Thursday, November 17, 2011

365 Jobs: Peace and Love and Wall Thermostats

Diary of a Small Contractor, Day 23

Wednesday, October 29, 1986

An early morning consult.  Taylor is an intense, speedy young man in blue jeans and a black mustache.  In less than an hour we plan about $2000 worth of small projects in his glorious house, a beam-and-stone castle with a broad view over Silicon Valley.  Whenever I name a price, Taylor immediately says "Okay" so quickly that I wonder if he heard it.  He gives me a business card: he's an electrical engineer, a manager at Hewlett Packard.  By my reckoning he's about 24 years old in a ten-room house with no wife, no kids.  King-size bed. 

Standing in the driveway we agree to a timetable for the work.  Taylor zooms off in a shiny black Porsche.  Hesitating for a moment under the quiet redwoods, I can see sunlight glinting off tiny windshields on a fabric of highways from Palo Alto to San Jose.  A whole world is zooming off.

It's 1986; I'm 39 years old.  I've just bought my first computer, a Mac Plus.

From Taylor's tony estate, next stop is Sonny’s bungalow right next to the rush and rumble of the Bayshore Freeway.  Lovely red-haired sparkle-eyed Lorraine, Sonny's wife, is dealing with a three-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son.  Lorraine says she always thought she wanted seven children, but now she’s wavering.  “But don’t tell Sonny.  The minute I show the slightest doubt, he’ll run out and get a vasectomy.”

In one long day I install a sink, a faucet, a garbage disposer, a dishwasher, a vent fan, plus switches and outlets.  Sonny arrives at the end.  He's been out installing doors — his niche.  I tell him the parts cost a hundred dollars.  From his wallet he whips out a hundred dollar bill.

Sonny can’t stand to have anyone do favors for him.  This was an even trade, and he knows it, but still he won’t let me leave without giving me a screwdriver, a bran muffin, a cup of coffee.  Sonny is probably the most generous person I've ever met.  He's also a hardworking hippy, if you can handle such a combination of terms.  Sonny is part of a whole cadre of hardworking, hardplaying freaks in the crafts.  After the Haight came the diaspora.  They learned skills, found niches, and held onto their values.

From Sonny’s, next stop is an apartment complex near Stanford University.  Most of the residents are foreign-born students along with their spouses and sometimes their grandparents.  They don’t know how to use garbage disposers or dishwashers, and as the maintenance guy I end up performing some very simple repairs while trying to teach non-English-speaking housewives from Thailand and Paraguay and Nigeria how to use an American kitchen.

It’s dark when I arrive at the apartments.  Everyone is cooking dinner.  I smell rice frying here, pork baking there.  One of the units has “an electrical problem.”

It’s a bad light bulb.

Another unit has a "broken heater."  It's turned off.  I try to teach a Croatian-speaking grandmother how to operate the wall thermostat.

I'm not sure she gets it, but she seems satisfied.  She gives me something that looks like stuffed grape leaves.

It's 7 p.m.  I've been working since 7 a.m.  It's the era of Ronald Reagan.  The Fox Network has just launched.  I drive through rain to pick up 4 gallons of milk at a Menlo Park supermarket where, selecting vegetables, there is a lovely young couple.  Menlo Park, by the way, is the headquarters of Sunset Magazine.  Back home, on the Mac Plus I write this:

He wears an ill-fitting gown   
in this Sunset Magazine town.
She's dressed as a peasant.
The effect is pleasant
and flamboyant in this middle class store
of homeowners writing checks, wanting more.
This couple wants less.

Her hair needs care.
His beard is straggly, partly bare.
Age: about nineteen,
faces fresh, eyes keen.
The decade of their birth
was a struggle on Planet Earth.

In this cornucopia of Wonder Bread and Froot Loops
they choose rice, wheat germ, and chocolate soup.
On one hand he wears an embroidered glove.
What does he know of the Sixties, the Summer of Love?
Naive, laughed-at, sincere. . .

. . . back then, it was me
cruising the ghetto A&P
in paisley and sandals
for peace lighting candles
and what I mean is, God bless you, young couple
as your bubble of idealism washes down
a sea of weary shoppers in a too wealthy town.
My cart fills with yogurt and imported beers.
Somehow we saved the planet these nineteen years.
So much we learned!
Now it's your turn.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

I wrote that poem 25 years ago.  The Menlo Park supermarket is now a Safeway so vast you can get lost in it.  The young couple of 1986 would now be age 44.  Perhaps they have children, teenagers.  The Sixties are four decades gone, a time as distant and unreal to a present-day teenager as the Roaring Twenties were to me.  

Much of the world becomes middle class.  We are wealthy but feel poor.  We live better than medieval kings — better food, softer beds, longer lives.  In every castle we have music and jesters at the push of a button.  We have dishwashers, garbage disposers and wall thermostats.  Do we want more?

So much has changed.  And so little.


  1. Sadly, while our generation is known for its ability to see beauty in just about everything, it is also known for our lack of patience and our tendency to be selfish. As a result, the reality of your 1986 couple is probably that they divorced twenty years ago, and the rare times they see each other now, they are still fighting about the money given in child support, how they got screwed when it came to visitation, who would have been the better custodial parent and in general, who did what to whom. Ain't reality a real bummer?

    Great post, though, as is all your entries.

  2. Yeah, well, I'm an incurable romantic...

    Thanks, Mitchell.