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.)

Monday, September 26, 2011

365 Jobs: The Rookie - Adolf and the "Crack"

September, 1976

(This is the second part of a series that began with The Rookie: First Day.)

After my first day on the construction crew, I had a painful sunburn.  Less than a week ago I'd completed my final shift on graveyard.  I was like a miner emerging from three years underground.

In the next few weeks I did the grunt-work that a rookie was expected to do.  There were bricks and lumber to be hauled, small batches of concrete to be mixed, dirt to be shoveled.  There were impossibly heavy 4x8 foot sheets of Plexiglas to be carried to the central atrium, then lifted to the roof or tilted up to the side, caulked, and held in place.  Muscles started rippling over my body.  My sunburn peeled; then I turned bronze.  I sweated buckets.  I lost ten pounds.

Every chance I could, I watched Adolf.  He was my silent teacher.  Unfortunately I started badly with him:  Pierce gave me the assignment of chipping some concrete from the surface of the driveway.  A delivery had been sloppy; I was to clean up the hardened droppings, which looked like concrete turds.  Pierce said, "You can just bang with a hammer and it will break off from the surface.  The bond is weak.  Just don't use your good hammer.  Here."  He handed me a big old hammer that had pock marks on the hickory handle and rust on the top.  "I found this lying around.  Use it."

Pierce was right.  With a couple of blows, the hammer would break the bond and remove a turd.  I was thinking about coprolites, which are fossilized dinosaur droppings.  I'd bought one once from a rather strange store and given it as a birthday present to my brother Ed, who found it amusing.  Suddenly I was shaken by Adolf's voice shouting: "WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH MY HAMMER?"

"It's yours?  Pierce gave it to me.  He said it was some old hammer he found lying around."

"Give me."

I handed Adolf the hammer.  Indignantly he pointed to the letters engraved in the head: STILETTO.  "This is the best hammer," Adolf said.  "Pierce is arschkriecher.  You want to be a good carpenter?  Don't listen to Pierce."

"I don't want to listen to Pierce.  Whatever you called him, it sounds about right."


"Could I listen to you?"

Adolf smiled, surprised.  "Ja," he said.  "Follow me."

"I have to finish chipping."

"Forget Pierce.  Follow me.  No foss, no moss." 

Adolf was hanging more doors today.  He had a rolling home-made box on wheels containing chisels, screwdrivers, routing jigs, hole saws, drill bits, a Bosch drill and a Bosch router.  I'd never seen anybody work so fast — or so precisely.  He'd say, "Hold the door," or "Hand me the three quarter chisel," and I'd do as told.  I felt like a nurse assisting an orthopedic surgeon.

When Adolf hung a door, he'd use one screw on each side of the hinge and leave off some of the trim.  "Finish," he'd say.  "No foss, no moss."  And he'd roll on to the next.  I'd install the remaining trim and make sure there were six screws in each hinge — no fuss, no mess.  Then I'd dash to catch up.  I had to work fast.

I soaked up skills at a rapid clip along with a few German swear words.  My favorite was schnoodle noodle which meant, as best I could gather, "dick snot."  Sort of.

Another day, Adolf was given the assignment of building a fireplace mantel.  The Architect had bought several massive slabs of black walnut, rough cut with the bark still attached.  He gave Adolf free rein to design and construct a mantel.

Adolf worked alone on this project, though I watched whenever I could.  He spent three days cutting, planing, sanding, working and reworking the wood until he was satisfied.

At last, The Architect stopped by and studied the finished mantel. 

Accompanying The Architect were his wife, his father, and his mother.  They'd been around before.  The house when completed would be occupied by the father and mother.  The Architect saw the project as an opportunity to showcase his somewhat eccentric style.  The father, a dapper little man with a white beard, was coming to see the project as yet another example of his son's overactive ego.  I was coming to see that the apple didn't fall far from the tree.  The architect's mother, meanwhile, mostly frowned and nodded.  She was in the early stages of dementia.

"The mantel is wonderful," The Architect said.  He pointed at one slit in the face of the top where the old walnut had split.  "All we have to do is fill that crack, and it's done."

Adolf jumped to attention.  "There is no crack," he said.

"It's right there," The Architect said, pointing.

Adolf studied the slit.  "THERE IS NO CRACK!" he shouted.

We all could see it.  Adolf wasn't to blame.  Long ago, the drying walnut had developed a small check.

Adolf was shaking his head.  "There.  Is.  No.  Crack."

The father said, "Whatever you call that thing, a little epoxy will fix it," and he hustled off to the garage.  There was a chest freezer out there filled with dozens of canisters the size of yogurt containers, each canister a different component of epoxy.  The father, I was told, was one of the world's leading experts on epoxies.  More than once on the job I'd already heard "Nothing a little epoxy won't fix," followed by a trip to the freezer. 

The father produced a dark gray mix that was a close match to the color of the walnut.  "I'll dab it in," the father said, turning to Adolf, "then when it's dry you can sand it down."  The father smiled.  "You're the only person I would trust with that task."

Adolf nodded solemnly.

The next day after the sanding, even knowing where it had been, I couldn't find it.  There was no crack.

(This is the second installment of a series about my first job on a construction crew.  To be continued...)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

365 Jobs: The Rookie - First Day

September 1976

You have to start somewhere.  You have to be the rookie.  They give you the worst tasks, and they test you.  There's no other way.

A neighbor told her boyfriend-of-the-week that I was looking for a job.  Pierce, the boyfriend-of-the-week, was a construction foreman.  He strutted over to my cottage at Wagon Wheels and knocked on my door. 

Pierce was a tall skinny guy with curly blond hair.  A pompous bastard.  He let me know first thing that he'd studied architecture at Yale.  Then he interviewed me:

"Have you ever worked on a construction crew before?"


"Do you have construction experience?"

"Some.  I rebuilt a couple of houses."

"By yourself?"


"Do you have a Skilsaw?"


"Then I can't hire you."

"I have a power saw.  Not a Skil."

Pierce smirked.  "Can I see it?"

I showed him my Black and Decker worm gear saw.

Pierce said, "I didn't know Black and Decker made a worm gear saw."

"That's what everybody says."

"Doesn't Black and Decker make hobby tools?" 

"This is tougher than a Skil.  It's a bulldog."

"Looks like you worked the crap out of it."

"Uh huh."  I didn't mention that I bought the bulldog used, and it was already beat-up from years of work.  It made me look more experienced.

"Okay, can you start tomorrow?  Bring the bulldog."

So most of the interview was about the saw, not me.  If I'd had a sidewinder saw,
Pierce wouldn't have hired me.  In 1976 on the west coast if you were serious about carpentry, you had a worm gear, usually a Skil.  It was like a law.   

Pierce made the right decision to hire me — I'm a hard worker — but for the wrong reason — the Black and Decker.  He flaunted Yale credentials, then invoked — not quite successfully — worm gear machismo. As a rookie carpenter, I'd be working for a rookie foreman.

* * *

First day, I worked with Jim, a short guy built like a pickle.  Friendly.  Jim had a dusty old Plymouth station wagon with a surfboard sticking out the rear window.

