Thursday, March 31, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 90: Wine and Drywall

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Wine and Drywall
Saturday, March 31, 1973

Our mission:  To taste wines and hang drywall at an elegant house in a gated community.  It starts with a dozen of us in a room tripping on stepladders, spilling wine, playing loud music on a stereo.  One guy, Em, a young curmudgeon, starts yelling at people:  “You broke the paper.  Don’t hammer so hard.  You bent the nail.  That won’t hold.  You missed the stud."  And finally, "Get out of here.”

“It’s just Sheetrock,” somebody says.  “We’re here for fun.”

“There’s no fun in bad work,” Em says. 

After about a half hour, only two people remain in the room:  Em and myself.  “I can tell you’ve done drywall before,” Em remarks.

“Uh huh,” I say.

A sweet freckled woman brings us Viennese sausage wrapped in dough.  “Won’t you join us?” she says.

“Naw,” Em says.

“Later,” I say.  Neither of us has touched a drop of wine.

Em is short and stocky with a broad nose and the deep dark facial hair that always looks unshaven.

We develop a rhythm.  Em cuts and lifts.  I nail.  We work up a sweat.  It's the dynamic of teamwork.  Hustle is infectious.  The job is an art form like a pickup basketball game, one on one, where strangers size each other up, make adjustments, try to keep it a fair match and then raise it up a notch.

The house is Goldie's.  Temporarily.  That is, Goldie is caretaking for a wealthy couple who are traveling.  Goldie is a seminary student with a wife and a baby.  Instead of rent, Goldie was supposed to drywall and paint this room.  Not having a clue about construction, Goldie had the idea of a drywalling party where everybody could sample fine wines and maybe get some work done.  The house has an extensive wine cellar.  The owners told Goldie that he and his wife could treat themselves to an occasional bottle.

Goldie was the first to be kicked out by Em. 

“Are you a friend of Goldie’s?” I ask. 

“Naw,” Em says.  “Never met Goldie before.  My girlfriend is in a macramé class with his wife.  You?”

“He’s the son of a friend of my father’s,” I say.  “I don’t actually know him.”

We hang all the gypsum.  Em has a knack for sizing.  The cutouts for electric switches and outlets are snug.  The sheets butt tight, no gaps.  The nails are my pride:  straight as a laser, each with a slight dimple of paper.

“Pretty,” Em says.

The sweet freckled woman returns.  “Is it the music?”

“Partly,” Em says.

“How about Roberta Flack?”

“Better,” Em says.

“Got it.  Now won’t you please join us?”

“After we tape and mud,” Em says.  Then he looks at me.  “You in?”

“Yep.”

Lu pouts.  “Won’t you at least have some wine?  We’ve got dozens of bottles open in there.”

“Later,” I say.

Em's not a talker, which is fine with me.  Together we embed the tape and smooth the mud.  Cool gray joint compound clings in globs to our hands and arms.

We step back and survey our work:  Smooth and simple.  We breath the moist, slightly sweet smell of joint compound.

“You take it for granted,” Em says.  “You only notice drywall when it’s bad.”

“Yeah,” I say.  “Which means you notice it all the time.”

“Exactly.”  Em grins.  “Think Goldie can take it from here?” 

The wall will need a second coat of compound, followed by sanding, priming, painting.  “Doubt it,” I say.

“Yeah.”  Em grins again.  “Good work.  Been a pleasure.  Nice party.”

We slip out the side door without taking official leave of the party.  “Glad to meet you,” Em says.  We shake hands, climb into our separate junker cars and drive past ivied walls, out of the gated community. 

I will never see him again.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 89: What We Want (Part Three)

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

What We Want (Part Three)
Monday, March 30, 1987

It's Monday morning.  Will, age 4, says his stomach hurts and he doesn't want to go to school.  He loves his nursery school, so if he doesn't want to go, I pay attention. 

My wife takes the other kids while I stay home with Will.  Late last night we all returned from a whirlwind four-day trip.  I'm happy to have time for unpacking and reorganizing my life.

Will goes down to the basement where I have a workshop.  I hear hammering.

I check on him.  He's nailing some pine from the scrap pile.  He has to choke up on the hammer, but he's pretty good at it.  "What are you making?" I ask.

"A project." 


A project means banging random scraps of wood together.  "Okay.  Let me know if you need any help."

I continue unpacking, settling back home.

After an hour, Will comes to me.  "I'm ready to go to school now."

"How's your stomach?"

"Fine." 

We all need that little bit of unpacking, settling back home.  For Will, it involves working with his hands.  That's home.

An hour late, we go to school.

(By the way, there's evidence that working with your hands sharpens your brain and your ability to learn.  To read more - more, in fact, than you'll ever want to know - about the hand/learning connection, try this blog: Wisdom of the Hands.)


(Update:  Lo and behold!  No sooner do I publish this blog post than the New York Times writes an article about woodworking for kids.)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 88: Deliveries

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Deliveries
Saturday, March 29, 1986

It's the simple jobs that kill you.  On a day when I already have two other jobs lined up, I agree to pick up a stove that a man named Jethro bought at a garage sale.  He doesn't have a truck.  He just wants me to bring the stove to his house.  Half hour, tops.

First I go to the Atherton home of Red, the psychiatrist, and arrive just as Red and his extremely pregnant wife are headed out the door to the hospital.  She has trouble stepping up to the minivan, so the two of us, Red and I, sort of hoist her into the car while Red makes silly jokes about maneuvering her gigantic belly through the doorway saying now it's almost as big as his butt.  Red can make jokes that most people couldn't get away with.  It's his goofy manner.  He suggests that she wear two seat belts.  Maybe three.  She says that the next time he has a sympathetic pregnancy, he should do it on the right part of his anatomy.  The jokes do the job.  She's laughing, clutching her belly, streaming tears.  Anyway, now I'm part of their birth story.

They hired me, they said, as part of their nesting.  They have a great house that looks like an old run-down English country estate with overgrown gardens, neglected outbuildings and a forgotten swimming pool.  I start hanging a light fixture, then have to leave because it's the appointed hour to fetch Jethro's stove.

The stove is in the Crescent Park area of Palo Alto.  It's bigger - and far heavier - than I expected, one of those models with a vent hood and eye-level microwave hanging over the cooktop, all combined into one unit.  I brought a dolly.  The seller helps me move it to my pickup truck, where we tilt it back into the bed.  It's so tall, it doesn't fit unless I leave the tailgate open.  No worries.  It's so massive, it's not like it's going to fall out or anything.

The seller then informs me that Jethro also purchased a dining table.  Would I mind if we tied it onto the lumber rack?  As a precaution - and I pride myself as a cautious guy - I lay towels over the bars of the rack, then tie the table top to the towels and rack, leaving the legs sticking straight up like a dead moose.

Driving up Channing Street through Palo Alto, as I accelerate with a green light I hear a CRASH.  Looking through the rear window, I see the stove lying in the middle of the intersection blocking all traffic.

My nerves are shot for the day.  Jethro just paid $400 for this stove with the microwave top, and I let it crash onto the street.  Fortunately the stove had been loaded on its back, and that's how it landed after sliding out: on its back.  Any scratches wouldn't show.  But is it damaged?  Are Tappan stoves - including microwave - designed to survive a 16 inch drop onto concrete?

A jogger, passing by, helps me load the stove into the truck bed.  This time, I secure it with bungee cords.

