Diary of a Small Contractor, Days 14, 15, and 16
Sunday, October 12, 1986
California is a wealthy town with a semi-rural vibe. If you're rich
and you want to keep a few horses on a few acres, Woodside's for you.
If you're an eccentric billionaire, so much the better. You'll fit
Today I check out a job in deep
Woodside. Deep, like where the estates are so vast, you can’t even see
the houses from the road. Driveways are blocked by steel-bar automatic
gates. Single family houses are the size of a ten unit condo complex
in Sunnyvale. Deep, like where horses romp and Porsches honk and an
army of groundskeepers serve the whims of the trickledown theory.
find the address on a mailbox and turn into the driveway. The gate is
open. I drive around a curve, but still I can see no house. I’m in the
pickup with its rusty lumber rack and dented fender. If this isn’t the
right driveway, I could get shot.
Another bend, and there it
is: a huge Spanish tile and stucco house with seven cars in front, a
tennis court with floodlights, and noisy banging inside which turns out
to be a crew of moonlighting plumbers replacing all the old galvanized
pipes with copper. They’ve torn jagged holes in the walls next to
elegant lamps and comfy leather furniture.
Rayette Wilson is
the hyperactive owner. She's brown-haired, freckled, thirtyish but
awkward like a gangly teenager. She “just had” a baby which turns out
to be a toddler. In a whirlwind tour she shows me the room that used to
belong to her eldest daughter, a room the size of a small house.
Rayette moved the eldest daughter to a smaller room merely the size of a
presidential suite. To keep the eldest from becoming resentful,
Rayette is converting an adjoining porch into an enclosed space that
will be part of the eldest’s room. The daughter's closet is twice as
big as the bedroom I grew up in.
My job is to install some
lights, switches, and outlets, and to repair some outdoor lights that
her previous electrician had installed.
All during the tour, a
dapper little man with a mustache has been quietly following us, hands
folded behind his back. At last he speaks: “Perhaps, Rayette, you
should mention what happened to the last electrician.”
died,” says Rayette. “He was my electrician for five years and really
inexpensive, too, but he moved to Oregon where the cost of living was
lower and set up his own business. He was working on a Sunday which he
usually didn’t do. His wife and child went for a walk to see how he was
doing and found him dead of a cracked skull at the foot of a six foot
ladder. All alone.”
I ask, “Was there a live wire?”
Nobody could figure why he fell. The police suspected homicide but
there were no suspects. No motives. Everybody liked him.”
“So. I’m next.”
“Do you still want the job?”
“Sure.” I explain my rates — time and materials — and tell them I'll start tomorrow.
The dapper little man listens quietly.
As I leave, he follows me out to the truck. As I’m getting in he speaks for only the second time: “You like cars?”
“I don’t make a hobby of them.”
collect cars. I have six classics in that garage under the tennis
courts. I have a 1929 Mercedes Benz, a 1939 Mercedes Benz, a Cobra,
a... Would you like to see them sometime?”
“Oh yes.” Obviously, he wants me to.
these cars are his whole life. Obviously, this is Rayette's husband.
He's sixtyish, twice her age. Does he work? Is he simply born rich?
Is he sane?
“I’ll show them to you some day,” he says, and he walks to the house with his hands folded behind his back.
Monday, October 13, 1986
Wilson and her house in deep Woodside seem more normal today. Plumbers
are gluing pipes outside. Rayette’s husband, the quiet, dapper little
man, goes off “to work.” I notice a doormat that says DR. WILSON. A
Spanish-speaking maid named Carmen is washing laundry, dressed in skimpy
The house has a bizarre floor plan as if layer
upon layer were added. The plumbers have cut holes in walls and shoved
Rayette works on paint preparation in the
elder daughter’s cavernous closet, sanding. I love it that she's doing
the prep herself in an old spattered shirt with chips in her hair. She
must come from less opulent roots. Maybe she started as Dr. Wilson's
Meanwhile little Brittany toddles in and out
among paint buckets, my wiring supplies, the workers outside, or simply
wandering. Everybody seems to be expected to keep an eye on her,
including me. At one point I follow her out to the patio. There’s no
fence in sight, just a meadow and some trees. A man is rototilling.
heads straight for the rototiller. Just as I'm about to grab her, the
man shuts off the machine and holds out his arms. Brittany laughs,
leaps to his embrace, and smiles as he lifts and swings her around.
