Sunday, May 13, 2012

365 Jobs: Skateboarder

September 2001 to March 2002

Mordecai told me about some famous skateboarding movie (which I’d never heard of) that showed footage of him. 

“So you’re a pro?” I asked.

“In my dreams.”  He laughed and rolled his eyes. 

I was wary, but I hired him.  I could always use a teenage helper.  It was September, 2001.  My youngest son had just started college back East, leaving an emotional hole in my soul like a tiny suggestion of that smoking ruin in Manhattan.

For the first two days Mordecai took directions, worked hard, kept his shoes untied and his pants hanging low.  He couldn’t stand still.  He was a hothead, but somewhere within he was a nice Jewish boy.

It was a termite job.  We were tearing out siding and spraying boards with borate.   

His father called me after the second day and asked if his son was being useful.

“He’s good,” I said.  “I like his hustle.”

“Hustle!”  The father laughed.  “That’s a benign way to describe it.”

On the third day Mordecai went home for a lunch break.  While I was eating my sandwich, the phone rang.  It was Mord: “Sorry, Doctor,” — he often called me Doctor — “but I’m leaving for Oregon.  They’re picking me up in fifteen minutes.”

He’d just been invited to tour with some professional skateboarders.

A week later, he was back. 

“How was it?” I asked.

“Sweet,” he said.  And we resumed the work.

It was one of those jobs that just keeps growing.  A small termite repair developed into replacing the roof on a garage, building a deck and stairs, a fence, a long string of jobs.  Mordecai stayed with me for that whole depressing winter after 9/11. 

I was happy to have a companion, erratic as he was.  Mordecai would take the occasional week off — on ten minutes’ notice — to go skateboarding in Tahoe or L.A. 

You come to know somebody through how they work.  When I spray transparent stain onto house siding, I start at one corner and make my way methodically down and across to the opposite corner.  Mordecai would spray scattershot in wiggles and circles, seemingly at random, until the entire wall was coated.

I said, “We need to make sure each board gets an even coat.”

“I get it even,” Mordecai said.  “I’m a compulsive perfectionist.”

He was neither.  But I said no more.

Though fearless on a skateboard, he was nervous about “sketchy ladder work.”  So I started a scaffold job by myself.  After watching for a few minutes, Mordecai came up, too.  From then on he was fine, full of questions and restless energy.

Inanimate objects such as two-by-fours were “bad boys,” as in ““Do you want me to nail this bad boy up now?”

On a day when we were working on my own house, I told him to saw off the end of a one-by-six that was sticking out too far at the base of my chimney.  “I’ve been meaning to cut that board for twenty years,” I remarked.

Later I learned that Mordecai had been quoting me to his parents and friends like I was some weird old geezer: “I’ve been meaning to cut that board for twenty years.”  He thought I was hilarious.  Another time, again working on my own house, I told him, “Pull off that rotten piece of siding, then take a five minute break while I puke.”  The damage behind the siding wasn’t as sickening as I’d feared, but the quote spread all over town.

I showed Mordecai how to lay bricks, and he started building a pathway.  I couldn’t supervise him closely that day.  The next morning I told him he’d have to tear it out.  “Okay, Doctor,” he said.   Cheerfully on the second try he got it right.  Then that night, he announced to his parents that he wanted to build a brick pathway all around their house. 

He had transitory but instant enthusiasm, moving from one new skill to another as quickly as he could learn.

Somewhere along the line, I discovered to my surprise that this boy who I’d been treating as a teen was actually a college graduate with an evolving desire to go to law school.  The plan seemed to grow in direct proportion to his time spent on skateboarding trips.  I think he was discovering that it was a young man’s sport and that at age 22 he was no longer young.  Or indestructible.  He was also getting seriously involved with a certain young woman, which might also have made skateboarding seem like a less than perfect lifetime plan.

Mordecai asked me how I became a contractor.  I explained the process, ending with the state licensing exam.  That night Mordecai went home and told his mother, a schoolteacher, and his father, a doctor, that he’d decided not to go to law school.  He was going to take a one-day class and become a contractor. 

His parents were less than thrilled — though somewhat amused.  Also he’d forgotten, or hadn’t heard, that to become a contractor you needed four years of experience in the trade plus a series of classes, then a big exam.  Law school, at three years, is faster.

The winter passes.  By equinox the wildflowers are utterly spectacular while the weather is utterly unpredictable.  Late March, I take a two-day job that balloons into two weeks, the kind of hard carpentry that makes my body hurt all over.  Fortunately, I have Mordecai. 