Jethro lives on San Mateo Drive in Menlo Park, deep Sunset Magazine territory.  I put the truck in reverse and start backing into the garage.  Jethro's wife yells - “NO!  STOP!” just in time.  I'd forgotten about the dead moose on top.  Whew.  Dodged a bullet.  Nerves no better for it.

In the kitchen Jethro asks me to remove the old stove.  It's gas.  I've pretty well established by now that I'm no moving man.  I am, however, a plumber.  I disconnect and plug the gas line which involves shutting off the gas main, then relighting the water heater pilot.

There is, indeed, a 220 volt outlet in the wall but it's a dryer outlet.  He needs a 50 amp breaker and heavier wires.  Fortunately for Jethro, I'm also an electrician.

Three hours later, I plug the Tappan into the wall.  It works!  Nothing broke!  Dodged the other bullet and never told Jethro what happened.  It's been a long and complicated delivery.

Now it's 6 p.m. and I haven't finished Red's job - and never mind the other job I'd scheduled.  Back at Red's genteel though shabby estate I finish installing the fixture and repair some outdoor lighting.  It's my last chance before they come home with the new baby.

Before leaving, I wash the dishes that were piled in the kitchen sink, sweep the front entry and shake out the doormat.  Maybe the bedrooms need tidying upstairs.  Nope, better not.  It would be intrusive to go up there.  When my first child was born, the neighbors cleaned our house and tied ribbons and welcome signs inside.  I've always wanted to pay that back.

It's dark outside.  The porch light makes a welcome glow.  Ivy climbs the front posts, dark leaves rustling in the warm wind.

My nerves have settled.  Each day I hope to leave the world a little better than I found it.  Today, I almost made it worse.  Meanwhile the planet by now should have one new member, welcomed with love by a man with a big butt.  A man who can laugh about it.

Monday, March 28, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 87: Woodpeckers

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Woodpeckers
Friday, March 28, 1986

The voice in the phone says: "We have woodpeckers."

"Uh, excuse me?"

"Woodpeckers are making holes in the side of our house."

Her name is Pepper.  She lives in Portola Valley Ranch, which is not a ranch but a highly regulated subdivision where you have to submit plans to the homeowners association before you can paint your mailbox.  Or kill a woodpecker.

Pepper greets me at the front door.  She is petite, black-haired, very pretty.  No eye contact.  She leads me through the house taking unusually short steps.  Standing on the rear deck, I see that the woodpecker holes are in an awkward spot which will be difficult to reach even with a ladder.  I'll have to build a scaffold.  As I explain the job, I notice that Pepper's eyes are wandering in two different directions.

Aha.  Of course.  She's blind.

Pepper explains that the male woodpecker makes holes in the cedar shingle siding, hoping to attract a female.  To discourage him, I must hang cut-up pieces of garden hose.  The hose pieces look like snakes, supposedly.  Snakes eat eggs.  The female won't be attracted.  The male will move on.

This is the upper middle class solution to woodpeckers.  The blue collar solution would be to blast the little beasts with a shotgun.  Which, most likely, would not be approved by the homeowners association. 

"Do they look like snakes to you?" Pepper asks.

"Not exactly," I say.  "But I'm not a woodpecker."

"The birds.  Are they pretty?"

"Very handsome," I say.

She is a lovely woman wearing a wedding ring. Delicate freckles.  She could only learn your face through her sensitive fingertips.  Her lipstick is slightly awry.  Don't even think about it.

This house, this protected neighborhood, is a very safe place to be blind.

Balancing on my scaffold of ladder, plywood and 2x4s, I replace shingles in the siding and install hose “snakes” on the roof and discover more holes up there, some with acorns stuffed inside.  I jam metal flashing under the shingles, a little surprise for the next jabbing beak.

Red-headed birds are calling, swooping, clinging to oaks.  They tap-tap-tap on the house next door where a cleaning woman is playing loud rock and roll.  Carpenters up the street are shouting, cursing, joking - and also playing loud rock and roll. 

It's hot on the roof.  I'm shirtless, in raggedy shorts that catch on a nail and rip across the butt.  Doesn't matter, she can't see.

I exceed my estimate, but fortunately the extra roof work will justify it. 

People live here to get away from peckers like us - the cleaning woman, the carpenters, our loud rock and roll, our holes, our snakes.  We intrude our colorful lives and do the work that needs to be done.  Then gently, humanely - but firmly - we must leave.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 86: Forkin' Fred

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Forkin' Fred
Monday, March 27, 2000

Fred the carpenter looks like a wild man as he tells me: "It's the fuckin' floor, man.  I gotta cut a fuckin' access but the fuckin' Skilsaw was fuckin' smokin', man.  The fuckin' blade hit a fuckin' nail.  Brand new fuckin' blade, man..."

We're in the hallway of an office building where Fred has been hired by the landlord to, apparently, cut an access hole in the fuckin' floor.

A well-dressed woman appears.  She asks Fred, "What are you doing?"

"It's ... uh ... I ..."

"What?"

"The ... uh ..."

The woman sighs.  She moves on.

Fred is fluent in the language of carpentry, but he has a speech impediment: he can't talk without a liberal sprinkling of swear words, one word in particular.  But Fred will not allow himself to swear in the presence of a lady.

To women, at least to that class of women who Fred would consider to be ladies, Fred appears to be an incoherent wild man.  It's true that he looks wild and unkempt.  In fact, he is wild and unkempt.  But also, Fred is a gentleman.  It takes a perceptive and patient lady to find that out.  



Note:  This is the one and only day I encountered Fred.  I spoke with him for less than half an hour, but I owe him a debt of gratitude.  If you've read my novel Clear Heart, you've met Juke, the character half-inspired by Fred.  I didn't want to write an entire book of cussing, so I made up an alternate form of swearing.  It's a forkin' fact, man...

Saturday, March 26, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 85: What Kind of Idiot

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

What Kind of Idiot
Monday, March 26, 2007

I've torn out many a bathroom floor.  Usually the job began with "I've got this little leak in my toilet."  Turns out the entire floor is rotten, which doesn't happen overnight.  I always shake my head, silently wondering: What kind of idiot doesn't notice that his bathroom floor has been rotting beneath his feet over a period of months and probably years? 

Until March 26, 2007.  On this day I investigate a loose toilet floor bolt in my own bathroom and discover that the bolt has essentially rusted into a pitiful pile of flakes.  Pulling the toilet, I find - oh my God - the subfloor has essentially melted into cheesy rot.  The surface flooring hid the problem.

I'm that kind of idiot.

I built this house and installed the plumbing in 1979.  I remember installing this particular toilet drain because it went badly.  I'd cut the drain pipe an inch too short.  I'd run out of couplings, so I couldn't extend it that day.

I didn't want to wait until another day.  I wanted to move on.  So I installed the closet bend, drain, and closet flange with only a quarter inch of overlap in a hub which should have had two or three inches of overlap.  This was ABS pipe - the black plastic stuff.  You have to allow enough surface area for the glue to make a good solid joint.  Instead, I bathed the shallow joint in ABS glue and even painted a gooey black ring of glue around the outside edge.

Sometime between 1979 and 2007, my chickens came home to roost.  A major earthquake in 1989 might have hastened the chickens along.  The pipe worked loose in such a way that every time you flushed, water would soak into the subfloor.

