Sand Hill Road to the gymnasium where my daughter has gymnastics.

She's waiting for us in the parking lot.  Everyone else has already been picked up.  Her class had to leave the building because ceiling tiles were falling down, so she’s been waiting outside.  "Where were you?" she asks.  She was bored.

We drive home.  Many radio stations are off he air.  KNBR is on.  They say the Bay Bridge and the Nimitz collapsed and fires are breaking out.

On the way home, a small barn has collapsed.

I stop in front of our house and hear voices and falling brick.  The La Honda Fire Brigade is dismantling our chimney, which was on the verge of collapse.  My wife is holding a flashlight for them.  Our power is out.

The house is a shambles.  Books, records, and cassette tapes all over the living room.  Food and glass all over the kitchen — molasses, peanut butter, vinegar, sugar, wineglasses, heirloom china — all over the floor.  And it’s now dark.  I find flashlights and light lanterns and loan a Coleman lantern to the neighbors.  Their house has a huge hole in the wall where the chimney collapsed.

I inspect our house.  Sheetrock came loose on the walls.  Papers and books flew around but the computer didn’t budge.  The bathroom medicine cabinets burst open.  The sink is full of pills and Band-aids.  The back porch detached itself from the house.

So we start cleaning up.  I bring in a garbage can, and we fill it up.  My daughter tends to her stuffed animals who are traumatized by the quake.  Will and Jesse clean up the living room.  My wife tackles the kitchen.  I reshelve the bathroom supplies.  We mop the kitchen floor several times, and it’s still sticky.  We replant some potted flowers that crashed.

The phone works, but you have to wait for a dial tone.  I call a friend across town whose husband is out of town.  "Are you all right?" I ask.

"I'm fine," she says.  "Don't worry about me."

Several days later I learn that this woman was standing in the rubble of her collapsed fireplace, an entire corner of her house suddenly missing, telling me she's fine and not to worry.  She thought I should help somebody who might really need it.  This attitude of altruism will show up again and again among practically everybody in the days to come.

We listen to the radio a bit, but its tone is basically one of panic — saying, “DON'T PANIC!!!” and giving a lot of foolish and contradictory advice such as, "Stay out of your house!" and then a minute later: "Don’t go outside!"  So we turn it off and deal with the real.

The kids — and the dog — sleep on the floor in our room.  We feel aftershocks all night.  We're together.  We'll get through it.

The next day, we start to rebuild.

As a contractor, the next few months will be the busiest period of my life.  At first I make emergency board-ups and bracings for free.  Then I charge my regular rates.  

The insurance inspector estimates the damage to my house at $11,000.  He warns me: "Watch out for profiteering contractors."

I tell him, "I'm a contractor."

The deductible on my homeowner's policy is $13,000.  I can fix it myself, except I'll get a mason for the brick chimney.

Of all the houses I repair after the quake, I never meet one homeowner who collects a penny from insurance.  I agree: let's beware of profiteering.

Note: I wrote an entire book about that earthquake with a no-nonsense title: QUAKE!  It's a
young adult novel based on true events about people in the town of Loma Prieta, which sits on Loma Prieta Mountain, the epicenter of the quake.  You can get any e-book format from this link to Smashwords, or you can get the epub format from iBooks or the Kindle format from Amazon.  You can get used copies of the print book through places like aLibris or Amazon, or you could get a brand new, signed copy from me.  Send an email if interested:

Thursday, October 13, 2011

What We Do Is Dangerous

October 13, 2011
Photo by Joseph Kral

Construction accidents can happen when you least expect them.

Yesterday on a narrow road in La Honda, a truck from GraniteRock was delivering 9 yards of concrete for the final pour of a house.  As he approached, the construction workers offered to help guide him with hand signals around the last hairpin turn.  The driver waved them off.  He had years of experience and had delivered to this same project on earlier pours. 

