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...)

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