Every day we make choices, hundreds of them.  We're bound to get some of them wrong.  I can forgive myself.  In this case, I had to spend two days replacing the bathroom floor because of a shortcut I took 28 years earlier.  A fitting punishment.

I told this to another carpenter who said, "Don't feel bad, man.  At least you have standards.  I just saw some cheapo condos in Fremont where none of those floors will last 28 years." 

It's the Fremont developer's choice.  He's the man in the suit, the man with the money.  He'll make a big profit.  There will be no fitting punishment.  No punishment at all.  I can't forgive that.

Friday, March 25, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 84: Hire a Pregnant Carpenter. Please.

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Hire a Pregnant Carpenter.  Please.
Wednesday, March 25, 1987

I've built a hand-crafted butcher block countertop for somebody's lavatory.  Real wood is lovely in bathrooms, but soap usually finds a way to penetrate the finish and ruin it.  For protection I'm applying layers of Marine Spar Varnish in the small room while my eyes are crying, my nose is running, and my head is aching. 

The housecleaner arrives.  She sniffs.  "Is that stuff harmful?" she asks.

"Of course," I say.  It's the usual toxic crap you find in petroleum distillates. 

"I'm leaving," she says.  "Tell them I'll come back next week."

"I'll be done in fifteen minutes."

"I'm pregnant," she says.  "I'll come back next week."

She's gone.  She just abandoned half a day's pay.

And I'm thinking, she's right.  Why subject a fetus to all the toxic crap that I take for granted?

For the money, of course.  But she chose not to.

Next I'm thinking, why subject myself?  Over ten years of nonstop construction work I've taken a get-things-done attitude toward preservatives, pesticides, all the nasty
poisons you encounter on a daily basis in this line of work.  For the money, of course.

It's my ah-ha moment, and way overdue. 

Pregnant women are like the miner's canary. 

Not that I instantly reformed, of course.  Nontoxic alternatives weren't easily available in 1987, and meanwhile a century of toxins lingered in old construction.  Twenty years after this incident, while writing my novel Clear Heart I wrote a passage in which Wally, the main character, nearly blinds himself:

Fresh in Wally’s mind was the history he’d just given to the nurse: thirty years of exposure to copper chromium arsenate, pentachloraphenol, toluene, chlordane, PCBs, benzene, asbestos, and a long, sorry stew of chemicals used in some phase of construction. Even the ones that were outlawed were still lurking in old crawlspaces and attics, embedded in the dust and the lumber itself. You try to protect yourself, but also you try to get the job done. Respirators, goggles, earmuffs, body suits are all hot, bulky, and uncomfortable. You weigh risks against comfort and speed. Sometimes you make the wrong choice. Even at your best there are accidents. After thirty years of weakening his body’s defenses, Wally had allowed sawdust containing lead and arsenic to float directly onto his eyeballs.
I didn't make that passage up.  I lived through it.  In spite of the precautions, my eyes, my lungs, and my flesh have paid the price.  And it still happens to people every day. 

I wonder what the construction industry would be like if all construction workers were pregnant.  Maybe then we'd stop being so macho and finally protect our own bodies as we'd protect an unborn child.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 83: Final Inspection

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Final Inspection
Friday, March 24, 1989

Building inspectors fall into three categories: the good, the bad, and the criminal.  Previously, La Honda and all of western San Mateo County had a very bad inspector, a bullying vindictive man.  Now (it's 1989) we have Mike.  He's gray-haired, nearing retirement, cares passionately about safety and quality, and occasionally will look the other way if it's just a technicality.  Or if you're holding a baby in your arms.

I discovered Mike's soft spot by accident.  Back in 1982 he arrived at my home for the Final Inspection just three days after my son Will was born.  I escorted Mike around the house with Will in my arms, following Mike's eyes with a sinking feeling as he glanced at some exposed Romex, a basement door without a self-closing mechanism, and a couple of other small violations.  "I'd put a spring hinge on that door if I were you," he said, and then he signed me off.  Later, telling another contractor how easy Mike had been, he said, "Oh, yeah, Mike's a sucker for the baby ploy."

Today I have no baby.  Will is almost seven years old, and he's at school.  Mike remembers me, though.  He's inspected me on several jobs, and usually ends the inspection by saying, "Nice work," or "Good job."  From an inspector, that's high praise.

Mike is inspecting a deck that I've built.  It's a large project, 1000 square feet of decking on 3 levels with stairs and handrails.  Today is supposed to be the Final Inspection. 

Mike looks pained.  "I can't pass these handrails," he says.  "I'm sorry." 

He explains that they've added a new requirement for handrails: they have to close off at the ends.  That is, the end of each handrail can't be left hanging in open air; it has to curve back and join the wall or the post. 

Mike shakes his head.  "It's a new rule.  Some lady caught her sleeve on the end of a rail, fell down the stairs and sued."  He seems disgusted.  "Now everybody has to close off the ends."

I can see the reasoning.  I just hate the surprise.  Mike hates to be the enforcer of bad news, but sometimes it's part of his job. 

The hand rail with end closed.

After school on that same Friday I pick up my son Will and also my ten-year-old daughter.  Today is a big day for her.  She's being scored in gymnastics - a Final Inspection of a different sort.  Based on her score, she might make the advanced gymnastics class.

Will and I watch the tryouts from a balcony of the Burgess Gym in Menlo Park.  There are about 20 girls.  My daughter isn't the best, but she's clearly in the top 10.

Ten are chosen.  My daughter isn't one of them.  A cute little blond girl who is clearly less skilled is chosen.  She's the coach's pet.

My daughter is crushed.  Many of the parents are shaking their heads.  All the girls who were chosen take private lessons from the coach.  None of the girls who were rejected take private lessons from the coach.  The fix is on.

I go to the office at the side of the gym.  I tell the manager that coach Angus is showing favoritism, that he has a financial interest in his favoritism, and furthermore coach Angus seems dangerously cozy with that cute little blond nine-year-old.  You better watch out.

The manager of Burgess Gym responds, basically, that I'm another of those dreadful parents seeking special treatment for his child.  He dismisses me.

I keep reading news articles about sports coaches who are arrested for molestation.  Everybody always says, "You never would have guessed it."  I don't know about those cases, but I sure as heck could see that something was rotten at Burgess Gym. 

Now let's skip ahead:  The next week Mike re-inspects the deck and signs me off.  Meanwhile I enroll my daughter at a gym in Redwood City where they not only place her in the advanced class but recruit her for their traveling team.

A few months later, coach Angus is arrested.

Beyond the building inspectors of this world, we all face our final judgements: good, bad, criminal.  Flunking Mike's inspection made me respect him even more.  You have to be fair.  You have to follow rules.  And it doesn't hurt to have a soft spot - a genuine, healthy soft spot - for children.


Note: If you've read my novel Clear Heart, now you know where I got the model for the building inspector in that book.

