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.)

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