Monday, January 31, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 31: Orthodontics

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Sunday, January 31, 1993

I'm re-roofing a garage.  The owner wants a cheapo job. 

Half way up one side, I space out for a minute and let the shingles wander slightly out of line.  Disgusted, I tear out the last few shingles - but not the first ones where I'd just started to wander.  They're only a wee bit out of line - only five of them out of hundreds - they'll shed water just fine -
the owner isn't paying for perfection - and besides, it's Sunday.  I want to finish and go home.

When I've finished the job, from the ground I look at the roof. 

Like a pretty girl with one crooked tooth.

I came in under my estimate.  The owner is happy.  I get paid, and I feel like crap.

The trouble with cheapo jobs is that you end up producing cheapo craft - and your name is attached to it.

Now, 18 years later, it must be about time to replace that roof.  Soon, I hope.  It still bugs me.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 30: Vegetables First

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Friday, January 30, 2004  

Linda in Cupertino hires me to install bathroom lights and outlets, but when I arrive she touches my hand and says, "If you don't mind, since you're already here, I have a little list."

Linda is petite.  She's also a touchy-type person who can't speak without reaching out to place fingers on your arm, your hand, your own fingers.  It's naive.  A man could get the wrong impression.  What protects her, I suppose, is that when you look at her you think she looks like a miniature of your mother.  Or the mother you wish you'd had.

Now squeezing my fingers she says, "Do you terribly mind?"

I study the list: replace a dimmer switch, change a light bulb requiring a ladder, a few little chores.  "No problem," I say.

"Oh that's wonderful!"  She smiles with delight.  She has enormous presence.  By constantly touching, she makes up for her tiny size.

"I'll do the list first," I say. 

"Starting with the little stuff?"

"I'm the type of guy - I always eat my vegetables first."

"Oh you're just like me!" she says, grasping my lower arm.   

I will do a perfect job.  For such a powerful woman, how could I do anything less?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 29: Stove Shock

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Tuesday, January 29, 1991

Don is the ultimate yuppie bachelor:  a Mercedes for formal occasions, a $50,000 BMW for a beater car, a hilltop million dollar view of the Silicon Valley, a home sound system that can make your navel bleed, a decorator for half his house and bachelor squalor for the other half (where he spends all his time).  He made a killing on something - he doesn't talk about it - and retired at age 23.  A likable, handsome man, he must be all of 28 by now.  The consensus among women seems to be that Don is in need of a wife.  Whenever I work there, pleasant ladies are constantly leaving messages on his answering machine or appearing at his door "just to drop something off." 

There are no books in the entire house except for one shelf, stocked by the decorator, of old leather volumes of various sizes, shapes, and smells.  Don has a childish laugh and a basement full of arcade games from pinball to Pac-Man.

I've installed elegant fixtures in the decorator half of his house.  Today he needs me for the squalid half.  A "lady guest" got a shock touching the stove.

"Have you ever gotten a shock, Don?"

"I've never used it."

He's lived there for 5 years.

I check the stove.  No problem found.  Probably it was static electricity she picked up by walking on the deep carpets in the plush half of the house.  In the kitchen, there are plastic chairs from K-Mart.

The bill: $108.  Don cheerfully pays.  The phone is ringing; Don doesn't pick up.  He follows me out to the driveway, saying he has a squash match at the club.

"And then lunch?" I ask.

"Shower.  Lunch.  Massage.  You know."  He shrugs.

Inside the house, once again the phone is ringing.

Friday, January 28, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 28: Plumbing for Poets

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Sunday, January 28, 1990 

A few days ago Leanna, one of the La Honda Poets, asked me to repair her leaking toilet.  "No hurry.  Whenever you have time," she said.  "The door doesn't have a lock.  Just go right in."  Today is Sunday; I have time. 

Leanna lives alone in a tiny house at the end of a long muddy driveway, one bedroom teetering over a creek.  I can only drive the truck half way up the driveway.  Through the mud I carry a toolbox, a ballcock, a flexible riser.  A knock on the door brings no response.  I step inside - and hear the sound of lovemaking in the back room.  I back out, quietly.

That night, Leanna calls: "Did you come to my house today?"


"Thought so.  Tire marks.  The thing is, the toilet still leaks."

"Of course it leaks.  I didn't fix it."

"Why not?"

"You were - uh - busy."

"Yes I was busy.  I was gone all day.  What are you talking about?"

"Somebody was there.  In the bedroom.  I heard them."

"Them?  Nobody comes here except Amy to feed the cats."

"How old is Amy?"

"Fifteen.  Oh crap.  And she was in the bedroom?  I told her two rules: always use birth control and never use my bed.  Did she at least feed the cats?"

"I have no idea."

The next day Leanna stops by my house.  "I really want that toilet repaired.  Here.  You'll need this."

She hands me a key.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Heartwood, the movie

A couple of years ago, I posted a review of the movie Heartwood.  I said I liked many things about the movie but that the script was flawed.

Lo and behold, two years later, the scriptwriter and director, Lanny Cotler, just posted some fascinating comments to my review.  You can see them here.

I'm going to re-watch Heartwood and also Lanny's movie The Earthling.  Then I'll have more to say.

365 Jobs, Day 27: What We Want (Part Two)

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Tuesday, January 27, 2004 

Ed, my brother, has dementia.  I'm his guardian.  Today I drive the truck to Ed's house in Albany to meet the new nurse, Sasha.  Ed already has a live-in caregiver but lately he's been more challenging, so I hired Sasha. 

Sasha has turned the furnace up full blast.  It's stiflingly hot.  Ed is sitting in his favorite easy chair trying to watch Chinese television.  He knows many languages, though in his current state he can barely speak English.  Sasha is trying to draw a blood sample from his sweaty arm.  Ed is not cooperating.  He tells Sasha, "You have no brain."  Even in his dementia he knows something that isn't yet obvious to me.

For a moment Ed glares at me.  Get her out of here, he says without opening his mouth.  Ed and I are telepathic.  I don't mean that in a woo-woo way.  We simply know each other's thoughts.  With the dementia it becomes more and more difficult, but sometimes it still happens.

At Sasha's request I remove the sliding door from the bathtub and install shower curtains.  I've already installed grab bars.  Ed's house was built in the 1930's and has never been upgraded.  Some of the ceiling plaster is caving in.  The roof leaks.  I'm fixing things as fast as I can.

I stop work at the end of the day.  Sasha never succeeded in drawing blood.  She's shaking.  When Ed lifts his arm, she flinches.  I realize:  She's scared of him

As Sasha is leaving, I meet with her on the front porch.  "This isn't working out," I say.

"You need to put him in a skilled nursing facility," she says.  "The doctor says he has half a year, one year max.  His body is shutting down.  You know that."