Making the turn, the rear wheels went off the pavement onto the soft shoulder of the private road.  The barrel of the truck was still mixing, which may have shifted the load off center.  As the shoulder crumbled, the guard rail collapsed.  The truck slid sideways and backward into the canyon of a creek.  The cab flipped.  The force of 30,000 pounds of concrete falling into a canyon flattened the cab as if it had been put through a crusher.  The driver died immediately.  It took the entire day and into the night before they could get his body out of there.

Photo by Joseph Kral

Fred Eisenstaedt, the driver, was 62 years old.  Everybody liked him.  Sometimes he brought his terrier dog along with him on deliveries.  Not this day.

A day later, the truck body has been removed.  The barrel containing 9 yards of hardening concrete is still in the canyon.

Lawyers and insurance companies will argue over who was at fault.  We in the trades only need to know that a good man is gone.

Be careful out there.

David Brookshaw's Tool Chests

Mini Tool Chest by David Brookshaw
Three years ago I wrote a blog post about a fantastic tool chest built by a Civil War vet named Henry O. Studley.  In the post, I said, "We need more nuts in this world."

Well, here's another nut.  Unlike the full-scale tools of Henry O. Studley, David Brookshaw builds miniature tools and miniature tool chests.  If I had this guy's skills, I could cram a lot more items into my truck.  (On the other hand, I'm not sure how I'd use a pipe wrench that's shorter than my pinkie finger.)

Thanks to Kari Hultman's Village Carpenter blog, which turned me onto this guy.  She has more photos of his work.

If you click on the photo, you can see more detail

Sunday, October 9, 2011

365 Jobs: Starting Out

Saturday, September 3, 1983
At Plum Court Apartments in Sunnyvale the new carpets are too high, causing doors to drag.  I'm here to trim them.  The entire unit was refurbished after an old couple moved out.

The walls are utterly bare.  The tenants have no furniture.  No chair, no table, nothing.  Two sleeping bags zipped together.  The plush carpet will be their bed.

They look like kids,
so strong and fresh.
Bright paint in the kitchen.  
Tattoos on young flesh.
The girl has one large cardboard carton; the boy, a backpack.  There's an air of hasty arrangement in their move.  Amid the high energy there's a gentleness between them, a constant checking of eyes.  Little touches.  Fingertips.  They are totally in synch.  Buoyant.  Inspiring.

Besides the box and backpack, they have a kitten which is mewing and lapping water from a bowl on the kitchen floor.  From a small radio, strange drums are blasting.

"Just married?" I ask.

"Not yet," the boy says.

The girl smiles at him, blushing.

"Oops.  Sorry," I say.

"It's cool," the girl says.

Are you pregnant?  I want to ask.

The young woman is counting their money: not enough for a pizza.  "Top Ramen," she says, and she fills a pot with water.  She glances at the boy, bites her lip, a spark in her eye.  She turns to me.  "Are you almost done?"

"I'll be out of your way in a minute," I say.

They're so in love.  So sweet.  So simple.

There's hope for us all.

Friday, October 7, 2011

365 Jobs: Hello, Old Dog

September 1986
Hello, Old Dog

You smell so bad
and walk so slow,
lucky for you
you love old Joe.


I wrote that poem in 1984.  Now it's 1986, Sunday morning.  I’m the first to awake.  Quickly without dressing I go upstairs and let out the dog:  Quinn, age 14, arthritic, incontinent.  This morning, I catch him before he pees in the house.  He hobbles to the door, hesitates at the top of the stairs, looks back as if to say, “Do I have to?”

I nod.  You have to.

Gingerly, sideways, he takes the first step.  Next, the tricky part.  At a 45 degree angle he takes the second painful step.  Arthritis has welded his spine.  Sometimes he has to drag his rear end.  This time he sways but somehow stays on his feet. 

I remember once when he was young, I was walking him at night on a leash.  He took off after a cat and dragged me on my belly down a hill.  I came home looking like I'd been on the losing side of a fight.  Years later, my children held the leash without incident.