Clark," the young man says to me. "I'm the caretaker here." He has a
burly body but short height with soft curly hair down to his shoulders,
an earring in one ear. The body of a strongman, the hair of a
librarian. "I'll play with her," he says. "You can go back to work."
install three downlights, crawling through a complicated attic strewn
with obstacles — rafters and sheathing forming slanted walls, the ghosts
of previous roofs, previous remodels. Some of the heat ducts up there
appear to be wrapped with asbestos. What am I exposing myself to?
I install the downlights, Rayette is disappointed by the results.
She’d wanted more brightness. She selected the fixtures herself. Thank
Outside I hear Clark talking to a plumber. Clark says
he tried out for the 49ers. They told him if he was three inches
taller, they’d take him.
The plumber asks, “You ever try wrestling?”
Clark says, “Yeah, I tried it one year. I was all-conference champion. But I wanted to concentrate on football.”
He doesn’t have a bragging tone. He’s simply stating the facts.
I touch no live wires and fall off no ladders.
Tuesday, October 14
Wilson is not home when I arrive, but the plumbers are plumbing, and
Clark the caretaker is digging a trench. Brittany is toddling. Carmen,
the jiggly maid, gives up on working and simply follows Brittany.
install some wires on “the porch,” which is now an addition to the
elder daughter’s bedroom. I tell Clark I’m going back up to the attic.
“Don’t you just love it up there?” he says sarcastically.
“There’s a lot of obstacles,” I say.
trouble is, I’m big,” Clark says. He talks of his body the way
athletes do — as a tool that can do some tasks and not others. “Your
trouble is, you’re long.”
Later he asks me if I’d like him to
shut off the power. He says, “I don’t want to come back here and
discover you’ve got a new hairdo.”
I ask him why he’s trenching
the yard. He describes all the work he’s doing: trenching for sprinkler
pipes, building retaining walls, repairing plaster that the plumbers
(and now I) have knocked out — and keeping an eye on Brittany. “I love
that little girl,” he says.
"What's the older daughter like? I haven't met her."
Clark snorts. "Lucky you," he says.
has the speech and the bearing of somebody who could do better than
digging ditches (which of course is what people say about me). He seems
so fond of this place. Come to think of it, Brittany looks a lot like
Rayette breezes in with a station wagon full of insulation. Clark rolls his eyes — another job for him.
shows me where some circuit breakers are located in the garage — behind
the Cobra, Dr. Wilson’s sleek, black prize. A powerful car for the
quiet little man.
“Don’t hit the Cobra as you’re walking by,” Rayette says cheerfully. “My husband would kill you.”
Suddenly I think of the previous electrician. I want to ask, Did he hit the Cobra?
Rayette says she has to go to work. Prying, I ask, “Where do you work?
“At my husband’s office. We have a clinic in San Mateo. One of our doctors quit. I have to interview a new man today.”
what seems a well-oiled routine, Clark distracts Brittany so she
doesn't see Rayette driving away. "It always makes her cry," Clark
explains to me later. "She asked me to keep her out of sight."
"That's amazing self-awareness for a two-year-old, to ask that."
"No no. Not Brittany. Rayette always cries. She asked me."
clinic is the family business. And this is the family compound. Hyper
Rayette, her dapper older husband, little ringleted Brittany, Clark the
ringleted powerful caretaker, Carmen the sexy maid, even the
never-at-home elder daughter who leaves bras and uncapped perfumy
bottles of shampoo on the carpet — all seem part of a vibrant, busy
clan, a separate world in the privacy of deep Woodside.
two and a half hours walking back and forth between the circuit
breakers and a pod of outdoor lights. I'm trying to find a short. I
probably walk six miles wearing a tool belt. Chalkmarked on the soil in
the yard is the outline of a swimming pool.
I find the problem — caused by shoddy work by the previous (dead) electrician. I repair it. And I don’t hit the Cobra.
Driving my little twuck
out the long, winding driveway, I'm sorry to leave. If I wanted to be a
more popular writer, I'd reveal the trashy scandals and dirty deeds
behind the pleasant facade of Woodside. I know a few. You'd recognize
the names. But I don't pick fights with billionaires (because they'll
win), and anyway most of Woodside consists of families with quirks and
personalities just like yours or mine — with more money.