Jim was not far from being a rookie himself.  He'd started a week before me.  Together we spent the morning hauling pressure-treated 2x10s in the hot sun.  "Rasty wood," Jim called it.  The greasy poison soaked into our T shirts and cutoffs while smearing our exposed arms and legs.  We hammered the rasty 2x10s upright to a frame, constructing the world's ugliest garden fence.  The two-bys made it massive; the toxic ooze had a lethal smell.  I suppose it looked gardenish, though, being green.

We broke for lunch.  Jim told me he used to have a leather and glass shop in San Luis Obispo, “a bitchin' little town if you like small towns and don't mind everybody knowin' every time you take a shit or who you’re fuckin'.”  Jim said he'd had a show in Aspen, selling his leather and glass.  He came back to California — something about a surfing contest — but soon would be moving back to Colorado for an architectural job in Glenwood Springs. 

"You're an architect, Jim?"

"Got the degree.  Kept me in San Luis for five years." 

Unspoken was the fact that right now Jim was working as an entry-level carpenter, probably for the same wage as me, five bucks an hour.  I wondered how much architecture-trained Yalie
Pierce was earning.

"Glenwood Springs, I'll mostly be emptyin' wastebaskets," Jim said.  "Fetchin' donuts.  But at least they're architects."

"Not much surf in Colorado."

"They got snow."

I asked, "Is everybody on this job an architect?" 

"Are you?" Jim asked.


"Then I guess not everybody."

* * *

After lunch a man drove up in a Jeep Wagoneer.  He was dressed in a pinstriped shirt, button-down collar, and scruffy blue jeans — the architect's dress code of that era.  Above the waist, a businessman.  Below the waist, casual and independent and arty.  

Next his wife stepped out of the Jeep.  Architects, having an eye for structure, always marry great-looking women.  She glanced around the job site, caught my eye and held it.  She smiled at me. 

The Architect had a goatee and a worried frown.  He strode over to our new fence and drew a sharp intake of breath that whistled with stress.  He said, "This isn't what I want."

"Did we get it wrong?" I asked.

The Architect cocked an eyebrow at me.  I was being told: Shut up, carpenter.  He took another sharp intake of breath, another whistle of stress.  "I'm making a field adjustment," he said.  He told us to knock out every fourth 2x10 and reinstall it with a piano hinge so it could open like a vent. 

It would break up the mass and provide an interesting, quirky detail.  "Nice," I said.

Again The Architect cocked an eyebrow at me: I don't need your approval, it said.

Over his shoulder I saw that once again his wife was staring at me.  No longer smiling, she was biting her lip, looking concerned.

I learned later that he was a well-known up-and-coming architect with an eccentric style.  He considered a floor plan to be like a rough outline with multiple adjustments made in the field.  His detractors — and building inspectors — accused him of making it up as he went along.

New architecture grads — in this case Jim and
Pierce — would apprentice themselves to The Architect just for the experience. 

I quickly caught on that the man never smiled or showed any emotion except irritation, which was constant, accompanied by sharp whistling intakes of stress.  The way I could gauge his mood was to see how it was reflected by his wife.  She in turn always seemed to be watching me.

* * *

After The Architect moved on,
Pierce proudly showed us an antique tool he'd bought at a flea market.  He'd haggled it down to twenty bucks.  This was his first chance to try it out.  Looking like a weird wedding between a pry bar and a riding crop, it was called a slide hammer nail puller.  You place the jaws over a nail head, then slide the handle up and down to get a grip on the nail.  Then you pry.
Slide hammer nail puller
Pierce tried it on a few nails.  After five minutes and several failures, he actually removed a 16d nail.  "There's a learning curve," Pierce said.  "Have at it."  He tossed the antique to Jim, then drove off to a hardware store to buy some piano hinges.

Jim studied the slide hammer skeptically, then passed it to me and brought out his crow's foot nail puller.  I examined
Pierce's tool and could see that the jaws were chipped so they couldn't get a good grip on the nail head.  It might've been a wonderful tool at one time.  Now it was crap.

I brought out my own crow's foot.  By the time
Pierce returned, we'd removed all the nails from all the vent boards.

"How'd you like it?"
Pierce asked.

"Nice tool," Jim said.

Pierce beamed.

* * *

There were 14 boards to be hung on piano hinges.  Each bright brass Stanley hinge was 6 feet long with screw holes every 2 inches on each side of the hinge.  For this little task, Jim and I would need to drive 980 bright brass screws.  Slot head screws.

I don't know when cordless drills/cordless screwdrivers first went on the market, but nobody had them in 1976.  Most screws were slot head, and mostly you drove screws by hand. 

Pierce, as it happened, had another flea market bargain: an old Yankee screwdriver which operated by a push-pull spiraling ratcheting action.  Jim tried it.  For the Yankee to work, the screw couldn't offer much resistance.  The slot had to be deep enough to keep the blade from sliding out.  With these rasty boards, the tool jammed; the blade slid out.
Yankee screwdriver
Besides Jim and myself, there was one other carpenter on the job, and he was the real thing: a German master carpenter named — I kid you not — Adolf.  No mustache. 

Adolf could hang a door in 6 minutes flat.  Jim and I were in awe of him.

Adolf wandered out on a break just in time to see Jim struggling with the Yankee driver.  Adolf studied the tool.  "Scheisse," he said.  He held out one cupped hand.  "Give me your hammer."  Borrowing Jim's Vaughan framing hammer, Adolf looked around to see if anybody was watching, then whacked a screw.  One whack, one installed screw.  No pre-drilling, no twisting.  Just whack.

It held tight like a ring nail, but you could back it out with a screwdriver.

"No foss, no moss," Adolf said.  Then he wandered away.

Together Jim and I whacked 980 screws in less than an hour. 

(This is the first installment on a series about my first job on a construction crew.  To be continued...)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

365 Jobs: Junior Electrician

September 1968

I got hired to change light bulbs.  The maintenance department at Washington University in St. Louis advertised for a "Junior Electrician," and I showed up.

My job was to walk around campus with a cardboard box of fluorescent tubes on one shoulder and an 8 feet stepladder on the other. I was the guy who made all the clanking noise in the library setting up the ladder, opening the casement, dropping 20-year-old dust on your table when you were trying to study.
I wasn't allowed to replace ballasts or cut any wires — that was a job for a "Senior Electrician."

Washington University had a large campus. Changing light bulbs was a full time job.

Franklin showed me what to do. He'd been promoted to "Senior Electrician."  I was his replacement.  Franklin was about my age, maybe a year older. I was white; Franklin was medium brown.

First day, in the stifling St. Louis heat walking across campus to our assigned building, Franklin asked me how I'd spent my summer.

"Long story," I said.

"Go ahead," Franklin said, stopping under the shade of a tree. "We got all day."