Another note:  "Angus" is not the real name.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Lit Night in La Honda

Wednesday, March 30, just as we do every last Wednesday of every month, the writers and readers of La Honda will emerge from beneath the mushrooms and converge at Sullivan's Pub for an open mic reading.  We call it Lit Night.  I'll be hosting along with Terry Adams, plumber and poet laureate of La Honda.  Have a beer or a glass of wine, buy a salad, give a listen or read your own masterwork.  Ages 10 to 100 are welcome.  Food and drink start at 5.  Reading starts at 7.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 78: Grampa, Rainbow, Porch Lamp

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Grampa, Rainbow, Porch Lamp
Thursday, March 19, 1987

They are a busy working couple with busy teenage children but assure me that "grampa" will be there to let me into the house.  And he is.  Grampa is a talker.  As I install the Casablanca Fan, Grampa from a wheelchair watches and even tries to help with the wall switches while entertaining me with stories about the days when he was an electrician in New Jersey.  Jokingly I offer him 50 cents an hour and he says, “I remember working for 50 cents an hour.”  His eyes go inward, somewhere in rural New Jersey, and he says, "We take it for granted.  Light.  Light is wonderful.  We forget how poor everybody used to be.  I saw people, one bare Edison bulb, it was like a miracle." 

In the afternoon I meet Demetri, one of my favorite long-term clients, who shows me three electric mysteries.  Demetri's house has a history of electric mysteries which drive Demetri crazy though I enjoy solving them.  "Leave me a note," he says, and he drives off to work.  The problems seem weird but have simple explanations: a miswired three-way switch, an outdoor outlet with a flaky ground fault interrupter, and a clothes-drier 30 amp breaker that keeps popping off because, it turns out, a mouse got electrocuted inside the junction box.  I’m glad I don’t have mysterious wiring.  But I’m glad my wealthy clients do.  In Demetri's luxury kitchen overlooking a green pasture I write a two page note (I'm a writer, even when I'm contracting) while a rainbow arches in bright colors - solid colors like a child would draw - over the horses next door.  In the note, I describe the rainbow, the tall grass, the shivering livestock being led to the barn.  Demetri appreciates these little touches.  Rainbows.  Everybody loves rainbows.

From Demetri's house half-way up Page Mill Road, the easiest route home to La Honda is to continue switchbacking up Page Mill to the top of the ridge, and then to come down Alpine Road in the back of beyond.  By now the sun has set.  There's still a dark blue glow in the western sky.  Alpine is a twisty one-lane path through deep forest and quiet ranches.  Unseen in a canyon at the end of a long winding driveway, there's a prison.  The hills hulk like dark monsters.   From the cab of the truck I see a warm dot, a porch lamp of a lone house clinging to the black shadow of a mountainside, like a blessing.

Grampa is right.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Arno Sternglass

Arno Sternglass was a hero to me (along with Ken Laundry and William Carlos Williams).  I loved the way he just kept on drawing what he wanted, the way he wanted, right up to the very end.  I even named one of my dogs after him (there was a remarkable physical resemblance).

My wife and I bought a couple of his paintings, but for every one we bought, he'd give us six more.   

 Arno was a disciplined artist, and some of the discipline came by way of Lila, who was both his biggest fan and most discerning critic.  One day she walked into my house and pointed at a pair of Arno's older drawings (these two):
And then at one of his newest (this one):

and she said, "Look at how much better you used to be!"  It didn't seem to faze him.  I guess only one's wife or close relative can get away with that.  Some day, I'm sure Lila will read one of my books and say, "Look at how much better you used to be!"  And she'll be absolutely right.  She always is.

Personally, I love his newer works.
 
And I love his older ones.
 
Arno made his name as an innovative illustrator.  Somewhere I have a copy of a New York Times Magazine cover that he did, but I can't find it right now.  I do have this record album:
 
In 2006 Arno took me on a tour of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and showed me his favorite paintings.  It was as if he were introducing all his old friends.  He was surprisingly, endearingly inarticulate in explaining why he loved those paintings, but the love was clear.  He could be be articulate on other matters - and he had a "GOD DAMN IT!" that left no doubt.

He painted landscapes:
 
He was fascinated by what he called "architectural drawings:"

In the 1950's he'd go to the playground in Central Park and sketch children:
 
If you could see this painting in person, the girl seems so alive that I expect her to walk right out of the frame and into the room:
 
I've used the word "love" five times in this post.  Normally when I repeat myself, I start editing.  Not this time.  The word belongs here - five times.  When Arno and Lila returned to Manhattan near the end of Arno's life, they lived directly across the street from the famous LOVE sculpture, which was the first thing you saw from their bedroom window.

Arno died in 2007 at the age of 80.  We miss him.  We are still surrounded by his paintings - and his joy.
(All these paintings are in my possession, so I assume I have the right to post these images and also to claim copyright on the reproduction of the images.  They are not good copies. I photographed them in their frames, behind glass, and there is some glare and some reduction of color.  Please respect Arno's work and do not use these imperfect images for commercial purposes...)

Update:  There's more Arno Sternglass here.

365 Jobs, Day 77: Cardinal Barbershop, Palo Alto

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Cardinal Barbershop, Palo Alto
Monday, March 18, 2002

Aunt Lila and Uncle Arno are visiting.  Lila tells me that unless I want to start wearing a ponytail (which would be fine with her), I must get a haircut.  She will treat.

Lila and Arno lived most of their adult lives in Manhattan. Recently they've moved to Mendocino.  Wherever they go, they're a fresh breath of Manhattan art scene vibe, lively and intellectual and fun.

Lila calls a friend who says the best barbershop on the Peninsula is the Cardinal Barbershop in Palo Alto, so there we go.  The waiting area provides a choice of Sports Illustrated or Playboy, so I read Playboy, which Lila finds hilarious.  She has a great cackling laugh.  She points out an advertisement that she designed for a Canadian beer.  Arno, meanwhile, is admiring a vintage barber chair.  He whips out a pocket camera and takes photos.  Everyone in the barbershop is watching us.  Lila and Arno raise the energy level wherever they go.

Arno Sternglass is 75 years old and still an active artist.  I love his work.  About a dozen of his paintings hang in my house.  Yesterday before watching a movie - Monsoon Wedding - Arno offered to wash my eyeglasses, as he was going to wash his own.  Never have my glasses been so clean.  Never has a movie looked so good.  To Arno, of course, clear vision is crucial.

George is my barber.  He immediately wins my heart by saying, “Are you a contractor?”

“How’d you know?”

“You look like you work outdoors.”

Most people, even after I tell them I’m a contractor, even after I appear at their door wearing a toolbelt, say “No.  Really.  What do you do?”

I tell George to remove a year’s worth of hair.  While trimming, George says he’s been barbering here since 1955.  Yeow.  I tell George that in 1955 I was living in Maryland.  I was seven years old and my best friend had piled into the back seat of a 1954 Ford sedan and driven all the way to Palo Alto, which to me sounded like the end of the earth.  From California he'd sent me a postcard of a redwood tree that you could drive a car through.  Immediately I'd wanted to go.  Now I've been in California more than 30 years, and here I am sitting in a barber chair in Palo Alto, and where are the drive-through trees?

"Up north, maybe."  George shrugs.  "Where's your friend?"

"San Quentin.  He got arrested a couple of years ago for running a marijuana plantation."

Arno, meanwhile, has wandered around University Ave, snapping pictures as if he's found a spectacular anthropological subculture.  Three oriental carpet stores!  An Apple store!  I say, “Who needs three oriental rug stores?”  Arno insists in his clipped semi-German accent: "You never know.  Someday you might need one in a hurry."

It’s a great haircut.  Even Lila thinks so, and her standards are au courant

After an hour of Lila and Arno, Palo Alto is a fresher, livelier place.  We leave the Cardinal Barbershop, all eyes following us: two artists and one writer who looks, to his barber at least, like a contractor.

