Wednesday, October 8, 1986
The porch is rotten. Rusty doorbell button. A dog barks. The person opening the door has an undefined body: shirt, blue jeans, short hair — what gender?
“Hello,” I say. “The owner asked me to look at two small decks. She said they needed rebuilding.”
“Oh yeah.” The voice of a young woman. So, okay. Female. “The one you’re standing on. And another. Out back.”
She leads me through the living room. She smokes. The air stinks. Massive stereo equipment, stacks of tapes. A ratty chair. Rock posters on the walls. A bookshelf sagging with college texts. A fine old oak floor covered with scratches and stains, ruined.
The back porch has termites. No concrete pad. Wood in contact with earth. I take measurements, then return through the stale air of the kitchen and living room. I measure the front porch, where somebody built a nice pattern into the handrail, though now it’s wobbly.
The young woman is lifting weights in the living room, taking breaks to puff on a brown cigarette. Half the books are in German. Rock music is blasting from the stereo. In one corner there’s a playpen full of toys. Otherwise, there's no sign of a child.
The house is a crime. Absentee landlord. Careless renters. At a nearby pay phone, I call Carol, the owner, and tell her that the two porches are well on their way to becoming two piles of termite turd.
Carol asks, "When can you fix them?"
"I'm booked up for a couple months, but I've got the rest of today. I could juggle tomorrow, free it up. Two days would do it."
Carol laughs. "Somebody told me, if you want to get a job done, call a busy man. You sound like my guy."
Her reasoning sounds flawed, but I'll take it. Cash flow, needed.
As I lift off the boards, dismantling the back porch, I start to wonder how far the termites have spread. I’d better inspect the house to find out where, if ever, the destruction ends.
In the crawlspace I see evidence of termites and evidence of repair. No active infestation. The foundation, however, is crumbling away. Good grief. As if termites ate the concrete. The grade beam is turning to powder. I can pull it off with my fingers — by the handful — like a sandcastle built wet but now dry. There is practically nothing holding the house up. If the earthquake chooses this moment to strike, I’m a goner.
Back outside, the almost genderless young woman is straddling a motorcycle. I ask her to leave the door unlocked for me.
“What for?” she says as she pulls on a helmet.
“So I can use the bathroom. The telephone.”
She laughs. “No way,” she says.
Well, shit. She’s a renter. She lifts weights and reads books. There’s a shadowy man who comes and goes in a van and never speaks to me. There’s another woman living in the garage who ordered me to move my extension cord so it wouldn’t crush her plants. “They may not look like much to you,” she says, “but they mean a lot to me.”
Actually, I’d admired her plants, especially an oddly shaped purple flower. I’d intentionally placed my extension cord so as not to hurt the plants, but somebody moved it, perhaps the shadowy man.
I tear the porches out and leave them in a pile in the yard. Mix and pour two concrete landings. When I leave, both the front and back doors are three feet above the ground. I could build a temporary step, but I don't. Take that, motorcycle mama.
At night I call the owner and tell her that before I build porches over the exposed foundation, I should do something to brace it.
To my surprise, she agrees: “Let’s do it right.” I didn’t expect such an attitude because nothing in that house is right. She must have recently bought it. Maybe she doesn’t know what a wreck it is.
"What you really need is to jack up the house and build a whole new foundation. It'll cost big bucks, though."
"Will you do it?"
"You need a different contractor for this. I just do small jobs. Since the house is in Palo Alto, the permit will be a nightmare. It'll take months. I can place some piers. That'll remove the time pressure."
"Do what you can."
Thursday, October 9, 1986
I pull out the old concrete. By hand. Amazing. Whoever mixed this stuff must’ve used the wrong proportions. Too little Portland cement. Impure water. Something.
I mix a fresh batch of Quikrete in a wheelbarrow and pour it. Then I shove two pier blocks into the puddles of concrete and wedge wood between the piers and the sill. One corner of the house has already sunk an inch, and I don’t try to jack it up. At least it won’t sink farther.
Next, I rebuild the front porch. It goes up fast.
Two Stanford students are practicing football plays in the street.
The motorcycle mama who wouldn’t unlock the house for me yesterday, today gives me a black cherry seltzer to drink. On the wall by the telephone is a photo of her and another woman and a baby, all three naked, smiling, in a bathtub. Definitely not genderless. I feel like a voyeur.