"He stays here."  I know what he wants.  He doesn't care if plaster is falling off the ceiling.  He needs this amazing collection of opera and old jazz from rare vinyl to modern CD.  He needs to thumb through the books of his massive library, uncomprehending but fascinated.  They are a part of him, artifacts of a broad and eclectic mind.  He needs the posters of trains on the familiar walls - B&O, Southern Pacific - and the old wooden floors he has paced for 30 years.  Take him out of here and he'll die.

That night, I get a call from Adult Protective Services.  Sasha has reported me for Elder Abuse. 


There's to be an investigation, phone calls, paperwork, all of which will exonerate me.  For five more years I'll continue patching his home as if slapping bandages on his psyche, lurching from one emergency to the next, the longest repair job of my career. 

At last on Friday, February 27, 2009 Ed will die peacefully in his bed.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 26: What We Want (Part One)

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Monday, January 26, 1987

My son, Will, says he wants to build something and needs my help.  Let's bear in mind: he's in nursery school. He's 4 years old. 

He goes downstairs to the basement workshop.  I follow.  It's his first building project. 

From the scrap pile he extracts a one foot 1x6. 

He wants a hole exactly in the center of the 1x6.  Little hands, big power drill.  Together we hold it.  Vroom.

Next from the scrap pile he extracts a 6 foot narrow strip of plywood.  With two hands choked up on the 16 ounce hammer he whack-whack-whacks a single nail through the hole we drilled in the 1x6, attaching it to the narrow strip of plywood - not to the end like an airplane but somewhere near the center. 

The 1x6 spins on the nail. 

"What is it?" I ask.

"It's what I want," Will says. 

Satisfied, we go upstairs.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 25: Inchworming

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Friday, January 25, 2002 

Next to a busy street in downtown Menlo Park I'm removing sod and digging post holes for a fence.  It will be a rose garden in front of a clinic.  Inside the clinic, little children are having occupational therapy - bouncing on therapy balls, swinging from trapezes, learning balance, gaining strength - and having a blast. 

A green Buick squeals into the driveway and screeches to a stop.  A police car jerks to a stop right behind.  On the street, two more squad cars.  In a moment a half dozen cops are surrounding the Buick with guns drawn.  I'm ten feet away, and I'm in the line of fire. 

I drop to the ground.

At that moment the door to the clinic opens.  Tara, one of the occupational therapists, steps outside holding the hand of a little boy.  The boy, who couldn't be older than six, is the first to comprehend what they have stepped into.  He drops to the pavement.  Tara drops a moment later.  Tara says, "Sammy!  Do the inchworm!"  

Inchworming is a therapy activity in which a child inches himself along the floor, shoulders and then butt rising up and down as he pushes forward like an inchworm.  As a therapist could explain, it requires weight-bearing on the shoulders which is good for stability and strength, and it's useful in teaching motor planning.  Or as kids could tell you, it's fun.

Tara and Sammy inchworm through the door and into the clinic.

I do something of an inchworm myself across fifteen feet of grass to a brick wall.  From behind the wall I see that the guns are returning to holsters and the police are returning to their cars - except for one policeman who is going to ride as a passenger in the Buick.  

The Buick backs out of the driveway and drives slowly down Menlo Avenue, followed by three police cars with flashing lights. 

Five minutes later, it's as if nothing ever happened.  Upscale shoppers stride in and out of Draeger's, the gourmet grocery across the street.  Pedestrians walk along the sidewalk sipping Peet's Coffee from paper cups.  

Three hyperactive children burst out of the clinic and pepper me with questions about what I'm doing.  I'm digging post holes and removing sod. 

Tomorrow, I'll plant roses.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 23: Neil Young, Ken Kesey, Bill Ash

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Sunday, January 23, 1983 

Sometimes storms stack up in the Pacific like jets waiting for a runway.  Some days your job is simply to survive with humor and grace.

Today another storm blows in, the fourth one in January.  It's an El NiƱo winter.  There's a pancake breakfast at the firehouse, a regular benefit for the La Honda Fire Brigade.  I'm gorging myself when a madman wanders into the fire station, no raincoat, black stringy hair dripping water.  He says he's looking for Ken Kesey.  

I tell him Kesey left town many years ago.  

"I mean Neil Young," the madman shouts.  "I'm looking for Neil Young.  Where's he live?" 

There are 30 or 40 people at the tables in the firehouse.  We all exchange glances.  We all know where Neil Young lives.  Nobody says a word.  

Finally, the madman leaves, kick-starting his Harley, roaring off into the rain.  Several of the people at the breakfast are volunteer firefighters.  It's their job to deal with road emergencies.  Pretty soon, they're thinking, we'll get a call to scrape that guy off a tree.  He might be an old friend of Neil, or even of Kesey, after a few too many drugs.  In La Honda, we're pretty familiar with that condition.

After dinner, I walk to Shirley's house for a meeting of the La Honda Poets.  Wind is howling.  From the blackness above, branches are falling.  I should wear my hardhat.  Walking is terrifying, but I'm not going to drive when Shirley lives just three houses from my own.

At any given time there are a few dozen poets living in La Honda.  As I've said:

La Honda is a small town, trying to get by 
with just five hundred people, population very high. 

About ten of those poets are gathered in Shirley's living room when her phone rings.  It's my wife calling.  A branch took out a corner of our roof and knocked out our power.  I leave; Bill Ash comes with me.  Besides writing poetry, Bill has a day job as a nuclear physicist running the Stanford Linear Accelerator.  I've done a lot of work at Bill's house, a dwelling that is slapdash even by the standards of La Honda.  Bill is the man who wrote:

Banana slugs are a fine creation
If you don't believe in reincarnation.

Shining flashlights into the trees, we check for live wires.  It seems safe.  Phones work.  Bill calls PG&E; it will be days before they arrive.  I light Aladdin lamps and build a fire in our fireplace.  

Outside, from the main road I hear sirens.

With Bill Ash, I return to the meeting.  No mere storm will stop the march of Great Art.  Tonight, our job is sharing our poetry, reading aloud.  Bill reads:

Of course I'll come to dinner, she said,
But remember I'm vegetarian.
That's fine, said I with a hungry look,
For I'm a humanitarian.

Here's my contribution:

At the Mercy of Orphans

Spare me, Big Trees.
Spare my house
built of the flesh of your

Friday, January 21, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 21: Honest and Wonderful

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Wednesday, January 21, 1987

A ridgetop house with a view of the ocean far below.  Open floor plan, nice art, big windows, telescope.  An efficient house occupied by an efficient woman: Jane.  She's a schoolteacher, Volvo-driver.  With Jane I discuss installing some outdoor floodlights. 

Quickly we agree on a plan.  Jane says, "Are you honest and wonderful and all that?"