Arno and Lila Sternglass, 2006 - back in Manhattan
 
(Arno died in 2007 at the age of 80.  I've posted an appreciation of him here.)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 76: Chiropractor

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Chiropractor
Monday, March 17, 1986

It's my first visit to a chiropractor.  I'm skeptical.  You hear all these stories (mostly from doctors) that chiropractors are money-grubbing charlatans. 

Her name is Marcy.  She's pregnant.  Instantly I trust her.  How could you not feel safe with a pregnant chiropractor?  She glances at the clipboard, the form I've just filled out.  "You're in construction?"  She shakes her head.  "Wow." 

"Why wow?"

"You wrote here you've been in constant pain for ten years."

"No I didn't.  I said sometimes it's worse than others."

"Does it ever go away?"

"No."

"That's constant.  And what have you done about it?"

"I ignore it.  I'm good at that.  It's a job requirement."

"But now you're here."

She watches me walk from the waiting room to the examining room and says, "How long have you had scoliosis?"

"All my life."  I hadn't mentioned the scoliosis on the form.  "So it's obvious?"

"To me it is.  One of your shoulders is higher than the other.  One of your legs is shorter than the other.  Didn't you know that?"

"I just knew I had bad posture."

"Of course you have bad posture.  Your spine is curved.  And it says here you went to an orthopedist.  What did he say?"

"He said my scoliosis isn't a problem.  He said nothing is wrong with me."

"And were you in pain?  Did you tell him?"

"Yes."

"Did he believe you?"

"Apparently not."

Marcy snorts.

After an examination, Marcy determines that I have a loss of nerve sensation in one leg.

I ask, "Why didn't the orthopedist tell me that?"

"Did he look at you?"

"He took an x-ray."

"Did he test your reflexes?"

"No."

"Did he touch your legs?"

"No."

"Orthopods."  She rolls her eyes.

Marcy asks me to lie down on my stomach.  She says she just wants to do one thing on this first visit.  I've brought my wife along as witness, guardian, interpreter.  Marcy tells my wife that because I'm so "locked up" she wants to start slowly, gently.

Marcy places the heel of one hand and the fingers of the other hand on my lower spine.  I can't see what's going on, but I can feel it. 

Inside my spine there's this sensation of a rusty piston being pulled out of a dirty old
cylinder.  I see stars.  It doesn't hurt.  I simply see stars.

In five minutes, it's over.  I'm lightheaded. 

My wife drives me home.  I feel stoned.  There's no way I could handle a car right now.  I feel ten years younger.

"What did it look like?" I ask.

"Like nothing.  Until I saw how spacey you got, I thought she hadn't done anything."

Twenty-five years later, I still remember that piston unlocking from that cylinder.  I've never felt anything like it again.  I'll never have to because I'll never let it get that bad.  For construction work, part of the job is knowing who to call and when to call them: roofer, concrete crew, backhoe guy.  And a chiropractor.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 75: Rolltop Desk

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Friday, March 16, 1973

“Do you hear the cats?” she asks.  Her name is Pat.  She lives next door.

“Cats?”

“At night.  They make a racket.  We can’t sleep.”

Pat and her housemate Amy live in a shabby bungalow.  I live above three garages.  In one of those garages Pat and Amy keep a white 1963 Cadillac, Arizona plates.  In another of those garages I stand right now, working with wood and talking to Pat.
     
“It’s not my cat,” I say.  But I understand what she's saying.  At night, when the cats make their racket, Pat and Amy are afraid to come out of their bungalow.

Pat and Amy are two white girls going to Stanford.  Graduate students.  Other than walking to and from their car you never see them.  Self-contained in that little house, they are not a part of this very mixed neighborhood - and the neighborhood takes note.  On the street in front of their bungalow somebody has painted FUKN DYKZ. Welcome to Cooley Avenue, East Palo Alto, California.

“I’ll see what I can do about the cats,” I say.

“Thank you.”  Pat is tall, very pale, with straight black hair that hangs to her waist.  She glances at my wood, my tools.  “What are you making?”

“A rolltop desk.”

“Wow.  You know how to do that?”

“No.”

That night, I hear no cats.

I’ve finished a novel and mailed it to Atheneum, who seem the most likely publisher, and while waiting for a reply I’ve decided to make my living with wood, to build something people might want, to craft it well and sell it.  For guidance I'm reading a book written by some fussbudget Brit about how to build a rolltop desk. 

Up to now I have never made a mortise-and-tenon joint in my life.  In the garage with the door wide open I work with chisel and back saw, brace and bit.  Not only will I build a roll-top desk, but I'll do so with hand tools.  The Brit would approve.

The white Caddy, emitting a wisp of blue smoke, pulls into its garage, Amy steering.  Amy is short and tanned, nicely rounded, with a bowl of curly blond hair.  “Hi.  I’m Amy?  I live next door?  Thank you for quieting the cats.”

“I didn’t quiet them,” I say.  “I didn’t do anything.”

An hour later a Ford Pinto pulls up in front of the garages.  Scattered on windows are seven Stanford decals.  On the bumper:  IMPEACH NIXON.  A bearded guy is driving with Pat riding shotgun.  Suddenly - it seems like an impulse - the bearded guy steps out of the Pinto.  Laughing, he unbuckles his belt, pulls it through the loops of his jeans, and hands it to Pat.  Then he drives off.

Smiling, a spring to her step, Pat doesn't even notice me as she skips to the house. 

That night before going to bed I step out on the balcony that runs along the front of the building just above the garages.  I'm listening for signs of the warring cats. 

In the darkness a moist wind rustles the eucalyptus tree, scenting the air like medicine.  Traffic growls on the freeway, just one block away.  The sky is black but a warm glow spreads upwards from a skylight in the bungalow next door.  In the daytime I never even noticed the skylight, but now on this night it is like seeing a well-lit stage from the dark balcony of a theater.

Tall pale Pat stands not quite naked in front of a mirror.  She wears white socks and is holding a black leather belt.  Lifting the buckle to her nose, she lets the belt hang down in front of her like a sword.  Her black hair flows down her bony back.  She has small pert breasts, surprisingly wide hips and a jet-black bush.  Studying her image in the mirror, she ties the belt around her waist, pursing her lips, looking critical and almost bored as if choosing what to wear to school tomorrow - if she were to attend Stanford clothed only in a belt and socks.

Still facing the mirror, Pat starts talking.  I can't see the rest of the room, but she must be speaking to Amy.  Pat places the thumb of each hand inside the belt like a western gunslinger.  It is not a casual chat.  Pat’s face has that serious, painfully picky demeanor of a woman analyzing a relationship. 

Suddenly Amy appears, throwing her arms around Pat from behind.  Shoulders heaving, Amy is crying.

Pat stands rigid.  Her thumbs remain hooked to the belt.  On her face: surprise and self-doubt.

Enough theater.  I turn away.  Partly I'm embarrassed to be watching; partly I'm afraid somebody will catch me.

In the street something is creeping along the gutter.  Not a cat.  A small raccoon.  Then comes a clatter.  Another, larger raccoon shoves aside the lid of a garbage can.  A bungee cord was holding the lid in place, but Big Coon has displaced it far enough to enter.