I gave Franklin a brief synopsis of my summer. It included being turned down for a summer job at Jack-In-The-Box — thank God! — hitchhiking to California and somehow winding up in a hippie commune in Big Sur, hitching back, a Hells Angel, a man who owned 7 brothels, a stolen truck, a night alone in the middle of the desert, a drunk cowboy, a day in the Winnemucca, Nevada jail, a Mormon missionary, hopping a freight train, joining my girlfriend in Colorado and driving her beat-up old VW bug to a ghost town in New Mexico and then to Vancouver, Canada and then across Montana to Madison where at a party we met Miss Wisconsin who was tripping on LSD, and then to Chicago just as the National Guard was pouring in for the Democratic National Convention, and then to Washington DC to see our parents, and back to St. Louis. And so here I was. "What about you, Franklin? How'd you spend your summer?"

"Right here," Franklin said.

And there it was: I was working my way through college; Franklin was just working.

We started in Dunker Hall. Franklin parked the ladder under a fixture, climbed up, opened the casing and began my training on everything there is to know about changing a fluorescent tube. Two minutes later, Franklin said, "Okay, you got it."

Next, Franklin showed me how to hide from Boss-Man: a little storage closet tucked into a wall of the English Department. The closet was about 4 feet high and 8 feet deep — just big enough to hide inside. Franklin said when he had my job, he used to go in there and stay all day.

There was no light in there. It was a wooden box. You close the door, and you might as well spend your day in a coffin. Actually, a coffin would be better: at least it would have bedding.

I'd rather do a day's work. So I said, "Um, not today, but thanks, Franklin."

"Can I ask you something?" Franklin was scratching his chin.


"Why do you want a beard?"

"Girls like it," I said. Not true, actually, but it was an easy answer.

"Girls, huh." He turned and started walking. "Follow me."

He took me to the Art School building — Bixby Hall, I think — up to the top floor where in another hallway there was a metal door to an air vent. Franklin held the door open. "Go on," he said.


"Live models," he said. "Naked." Franklin climbed right into the air vent.

"I dunno, Franklin..."

"Would you shut up and get in here?"

I followed. What can I say? Adventure beckoned.

The air vent was about 3 feet across the bottom, 2 feet high, sheet metal. It smelled like stale dust. It rumbled and creaked and boomed like thunder when you moved. (And it was probably full of asbestos — but who knew at the time?)

"You have to slide yourself real easy," Franklin whispered, and he started squeezing along this tunnel that was angled slightly downhill. Cautiously, I followed.

Probably everybody in the entire Art School could hear us moving around up there.

The tunnel made a transition from rectangular to round. At the bottom of the round section was a circular metal grate. This grate, Franklin said, looked out over the art studio. Franklin was on his stomach, slowly sliding feet-first down toward the grate. I was a few feet behind him, facing forward. I was wondering how Franklin expected to see anything if his feet were where his eyes needed to be.

At about this point it dawned on me that Franklin had never actually done this before. He was just trying to impress me.

The last 10 feet or so was at a slightly steeper angle, and that's where Franklin lost his grip. The metal was slick and there was nothing to grab.

Franklin went booming feet-first down that air tunnel and came up hard against the grate. There was a CLUNK and then a POP.  All this time I was leaning forward trying to grasp Franklin's outstretched hands. Franklin was desperately looking up at me and waving his hands around toward me and couldn't see that the grate had popped off.  He was starting to slide out.

Now, imagine you're in the art class. You're the basic zoned-out art student. It's one of those big airy studios with skylights and a high ceiling.

You hear this odd noise.

You look up, and this big metal grate comes popping off the wall 20 feet above you. You scramble out of the way. There's a crash and a clatter and a WUNK WUNK WUNK as the grate hits the floor and settles to rest.

You look up again and see two feet sticking out of the air vent kicking wildly. Suddenly — this is where I finally catch hold of Franklin's desperately flapping hands — the feet zip back inside the vent. You hear a RUMBLE RUMBLE RUMBLE as Franklin and I scramble back up the vent and into the hallway. You run out of class to see what is going on.  You run up the stairwell just as two dusty guys are running down a different stairwell with all the adrenaline that comes from sheer terror.

We ran all the way across the parking lot.  We ran up the grandiose front entry steps to Brookings Hall.  We ran across the glorious grass of the quad.  We ran back to the English Department where we opened that little wooden door and climbed into that hard dark space and shut the door and lay there with the box of fluorescent tubes between us.

Never have I been so glad to spend an hour in a coffin. A dog wandered into the building and started sniffing at our door. You could hear students and professors walking by.  Just outside the closet, a conversation developed between a grad student and a whiny-voiced professor, and it became clear that they were having an affair, that neither of them were enjoying it, and that it was going to end badly for both of them.

Nobody caught us. Officially, that is. Larry, the gray-haired "Master Electrician," seemed to always be suppressing a smile as he ordered us around. Ever after the incident, Larry assigned Franklin and me to opposite ends of the campus.

Before the year was up, Franklin got drafted. On his last day all the electricians chipped in and gave him an envelope of cash, about a hundred bucks, as a going-away present. It was a tradition there. Franklin gave me his old pair of linesman's pliers with a nick in the handle where it had touched a live wire that sent him jumping.

I never saw him again. I lost the pliers when somebody stole my tool box.

Many years later, visiting Washington DC with my kids, I touched Franklin's name on the Wall.

Franklin was my first buddy in the trades.

Monday, September 19, 2011

365 Jobs: The Kid

Starting in 1963

I met The Kid in the summer of 1963.  He was a lanky 14-year-old with a friendly, unimposing, almost naive manner.  I was 15 years old.  The Kid and I bunked in the same cabin at Hawkeye Trail Camp.  We were both escaping the heat to spend a summer in the Adirondacks.  

Sharing an interest in science and a scorn for bullshit posturing, we loved canoe trips on the Saranac Lakes and hiking up some of the lesser-known mountains, especially a rugged little gem called Catamount.  We weren't close friends, but we were summer camp friends.

When that summer ended, we went our separate ways and never saw each other, never tried.  The Kid was eager to make his way in the established world pursuing his love of science; I was increasingly anti-establishment pursuing the end of war.  It was the Sixties.

When you're young, the world keeps expanding larger and larger.  As you get old, it starts shrinking.  In that smaller world I met The Kid again, in the year 2001.  The summer camp where we'd first met had died and been split into parcels.  The Kid had bought one parcel including the cabin where we had bunked together.  My friends Duncan and JK had bought another parcel including the Blue Heron, where they allowed me to stay. 

In the 38 years since I'd last seen The Kid, he'd earned a Ph.D. and pursued a career in scientific research.  Then he'd run for congress and, on his second try, won the election.  He still needed a place in the Adirondacks to escape the swelter of Washington where the heat, these days, is mostly political.

The Kid who I encountered in 2001 remained friendly and unimposing.  He actually seemed small and sort of shy for a congressman, not the backslapping power guy who walks in and dominates a room.

For ten summers now our paths have occasionally crossed as we each return to the old camp on our separate schedules.  We've shared dinners.  One year The Kid helped me take out my dock, another year I helped take out his.  I've seen him and his wife spend an entire weekend up on the roof of their funky old cabin tearing out, then re-roofing, working together.

One summer day my son and his college friends — a mix of boys and girls — were with me on the dock.  Hesitantly my son asked, "Uh, Dad, would it be okay if, like, we all went skinny-dipping in the lake?" 