Now Quinn drags himself back up the stairs.  Sometimes, climbing, he gets stuck.  His hind legs lock straight out like a rabbit, and he can’t make them bend.  This morning he makes it.

A few minutes later as I'm getting dressed, Will finds me.  He's four.  Will says, “Daddy, Quinn is throwing up all over the house.”

There’s a puddle in the kitchen, another in the dining room, two in the living room and one under the computer — foamy, oily, clear vomit with no grass.  Sometimes he vomits his pills, which currently are an awesome pile:  two Butazoladin, seven Medrol, two Epinephrine, and a vitamin E.  But he hasn’t had his morning meds.

I invite Quinn to go out on the deck.  There, if he vomits any more, I don’t need to clean it up — just hose it down.

He can’t get up.

Puppy Quinn

I carry him, 70 pounds of ribs and fur, out to the deck, set him down and shut the door.  We only selected 4 of those pounds at the Philadelphia dog shelter.  In his prime, he weighed 85.

My wife and I go for a run. 

Returning home a half hour later, Quinn hasn’t moved.  He looks up at me and smiles, panting, dripping saliva from his pink and purple tongue.  He hasn’t vomited since I put him there on the deck.  Gently, I hold his legs in a way that usually allows him to get mobilized.  Nope.  He can’t move.

Now for the first time, I’m worried.  I guess it’s a sign of his decrepit condition that up to this moment, I wasn’t concerned.

Rose is stretching, post-run.  Speaking softly so the kids won’t hear, I say, “Quinn seems to be paralyzed.”

We share a worried look.  We’ve both been dreading this development.
Rose examines him.  She knows tricks, therapy tricks, that can unlock his legs.

“He’s not paralyzed,” she says.  “But his abdomen is distended and his gums are pale.”

Suddenly we both have the same thought:  poison.  A neighbor’s dog was poisoned two weeks ago.  Time to move fast.  I call the neighbor, Kurt, who owns a car repair shop and has, coincidentally, a German Shepherd who looks just like Quinn.  What were the symptoms when his dog was poisoned?

“Bleeding from the nostrils,” says Kurt.

“Did his stomach swell up?”


So that's not it.

Rose and I hurriedly talk it over.  We're thinking:  blocked intestine.  Sometimes in big dogs they get twisted and nothing can pass.  The problem occurred — or may have occurred — once before on a weekend when our regular vet was getting married.  We took Quinn to the Emergency Vet in South Palo Alto.  This man diagnosed intestinal blockage but nearly killed Quinn with anesthesia in the process.  We later showed the x-rays to our regular vet, who said it didn’t look like a blockage at all.

Now, this being a Sunday, we are stuck with the Emergency Vet again.  They have a terrible reputation, not just from our experience but from everybody we've talked to.  We also doubt that Quinn would survive the 45 minute drive over the mountain.  Rose wants to intervene, to help.  I want to let nature takes its course.  For weeks we’ve dreaded the prospect of having to put Quinn down.  Now it seems that nature has stepped in to do the job for us.

Rose calls the Emergency Vet and describes the distended abdomen, the pale gums and vomiting.  The woman who answers the phone says, “Bring the dog in right away or he will die a slow and painful death.”

Rose is dancing on hot coals.  I point out that the woman is a receptionist, not a vet, probably doesn't know her ass from her elbow, and in any event she had no business making that kind of a statement.

Rose calls Fawn, a friend whose old decrepit Irish Setter recently died, who keeps horses and runs a 4-digit monthly vet bill, who above all has a clear head and will be less emotionally wracked than we are.  Fawn comes right over.  Good friend.  Quinn, meanwhile, hasn’t moved.  He lies there, looking up at us, panting, sometimes smiling.  His eyes are getting cloudy.

Fawn’s first act is to put her arm around my back.  I’m moved by the gesture because  Fawn is not a touchy-feely sort of person — and neither am I.  She says, “Quinn looks just like my dog on the day he died.”