"Yes," I say.

"Then here's where I hide the house key.  Just leave a bill on the table.  I'll pay it because I'm also honest and wonderful and all that."

I do, she does.  Honest and wonderful - and busy.  All that.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 20: Bad Boy

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Saturday, Jan 20, 1996
Santa Clara is a boomtown, but there are a few original bungalows from the 1940's and 50's.  This is one of them, cozy, white, in good repair.  I love these little houses - in California, these are antiques.  It puts me in a happy mood just to touch them, to open a wall and catch a puff of dust that has been trapped between studs since the first showing of It's a Wonderful Life

My job: install two attic fans. 

Lucille, the owner, is a white-haired woman with hunched shoulders who walks with a cane.  I'd told Lucille I had to stop at another job first, but I'd try to be there "about ten."  I arrive at ten-thirty.  Lucille says I caused her to miss her aquasize class.  Bad boy. 

I must squeeze through a tiny opening, then swim through dusty insulation with 18 inch clearance lugging tools and junction boxes - an itchy, sneezy, nasty job.  Some insulation falls from my clothes to the carpet.  Bad boy. 

I go up and down a ladder, in and out of the house because the corroded fuse box with fraying wires is on the exterior in the back yard where her dog tries to bite my ankles.  Lucille says every time I open the door it causes heat loss.  Bad boy. 

On one trip to the back yard I step in dog poop and track it into the house.  Very bad boy.

I tell Lucille she needs to upgrade her electrical service entrance and install circuit breakers.  She shakes her head.  Bad contractor, looking to take advantage of an old lady.

In a constrained space under difficult circumstances, the fans are installed flawlessly: good wiring that nobody will ever see.

She'll never hire me again.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 19: Two Shingles

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Thursday, January 19, 1995

A couple of weeks ago during a winter storm, a big old branch (we call them widowmakers) fell from a redwood tree and shattered Marilyn's skylight.  Today she has asked me to meet an insurance adjuster to discuss the work.  I expect him to try for a cheap fix, though I can't imagine what that might be.  Duct tape?  You have to replace the entire skylight.  It'll cost a thousand dollars.  Maybe he'll try to squeeze me down to eight hundred.

Tim wears boots and a cowboy hat.  "Howdy," he says.  He's scribbling on a clipboard while squinting up at the roof. 

I've got my ladder.  I ask if he'd like to climb up and take a closer look.

"Naw," he says.  "I'd say you need to re-shingle."

There's one spot where the branch damaged a shingle.  Two shingles.  "I can weave them in," I say.

"No.  Re-shingle the whole side."

I'm puzzled.  The roof is only three years old; it would be an easy spot repair.  "Why?" I ask.

"I had a house in Dallas," he says.  "A tornado turned it into splinters.  I had insurance, and you know what?  They went bankrupt from all the claims.  I never got a penny.  So you know whose side I'm on."

Tim hands me the estimate - $6525.00 - returns to his Cadillac, and rides off into the hills.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Coming up next: Four Dog Riot

Melody Pilotte is a delightful young artist with a passion for vivid watercolors.  I've engaged her to design the "cover" for my upcoming podcast of Four Dog Riot.  We had a two hour meeting over coffee at Peet's in Half Moon Bay, wherein I explained the concept of Four Dog Riot, and she came up with this napkin sketch:

Since then, we've collaborated by email and one further meeting in Half Moon Bay, this time at Starbucks because she's started working there.  (I suspect the world of developing artists would collapse without coffee shops for both fuel and employment.)  (Matter of fact, I'm sitting in a Menlo Park Starbucks as I write this.)  (Matter of fact, Four Dog Riot takes place in Menlo Park.)

The current state of the cover is this:

We'll see where it goes from here.

I'm very proud of Four Dog Riot and can't wait to release it.  Later, I'll start talking about what the story is.  Here's a hint: there are four human faces on the cover.  One guitar.  And no dogs…

Podiobooks is down

The web site is down until Friday.  Apparently, too many of you folks have been downloading my (and other's) free podcasts.  They're upgrading the server right now.

If you're having trouble getting your next episode of Clear Heart or Babcock or any other podcast, I'm sorry.  Please hang on. 

The upgrade is expensive.  Podiobooks is a labor of love (in the extreme of unprofit) and depends on donations.  When they're back on the air, please think about a donation.

365 Jobs, Day 18 -- Frida Kahlo on Drugs

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Wednesday, January 18, 1995

Justine is an artist with big dangling earrings and a gypsy rag around her hair.  An attractive woman, thirtyish, with a dimpled smile, she bought a wreck of an old house in La Honda and simply maintains it - that is, she hires me to maintain it, calling me frequently to replace a faucet washer or clean a gutter. 

We joke a lot.  I tell her that her paintings look like what would happen if Frida Kahlo dropped acid.  She laughs.  "That'll be my epitaph: Frida Kahlo on drugs."

 As I work today, she's painting what appears to be a naked woman with a red body undergoing an abortion performed by lizards. 

I'm a licensed General Contractor, insured and bonded, charging my full professional rate.  My job today is to hang a curtain rod, mend a door latch, replace a light bulb.  I tell her, "You should get a husband or at least a boyfriend, Justine.  This is honey-do stuff.  Think of all the money you'd save."

"You're expensive."  She stabs black paint at her canvas.  "But you're cheaper than keeping a man around the house.  And you're a lot less trouble."

Sunday, January 16, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 16 -- Cracking Glass

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Friday, January 16, 1987

I'm supposed to remove four fixed-pane windows, replace the wood that's framing them, then re-install the window glass.  The problem: they used a permanent adhesive.  The glass is bonded to the wood.  Carefully I work a knife around the edge, then a chisel, but the glue is solid.  I pry. 

The first pane cracks.  They used regular glass.  These days, you have to use tempered.  It will cost $115 for one sheet.  And then there's unexpected rot inside the wall.  And then two more panes crack.

I woefully underestimated this job.  I quoted $350 and it's going to cost $1600.

Fortunately, it's a house in Atherton where money pours like wine.  Arlene understands. 

"Since you have to replace the panes anyway, would you like insulated glass?  There's a lot of heat loss here."

"Yes.  Excellent."

"It will double the cost."


She's older than me, bespectacled, wrinkly, grandmotherly while wearing a cable knit sweater, blue jeans, and jogging shoes.  She sits in an easy chair reading a book, occasionally glancing up to watch me work. 

I cover the openings.  The room becomes dark.  From the plywood comes the smell of urea formaldehyde glue.  Arlene takes her book to another room.

At noon she goes out to Arby's, returns with an extra turkey sandwich.  "Take a break," she says.  "Join me."

In the dining room surrounded by photos of children, grandchildren, weddings and birthdays, we sit in plush black chairs on opposite sides of the table. 