Just at that moment from the neighboring parcel we heard a screen door slam and two voices laughing.  A second later The Kid and his wife, both in their sixties, went running bare-ass over their own dock and dived into the cool water of Silver Lake.

"Yeah, it's okay," I said. 

I remember one particular dinner with The Kid and his wife and some friends.  The Kid revealed that one of their grand ambitions was to climb Catamount, that rugged little gem, and spend the night.  There's nothing like the sunset vista from a mountain top, the starry night, the orange dawn.
View from Catamount
Over red wine I asked The Kid if he felt people in congress — present company excepted, of course — were as cynical and corrupt as they are often portrayed in the media. 

"No," he said.  "Of course we've got some bad apples.  But I believe the majority of congresspeople serve for altruistic and idealistic reasons.  At first.  Unfortunately I also believe that most of us, once we've become incumbents, tend to view getting reelected as an end, not a means."

"Have you?" I asked.

The Kid looked at his wife.  "Have I?" he asked.

His wife is an independent spirit.  "Not yet," she said.  "But I'm watching you."

It was a lively and thoughtful evening.  We sparred over policies, respectfully disagreeing.  The next day, the unpredictable weather of the Adirondacks turned glorious, followed by a starry night.  I wonder if The Kid and his wife achieved their Catamount dream.  I haven't seen them since that dinner.

It's good to meet politicians face to face when the cameras and microphones are off.  Amid all the hate-speech of talk radio and the internet, it's good to remember that we're all human beings, we all start out as kids.  We share the wonder of life on this earth.  Whatever your age, whatever your politics, there's nothing like the joy of jumping bare-ass into the cool water of a mountain lake.  May we never forget that.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

365 Jobs: Drilling

September 2006, Adirondack Mountains

The truck, a drilling rig on wheels, creaks slowly down the narrow driveway, de-branching a few maple trees.  Daniel Barton, the driver, maneuvers to the chosen spot 20 feet uphill from the old house.

I greet Daniel.  We shake hands and, with the quick glances of construction people, we size each other up.  In Daniel I see a proud man with a firm handshake and not a flicker of self-doubt.  Just backing that truck down the overgrown dirt trail of a driveway took plenty of skill.

What Daniel sees — or what I'm sure he has prepared to see — is the hippie surfer insufferable contractor from California, here to look over his shoulder and protect the owner's interests.  It takes him about two seconds, the duration of a handshake, to get over that. 

"Nice rig," I say.

"Yeah," he says.

We'll be fine.

For a New Englander Daniel Barton is, in fact, a chatty man.  Over the next two days I receive a gruff seminar on drilling in the Adirondacks. 

Daniel gives me a tour of the machinery and shows me the drill bit, which looks like something you wouldn't want to drop on your body.  Then with his assistant Bob, he starts drilling.  It makes a racket.  A river of sandy foam starts spewing from the hole, spilling over the lawn like glacial debris.

The drill quickly drops through sandy soil and then stops, chattering and grinding.

"Boulder," Daniel says.  "Boulders are a driller's worst nightmare."  He concentrates on the drilling, fingertips on the controls, watching and listening to subtle changes in the progress of the drilling rod.

Suddenly he's through it.  The drill plunges quickly and then stops again.  Daniel frowns.  Another boulder.  More fingertip control.  Then he's through it — another plunge — and then a slow, steady grinding.

Daniel drills only 35 feet.  He and assistant Bob set the casing and call it a day.  "I just wanted to be sure I was in bedrock," Daniel says.  They only need casing until bedrock.  From here on, he can penetrate bedrock at a rate of one foot every minute or minute and a half.  He might have to go 200 feet or 600 feet.  In any case, he wants to finish tomorrow. 

"I hope it's not six hundred feet," I say.

"Yeah," Daniel says.

The next day Daniel drills steadily.  Every 25 feet he has to stop so that Bob can add another drilling rod, like a link in a chain. 

Between 180 and 200 feet the drill hits 2 fractures and gets a flow of 7 gallons a minute.  Pretty decent. 

Daniel thinks he should go deeper.  He thinks he could do better.

Is it a hunch?  A distillation of years of experience?  This is where you have to trust your professional.  I trust Daniel.

There's sizable money involved.  Drilling is billed at $15 per foot.  Daniel could drill another 200 feet at a cost of $3000 and find no more water.  They've already got a workable flow.

I call the owners of the Blue Heron (which is the name of this house).  After consultation, they say, "Go for it."

Daniel goes another two rods, 50 feet.  He hits another fracture and gets 12 gallons a minute.  It's a gusher.

An inch of sticky gray sludge covers the front yard.  Amazing.  All that slime used to be solid bedrock.

The economics of drilling are not rational.  The extra 50 feet of drilling took 45 minutes and earned Daniel another $750.  If beyond the 50 feet he'd had to drill another 150 feet, he would have earned another $2250 for another two and a half hours of work.  That's $15 a minute.

Daniel has fixed costs with each job.  First, he has $900,000 in capital equipment sitting here to do the job, and it's a day's work to set it up and tear it down.  He has to pay his one assistant, Bob. 
And yet he doesn't charge a setup fee.  For the same amount of transportation and setup, he might drill 100 feet or 1000 feet.  For two or three days of work he might earn $1,500 or $15,000.

"Charging by the foot is asinine," I say upon learning all this.

"Yeah," Daniel says.  He shrugs.  "But that's how it's done."

Daniel shows me rock chips among the sludge on the lawn, a guided tour of the geology beneath our feet.  First he penetrated 35 feet of soil and 2 boulders.  Then he went through 150 feet of granitic gneiss, which is a metamorphic rock — that is, it contains crystals formed under high pressure.  I love this stuff — I was a rock collector as a kid, and then I took some geology classes in college not out of any career plans but just for the fun of it.  Granitic gneiss, by the way, is the correct name for what we commonly call granite.  True granite is something else.

Daniel shows me a black, coarsely grained rock.  He says that below the 150 feet of granitic gneiss, he hit 10 feet of gabbro, which is an igneous intrusion.  The gabbro entered the granitic gneiss as molten rock and then cooled, shrinking as it cooled, forming fractures where water gathers.

Awesome!  Mysteries below us, revealed.  Molten lava, twisted and frozen.  Rainwater from years, perhaps decades ago, coursing beneath immense dark masses of rock.  I feel I've taken a submarine voyage, shining light into oceanic depths.  The Adirondacks are an ancient seething mass of volcanoes, earthquakes, seabeds and ash, now solid stone.

Daniel crossed the first 2 fractures between 180 and 200 feet.  The extra drilling crossed the third fracture which brought the flow to 12 gallons a minute.  Daniel says you could go 400 feet around here and get only a half gallon a minute.  Just a quarter mile from here he drilled a well to 600 feet and got only one gallon a minute.  What a crap shoot.

The top layer of gabbro is horizontal.  There's a fracture at the top of the gabbro and another at the bottom, both yielding water.  The second layer of gabbro, Daniel says, seems to be vertical.  He can tell by how the drill bit behaves as it's striking the fracture.  With a horizontal fracture the drill bit suddenly drops an inch or so as it crosses the water layer.  With a vertical fracture the drill bit stutters as it tries to bite into an angular surface.  Since it was a vertical layer of gabbro, there was no telling how far he would have had to go to punch through it, and we are getting plenty of water, so it was prudent to stop.