Fawn knows of some vets who make house calls.  Rose tries calling one and, miraculously, he answers the phone.  He listens carefully and speculates that Quinn is either having congestive heart failure or “a tumor that has outgrown its blood supply and burst” (which I don’t understand, but which seems to make sense to Rose).  The vet says it doesn’t sound like intestinal blockage because Quinn doesn’t seem to be in pain.  It’s now 11 am.  He’ll be home until 4 pm.  We can call him again, or bring the dog in.

Bless you, unseen vet!

I bet it’s heart failure — possibly brought on by the Epinephrine which we gave him for bladder control but which is a stimulant and made him restless all night.

The children have been standing around, asking questions we haven’t had time to answer.  Now we put it to them:  Quinn is dying.  He can’t move.  We can’t fix him.  All we can do is be with him and try to make him comfortable.

Will, though raptly attentive, doesn’t seem distressed.  He’s silent, sucking thumb and holding his raggedy blue blanket for comfort.

My daughter is eight.  She says she doesn’t want Quinn to die.  She cries.  Never one to repress her emotions, she gets it out of her system for the moment and moves on.

Jesse, age nine, gets very quiet.  He brings out his old sleeping bag, one with a “4x4 Truckin” pattern, now oozing stuffing from multiple wounds.  He lays it over Quinn’s rear legs and back.

Sometimes our job is just to be there.  To bear witness.  To comfort.  We stay with our dying dog.

But nothing happens.  Quinn gets neither better nor worse.  My daughter wants to know if we’ll bury him.  I say yes.  Where?  In the yard.  I feel uneasy discussing his death as we kneel over him.  He can hear us.  He’s always known the sense of what we’re saying if not the words.  But I’m sure he already knows he’s dying.  And he seems calm about it.  Maybe, I wonder, he feels relieved.

I’ve never witnessed a natural death before — only violent ones, or ones from sickness.

With nothing happening, the kids start wandering off.  I go to the garage and start building a wall.  Just yesterday, Quinn was out here helping — hobbling after me or sitting with his feet on his tail at the top of the driveway watching his favorite view:  the parade of dogs and children and joggers and bikes on the road below.

I remember the time Quinn chased a burglar out of our house.  A neighbor saw it.  First the burglar alarm went off — which is probably the only reason Quinn woke up — then the burglar leaped over the balcony rail with Quinn biting his butt.

That’s the purpose of our burglar alarm:  to wake up the dog.

When Jesse was a toddler, he used Quinn as an armchair.

When you have a 70 pound dog and a 10 pound child, you must have trust.  And training.  We only messed up once.  Will has — and shall always have — a scar on his cheek where Quinn nipped him.  It was our fault for letting Will crawl over to the food bowl and play with the kibble while Quinn was eating.  Afterwards, the dog apologized endlessly.  Go on, he seemed to be saying.  Eat my kibble.  You can have it.

You have to trust.
Other than that, he's been the kids' guardian.  It's his job.

Quinn was always a lover of puddles, a chaser of birds, snapper of bees — if he caught a bee, he made a face but never seemed to get stung.  When Rose and I quarreled, he’d stand between us — silently, solidly — as if to break it up.  He’d wake us with a warm wet greasy tongue.  If we tried to take a family photo, he'd always barge in front.

He had a big heart.

And now the heart was shutting down.

Rose calls to me where I'm working down by the garage:  “You may want to come back,” she says.

Quinn’s eyes are sinking in.  His tongue hangs down on the boards of the deck.  His eyes glaze — and then suddenly he twitches.  For a moment he acts alert.  His ears prick.  What does he hear?  He tries to move, fails, and drops back on his side.

We watch.  There’s no telling how long it will go on.  The vigil begins to seem like an ordeal.  We tell Jesse that he can go play if he wants.  Jesse touches Quinn’s neck, the soft fur, the friend he’s grown up with who followed him and woke him with that same greasy tongue.  “Goodbye, Quinn,” he says. 

I remember the time I left Quinn locked in our car, and he destroyed it.  At the body shop the manager said he'd only seen one other car shredded like this: by a bear at Yosemite.