"What are you reading?" I ask.

With an embarrassed little giggle, she shows me a book called The Male Member.  "It's about penises," she says.  "Or is it peni?"  She smiles.  "It's mostly crap.  Did you know the Russians claim that Hitler had only one testicle?"

"Uh, no.  I didn't know that."

"The author's an artist.  I'm a scientist."  Arelene shrugs.  "According to the author, Rasputin had a thirteen incher.  Now it's in an ornate wooden box on top of a dresser in Paris.  Supposedly it looks like an overripe banana."  She laughs.  She's animated.  "Napoleon's shrank to one inch as he was dying of arsenic.  Havelock Ellis - you know who he is?"

"Uh, no."

"He invented narcissism.  That is, he named it.  But also he wrote and researched about sex simply to learn what it was like.  He was impotent.  At age sixty he cured his impotence and promptly stopped writing about sex.  Freud was impotent also, from cocaine."  She pauses, thinking.  "Now that I believe."

In repair work, I enter people's houses.  It's always slightly, awkwardly intimate.  But there are certain invisible shields you try to maintain between employer and employed, between man and woman, between aged and young.  Arlene is shattering all of them. 

What next?  Is she going to ask about my, uh, member?  I could tell her I'm less than Rasputin but more than Napoleon. 

In the spirit of the conversation I have one diverting fact at my disposal, something I've recently learned in a random discussion about body sugar, so I ask, "Does that book talk about semen?"

"I don't know," she says.  "I've been skipping around."

"Did you know that semen contains fructose?  It causes the sperm to take off like a shot."

"Where'd you learn that?"

"From my doctor."

Arlene frowns.  "Oh, I'm so sorry."

"No no, I'm fine," I say. 

From then on, she seems to treat me with pity.  Which is a relief, actually.  The shields seem to be back in place.

When I return a few days later to install the new panes, on her coffee table is a different book: You're Only Old Once.  It's by Dr. Seuss.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 15 -- Dimmer Switch

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Tuesday, January 15, 1991

Bertha on the telephone gets my total attention with her first words: "You remember that dimmer switch you installed?  It caught on fire."

Before I can go to Bertha's house, I drop the kids at school.  On the play field there is a Peace Circle - parents, teachers, kids all standing in a circle, heads bowed, holding hands.  The deadline for Iraq - the line in the sand for Saddam Hussein to begin withdrawing from Kuwait - is tonight.  I've been maintaining that there will be no war - that Saddam will withdraw, that he isn't stupid.  The sight of the Peace Circle moves me to tears - it seems so touching, so naive, so earnest - but I don't join them.  I have the damage of a fire to put out.  My client is upset; I'm upset.  Looking back, though, I wish I'd lingered a few moments instead of rushing off.  I wish I'd held hands with my kids and their teachers in a silent circle of peace.

Two years ago when I installed Bertha's dimmer switch, I knew the risk.  The rating was for 1000 watts, and the lights added up to 975 watts.  A higher-rated switch would have ugly cooling fins exposed outside the wall, looking like heavy industrial equipment in Bertha's nice kitchen.  At the time of installation I told Bertha that if the switch failed, I'd replace it with a higher-rated one and only charge her for the cost of the switch, not for labor.  In retrospect it was a well-meant but stupid decision.  I didn't realize that failure could mean catching on fire.  Fortunately I'd used a steel box and sealed it correctly, so the damage was limited to inside the electric box.

Bertha doesn't even blame me.  In her mind, it was simply a defective switch.  She just wants her lights to work.  She has no memory of my warning that the switch might fail or of my promise, should it fail, to bill only for the switch, not for labor. 

I could charge her for the labor.  But I don't.

At my next job, same day, Red is a psychiatrist and a heck of a nice guy.  I've worked at his house several times.  Today for the first time Red wants me to work at his clinic, which he shares with four other headshrinkers.  They want sound-deadening flaps installed at the bottoms of each of their fancy office doors.  Apparently, patients are uneasy revealing their darkest secrets when they can be overheard in the waiting room.  People are funny that way.

"Your charges are always fair," Red tells me, "but this time you're charging the whole group, not just me.  These guys…"  He shakes his head.  "You could pad the bill."

I like Red.  He comes from humble origins.  He thinks his colleagues are a bunch of rich jerks.

So do I pad the bill?  Well, not really.  But I do round a couple numbers to the upside.

After school I take my son to buy a new pair of shoes at a crappy discount store.  We purchase a pair of hightops for him and a pair of jogging shoes for me.  At the checkout I get confused - as does the cashier - and later reviewing the receipt I figure out that I paid 28 cents for some $21 shoes.  Basically, the cashier shortchanged himself and I was pleased that the total was less than I expected.  The cashier may have to pay for his mistake.  He’s just a kid.  I feel bad about it.  I was mad at the store because the service had been so lousy - it was overcrowded, swamped - and I was confused at the register, but still, the bottom line is, I think I cheated the kid by not questioning the transaction at the time.

So I have a day of moral choices.  Some I handle better than others.  If only I'd joined that Peace Circle, just for a few moments…  The total of all the little choices we make, multiplied by billions of people, becomes the world we live in.

The next day, when I turn on the news, bombs are falling in Baghdad.

Friday, January 14, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 14 -- Butcher Block

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Saturday, January 14, 1978

Paul is a young mobile communications salesman (this is 1978, so it's cb radio) who just bought his first house, a classic Eichler in South Palo Alto.  He's a year out of San Jose State, former president of his fraternity, good-looking with slick black hair and aviator glasses, neatly dressed, natural manners.  He's got a Corvette and a winning smile.  On the mantle is a wedding photo: Paul with a pretty woman.  She's thin, radiant. 

He watches me replace a section of Formica counter with butcher block - very trendy - while fielding phone calls inviting him to a wine-tasting in Napa, a gallery opening in San Francisco, a party in Marin.  He's the Palo Alto dream: young, successful, blessed.  In his presence I'm the schlub: older, less successful, eight years out of college and working as a carpenter.  By choice, mind you.  But still…

Between phone calls, Paul lends me a hand lifting the countertop, holding brackets in place while I screw them in.  The countertop needs a bit of cutting and sanding, as nothing in the existing kitchen is perfectly square.  I take it slowly, do it right.

At the end of the job as he's writing the check, Paul says, "Hey, if you need any help on a weekend job, give me a call, okay?  All it takes is a hammer and a screwdriver, right?  And anybody could use a few extra bucks, right?"  He smiles that almost-winning grin.  It occurs to me that there's not a trace of a woman's presence in the house. 

It's a facade.  He's going down.

"I'll call you when something comes up," I say.

I never call.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 12 -- Scooter Board Ramp

Tuesday, January 12, 1982

It's called a scooter board ramp.  I built my first one on this day, 29 years ago.  I've had to repair it a few times as kids have pounded it over the years.