Small Coon stands on hind legs and starts rocking the can with Big Coon still inside.  Big coon pokes his head out the top and hisses.  They howl.  They growl.  Garbage war!

On the balcony are several bricks left over from a brick-and-board bookshelf I constructed - the kind of furniture I am capable of building.  Grasping one of the bricks, I toss it like a shot-put.  The brick lands with a crash on the lid of the metal garbage can.  Immediately a ringed body bursts from the top of the can and hits the ground running.  In seconds, both animals are gone.

The next morning, Amy and Pat depart together in the white Caddy, grim-faced and silent. 

I'm determined to create dovetails for the drawers, hoping to gain confidence before I return to the frustrating mortise-and-tenons.

The first dovetail sucks.

The second is okay.  Almost okay.  A few days ago I talked with the owner of a furniture store in North Beach, Columbus near Grant, an old Italian who showed me a desk he was selling, running his fingers over the side of a drawer, a look of distaste on his face, saying, “Feel it.  Feel for yourself.”  Though the wood looked smooth, my fingers felt roughness that just a little sanding would have cured.  “Nobody in America has taste,” the man said.  “Everything I sell is slightly shoddy.”

I would rather burn this rolltop than have someone call it slightly shoddy.

I try more dovetails. 

By the time the white Caddy returns I have built three drawers, slightly shoddy. 

“It was raccoons,” I call to them as they close the garage door.  “Not cats.”

“Can you do something?” Pat asks.

“I threw a brick.” 

Amy seems stricken - as if I punched her stomach.  “Please don’t hurt them,” she says.

“I just scared them,” I say.

Pat and Amy exchange a look.  Pat glares at me and says, “Don’t you dare hurt them.” Together they walk to the bungalow whispering, shaking their heads.

For that one moment at least, I have united them.

I tie a second bungee cord over the lid of the garbage can.  Just before bed I go out on the balcony to, uh, check for raccoons.  The skylight is dark.  No coons, either.

Over the next few days I become almost good at dovetails.  I resume  mortising - and chisel the tip off my left ring finger.  When I return from Urgent Care, it looks as if somebody spilled a can of tomato juice in the garage. 

For a couple more nights I check the raccoon situation - just doing what the ladies asked - but the skylight is dark or, if lit, nobody is visible. 

The coons never return.  Atheneum rejects my novel.  The letter arrives seven days after I mailed the manuscript.  The swiftness is stunning - and feels like a brick lobbed at my garbage can.

A job agency calls.  I accept a temporary assignment operating a computer for a tax-preparation company.

All those romantic songs, all those commencement speakers who tell you to reach for the stars - it’s idiotic.  Here’s my advice:  Start small.  Use veneered plywood, for Pete’s sake, instead of solid clear fir.  Use power tools and simple joinery until you get the hang of it.  And write what you know.

In the garage I take a sledge hammer to the unassembled pieces of rolltop desk. 

Without much hope I mail the rejected manuscript to an agent in New Jersey.  Up above the garages in my study, a door for a desk, wooden crates for shelves, I jot notes for a new novel with a subject I might know something about: a young man who with the best of intentions fails at everything.  I call it Famous Potatoes.

For my remaining time on Cooley Avenue I never again walk to the end of the balcony.  Unobserved, Amy and Pat will deal in private with their passions, their painful choices.  As will I.  The job I've just accepted leads to three solid years operating computers without enthusiasm, making decent money, moving out of East Palo Alto to a more rural slum, writing a pretty good novel about the man who fails at everything and loves everyone in a slightly shoddy way.

Cooley at 101, East Palo Alto, 1973

Monday, March 14, 2011

Where the heck is Four Dog Riot?

Apparently there's now a time-lag in getting things launched on podiobooks.  Maybe Evo, the genius behind the curtain at podiobooks, is taking a well-earned vacation.  Somehow I didn't get the memo.  My bad.  I'm sorry.  I uploaded the episodes last week. 

Four Dog Riot is now scheduled to launch on April 13.  It even has a facebook page

365 Jobs, Day 73: Who's Screwing Who?

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Who's Screwing Who?
Thursday, March 14, 1985

Fernando bought a condo
in southern Palo Alto,
two bedrooms with a view
of Denny's and the Viking Motel.
You can park underground.
You can elevator straight to your curtained room
and never know the phase of moon.
To enter the building you must punch
keypad buttons in a bunch,
which stops Jehovah's
Witnesses from their little chats
and also limits
dogs and cats.
Fernando's friends send cards
saying "Congrats on making partner,"
and, "Who's screwing who?"
Fernando's a smart fella,
he hired Isabella
to pick his sofa, his rugs.
Does he do drugs?
Isabella hired me.
For the usual fee
I install Fernando's lights.
I overhear fights.
Fernando on the phone
is in a combat zone.
"Where's the payment on the Porsche?  You
     know I'm a lawyer?"
Fernando seems as tender
as a barkeep's Waring Blender.
And yet. . .
                 and yet. . .
Fernando reads.  Piles of novels
     I wish were mine.
He hangs art on his walls.  All modern,
     all from New York.
Dining alone, ribeye steak.
Flabby handshake.
Eyes like a wall, grayish-blue.
Age, thirty-two.
Never married.  On his desk,
a framed photo of his sister.
Psst.  Hey, mister.
Hey Fernando.
Try to love somebody.
Love her hard.
And when she becomes
all your mondo,
Fernando,
sell the condo.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 72: Shoelaces

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Shoelaces
Thursday, March 13, 1980

Archie is an old friend from hippie days who, like me, decided to support himself in the building trades while pursuing his other career.  Unlike me, Archie isn't too sure what his other career is.  Meanwhile, he works as a housepainter.

Today he's helping me paint my own house.  "People think painting is menial work," he says, "and then they don't respect the basic rules."

"Like what?" I ask.

"Like, ninety per cent of a good paint job is the prep."

"What else?"

"Do the cut-in first.  Keep a wet edge.  Not too thin, not too thick.  Don't work stoned.  Take your time and crank up the music."

Archie's music is opera. 

Archie and his fourteen-year-old collie are staying at my house.  Archie is driving my wife crazy because he's such a slob.  You wouldn't expect he could be a painter.  He's a wandering fairy of unflushed toilets, muddy boot prints, coffee stains on furniture, notes jotted on keepsake books.  Meanwhile the collie is becoming incontinent, and Archie fails to notice. 

Archie grew up controlled by a mother who washed his shoelaces every week.  He's been in rebellion ever since.  He ran away from Phoenix to the Haight Ashbury in 1967 and house-painted his way through San Francisco State College.  He's never gone back home even for a visit.

Archie is brilliant but not academically inclined.  To get a Master's degree while maintaining his normal lifestyle, he wrote his thesis on the artistic merits of pornographic cinema, engaging in extensive field work. 

Squinting, extending his tongue, Archie with a thin brush paints an edge between wall and ceiling, cutting a straight line without masking.

We're using a color that Archie selected, Kelly-Moore Bone White.  "I like it because it's a very forgiving paint," he says.

I find it reassuring to paint my house with forgiveness.

Archie has tried his hand at selling cars, producing porn, conducting travel groups, roasting coffee.  He's warm, engaging, can deliver a spontaneous lecture on just about any topic.  He'll never settle on a career.  I know it; everybody who meets him knows it.

His shoelaces are filthy but speckled with Kelly-Moore Bone White, pixie dust.