Daniel shows me some whitish chips.  Calcite.  There was also a layer of calcite in the water layer, which is simply mineral deposits from the water.  Which I suppose means it's hard water.

On the Northway near Keeseville, according to Daniel Barton, there's a roadcut that exposes rock similar to what he drilled through here - dark bands of gabbro in granitic gneiss.  I tell him I'll check it out.

The conversation wanders.  We talk about fishing.  I tell Daniel that last week a nine-year-old boy was fishing from the dock here.  He caught a perch.  As he watched, a bass swam along and swallowed the perch.  The boy jerked the line to set the hook, as he'd been taught.  The perch popped out of the mouth of the bass.  The bass went swimming away, probably somewhat puzzled by the whole incident.  The boy reeled in the perch.  He's only nine, and already he's got a great fish story.

We talk about our kids.  Daniel is opposed to liberal arts college education.  His daughter went to Middlebury, tried English, switched around for a while and ended up with a major in math.  Daniel says the most common phrase spoken by English majors is “You want fries with that?”  He says he took his daughter to lunch, and the waitress said exactly that: "You want fries with that?"  They both broke out laughing.  The waitress was a third year English major. 

I tell Daniel I served fries when I was in college, and I was an English major.  It's just a college job, just as it was for that waitress he was laughing at.  I tell him all three of my kids majored in liberal arts, and then two of them went on to professional schools — medicine, engineering — and that liberal arts will make them a better doctor and engineer.

Once again Daniel and I are taking each other's measure.  Respectfully.

Daniel worked in Hong Kong for a while.  I'm thinking, but don't say, There's your liberal arts education. 

Daniel says he has a house in Vermont built so tight, “You can heat it with a candle.”  He's an environmentalist who would never use that word.

Then he's gone.  A hush returns to the north woods.  On the lake, a loon is warbling.  A house built shortly after the Civil War finally has a water well.  I have a few rock chips to add to my childhood collection. 

Two minds have met, and sparred a bit, and we each have learned something from the other.  A good two days of work.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

365 Jobs: Universal Language

September 17, 1983

Universal Language

The man tells me in Chinese
with gestures
how the water drips from upstairs
into his kitchen.
I understand.
I tell the man in English
with gestures
how I repaired the tub.
He understands.
The water doesn’t speak
or understand.
We hear it, though,
still dripping.

Friday, September 16, 2011

365 Jobs: The Devil's Grip

Monday, September 16, 1974

It's 1974 and I'm operating computers on graveyard shift, but also I'm a handyman for Jan, my landlady.  Today I promised to clean out and prop up the rotten old garage where her husband Ray used to repair his taxi fleet and where he dropped dead 20 years ago.  Heart attack.  With the clean-out, Jan is finally ready to move on.

After riding the bike home from work, I fix the usual breakfast of 3 eggs and hash browns cooked in the grease of some ground pork sausage of questionable vintage.  You could say I had a healthy appetite but not-so-healthy diet.

I start hauling decomposed tires and smelly rat nests out of the dirt-floor garage and come upon an old wooden soda box full of hand tools.  Woodworking tools: a brace and several bits, a couple of try-squares, big slot screwdrivers, several planes — all with wooden handles burnished by the grip of Ray's fingers so long ago.  I have to pause and appreciate this treasure.  

Of course I never met Ray, but I know him.  He's the man who married and attempted to tame my spunky kittenish landlady.  He's the man who constructed an elaborate plank multi-level walkway for raccoons to come to his kitchen window where Jan still offers them food every night.  If Jan forgets to close the window, the coons come right inside and trash the place.  He's the man who ordered and assembled four Montgomery Ward cottages, one of which is my home.  He's the man who collected dozens of old wooden wagon wheels and lined them along the fence, giving this acre its name: Wagon Wheels.

Ray must have been a practical jokester.  By the creek at one edge of this property there's a metal lid, like the top of a small garbage can.  Painted on this lid are the words:

Everybody who sees it for the first time (including me) lifts the lid, expecting to see a natural spring, some gurgling water, something lovely.  What everybody finds is a concrete-lined hole with a metal bed spring embedded in the bottom.

Ray must have dug that hole, formed that concrete, embedded that spring.  A lot of work for a laugh.

I can almost feel Ray's ghost, peering over my shoulder.  The sunlight is fractured by the spiderwebs and broken glass of the window over the workbench where I stand.  My fingertips sweep over the corroded blade of a try-square.  Would naval jelly restore it? 

Suddenly I bend over clenched in pain.  Have I been shot?  Stabbed?  No.  Cramps.  It's my stomach.  No — my chest.  Holy shit I'm having a heart attack.  No.  Food poisoning.  It was bad sausage. 

I stagger to the cottage next to the garage and pound on the door.  Steve Marks is a medical student, and he's home.  I start blabbering that I have no idea how to treat a stomachache and I'm embarrassed to go to a doctor when probably all I need is something simple like Pepto-Bismol or something — but what?  I don’t want to take the wrong thing and make it explode.  Maybe I need my stomach pumped?  The pain is getting worse every second. 

Steve says, "You must be uncomfortable." 

I admire that.  By choosing understatement, he's seizing authority.  He's calm, doctoral. 

Steve fetches a stethoscope and listens to my chest.  "You know I can't practice medicine yet," he says.  "But your heart sounds okay."

Again I try to explain the symptoms.  Steve says, "If it's a tummy ache you could take some baking soda."

Tummy ache.  I admire that.  Steve wants to be an oncologist.  He'll be a good one.  I say, "I don't think I can swallow anything.  This really hurts, Steve.  It hurts to just breathe."

"It could be pericarditis," Steve says.

"What's that?"

"You should see a doctor."

"I am."

"Cheapskate.  See a real doctor."

My wife is at work.  I don't think I can drive in this condition.  One thing about being sick, though: it makes you stupid.  Unable to operate a car, suffering chest pains, I decide I can ride my bicycle to the clinic, which is about 5 miles away.  On the bike I wobble out the driveway past the wagon wheels, turn onto the side of Alpine Road, advance about 20 feet and topple over.

Abandoning the bike, I teeter home and fall onto the bed.  I'm sound asleep when my wife finds me an hour later.  Steve had called her.

"Are you okay?"

"No.  I'm being tortured.  And I'll tell them anything.  Tell them he's hiding in the crypt."


She drives me to the clinic where I lie on a sofa curled up in fetal position.  A nurse calls Dr. Perkins to come out and look at me.

Perkins dashes out and stops short, next to the sofa.  He gives me a tender look, which seems unusual for a doctor, and asks if I can walk.

"Walk?  I can ride a bike."

My wife is shaking her head.  She and Dr. Perkins help support me as I walk half-bent in pain to an examining room.

"Steve thinks it's pericarditis," I say.  "He's a med student."

Dr. Perkins looks amused.  He pokes and listens and then says, "Not a bad diagnosis for a medical student."  He explains that I have epidemic pleurisy.  The medieval name for the ailment is ‘the devil’s grip’ because it feels like the hand of the devil clutching your heart.  It's a virus that inflames the muscles of the chest wall.