Pediatric occupational therapists use scooter boards in treating kids who have various motion or balance issues.  Here's a picture of a commercial model in use:

The kids don't think of it as therapy; they're just having a blast.  OT's are tricky that way.

The plywood base of the commercial model is sturdier than the 1x3 legs I used.  I had wanted to use plywood, too, but weight was an issue, and I was building a customized model to the exacting needs of one particular OT: my wife.  So I chose the less sturdy design, knowing I'd be on call to make occasional repairs.

My version uses a 1" dowel as a hinge, allowing the ramp to be folded back over the platform when not in use.  Or the ramp can simply be lifted and stored elsewhere.  Here are some close-ups of the hinge detail:

The platform is 12" above the floor.  Its dimensions are 22" by 34".  The ramp is 24 1/2" wide (to fit outside the platform at the hinge) by 41" long.  

Here's how it looks, folded:
 and open:
It's a pleasure to build something that gives joy on a daily basis while helping kids in therapy.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 11 -- The Professor's Wife

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Wednesday, January 11, 1984

Betsy, who usually takes a while to get to the point, is telling me about her sister, Shelly: "Shelly got married in college.  Her husband was a graduate student.  He became a professor.  They lived in Nebraska.  After fifteen years he came home one day and said, 'I don't love you.  I never loved you.'  She came to California and now she's making minimum wage at Walgreen's.  She's taking classes in accounting.  You need to help her."

"Help her how?"

"Her bathtub."

It's a tiny cottage in Los Altos.  Shelly has a pretty face that would delight a cubist painter: chiseled, not curved.  Her voice is gentle; her smile, wide.

I tell her the ultimate solution is to tear out the wall, rebuild and retile.  She can't afford it.  The landlord should pay but she doesn't want to "bother" him.  We come up with a less elegant repair: a gooey fiberglass mixture that I will apply by hand.  When dry, it will seal out the water and buy a few years before the whole wall collapses.

I've never applied fiberglass before.  It takes more hours and more materials than I expected.  The fumes space me out.  It doesn't tool well and I can't get it smooth.  At one point while I'm working Shelly stands in the doorway, watching, and after some small talk she finally asks, "Do you have children?  Just wondering.  I saw the little bear on the dashboard of your truck."

"Three kids," I say.

Somehow, that was the wrong answer.  Her face clouds over.  She walks away.

I pile some debris, grout and broken tile, on the bathroom floor.  Shelly returns to the doorway.  "Did you always want children?"

"No," I say cautiously.

"What changed your mind?"

"It wasn't like I didn't want children ever.  It was more like I wasn't ready.  And then one day, I realized I was ready."

"How long did that take?"

"We'd been married, um, six years.  It was our anniversary, actually, when I told her."

"And your wife - was she ready?"

"She had to think about it."

"How long?"

"About thirty seconds."

"You're blushing!"

So I am.  Meanwhile, a cat has pawed a little hole in my pile of debris and is squatting over it.  "I'm so sorry," Shelly says.  She sweeps up the pile and then sprays the floor with Lysol.  As she scrubs, she asks, "What made you ready?"

"I don't know.  I just was."

The floor is clean now, but she continues scrubbing, not meeting my eye.  "You see, I met this young man.  I mean, young.  For some reason he likes me.  So I was just wondering."

I don't know what makes me say it, maybe a protective instinct, but I ask, "Is he nice?"

There's an intake of breath, a hesitation.  Then she says, "He's lovely."

I don't finish until 8 pm.  It looks slapdash and may not even hold.  I hate doing this kind of repair, so temporary, so ugly, and not inexpensive.

I clean up.  Shelly inspects the work.

"Sorry," I say.  "Maybe I could come back tomorrow and do something better."

"No, it's lovely," she says, and she writes me a check.

Monday, January 10, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 10 -- Two Questions

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

I've kept a daily journal for most of my life.  Every post in 365 Jobs is an expansion of some brief entry I found in my pages.  Like a long-forgotten scent, it's amazing how a few words, jotted so many years ago, can bring such a flood of memory.  Today I found entries on January 10, 1993 and January 10, 2006 that make perfect bookends:

Sunday, January 10, 1993

I'm fixing oatmeal in the kitchen when from the workshop in my basement, I hear the shudder and whistle of the motor starting on my radial arm saw, then the chatter of the blade cutting a board.

I go downstairs and find my son Will, age eight, third grade, placing another board on the saw table.  He's wearing ear guards and safety glasses.

"Did I say you could use the radial arm saw?"

On his face is the uh-oh look.  He removes the ear guards.  "Was I supposed to ask?"

"Have you ever used that saw before?"


He's watched me use it plenty of times.  On his own initiative he'd put on the ear guards and safety glasses, a good sign.  He's a sensible child, good with his hands.  But he's a child.  "Will, I need to teach you the safety rules.  And I need to be here in the same room watching you use it.  And you can never use it if I'm not home."


So I deliver the basic safety lecture.  Only one rule surprises him: "Before you press that START button, always ask yourself two questions: Where is the saw blade?  And where are my hands?"

"You do that?  Always?"

"Yes."  I hold up my hands.  "Ten fingers.  A lot of carpenters can't show you that many."

He gets my point.  He will remember that rule and quote it back to me, with chords and harmony, for years to come.

"So what are you building?"

"A foot pedal."

"What for?"

Eventually, we bought drums:  Will, 1994
"The bass drum."  He points to an oatmeal box that he's nailed to a block of wood.  Lately, he's been into drums. 

He never even asked me to buy him a drum.  In our family, we make things. 

I ask, "What's the design?"

"I'm making it up."

"That's my favorite design.  Want some help?"

With a combination of dowels and scraps and the spring from a screen door, we end up with a ludicrous, bulky, semi-workable foot pedal.  And a great morning.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

With the help of my son Will, age 23, college grad, professional musician (drums, guitar, dobro), I put in a long day finishing the conversion of a Menlo Park office into a therapy gymnasium.  It's the end of a two-month job, and I couldn't have done it without him.  Tomorrow, the clinic opens. 

I gave Will all the hard jobs, like crawling in the attic or cutting a doorway in a lath-and-plaster wall.  I always fear for his fingers, though he never seems to hurt them and besides, he tells me, Jerry Garcia had fewer than ten.  He likes working for me, and construction pays better than serving coffee. 

Just this morning, I put a notice on our local e-list offering a free trundle bed.  It was Will's for all of his boyhood and on vacations all the way through college, but I'm ready to admit he's never moving back home.

One of my final tasks is to build a ball rack using a combination of steel and PVC pipe.  Somehow in the process I lose my footing, bang my head on a steel pipe, and spill PVC adhesive all over my hand and the arm of my sweatshirt.  "Ow!"  I grab my head and smear blue carcinogenic glue on my cheek and in my hair.