I work side-by-side with Archie, trying to help out.  He's faster.  In the same room if I paint one wall and Archie another, his looks better.  You can't point to any particular difference, just the overall effect.  Archie's a pro.  And surprisingly, Archie is a fastidious painter.  His mother might be proud.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 71: Twuck

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Twuck
Thursday, March 12, 1987 
For ten years I drove a 1977 Datsun pickup with a single bench seat.  When I bought her, I had one child.  The day I drove her home, Jesse climbed right in and adopted that Datsun as his own.

By 1987, I had 3 children who needed hauling to and from school.  Also by 1987 I could give you a long list of reasons why every 1977 Datsun pickup should be cubed, packed on a container ship, and sent back to Japan.  Basically they were toys, not trucks, and I demonstrated my feelings by rubbing out the DATSUN lettered on the tailgate and then painting, in equally big letters, TWUCK.  For years my little white twuck was an object of comment all over the San Francisco Peninsula.

 
But I didn't cube her, of course.  I sold her into white slavery to a great big unsophisticated man named Ron who was impressed by how I’d “kept it up” and promised to do the same - as if I might not let him have it unless he promised to take good care of it.  He’s going to haul concrete for his business of making drainage systems.  He's going to work the piss out of that twuck.  As did I. 

My daughter comes home.  She's eight years old.  "Where's the twuck?" she asks.

"Sold it to a guy in Pescadero."  (A little town about 10 miles from La Honda.)

"Where's the bear?"

"Moved it to the new truck."  (I'd bought a new Ford - with jump seats behind the front bench - a month earlier.)


Somehow in the years of hauling kids - my work days were from 9:30 to 2:30, school hours - with the daily shuffle of lunchboxes and art projects and ballet slippers and plastic rocket ships, a stuffie bear had appeared on the dashboard of the twuck.  Each child claimed it wasn't theirs.  So it remained - shepherd, guardian, watchbear.  Starting as a brown bear, gradually the sunlight bleached it to white.

I have to take my daughter for an overnight.  Before leaving, she says she wants to write a note.  Later, I find it on the kitchen counter:

dear mommy
Daddy Sold The twuck he sold it To A man in Peskedaro.  Not the Bear.
Love

My daughter wasn't the note-writing type.  She was a talker.  Somehow, the passage of the twuck deserved a more formal recognition.  To her, as to me, that twuck was a toy.  In the mind of a child, toys - even big metal ones - have honor.  And of course, so do small stuffie bears.

Friday, March 11, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 70: Greater than God

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Greater than God
Thursday, March 11, 1982

Milpitas is outside my bailiwick, a 45 mile drive across the Bay on the Dumbarton Bridge, but I accept the job because Mrs. Baker says she heard from a friend that I am "greater than God" as a handyman.  I'm not immune to flattery.

Her house is a monument to kitsch, a product of combining rococo taste with 25 years of plush union wages at the auto plant.  I don't care.  Her money is green. 

Her bathroom wall is all mirror on 3 sides so when I pee there are 3 other men in the room peeing like I'm at the ballpark.  I know, I know - decorators tell you mirrors make the room seem larger.  Couldn't she just hang a photo of a waterfall?

I fish a wire through a wall for a TV cable.  I install a brass and genuine gold chandelier.  


In the attic my foot slips off a joist, and I step through her ceiling.  

Her bathroom ceiling.  

She is taking a shower.  

She screams.  I imagine she sees the real foot plus 3 more mixed with steam.

I patch the ceiling with hot mud (quick-drying plaster) and clean up the mess while 3 other men do the same.  Rattled now, I crimp a live wire, setting off a spark, a puff of black smoke - while blowing up the dimmer switch and ruining my crimping tool.

It's divine judgment.  It may not be the worst work day I've ever had, but it's the most embarrassing one.  All my errors seem multiplied by three.  


Driving home in rush hour traffic takes an hour and a half.  Blood trickles from my kneecap where it went through the ceiling.  Replacing the dimmer and needing a new crimper, driving 90 miles I made $30 net profit for the day's work.  I'm lucky she paid anything at all.

Never accept a job where they think you're greater than God.  Because you aren't.  And you'll prove it.  Times three.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 69: "Of No Value For Fishing"

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

"Of No Value For Fishing"
Sunday, March 10, 1985

I like to get up early and write before I go to work.  Today after two hours of diddling I have written this much:
Earning a living
is not living.
Staying alive
is not life.
Today it's a Woodside job.  A muscle job.  A fire-resistant drywall job.  Mr. Straw watches me hammer a nail and says, "If I'd tried to pound that in, it’d be twisted into a figure eight.”  He's cheerfully cleaning the piles of accumulated junk in his garage while I'm hanging heavy sheets of drywall.  He says he hasn't cleaned this space since he moved here in 1948.

Mr. Straw is a spry old man who walks with a limp.  Around his neck he wears a lanyard with a whistle, which he blows from time to time to call his dogs.  Three golden retrievers come bounding and are rewarded each time with a treat.  Mr. Straw says that as a boy he was practically raised by a golden who acted like a combination of nanny and bodyguard.  Now Mr. Straw is giving back, raising his own.  He tells me dog stories.  Once he saw a golden rip the shirt off a man who was beating another dog. 

Before the day is over, I will hang 9 sheets of 5/8 drywall, each sheet weighing 70 pounds, the topmost of which will require a ladder.  I like strong work, sometimes.  I'm proud I can do it.


"Look at this," Mr. Straw says, pulling something from a musty old box.  "I haven't touched this stuff since my father died in 1955."  He's holding a dusty ball of string, shaking his head, grinning.  "It's silk fishing line.  See the note on it?  That's my father's handwriting."

The note says:

This string is of no value for fishing.
"Why did he save it?" I ask.

"You had to know him.  He'd do that."

"Why the note?"

"Because he knew somebody would find it."

"What will you do with it?"

"I'll keep it, of course," says Mr. Straw.


In the evening returning home, I am greeted by wife, three children, and a golden mutt puppy.  I pop two ibuprofen and lie down with a bag of frozen peas on my lower back.  Soon I sit up, joined by Will, my two-year-old.  I write:

Sucking thumb
you come
blanket and cheek
to seek
my lap, my breast
and yes
we both feel
better.
After I put him to bed, my older son Jesse wants to take out his telescope.  Later, I write:
On a frosty night
in fuzzy sweater
sleeves suddenly short
a boy gathers the moon
through lenses
between trees,
counting craters
while a cat purrs
unfelt
against his legs.
Unnoticed
from the porch
I, too, rub his ankles
while his eyes
seek light.
On the cover of the notebook I write:
This journal is of no value for earning a living.
Someday, somebody might find it.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 68: Warmth

Thursday, March 9, 1989

On the phone she says, "My name is Ellen and we own an old cabin way back in the hills and since you live way back in the hills would you be willing to fix a few things?  One of the - uh - tenants installed some new plumbing and it needs a few finishing touches."

The cabin is in the shadow of a hill at the end of a dirt road.  It's cold up there.  The "finishing touches" involve some water pipes that have burst because of amateur soldering.  Also, the hot and cold water pipes are reversed on a faucet, the toilet flushes into a two inch drainpipe, and the outlet of a sink trap is higher than the sink.

