Monday, February 28, 1977
(This saga took place over several months of 1977. It began in February and ended in May. For the sake of consolidation and continuity, I'm posting all of them in May.)
I learned how to thread pipe from a scientist named Edgar. He hired me because I'd posted an ad saying I'd do plumbing, carpentry, and electric work for $7 an hour (at the time, real plumbers were charging $30 and up). I thought the low rate would attract lots of calls - and it did.
Of course the low rate also served as a warning to clients: If he works so cheaply, he can't be skilled. And I wasn't. I was expanding my knowledge quickly working by trial and error, charging cheap rates for the trials and nothing for the errors. At a vocational training school with dollars instead of letters for a grading system, you learn fast.
The first lesson is this: Cheap labor is hired by cheap people.
Edgar was one of those cheapskates. I don't know what kind of science he was engaged in, only that upon hiring me he said he couldn't start until next week because "I've got a lot of experiments going." He was in the middle of converting a garage into two bedrooms and a bath. The job was taking longer than he expected because, he explained, "I keep losing carpenters."
A week later I began. Edgar and I worked side by side. With cold chisels we chipped away stucco at the base of the garage in preparation for jacking up the foundation. Until now I had never chipped stucco nor jacked a foundation. I'd only been in business for 6 months, plunging blindly into areas I knew nothing about. Now I was getting on-the-job training from a man who, I later realized, knew very little himself. (Chipping the stucco, for example, a two-day job by hand, would have taken 30 minutes with a rented demo hammer.)
Edgar was a small man, bald, with a New Jersey accent. Late in the day his wife Rhoda came home with two small children. Rhoda was a pediatrician with a New Jersey accent. She asked Edgar about a piece of wood that a previous carpenter had cut wrong. Edgar said, "He paid for it."
I began to understand why Edgar kept "losing" carpenters. And why was Edgar, a highly educated scientist with a wife who was a pediatrician, both employed full time at presumably well-paid jobs, taking a day off to chip stucco?
Rhoda and Edgar had an edgy conversation about how he should stop work and eat dinner with his children. He said he was already behind schedule. Rhoda, rolling her eyes, said she was very aware that he was behind schedule. Then she turned to me. "What do you think of a man who won't take time to eat dinner with his children?"
Caught in crossfire, asked to choose sides, I did the best I could: "I would be quite happy to call it a day."
Edgar said his goal was to finish the chipping today. Rhoda returned to the house, muttering to herself.
Edgar and his vanishing carpenters had already framed the walls inside the garage. In my ignorance - and to further my education - I asked, "Why didn't you raise the garage before doing the framing inside?"
"Because the @#$%^&;*!! inspector rejected the framing. He said the @#$%^&*!! ceiling wasn't high enough. He wanted more @#$%^&;*!! headroom. I showed him the plans that his own @#$%^&;*!! building department had approved. He said just because the @#$%^&;*!! plans were approved didn't mean I could break the @#$%^&;*!! building code."
Edgar's wife reappeared. Sternly she said, "Eddie, that's enough. The kids can hear you. Come inside right now. You're grounded for the evening."
With a sheepish look, Edgar followed her inside without a glance at me, not a word. I was a tool, set aside at the end of the day.