Dr. Perkins says I'm the second one today with this condition.  A kid this morning was sitting in class at Foothill College when he had a sudden attack.  He gasped and fell to floor, rolling and groaning, clutching his chest.  The teacher panicked.  A counselor drove the kid to the clinic.

Somehow this makes me feel better.

Dr. Perkins gives me a painkiller and a sleeping pill.  My wife drives me home.  I sleep painlessly though stiffly for about 13 hours and wake up at 5 a.m.  A new moon is rising.  I'm pain-free but weak.  I have this weird feeling that I just swam the English Channel.

I eat a small, cautious breakfast: toast and water.

As the day brightens, I seem to be okay.  Back to the garage!  Twenty-four hours, lost.  That's all.  I'm ready to work, to clean up after Ray.  If he will just leave me alone.

Monday, September 12, 2011

365 Jobs: From Russia With Luck

September, 1985

I'm installing a light outside an office in Palo Alto.  A small man with stooped shoulders is watching.  He wears dumpster clothing with a Giants baseball hat.

I'm pulling wires through thin-wall pipe known as EMT, or Electrical Metallic Tubing.  It's a two-man job, but I'm working alone.  As I'm pulling wires at one end of the EMT, the little man goes to the other end.  Without asking he starts guiding the wires into the pipe, which is exactly what the second man should be doing.

In 3 minutes, it's done.  Working alone, it would have taken 30 as I walked end to end, over and over, pulling then guiding, pulling then guiding.

"Thanks," I say.  "You knew just what to do."

"Got smoke?" he asks.  He smiles.  Gold teeth.

"No. Sorry."

"In Russia," he says, "I do this."

"You were an electrician?"

"Da."  He handles my rusty old fish tape that I bought at a garage sale.  I'm using the fish tape as a wire puller.  The little man frowns and says, "In Russia they got this.  Not so good.  In Russia, everything, not so good."  He fingers an EMT coupling.  "In Russia, do different.  Not so good."

"Are you an electrician here?"

"Garden.  I garden."

"Are you asking me for a job?"


I almost never need an electrical assistant.  Today is a rare exception.  "Next time I need somebody, I'll give you a call.  How can I reach you?"

"I be around."

"You have a phone?"

"I be around."

I am so lucky to live in the USA. 

"Here."  I give him a five dollar bill.  "For smokes."

"Spas-ee-bah," he says, or something like that.  Whatever, he clearly means "Thank you."

I'll never see him again.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

365 Jobs: Graveyard Shift, Tilt-slab Ghetto, Mountain View


For three years I worked the graveyard shift.  Again I was operating computers, this time running a hospital information system in Mountain View, California.  The hospitals that employed us didn't appreciate the g-word, so when the suits were around we tried to remember to call it "night shift."  Mostly we forgot, and mostly the suits were scared to mess with us because graveyard workers tend to be cranky, anti-social — and hard to replace. 

I was one of a half dozen unshaven, badly dressed, all male crew operating a gaggle of computers, printers, tape drives, disk drives, and a decollating machine from midnight to dawn.  In the hospitals that we served, no doubt each night had drama: babies born, heroic surgery, blood spilled, and last breaths sighed — but we had no idea.  In our sealed climate-controlled empire, the only drama came from the little TV in the decollating room. 

The decollator took a printout on five-part paper and separated it into five stacks of one-part paper while disposing of the carbons between each layer.  Though noisy, dirty, and dull, the decollating job was popular because it kept you in front of the TV.  One of the San Jose stations ran three or four old black-and-white movies every night interrupted by Dodge commercials and a corny host who would urge people not to commit suicide.  Apparently it really bugged him that so many people killed themselves while watching his flicks. 

In my three years on graveyard I got an education in the oeuvres of James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Jimmy Stuart.  Everybody on graveyard could quote most of the good lines in, say, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  We'd drop what we were doing and gather to cheer the grapefruit-in-the-face scene in The Public Enemy.

For some workers, graveyard was temporary — an entry level, or a final demotion.  They soon moved on, or out.  For others, it was a lifestyle.  For myself, I took graveyard for the 10% salary bonus and the short hours.  We worked a six and a half hour shift from 12:30 to 7 a.m. with no scheduled breaks — although in actuality we took breaks all the time. 

We never left the building — why would we?  This wasn't North Beach.  This was a tilt-slab Silicon Ghetto.  If you aren't familiar with tilt-slab, it's a valid and useful construction method.  Concrete walls are formed and poured flat on the building site, then lifted — tilted by cranes — into an upright position, quick and cheap.  The result is a rock-solid structure, though ugly and lifeless.  Perfect for computer work.


At midnight I'd strap lights onto my legs and ride my old red Raleigh bike through the Stanford campus and the sleepy streets of south Palo Alto to the tilt-slab ghetto in Mountain View.  The ten mile ride at night was peaceful and meditative except when I got mooned by three men in a convertible or the time I got ambushed by water balloons near the campus.  Mornings, I'd ride home in the rising sun as drivers sipped coffee waiting at red lights.

Maintaining a marriage took some adjustments.  The moods didn't mesh.  I'd arrive home feeling chatty and wired just as my wife was groggily trying to wake up.  Or likewise she'd come home charged up from her day job just as I was awaking grouchy and stupid.

Days off were equally out of sync.  When my wife was off I'd try to stay up all day, which was the equivalent of taking an all-nighter.  On my days off I couldn't sleep at night, though I tried.  I'd take walks at 3 a.m. feeling like a criminal skulking the empty streets.  Many nights off, I'd take my dog walking into the summer-dry foothills to return at dawn reeking of pennyroyal and sage.  One night, walking across the Stanford golf course, the sprinklers suddenly came on.  I tore off my clothes and streaked the course, my dog and I, wet and joyous and totally alone.

In the winter rains I'd hang out at all-night restaurants.  At Kazu's Koffee Kup I shared a few silent breakfasts at the counter with pro football quarterback Jim Plunkett of all people.  He was an early riser.  We had an unspoken agreement: I'd never ask him about football, and he'd always borrow my sports section, The Sporting Green.  For some reason he never seemed to buy a newspaper.  Later I learned his father had been a news vendor with progressive blindness.

Other nights, I'd just sit at my desk and write.
  I'd listen to country music.  I loved all-night trucker's radio from KOB Albuquerque.  I felt akin to the long-haul drivers all over the West.  A lot of that trucker vibe found its way into the novel I was writing, Famous Potatoes.

I became a friend of the night sounds: the distant freight train, the chuk-chuk of sprinklers, the owl perched in the oak outside my study.  From a hilltop of the cow pasture across the street from my cottage, I watched the winking of radio towers and descending lights of airplanes, the blackness of the San Francisco Bay ringed by silent street lamps.  I became a friend of the sunrise: the purple sky, the slowly surging energy of suburban flatlands as cars filled the streets and children walked to school.