Will, 2006

Will looks up from the shelves he's assembling.  "You okay?"

"Just a bruise," I say, still holding my head.  "The cancer comes later."

He smiles.  "Before you open a can of glue, you need to ask yourself two questions: Where is the pipe?  And where is my brain?"

In the evening after dark we finish the job.  Will heads back to San Francisco where he has a gig playing bluegrass at a coffeehouse.  He lives in the Mission District.

I drive home to La Honda in my truck.  Blue adhesive has dried on my sweatshirt and in my hair.  I smell like a PVC pipe.  On the e-list, when I check in, somebody who calls himself a "brand-new father" has asked for the trundle bed.  He comes to my house and, together, we carry it out to his van on a cold, starry night.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 9 -- Cheap Remodel

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Thursday, January 9, 1992

Some days, people complain that I charge too much, fifty an hour, outrageous.  Sometimes I think I don't charge enough.

Edgar calls me, frantic.  "I want to remodel my bathroom and it'll cost five thousand dollars and I can't afford it."  Edgar is a short man with thick eyeglasses, excitable, gay. 

I ask, "You've had an estimate?"

"No, but a friend remodeled his bathroom and that's how much it cost."

"Actually, that's cheap for a bathroom."

I go to Edgar's house.  He says he has to replace the bathtub and the tile because it's leaking.

"Leaking where?"

"There."  He points to the spout, dripping.

In thirty minutes I replace the washers and grind the seats.  The drip is gone.  I write an invoice:

$50.00 labor
$  0.25 materials
$50.25 total.

Edgar beams.  "You just saved me four thousand, nine hundred forty-nine dollars and seventy-five cents!"

Saturday, January 8, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 8 -- Frantic Woman

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Friday, January 8, 1988

Patches of ice on our narrow road.  I'm coming down the mountain to work.  From the rear somebody's headlights cut through mist, coming fast.  Without hesitation the BMW passes on a blind curve.  I see a blond woman, tight jaw, black coat.  She swerves in front of me and starts to fishtail out of control.  I slam the brakes.  I skid.  My truck slides to the gravel shoulder and stops at the edge of a precipice.  The BMW recovers traction and disappears around another curve.

I shut off the motor and close my eyes.  Breathing.  Loving the fact that I breathe.

Frantic woman, late,
passes skidding on a curve to
reach her boring job.

Friday, January 7, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 7 -- The Storm

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Saturday, January 7, 1995

Friday night, 10:30 pm, in bed I'm reading by headlamp because the electricity is out.  Every winter we have one killer storm.  This is it.  Up our street a few years back a tree sliced a cabin like a hatchet through a cupcake.  Now rain is pounding; wind rushing; giant redwoods are bending over my house.  We sleep downstairs, hoping the upper floor will act as a cushion.

In La Honda the power is always going out.  The phones, never.  Now it rings.

It's my ex-neighbor, Mark.  He lives in the flatlands now.  He says he just had a dream in which he was in the redwoods in a wild storm.  He thought I should know.

When Mark tells you a dream, you better pay attention.

As I hang up the phone, I hear the snap, the sickening whoosh and crash of a falling tree.  In a bathrobe with a flashlight I go out to inspect - in blackness, in pelting rain and rushing wind - and hear another snap and whoosh - which tree?  Where is it falling?  And which way do I run?  Easy - I run back inside.  My three kids are sleeping.  Oil lamps are flickering and smoking.  I listen to the wind, the branches striking the roof.  I pray for no emergencies so I can stay safe, snug, dry in bed.

Saturday morning, a gentle rain.  I survey the damage.  Redwood branches litter the ground.  An oak has fallen.  My house, okay.  Beside me, Mark's former house, okay.  Below me, Marilyn's house lost another skylight.  The one they sleep under.  Nobody hurt, just freaked out.  Another job.  I don't wish for work among my friends and neighbors, but I'm there when they need it.  I lay a ladder on her A-frame roof, spread a tarp.  I'm lucky.  Protected, somehow, by Mark's dream.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 6 -- Funky Muck

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Tuesday, January 6, 1987

Mama said there'd be days like this…

Rainy, almost freezing.  I creep among mushrooms pushing forward with my elbows and the tips of my boots.  I'm a worm.  Sixteen inches separate floor joists from muck.  Spiders stare at me with multiple eyes.  There's the smell of rot, the suck of mud.  I ooze through the crawlspace wearing a headlight like a miner, wrenches clanking, my breath puffing clouds in the beam.  

The hours pass in funky muck.  At last the job is done, pipes replaced.  I peel off my crawlsuit and am just ready to start the truck when the tenant arrives, an acupuncturist.  She steps in her cabin and screams.  A pipe has burst in the kitchen.  A flood.  I've got to deal with it - quickly.

In the end it's a nine hour day.  I'm soaked, slopped, chilled - and rattled.  The broken pipe was a coincidence, not my fault, but it makes me look stupid.  Next door I find Toby, the cabin's owner, in his basement editing film.  He makes documentary movies.  For pay he gets to trek in the wilderness filming antelopes, waterfalls, spectacular canyons and rivers.  Upstairs I hear his wife, a singer, doing voice exercises, lovely.  She'd be embarrassed if she knew I could hear.

"You okay?" he asks.  "You look literally like shit."  He sniffs.  "Kinda smell like it, too."

"I want to go home and take a hot bath."

He writes a check.

I ask, "What are you working on now?"

"It's for PBS."  He grins.  "It's about appreciating water."

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 5 -- The Hole

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:
Wednesday, January 5, 1977

It's a cheapo stucco box, a six-unit apartment building in a low-rent section of Sunnyvale.  Looks like a dump.  (Sunnyvale in 1977 was half tech-boom town, half fruit orchards and honkytonk bars.) 

John, the owner, looks like an old wino with uncombed hair, red eyes, beard stubble.  He lives in one of the units, rents the other five.  He says he's a retired elementary schoolteacher. 

John says the building has a few problems.  The partner of the man who built it is now in jail; the building inspector has been fired for accepting bribes. 

In fact, the entire building is atrocious.  They cut corners in silly ways, like by using putty instead of wax to seal the toilets to the floor - saving maybe fifty cents per toilet for a total of six toilets.  Why bother being so cheap?  All the plumbing leaks, every unit.  Floors are rotted.  The building is about fifteen years old.

John's unit is the worst.  His decorating style might be described as post-tornado, except this is California.  Post-Big One.  You walk among piles: envelopes, magazines, garbage bags, newspapers, books.  There's a rotten hole in his bathroom floor big enough for a basketball.  Through the gap you can see - and smell - the damp clay of the crawlspace.