Two mothers bathing
with one baby. All look up
smiling at the man.
My hands are eroding. The fingers crack and peel. Copper Green, dry Quikrete, they do a job on your skin. My thumb has a big tender bruise from a misguided hammer. A nail scratched one knuckle; rebar scraped one wrist. You can't always wear gloves. Now I rub my hands with jojoba oil while contemplating the completed front porch. It’s simple but solid. Honest, plain, strong. It’ll outlast the house.
And that’s one of the reasons I like this kind of work: afterwards, it’s still there.
Friday, October 10, 1986
This is my third day on a two-day job. I had to postpone and reschedule; some clients are sore.
Today I'm under time pressure because I have to pick up my son at five o'clock. On the back porch I cut one board badly but use it anyway leaving a half inch gap where there should be a tight butt joint.
I load up the twuck with leftover lumber and concrete plus the debris of two porches with the wheelbarrow on top. Then I pick up Jesse, my son.
With Jesse beside me in the front seat, there's probably a one-ton load in this half-ton pickup. The truck sways from too much weight. After four miles on Page Mill Road, greasy smelly smoke starts rising from below the gearshift knob. It fills the cab.
I open the hood. A cloud erupts, escapes. It seems to be coming from underneath the engine instead of the radiator. No, now it’s coming from the rear sparkplug. How can steam be coming from a sparkplug?
I fix houses, not engines. I know enough to use a rag as I open the radiator, but no steam rushes out. It’s empty. Bone dry.
Two hundred feet away is a large brick house which looks very rich and very private and very not to be messed with, but bless them they have a hose faucet right by the road, so Jesse and I without asking permission form a bucket brigade filling a Coke bottle and a thermos over and over until the radiator is full.
No water is dripping out. Hoses tight.
What happened? How’d I lose it?
I wince, thinking of the mis-cut board, the half inch gap.
I drive on. We fill the Coke bottle and thermos, just in case. A few miles later, the engine is overheating. I’m now at the foot of the mountain. I stop, empty our spare water into the radiator. I teach Jesse how to open the radiator cap. Jesse, by the way, is ten years old. Today is his birthday.
Smoke billowing from
beneath my little truck on
a road leading home.
At the top of the mountain I’m overheating again. There’s a gas station. Jesse opens the hood for me. I try to show him how to set the bar to hold the hood open.
“I know,” he says, and sets it for me. So far, he's known a lifetime of car trouble. It's normal for him.
I re-water, then coast seven miles downhill with the engine off and arrive home with the radiator still cool, still full.
Back home, my wife has left notes all over the house. A plan has developed: to celebrate Jesse's birthday, my wife and daughter and younger son have hiked to the Sierra Club Hiker's Hut which sits on a mountain ridge in Pescadero Creek Park, not far from where we live. Jesse and I are to join them there. We'll spend the night. Perfect.
I shower and change. Jesse gathers supplies.
You can only reach the Hiker’s Hut by hiking. Jesse and I, wearing backpacks, carrying flashlights, climb through the woods up the side of the ridge starting in a grove of creekside virgin redwoods, rising through oaks. There’s no moon. Through a break in the trees I see bright stars. I say, "There's Cassiopeia."
Jesse walks ahead.
I hear a sudden sound from the dark woods. I stop, spooked.
Jesse says, "It's a branch falling, Dad."
Things fall apart. Even trees. Half inch gap.
Jesse hikes fast. I’m getting winded. My backpack gains weight as I ascend. I want to protect Jesse from mountain lions in the forest, or at least from falling branches, but I can't quite keep up with him.
With my son climbing
a mountainside at night
The Hiker's Hut is no hut. It has electricity, a refrigerator, stove, running water, even hot water. Well-built, nice details. No half inch gaps.
Dinner’s over but Jesse and I have spaghetti, garlic bread, salad. Somehow my wife carried a small cake a mile uphill, only slightly smudged. Candles.
We lie in sleeping bags on the deck overlooking a meadow on the ridgetop. Deer settle, making beds in the oat grass. The stars are magnificent. The Milky Way oozes across the bowl of sky from the ocean in the southwest to the distant glow of San Francisco, northwest.
A raccoon is rattling logs in the woodpile.
Exactly ten years ago Jesse came into my life and changed everything forever.
Next week I'll go back and cut a new board.