Sunrise over Stanford

After 3 years of graveyard, my brain and body started sending unmistakable messages that all boiled down to this: Stop fucking with your circadian rhythm.  Besides, I'd seen all those movies 2 or 3 times.   I could have donned a necktie and switched to day shift, but for me the day culture at a computer shop would be a disaster.  For better or worse, I was solidly counterculture.

Meanwhile I wanted to get out of the easy money and easy work of computer operation and into something harder, something that seemed more real to me: building stuff.  Construction, repair and rehab.  A lot of people would consider it a downward career move, like a banker choosing  to be a welder.  For me it seemed right.  My wife was pregnant.  I wanted to work with my hands in a life that allowed for time off, for raising a child, for working part time so my wife could also work at a job she loved.  If I didn't get out of computers now, I'd never escape.

The day I gave notice, they took it kindly.  In fact, everybody said the same thing: "I'd like to get out of data processing, too."  On my last night, they gave me going-away presents of all my favorite things: a jar of peanut butter, a bag of peanut butter cookies, a box of It's-Its, a six-pack of Coors.

For the last time I rode my bike home as the sun rose. 

Late in the afternoon I woke up depressed.  To my surprise it was suddenly clear to me that I liked that job.  I'd come back part time if I couldn't find enough construction work. 

Graveyard screws up your life but it gets in your blood.  How weird.  I was going to miss it. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

365 Jobs: Swing Shift, San Francisco


Different cities, different rhythms.  Working swing shift in San Francisco was very different, indeed.

I was still operating a computer.  The job was still:
    Mostly physical.
    Easy money.
Instead of brain waves I was now processing credit card charges.  In those days there were no telephone transactions, so every purchase arrived in the form of a flimsy credit slip that had to be read and sorted by an IBM 1419 sorting machine.  If I remember correctly, the 1419 converted each charge into a punchcard which we would then feed into a card reader which in turn would go through the IBM 360 computer to end up on magnetic tape.  

Larry at the 360

If a punchcard jammed in the reader, the first question we asked was "Is it data or is it money?"  If the card was data, we'd throw it out.  Usually data meant some new person applying for a credit card.  Who needs 'em?  If it was money (that is, somebody's credit card charge), we'd retrieve every little piece of the card and send it back to the reconciliation desk. 

When I saw how many things could go wrong, I opened up a MasterCharge account for myself.  Sure enough, a couple of items that I bought never appeared on my bills.  Another punchcard had been mangled beyond recognition.

We were blue collar labor doing blue collar chores: feeding punchcards, changing paper in the printers, unloading massive printouts, dismounting and mounting tapes, swapping those heavy disks that looked like a stack of phonograph records.  My fellow workers were like a Central Casting cross-section of San Francisco:

Bernie was an Irish alcoholic.  With dimpled cheeks, white hair and fuming breath, he could recite thousands of limericks.  Soon he was fired.

Charles looked like a cute clean-cut white boy.  He had a big dong (so he said).  Charles acted in porn films which apparently didn't pay well but had other benefits.  A dark-haired man, he underwent electrolysis to have all his facial hair removed.  He'd show up with Band-Aids on his cheeks and neck and chin.  With a silly grin Charles would operate the 1419 sorter for 8 hours, stoned, while describing strange sexual encounters.  He was fired.

Bill drove a VW microbus with GROOOVE painted on the side.  With ponytail and mustache Bill was an articulate college dropout whose parents were psychoanalysts in Manhattan.  He'd offer a joint to anybody (off hours) but never smoked himself while everyone around him got wasted.  Bill was a magnet for straight women.  He had a flexible sense of time.  The day he was fired, he raised a huge stink until finally they allowed him to return to the computer room, under guard, so he could repay the $20 he'd borrowed from me.  "I don't want you to think I'd rip you off," he said, and then the guards escorted him out of the building.

Sho, the angry Black Panther, would occasionally punch the metal side of the 360 with his fist talking about how "the man owes me" this or "the man owes me" that.  He wasn't fired.  Nobody dared.

Kate was Chinese-American and at first seemed as normal as noodles.  She had lovely long black hair, a quick smile, and never took a single day off.  Her job was to manage the "library" — a vast vault of computer tape — which she guarded with obsessive/compulsive zeal.  If we brought back one of her tapes with a "data check" — meaning the computer couldn't read some part of it — she'd become angry.  She took it as a personal affront.  Data checks, incidentally, were a nightly occurrence.

Roger, the mama's-boy shift manager — the only suit on the shift — had a crush on Kate the neurotic tape librarian but never asked her out.

Bob was a dignified bespectacled Chinese-American who wasn't too bright but was dependable and hard-working, which is really all you need.  Computer operation is basically factory work.  Software programmers are the brains (and highly paid); operators are the brawn (and paid accordingly).

Then there was Sigrid, a gorgeous Scandinavian woman who always wore a shiny silver crucifix around her neck.  Tight-lipped, scowling Sigrid had the social skills of an insect — and, it was rumored, the sexual habits.  She was known as the Praying Mantis. 

And then there were a couple of normal guys: Larry and Steve.  And me.  I was pretty normal — that is, by swing shift standards. 

Larry wore cashmere sweaters, had a gentle voice, gentle manners, and drove a big bad car with big fat tires. 

Steve Chambers

Steve had a weird sort of psychodrama father-son antagonistic relationship with Roger, the supervisor, though Roger was only slightly older. 

Most operators were non-collegiate and upwardly mobile.  They got into computer operation as a smart career move and, I hope, stayed on to rich success.  It was a great time to enter the field.

For a Christmas bonus, each employee received two jars of Smuckers jelly.  Nobody could accuse MasterCharge of largess. 

Working swing shift, my lunch break was at 8 p.m.  The computer center was at the edge of North Beach near Fisherman's Wharf.  Most nights I'd dash up to Columbus and Broadway where Carol Doda and all the topless ladies danced while barkers barked on the sidewalks: "Naked college coeds!  Yes!  They're totally naked!"  From the doorway the barkers held back the curtain for a flash view.  The show might be fun for men in groups.  Alone, it would make you more alone.

Columbus and Broadway

I'd grab a cappuccino at Cafe Trieste.  I'd browse in Discovery Books for used novels or next door at City Lights Book Store for new ones.  Once I met Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was churlish (but I was nobody).  Maybe he was having a bad night.   Another time I stumbled upon Alan Ginsberg, who exuded a surprising generosity mixed with self-obsession.  I met Richard Brautigan, who was playful.  Most electrifying, I met Neal Cassady and of course couldn't get a word in edgewise.  He had charisma.  When Neal was in a room, everyone else faded.

Haight Street in those days was a death zone.  I stayed away.

At midnight I'd drive home.  One night I narrowly missed a head-on collision with a screaming Porsche.  Another car wasn't so lucky.  Six people died.

Clement Street, home sweet home.

Returning to our flat in the Richmond District, I'd walk the dog while foghorns blatted and moaned, then have a glass of wine with my amazing wife.  We'd sleep until noon.  Afternoons, we'd take the dog to the beach down by Playland and the Cliff House.  One time on that beach we came upon Janis Joplin doing cartwheels in the wet sand next to the surf.  Then she dashed to a van waiting in the parking lot saying she had a gig in L.A.  Two months later she was dead.