"Fix all the drips," he says.  "Each unit."

"And the floor?"

"It'll have to wait."

I'm the cheapest plumber he could find, charging my rookie rate of seven bucks an hour which is practically minimum wage, and he thinks I cost too much.

I persist: "Gotta fix that hole, John.  Somebody could come in here and fall right through.  Break a leg."

"Nobody comes in here.  Are you kidding?  Look around."

"Or you, some night, sleepy, maybe a little boozy, fall in.  See that nail?  Castrate yourself."

"Might be a good idea," he says, peering down the hole.  Then he covers it with a piece of cardboard.

I go unit to unit, fixing faucets and toilets.  Most of the tenants are transient car culture types. One guy is a Vietnam vet, crippled, bum legs, chain-smoking in a ratty old chair in the dark.  One woman advises me to "pad the bill."  A kid orders me, "Hey mister, carry my bike up the stairs."  (I say I'm too busy).  A young woman living alone talks to her cat, curtains drawn, and watches reruns of Medical Center on TV. 

In the only clean unit, I find an immense brown lady with lovely white leather furniture, a giant Holy Bible prominent at the center of the room on a coffee table.  As I repair her faucets and replace her angle stops, countless teenaged and grown children keep coming and going, all respectful, all courteous.  She's the matriarch. 

She offers me some juice.

"No thank you," I say.

"You will have some juice," she says.

"Uh, yes ma'am."  I sit on the immaculate sofa, sipping orange juice, taking a break.  She asks about my family.  I ask about hers.  She has me beaten in the children competition.  At this point I have one child.  She has fourteen.  And six grandchildren.  She couldn't be a day over fifty. 

I return to John's unit and repair his kitchen faucet while he worries about a runaway kitten.  At one point some kids are playing outside his front door.  John opens the window and shouts "Fuck you!" through the screen.  The kids run away.

He's staring at me.  "You an outdoor person?" he asks.


"I could tell.  You have that look."  He lights a cigarette.  "Me, too.  I hiked almost the entire John Muir Trail."

"You gonna finish?  Hike the rest of it?"


"Why'd you quit teaching?"

He scowls.  "Didn't quit," he says, and he walks out the front door.  I don't see him again.

When I finish, I leave a bill and a self-addressed envelope on top of his toilet seat, the only uncluttered spot in his apartment. 

Two days later, I receive the check.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 4

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:
Monday, January 4, 1993 -- The Mad House

In the back yard of a house in Mountain View I've converted a garage (without permit, as it wouldn't be sanctioned) into a living quarters and darkroom for Howard's teenage son, who wants to be a photographer.  Howard good-naturedly calls it "the Mad House."  I've done several garage-to-teen-den conversions, and it's always a stepparent/stepchild issue. 

Today I'm to install a furnace.  The son has been living there for months already, but space heaters just aren't doing the job.  As I arrive, a teenage girl is stepping out the door.  She's startled, seeing me.  She has blue jeans, a pony tail, and yet, and yet…

"I'm here to install a furnace," I say.

"Warmth," she says.  "A good idea."  She's one of those subset of teen girls who can look so wise, so serious, so much older while still so young.  How do they do it?  Teen boys can never escape looking like teen boys.

"I'll try not to be in your way," I say.

"No problem.  I'm leaving forever."

Inside, the air is thick with the damp smell of bodies and mildew and the residue of darkroom chemicals.  Nobody is home.  The concrete floor is buried by clothes, books, a pile of camping gear.  The window is steamy.  A furnace will definitely help. 

In one corner there's a mattress, a sleeping bag, and on top a note written with a feminine hand, circles over the i's:  "Thank you for a wonderful weekend of skiing that I will remember for a long time."

You pop in and out of people's lives; you get a snapshot, sometimes a blurry one.  A little drama.  Whatever it means. 

Monday, January 3, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 3

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:
Saturday, Jan 3, 1987 -- Cleo, the Piano

I met Cleo a year and a half ago - in July, 1985 - when she moved into a newly constructed problem house.  The builder, she said, was "an arrogant little creep."  When Cleo pointed out that he had painted the exterior with interior paint, hooked up the air conditioner in reverse so that it cooled the outside, left all the outlets dead in one room, messed up a sink trap and neglected to install an air gap for the dishwasher, he told her, "Shut up!  This house is perfect!"  When she further pointed out that the kitchen drawers had nails sticking out, he said, "Just don't put your hands in the drawers."

This is my niche: cleaning up the messes that the big guys leave behind.  Rather than deal with lawsuits against arrogant creeps, a lot of homeowners would rather pay me, get good service and be done with it.

Cleo's husband was an obstetrician, but I rarely saw him around.  Occupational hazard.  Cleo had no children.  Her husband was probably 20 years older than her.  Second wife, I assumed, though I never asked.  Cleo was a kind woman, warm, outgoing, very pretty with black hair and light brown skin.  She had a way of making you feel comfortable.

Cleo designed and sewed her own clothes.  She had the eye for style.  On a Sophia Loren frame she somehow combined modesty and flash, and she always looked fabulous.

One day, cooking hamburgers (and yet dressed as if she were about to step onto a runway), she offered me lunch.  Sitting on a bar stool at the kitchen counter, I joined her 17-year-old nephew who was visiting from New Jersey.  His name was Earl.  To my surprise Cleo served me two hamburgers, big ones.  And two for Earl.  Apparently Cleo was accustomed to men with big appetites.

"I want you to talk some sense into Earl," Cleo told me.  "He's been here two weeks and gotten two speeding tickets.  The last one, he was doing 95 on the Dunbarton Bridge."

Earl groaned, realizing that the hamburgers were a trap even as burger grease was dripping down his chin.

"Earl," I said, wiping my own grease, "don't try to be the fastest guy on the road.  Be the second fastest.  That way, the other guy gets the ticket."

Cleo frowned.  This wasn't the advice she was hoping for.

"We done here?" Earl said.  And he was gone.  I saw a black car lurch out of the driveway.

"Sorry," I said. 

"I mistook you for a grownup," Cleo said. 

But she continued to hire me for projects, and now - we're back to January, 1987 - she has called to say that they are selling the house and moving into a condominium.  It's in Los Altos, an upscale town, but the condo is clearly a step down for them.  I don't ask why.  There's some tension in the air as I build shelves and install lights.  It's a day of drenching rain.

The piano, 1991.  My daughter, age 13.
When I finish, she asks if I want a piano.  For free.  It's a beaut, but they don't have room for it in their downsized condo.  My daughter, age 8, wants to learn the piano.  This would be great.  Thank you.

Then suddenly it's awkward.  It's time to present the bill.  They've just given me a like-new $2500 piano.  How can I bill them for $400?  It seems ungracious.  But I can't afford not to - we've had a bad winter, financially - and I wouldn't have taken the piano if they'd asked $400 for it.  Still, it's awkward.  And for once, Cleo doesn't put me at ease.