I stay with Quinn.  He seems to be slipping away.  His breath is slowing down.  There are pauses when he is breathing neither out nor in.  His eyes, though open, are gone.  I rub his neck.

The breaths come farther and farther apart.  I’m still fondling his fur.  Then, as I am wondering when the next breath will begin, I realize it won’t.

We cry.

Jesse removes Quinn’s collar with its jangly dog tags and fastens it around his own neck.  When he moves, he jangles.  It startles me.

We decide to bury Quinn in the sleeping bag which is still draped over his rear.  I don’t cover his face.  I want to look at him.  He looks peaceful at last, jaws still open from his last clenching breath.  He never got mean, never snapped at us, not even at the end.

I’m amazed at how much water my eyes can make.  My glasses steam up.  I wipe them and they steam up again. 

I find two shovels and a pick.  Jesse, Will, and I dig a hole right where the ground is hardest on the hillside that we call our yard.  Solid clay and rocks.  We chose this spot because Quinn used to lie at the window and look out — for hours — on this ground. 

The work feels good.  I attack with a fury.  We haul dirt away in a wheelbarrow.  He was so full of life, it's hard to believe one small hole could contain him.

I wrap Quinn in the sleeping bag.  He’s half stiff.  I have to bend him — like unwarping a plank of wood — to fit him in the hole.  Taking turns, we each take a shovelful of dirt and drop it on the sleeping bag.  I bring some garden dirt we’d been saving in a garbage can.  Then I bring a compost pile I’d created last year.  Quinn’s grave will now be the richest soil on the hillside.

My daughter and Will pick wildflowers and lay them on the grave.  Jesse finds a jagged slab of broken marble that I’ve had laying around for years and sets it on top of the mound of earth.

Once as an experiment I left Quinn in my neighbor's house, went home, closed the doors and windows.  From my kitchen window I could see Quinn in the kitchen next door.  "Quinn," I whispered.  His ears shot up.  Amazing!  I repeated several times.  Each time, he could hear my whisper across a hundred feet through the walls of two houses.

I go to bang on the garage.  Hammering nails seems to be exactly what I need right now.  My plan for the day had been to build this wall on the rear of the garage, meet with two people about estimating jobs, and finish repairing a shower for my next door neighbor, Mark.

Mark finds me nailing in the garage.  He wants to know if I can work on the shower.  I say I feel like banging nails.  He understands.  But then I snap out of it.

Finishing the shower means cutting and gluing a sheet of CPE plastic for the shower pan.  The glue fumes are deadly.  Mark opens windows until a cold blast is roaring through the bathroom.  His family starts screaming that they’re freezing.  I’m probably stoned from glue-sniffing, but I don’t feel it and I don’t care anyway.

Dinner.  Sundays we make a point of having a special family dinner.  It’s usually the only day we’re all together.  Tonight we are all subdued.   The windowsills surrounding the dining room are deeply scratched where Quinn used to claw at them, expressing his anger at dogs he could see passing on the road.

After dinner I go down to the garage and try to finish the wall, defying darkness.

For bedtime, we read That Dog to the kids — a story by Nanette Newman of a boy whose dog dies, who thinks he will never want another, then is won over by a puppy.  Right now, it's hard to believe.

But it's true.  It will happen to us.  Quinn was my favorite dog in the whole world, and so will be the next one, and the one after that.  We'll go through this cycle several more times until our own cycle has passed. 

Tucking Will in, he remembers a puppy we met a couple of weeks ago named Litho.  Only, Will calls him “Licko.”  An excellent name.  He also says we had “barkeley" for dinner (broccoli).  Good names.

Standing at the back door I look out at the marble slab, the flowers, the mound of earth.  "Quinn," I whisper.  "You had a tough old heart."

I know he hears.

Quinn also makes an appearance in these posts:
Jim the Plumber
Bad Toilet
The Airplane Room Part Two.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

365 Jobs: Warranties

October 2002

As he opens the front door I say, "Hi, Lee.  How are you today?"