There were a couple of intriguing cults forming in San Francisco at the time, and we felt drawn toward each of them at least to check them out.  Stephen Gaskin's Monday Night Class was wonderful, but before we could become attached, the entire group departed on a cross-country bus caravan.  Having just finished a cross-country adventure of our own, we wanted to settle down for a while right where we were.

Across town, an attractive church was forming with a charismatic leader by the name of Jim Jones.  The vibes were a little weird there, and we decided it wasn't for us.

At 4 p.m. I'd go to work, a simple ten-minute drive.  Like a tide the job would draw me in, then send me back. 

The days had rhythm like a song.  The melody was San Francisco; the harmony was North Beach; the tempo was full tilt boogie.  That was swing shift.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

365 Jobs: Swing Shift, St. Louis


Residential construction work doesn't usually have "shifts" as in day, swing, and night shift.  I've done evening and even late-night construction projects, but the occasional job isn't the same as shift work. 

Shift work is an alternate world.  It makes you an outsider.  In business, shift work defines you as Labor.  Management — the suits — work days.  In personal affairs, it takes you outside the rhythm of normal life.  You sleep at odd times.  You shop and play when most people are working.

Swing shift is the twilight realm.  It begins in daylight just as the suits are heading for the parking lot, then grows progressively more ... strange.

In the 1960's while I was in college I took a full-time swing shift job.  I was operating a primitive computer that with peripheral equipment filled an entire room but had less brainpower than the cell phone I carry today.  The work was:
    Mostly physical.
    Easy money.
The computer was located in a mental hospital in St. Louis.  Wires ran to an electroencephalograph which was attached, via more wires, to the head of a patient who had received a dose of the drug-of-the-day, sometimes LSD.  Through the computer an EEG would be plotted while a clunky printer would chock out numbers. 

Meanwhile, the patient was supposed to be sleeping.  When the drug was LSD the subject rarely wanted to sleep and sometimes had to be strapped down.  Have a nice trip.

Giving LSD to crazy people was, um, unhelpful to their mental health.  This was obvious to everybody except the doctor who was conducting the experiment.  By 1969 he certainly should have known better.  Fortunately I rarely had to interact with the patients except when they wandered into the computer room with wires dangling from their heads.

Siv, a college classmate of mine and a free-spirited soul, had recommended me for the job even though I had absolutely no experience operating a computer.  "You'll learn it in an hour," she said.  "I did."

She was right.

"It's like entering an alternate world," she said.

She was right about that, too.

When Siv moved up to programming, the operating position opened.  Siv's boss, Tammi, thought I looked a bit ... scruffy.  I'd showed up for the interview wearing flip-flops and sporting scandalously long hair that almost reached my eyebrows.  Plus a beard.  Tammi agreed to hire me, on one condition: "You have to wear shoes."

Tammi was a good-looking 30-year-old virgin.  She was the suit in our wing of the hospital and indeed she often wore actual suits.  Of course she worked a conventional day shift and appeared to be a conventional midwesterner. 

Tammi had a boyfriend named Roy who was becoming a little frustrated.  One time Tammi asked Siv, "Do you really do all those ... married things ... with your husband?"

"Uh-huh," Siv said.

"How do you stand it?"

Siv, of course, told me.  Siv was still a student like me.  To accommodate her classes, Siv worked a schedule that overlapped the end of day shift and the beginning of swing, so she stayed in touch with both worlds.

Another time Tammi asked Siv, "Before you met your husband did you ever do ... those things ... to yourself?"

"Every night," Siv said.

"Okay," Tammi said.

"Okay what?" Siv asked.

Tammi changed the subject.

Later Tammi broke up with Roy.  Siv said Tammi became much easier to work with.  Maybe some people are just meant to be single.  Or different.  Maybe Tammi should try swing shift.

One patient, Bonnie, was mute.  She had curly hair, a cute face, and never spoke except to giggle.  Bonnie was at home in the foggy realm of swing shift.  She wasn't a subject of the experiment but seemed to have free run of the hospital, sort of like a trustee in a prison.  As a teenage girl she could approach a man, run her hands up and down his arm, and flash a wicked grin.  Doors seemed to magically open. 

Bonnie was sweet on Johnny.  A Vietnam Vet with a Tennessee accent, Johnny was supposed to be monitoring the experimental subject of the night while the subject in turn was supposed to be sleeping.  Nights when Bonnie came around, subjects tended to go unmonitored for a while. 

Johnny smoked marijuana on the job and talked about Pee Eye (Philippine Island) whores.  He said they were the most loyal women in the world.  I tried to convince Johnny that he shouldn't mess around with Bonnie who was after all a mental patient — and jailbait — but Johnny had a somewhat ... detached ... attitude.  You never knew whether he actually heard anything you said, though he'd talk a blue streak about whatever was on his own mind — usually pickup trucks or Pee Eye adventures.  Never 'Nam.  That subject was closed.

One day, the same day when Bonnie was discharged, Johnny without warning didn't show up for work.  Nobody at the hospital ever heard from them again.  It's an incomplete story for which I can imagine many endings, some good, some bad, all passing through the twilight realm.

Working swing shift, I'd ride my bike after classes from the Washington University campus through Forest Park.  In the late afternoon I'd pedal through the little insular neighborhoods on the south side of St. Louis, brick row houses, mothers on stoops, kids playing ball.  I loved it. 

Before the Interstate was complete I'd cross Route 66, Gravois Avenue, at a traffic light where the long-distance trucks and overstuffed station wagons were trapped — puzzled, or simply furious — among city traffic. 

Most nights, after running a few punchcard programs through the card reader, I could study for uninterrupted hours — and get paid for it — with occasional breaks to change paper in the printer or reboot the temperamental IBM 1620 CPU.  Every two minutes the printer would go chock-chock, printing two more lines of numbers which presumably explained what was happening in the patient's brain while the CalComp plotter would go scritch-scratch, placing another line on the graph.

After midnight, I'd ride home through those same little neighborhoods, each with its own ethnic group — all white, this being the south side — Italian, German, or hillbilly — with its own little tavern and its own little grocery.  Then I'd pedal among the amazing stillness and fog-halo lights of Forest Park to the tougher streets of the north side where I had cheap rent.  I lived above a liquor store on Delmar Avenue in a black neighborhood.

Working swing shift in the relative isolation of a computer room in a mental hospital, you start to feel somewhat removed from the real world.  Returning after midnight through city streets, you feel like an alien, an observer.  Which, as a writer, I was. 

Note: For another brush with LSD experiments, go to "Plumbing and LSD."

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

365 Jobs: A Happy Clean-cut Angel of Death

September, 1987

At a traffic light in Redwood City, I'm in my pickup, waiting for green. 

When the light turns, I look down the road to see if anyone is coming.  Sometimes I do this; most times I don't. 

This time, a flatbed Dodge with a load of steel culvert comes barreling along from the left.  He runs the red light neither speeding nor slowing as if he never sees it. 

If I'd started without looking, I'd be dead.  He'd have struck me broadside.

A happy, oblivious, clean-cut young man was at the wheel, my almost angel of death.

Glad I looked.