A few days later, I stopped by their condo.  My daughter had drawn a picture of the piano with a big "Thank you!"  My wife had baked four loaves of bread.  A country-style thank you from our home in the mountains.  But nobody was there.  I left the picture and bread at the door.

I never heard from them again.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 2

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Monday, January 2, 1984 -- The Hat Rack

It's one of those shingled mansions in Professorville, the old-style section of Palo Alto.  My friend Tom meets me at this castle because his son had a sleepover at my house in the mountains. 

Tom's son and mine are best friends, age ten, though they now live forty miles apart.  When my power went out, as often happens on the dark wet days of winter, his son and mine played Dungeons and Dragons by the light of the fireplace. 

Now Tom and I have met at the halfway point, Professorville.  His son climbs out of my truck.  Tom eyes the mansion.  He says, "You're working here?  Man, who are these people that can buy these houses?  I sure missed out somewhere."  And then he rumbles off to San Jose in a beat-up behemoth station wagon while I belt on my tools and go to work for "these people." Nice people.

I fuss with downspouts, patch a basement wall, hang a mirror, replace a window, install a curtain rod, rescreen two doors.

My employer is Mrs. Seeker, a pleasant and efficient woman.  On this day her two children are repairing bicycle brakes and heading off to the airport, returning to college on the east coast, packing skis and bright woolen scarves.  Mrs. Seeker tells me she has just one more chore for me to do: tighten up a hat rack that is wobbly on the wall. 
Mr. Seeker, who has been wordlessly frowning at me all day, finally speaks: "Leave it alone.  I'll take care of it."

Women hire me to do the chores their husbands never get around to.  The husbands feel emasculated by my presence.  Mr. Seeker installed that hat rack and, by golly, he's going to fix it.  Some day.

"Honey, will you bring my checkbook?" Mrs. Seeker asks.  "It's in my purse in the kitchen."

Mr. Seeker complies.

Quickly Mrs. Seeker nods her head toward the wall.  Quickly I pull the screwdriver from my toolbelt and remove two screws.

"I can't find it," Mr. Seeker calls from the kitchen.

"Oh, I forgot.  It's in the bedroom."

I poke two plastic anchors into the plaster, then rehang the hat rack with two screws.

Mr. Seeker returns, checkbook in hand.  "Thanks, honey," Mrs. Seeker says with a smile.  She turns to me.  "Now what do I owe you?"

Saturday, January 1, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 1

This is a post from my new blog, 365 Jobs.  For a while at least, I'll be duplicating the posts from the 365 Jobs blog on this Clear Heart blog .  In addition, the Clear Heart blog will contain the usual updates and news about my writing and other projects.

 Wednesday, Jan 1, 1986 -- The Mongrel

Yes, I worked holidays.  Weekends, too. 

On this particular New Year's morn, 1986, I am extending the fences of a dog run in the shadow of a palace.  The mongrel belongs to Mrs. M — and only to Mrs. M.  The palace belongs to Mrs. M and her husband Dr. M, who happens to be a Professor of Economics at Stanford.  Dr. M calls the mongrel a "million dollar dog" because of all the money Mrs. M has paid me to build - and now raise - the fences of the pen.  I've actually earned somewhat less than a million dollars on this job, but you do not quibble over statistics with a Stanford economist who was once an adviser to President Nixon. 

Mrs. M would strike you on first meeting as a silly old lady wearing a flowery old hat, a relic of a simpler era.  Meanwhile I struck her on first meeting as something more than a hippie carpenter.  She asked, "Why don't you go back to school?"

"What for?  I've got a B.A."

"Oh really?  I could tell you weren't run of the mill.  But I assumed you were a dropout."

"I'm a writer.  This is my day job."

"I get it.  You should meet my housepainter.  He's a lawyer who got sick of lawyering."

For Mrs. M over a span of years I built an office, a greenhouse, an above-ground wine cellar, and a dog pen as well as a long string of unusual or impractical projects such as raising all her office furniture one inch above floor level in case the washing machine in the hallway should ever overflow (it never did).  I removed sixty pounds of honey from between the studs of an exterior wall (the bees had already departed but the honey was seeping through the interior wallpaper).  I custom-built an immense cabinet in her garage so she could store soda pop, which she purchased by the truckload.  I custom-built an outdoor phone booth, a delivery box, and a garbage truck (that's what she called it) so she could wheel her garbage cans down the driveway once a week.  She was, quite simply, eccentric.  And rich.

I came to admire her.  From the beginning she told me she expected materials "of the highest quality."  Price seemed no problem.  She was kind, generous, and nakedly emotional.  As a child on a farm in Illinois, she had taken baths in a metal washtub with water heated on a wood stove in the kitchen. Now she was expected to behave with the dignity befitting a distinguished professor's wife.

Dr. M liked to argue with tradesmen or anybody else who stumbled into his path, though he was never condescending.  We were expected to debate as equals.  On my first day of work, he insisted on helping me unload the heavy radial arm saw from the back of my truck.  He sent angry letters to President Reagan and received, via courier, idiotic replies written by underlings, which he showed me. 

Dr. M loved cigars, solitude, and his backyard swimming pool which he skimmed himself, by hand, every day.  I never saw him swim.  That blue pool on a hilltop surrounded by brilliant flowers tended by a Japanese gardener in the warm California sun seemed to manifest all the awards and accomplishments of this boy from the tenements.  He often returned from speaking engagements in a chauffeured limousine.  For personal travel, he drove a Cadillac land yacht with a bad muffler, broken air conditioner, and door trim that was falling off.  One time in his kitchen he offered me a cup of coffee.

"No thanks," I said.  "I prefer plain hot water."

He frowned.  "You're as bad as a Buddhist monk," he said.

As for the dog, it was a mutt, an undisciplined stray who had somehow wandered into Mrs. M's manicured world.  She neither petted nor played with it.  She felt obliged, though, to provide food and shelter.  And she would not shirk her obligations even though the dog was an escape artist who wasn't to be contained by a five foot fence.

We placed the dog in his newly remodeled run.  He studied the fence, now eight feet high, and then  promptly climbed - not jumped, but climbed - the woven-wire until he was perched atop a four-by-four post.  With a contemptuous snuff, he leaped to the ground and ran away.

"He's a genius," Dr. M exclaimed.  "Worthless.  But a genius."

Ignoring her husband, Mrs. M turned to me.  "If I get him back, you will build a roof for this pen."

"Gladly," I said.

Dr. M rolled his eyes but said nothing.  I always had the impression that he'd given his entire fortune to his wife to use as she saw fit.  On one thing he and I agreed:  she was worth it.