A young woman wearing wool ski pants and a down jacket with the hood up is sitting in front of an easel, working on a watercolor.  Her fingers are long, slender. The brush trembles.  An electric space heater rumbles, making pitiful heat.  "It's hard," she says, "when the paint keeps freezing."

"I hope you aren't paying a whole lot of rent."

"None.  My mother owns the place."

"Who did the plumbing?"

"Kevin.  My boyfriend.  Is it awful?"

"Um..."

"Please - please - don't tell my father.  They don't get along."

In the evening I call Ellen.  "Everything's working," I say.  "The finish is now, uh, touched."

"Did you see my daughter?  Is she all right?"

"She seems fine."

"Does she need anything?"

"Warmth."

Suddenly she's defensive.  "I can't go.  I'm disabled.  My husband doesn't know she's living there.  But she knows I care about her."

"I mean, she needs heat."

"Oh.  Well, Kevin could install a furnace."

"No!  Not him."

"Oh."  A long pause.  "I see."

"I could install a propane wall furnace."

"I think we'll just wait."  Another pause.  "Yes.  We'll just wait on that."

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 67: Diplomacy

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

Diplomacy
Wednesday, March 8, 1989 

Debora the Decorator is a half hour late meeting me at her shop in Los Altos, a shop where she purveys suspiciously clean-looking antiques along with brand new paintings of fox hunts in old-looking frames.  Driving a beat-up van, she leads me to the toniest section of Saratoga, a tony town, and to the sprawling ranch house of Mrs. Truckley.  

In the driveway Debora says, "These people are rich, rich, rich.  Be careful."
 

The sizable front yard - must be an acre - is pleasingly dense with trees and flowering bushes, placed and manicured as if it were an arboretum.  Somebody here appreciates nature while controlling it with an iron hand.

Debora collects a rather sizable check, and then she departs.

As soon as the van is gone, Mrs. Truckley says, "
Debora is always late.  Don't you just hate that?"

I don't answer.

"You're a diplomat," Mrs. Truckley says, raising her eyebrows.  "I like that.  And now it's only fair to warn you that I'm a perfectionist."

With some clients, rich or poor, I feel an instant rapport.  With Mrs. Truckley I don't.  There's a wall.  Maybe it's chemistry.  Maybe it's taste.


My first job is to hang a hideous gilt-edged mirror (supplied by Debora).  Unfortunately, while I'm using a spirit level to demonstrate to the perfectionist that the mirror is straight, a screwdriver point hanging from my toolbelt accidentally scratches the gilt frame.  A tiny scratch.

"You're distressing my mirror," Mrs. Truckley says.

"Sorry."  I could lose a day's pay here.  Possibly a week's pay.  "I'll get some touch-up paint.  I can make it so you'd never know."

"I'd always know."  She studies the mirror, sighing.  "Don't bother."  She squints.  "How do you like it?"

"If you're happy, I'm happy."

"But would you hang it in your own home?"

I don't answer.

Mrs. Truckley raises her eyebrows, studying me with an amused smile.  She says nothing.

Next, while moving wires to hang a sparkly crystal chandelier (also supplied by
Debora), I find a dead rat in the attic.  I don't mention the rat to Mrs. Truckley.

When the work is completed, Mrs. Truckley asks me to look at her garage.  It's a four-car cavern containing at the moment only one vehicle: a Porsche 911.  "I want to install a ping pong table in here," she says.  "And hang some lights over it.  Could you do that?"

"Certainly."

She doesn't ask how much it will cost.

"Do you play ping pong?" I ask.

"Oh no.  It's for my little boy.  He needs some exercise.  You know how it is.  They'll just sit around all day if you don't give them something to do."

"How old is your boy?"

"Seventeen."

I point at the Porsche.  "Is that his car?"

"Mine.  He doesn't have a car."

"Then he must walk.  Isn't that a little exercise?"

"The motorcycle.  He's out on it right now."

"What kind of motorcycle?"

"Harley-Davidson."

"I'll get the very best ping pong table I can find."

"Thank you."  She puts a finger to her cheek, thinking.  "You think I'm a fool, don't you?"

"No ma'am."

"Did you find any rats in the attic?"

"One.  It was dead."

"Would you mind getting it?  I'll give you a bag."

"At you service, ma'am."

"Please don't ma'am me."

"Sorry."

"Please fetch the rat.  We'll forget the ping pong table.  Not all of my ideas are brilliant ones.  Like hiring
Debora.  That awful mirror.  Will you take it down?"

"Whatever you wish."

"What I wish is for somebody to tell the empress the truth about her clothes.  Or lack thereof.  The chandelier can stay.  My husband will like it.  Me, I prefer the more natural environment."  In the back yard there's a rock-lined swimming pool fed by two painstakingly natural-looking waterfalls.  "May I call you again if more projects come up?  Call you directly?  Let's bypass
Debora."

"Certainly."

"Now am I less stupid than you thought?"


"I never thought - "

"Truth, please."

I don't answer.

She smiles.  "But of course you'd say that."

Sunday, March 6, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 65: House to House

Cross-posted from my new blog, 365 Jobs:

House to House
Wednesday, March 6, 1985

Even by the standards of La Honda it's a small house.  Music is blasting as I approach.  My knock - my pounding - on the door is eventually answered by a gorgeous young woman.  She couldn't be more than 18.  She's wiping sweat from her face with a towel.  She's talkative, lonely, following me around the house when she isn't dancing.  The house is all one big room with a wall-size mirror next to the waterbed.  A man my age (thirty-something) rents this place.  I try not to think about that mirror, that girl, that waterbed.

I install a new electric circuit to the kitchen area and replace an old fuse box with a circuit breaker panel.  


Sometimes, writing is a way to process emotions.  Heartbreak.  Or rage.  I'm in a free verse phase.  Back at my house, late afternoon, in my journal I write this:

In a black leotard and pink tights
she dances between sofa and bookshelf
studying the moves
in the big mirror.
Strawberry blond with freckles,
to my eyes she seems all body, all quivering
and unbelievably young
to be living with a stone-faced doctor
who drives old Chevy pickups
and works in a prison.
He found her in an Arizona town
near nowhere
and brought her to these mountains
where, speaking of prisons,
he forbids her to leave
this house without him,
where she watches television
while he's gone and practices
because she wants a job
at Harrah's
and someday hopes
to dance solo.
She asked me if
the local bar
is rowdy.
(Yes.  Sometimes.)
I don't say it but she is nowhere near
tough enough
for Vegas.
Doctor, how long can you keep
a butterfly
in a jar?

I'm reading it over, wondering if it's finished when I'm interrupted by a phone call from my neighbor, friend, client: Alex.  His wife is having a miscarriage.  Drop everything.  Later that night, in my journal I write:

Oh Sharon.  Sharon.
Alex calls me to your house
where you are upstairs
bleeding all over the bathroom.
The baby
if you can call it that
is in a water glass on the toilet
and you are lying on the floor
with a towel between your legs
moaning, "I didn't think . . .
it would be . . . like this . . . "
Only a fraction of your soul
remains clinging
to your body
as Alex takes the shoulders while
I cradle your bloody bottom
in my hands
down steep stairs
out the polished door
to the back seat of the BMW.
Spitting gravel
the car is gone;
you are gone
while I remain
holding your daughter's hand.
Her huge eyes
stare after the car.
She will sleep with my daughter tonight.
Right now she says not a word
sucking two fingers,
a deep beauty,
so young,
your creation.