"Not so good."  He's a sun-spotted man with thin white hair.  Stooping shoulders. 

I've been maintaining Lee's properties for years.  He's wealthy, retired, walks with a cane.  

Today in his residence I replace a vent fan and a couple of light bulbs.  He always has a couple of lamps that need changing.  He could do it himself, but he waits until he needs me for some other job, then adds the bulbs to the list.  I think it's just to make me linger a little longer.  He gets lonely.

While I replace bulbs, we talk.  Lee's always been a straight shooter, so I shoot right back.  It's why we can get along even though, politically, we're polar opposites.

Lee says, "I've been told I have five more years here, so I hope you repaired accordingly."

"Are you moving?  Or dying?" 

"The latter."  He laughs.  "My warranty will expire."

I examine the carton.  "Looks like the vent fan has a ninety day warranty."

"Ninety days?  I've got ice cubes that last longer than that."

"Your old vent fan lasted twenty-five years, so this one probably will, too."

"What about the light bulbs?" Lee asks.

I examine the box.  "Rated for two thousand hours."

Lee calculates for a moment.  "That's even less than ninety days."

"Not if you turn them off."

"That's what I'll do.  I'll sit in the dark."  He laughs.  "That way they'll last forever."

Five years pass. 

And four more.

Lee is still calling me.  I built a ramp to his front door, installed grab bars everywhere. 

The latest.  Lee calls: "I need a new water heater.  What can you get me?"

"They come with five-year or ten-year tanks."

"Get me a one-year."

I don't say so, but I'll bring him a ten.

"Also," Lee says, "I've got some light bulbs burned out."

May we all outlast our warranties.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

365 Jobs: Hamilton Holmes

October 1983

Hamilton Holmes

Hamilton Holmes has a heart condition.
You want to listen?
In his garage he found under a wheel
six hundred shares of U. S. Steel.
A broker would make him wait seven days.
He's in a hurry.  How much will you pay?
See that Audi?  Almost new.
Worth four grand.  He'll take two.
The reason is, he needs surgery real quick.
Pay cash now.  Then go for a trip.
You want it?  You like him?
Don't fall for his art.
Remember he warned you:
he has a bad heart.

(Not his real name, by the way.)

I got a call from an apartment manager asking if I could break into a unit.  A tenant had changed the locks.

As I've written before, carpentry is great training for a burglar.  In this case, all I had to do was pry out the door stop and cut the deadbolt with a recipro saw.  Unlike a burglar, I didn't have to worry about noise.

The tenant was gone and so was the furniture that came with the unit.  So were the faucets, shower nozzle, toilet, light fixtures, schlock artwork, drapes, carpet, doormat, stove, refrigerator, dishwasher, and garbage disposal.  He left the bathtub.

Now I had a couple day's work restoring this unit. 

The manager said the guy had a British accent and a charming manner.  He wrote a bad check late Friday afternoon which didn't bounce until Tuesday.  The manager spent all day Wednesday trying to contact him.  Thursday, the manager picked up the local paper and, by golly, the tenant's mug shot was on the front page.   He'd been flim-flamming people all up and down the San Francisco Peninsula.  A detective with the San Jose police was quoted as admiring the guy's work ethic:  "He was tireless.  He cheated people at six a.m. and he cheated people at midnight.  The man never quit."

He'd been trying to raise money for a heart operation.  The harder he worked, the more he needed it.

In prison, I bet he got the surgery.  For free.

Friday, September 30, 2011

365 Jobs: The Rookie - Pea Gravel

September, 1976

(This is the third part of a series that began with First Day, followed by Adolf and the "Crack" followed by Be a Mortician.)

 All of a sudden Winston, father of The Architect, along with his senile wife and their Chicana maid started moving into the unfinished house.  Chaos ensued.  The kitchen had no sink; bathrooms were incomplete.  The floors had been sanded but not yet sealed.  The day Winston decided to move in, the sealing was supposed to begin.  It was postponed.

We all worked in our stocking feet.

A king-sized bed was moved into the master bedroom with newspapers placed under its legs so it wouldn't mar the unfinished floor.  A color television was set on some boxes in the den so The Architect's mother could watch KQED, whatever was on, from her wheelchair.  She watched the news hour, Sesame Street, fundraising appeals.

The maid, who looked about 16 with big brown eyes and long fingernails painted blue, would hover near the mother picking up crumbs as they fell on the bare floor or brushing sawdust as it settled over the TV screen.

Several rooms were paneled with hardwoods — not the 4x8 sheets of ersatz "paneling" but real honest-to-God hardwoods, different species for different rooms, selected and arranged by Adolf, the master German carpenter.  I had the job of sanding.  I rented a Makita half-sheet flat sander, a heavy machine that made a pleasing vrummmmm as it ground its way up and down the walls. 

It was gorgeous wood.  I loved having contact with it, smoothing it to a soft glow.  Adolf had selected and placed each board to blend into splendid patterns of grain just waiting for a touch of oil.  The walls would be magnificent.

After a few hours, the 6 pound weight of the Makita combined with the vibration left my arms and shoulders aching.  As I took a break, allowing blood to recirculate to my fingertips, The Architect and Pierce stepped into the room to inspect my work.  The Architect never spoke directly to me.  There was an annoyingly strict hierarchy.

The Architect ran his palm over a section I had sanded.  "Okay," he said, frowning.  "We can stain it now."

"Oh no!" I said.  "Please don't stain it.  Use a natural finish."

Immediately I knew I'd committed a grievous sin.  I'd violated the hierarchy and, worse yet, I'd disagreed with the design decision of a hotshot architect.  Me, a $5 an hour laborer.

The Architect nodded his head toward me, speaking to Pierce.  "Take care of this," he said.  Then he walked out.

I didn't even have a name.  I was "this."  The hotheaded rookie.  I believed in purity of wood.  I've mellowed since then, but that's how I felt at the time.  Passionately.

Pierce said, "I'm supposed to fire you now."

"Sorry," I said.  "My fault."

"What do you have against stain?"

"Stain is for cheap wood.  Stain is to hide things.  Stain is for mediocrity.  This is fantastic wood.  Oil will bring it out.  Let it glow."

"What makes you an expert on stain?"

"I'm not.  I'm just opinionated about wood grain."

"You've done a lot of woodwork?"

"Some.  I built some furniture.  Just a hobby."

"Unstained furniture?"

"You bet."

Pierce folded his arms across his chest.  "Stain is also for color.  Color sets a mood.  This house isn't a museum.  It's meant to be a functioning home with a color scheme and an overall design.  It's not all about grain."

"You're right.  I'm sorry."

"Just lay low for a while.  Find something to do outside."

"I'm not fired?"

"Not quite yet."

I put on my boots, went out to the yard, and busied myself drilling holes and installing bolts for a trellis that was to be constructed out of redwood that had been rescued from the wreckage of an old warehouse.  Salvaged!  As much as I wanted to dislike The Architect — and his personality sucked — I admired many of his choices.

Jim, my fellow rookie, was given the job of completing the sanding.  I don't know what conversations took place in my absence, but at the end of the day, dipping rags into a can, Jim began swiping the walls with linseed oil.  No stain.

* * *

The garage was packed with furniture and boxes and incredible souvenirs from Winston's career as a chemist and civil engineer.  He had carved figurines from Africa, ornamental stone from India, vases from China, an immense metal platter with intricate etchings.  They were probably worth a fortune.

Winston strode about the house like a king ordering workers to drop what they were doing and vacate the room, contradicting the schedule and plans of his son The Architect, plans which had never been firm to begin with.

Pea gravel
A truckload of gravel was dumped in the driveway.  With the departure of Kenneth for mortuary college, it became my job to shovel the gravel into a wheelbarrow, roll it to the back yard, and dump it into a pit for the graywater system.  

After a couple of hours of my shoveling and wheelbarrowing, dapper white-bearded Winston wandered out and stared at the pit.  "Stop," he said.

I was about to dump another load.  I stopped.

"What is this rock?" Winston said.

"Gravel," I said.

"I specified pea gravel.  This is not pea gravel.  Pea gravel is round.  Pea gravel will always have drainage.  This is crushed rock."

"Pierce said it was drain rock."

Crushed rock
"PIERCE!" Winston shouted.

Pierce came over.  Winston explained that this rock was not pea gravel.

"Yes, it is," Pierce said.  "When you order pea gravel around here, this is what they deliver.  I'll show you the receipt."

Winston's voice was cold fury.  "I've supervised the building of dams in Africa.  I built levees in India.  Don't tell me about rock.  This is not pea gravel."

To my amazement, Pierce said, "Yes it is."

"Don't tell me — "

"It serves the same purpose."

Winston closed his eyes.  His shoulders and neck were taut — and then suddenly drooped.  He opened his eyes and stared at Pierce with utter contempt.  Then he walked away. 

What use is it to be king when you are surrounded by insufferable fools?

I still had a wheelbarrow full of gravel.  "What should I do?" I asked Pierce.

"Carry on," Pierce said.

* * *

The kitchen was designed with an island cabinet in the center which could be accessed from all four sides.  A plumber — in his stocking feet, of course — installed a triple basin sink in the island and then informed The Architect that there would have to be a vent of inch and a half pipe running from the island to the vaulted ceiling, 12 feet overhead.

The Architect argued; the plumber argued back, each waving code books at the other.  Finally The Architect accepted the fact that the open sight-lines of the kitchen would have to be interrupted by a 12 foot boxed-in plumbing vent.

A window-washer named Dan was roaming the house — also in stocking feet — with a bucket of foamy liquid and a long-handled squeegee.  He set down the bucket for a moment to observe the kitchen vent argument, and when he picked it up he'd left a dirty soapy ring in the unfinished floor.

Anybody could have seen it coming.  If not the window-washer, somebody else would have spilled something, dropped something, scraped something. 

The sealing of the floor had never happened.  Production had simply moved on.  The Architect — or Pierce — or Winston — somebody should have demanded that all work stop until the floors were sealed.

A construction crew functions like a temporary family.  Ours had become dysfunctional.

The Architect blew up.  First a vent in the kitchen, then a ring in his floor.  His mother was becoming visibly more senile by the day, his father more crabby and authoritarian.  His crew was an incompetent collection of hippies and surfers and a goddamn mortician; his foreman was a snot from Yale.  He ordered everybody to get the hell out.

Outside I asked Pierce, "Are we all fired?"

"I don't think so," Pierce said. 

I was coming to like Pierce.  He was arrogant, especially in areas where he was ignorant, such as pea gravel.  But based mostly on intuition he'd hired Jim and Kenneth and myself, three rookies who needed to start somewhere, and he'd protected us as best he could.

Pierce told everybody to return tomorrow.  Everybody except the window-washer, who he told to get his van out of here and not to expect one cent from his half day of work.

The next morning when I showed up at 8 a.m. there were two police cars in the driveway.  The garage door was wide open.  Somebody had stolen Winston's lifetime collection of art from around the world.  In addition the thief — or thieves — had stolen a case of jewelry and a restored 1930's vintage jukebox.  Nothing else.  They seemed to know exactly what they were looking for and where to find it.

A neighbor said she'd seen a van backed up in the driveway sometime during the night.

Pierce said the job was over.  We'd all get paid in a day or so.  He'd mail everybody a check.

And he did. 

The check hardly mattered.  For five weeks as a rookie I'd seen the creative stew of muscle and skill and personality — and I was part of it — and I loved it.  I could do this for a lifetime. 

Four days after the job ended, my first child was born.

There was so much to learn.

(This is the end of a four part series.)