In Afghanistan US troops are slaughtering the Taliban.  In La Honda my wife and daughter are preparing for my daughter’s wedding.  Insignificantly in Menlo Park, Mordecai and I are installing signposts and a decorative fence in front of an office building.  It’s a cold day with dark clouds rolling over the mountains in the west.  There are occasional blasts of wind and quick splats of hard rain.  Appreciating him, at this moment I choose to tell Mordecai that I’m giving him a raise from $10 to $12 an hour. 

Looking embarrassed, Mordecai coughs — he’s been coughing a lot, lately — and says, “I should have told you.  I’ve got a new job.  I’m starting Monday.”

Today is Friday.  It’s his typical short notice. 

From digging post-holes, standing in mud, we’re saturated with the smell of damp earth.

“Actually,” he says with another cough, “I was supposed to start two weeks ago.  I told them I wanted to stay with you.  Finish up.  It’s for the park service.  I’ll be doing construction.”

“What are they paying?”

“Fifteen an hour.  With benefits.”  He coughs again, and when he removes his hand from in front of his mouth, the palm is spattered with blood.

“Go home.  Right now.”

“Are you firing me, Doctor?”

“Of course not.  You’re coughing blood.  Go home, have some chicken soup and go to bed.”

I continue alone, getting drenched in an icy shower.  And suddenly it’s all so clear:  What a cheapskate I am.  And how he must value working for me.  I was paying $10 without benefits when he’s worth $15 with bennies to the labor market out in the real world.  And yet he stayed with me, didn’t want to leave even when he had a better job, even when he was coughing blood. 

He wasn’t mocking me, quoting that stuff about “meaning to cut that board for twenty years” or “take a five minute break while I puke.”  The kid admired me, latching onto a role model as only the young can do.

It’s scary being that important to somebody.  Maybe it’s better that I wasn’t aware.  And yet I should have known.  I’ve taken that role again and again, hiring teens (or who I thought were teens), training them not so much for carpentry but for life, witnessing the magic of creation, that look of pride when they see what they’ve built.  And then they’re gone, and I go on.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

365 Jobs: Gino the Quiet

From 1983 to Sunday, July 19, 1992

Gino was a strapping gorilla of a kid with dark hair and thick eyebrows.  First time I saw him, he was racing his bicycle down a sidewalk and launching himself airborne over a concrete staircase.  He landed upright on two wheels on the gravel below.  No helmet.  He was thirteen years old.

Gino had a hearing impairment.  You had to stand in front of him to make sure his attention was engaged.  Then when you spoke to him, he was slow to respond and talked with a bit of a “deaf accent” which might give you the impression that he was retarded.  His eyes were bright; his body, quick.  Even with a hearing aid, his life was mostly silence interrupted by bursts of static like radio transmissions in outer space.

When Gino was sixteen, I asked his mother if I could hire him for a couple hours of digging.  He dug three foundation holes in thirty minutes, then stayed with me all day mixing concrete, moving piles of lumber, de-nailing old boards. 

Soon I had him building walls.  He could carry a 150-pound bathtub without strain.  Never complained. 

When you work with somebody, they don’t have to talk about their values.  With my 72-inch spirit level in his hands, it was obvious that Gino had no concept of “good enough.”  Plumb was plumb; level was level — and anything else was just plain wrong.

Gino would answer a direct question, but he wouldn’t chat.  Not that he was surly, just private.  Ask too many questions — and two was too many — he’d clam up and leave.

For school he lived with his father in a stucco neighborhood of San Francisco.  I could only employ him on vacations when he stayed under the redwoods with his mom.

At age 17 he was still doing stunts on his bike.  I asked if he was going to get a driver’s license, and he said, simply, “No.”  That’s all. 

I drove him to jobs.  One summer day I hauled Gino to Stony Ridge Ranch where he cut poison oak and helped me hang a power line.  At a house in Portola Valley, Gino dug a drain line.  At the dentist’s office in Menlo Park,  Gino sat in the truck while I got my teeth cleaned.  At an apartment complex in Palo Alto, Gino held my ladder and reported on the sharpness of the TV picture as I fiddled with antenna wires on the roof.  Back home in La Honda, though I’d kept Gino for 11 hours, he would only accept payment for 9.  “You can’t pay me for sitting in your truck,” he explained.

So I gave him a raise instead.

Gino used some of his earnings to buy equipment and set up a bicycle repair business in his mother’s garage.  He charged me $10 to give my bike a complete tune-up.  A month later when I broke a pedal, he repaired it for free.  “I guarantee my work,” he said, though it wasn’t his work that had broken.

In some ways I envied him.  Without invasive sounds, he seemed at peace in an orderly, private sphere.  Rather than feeling shut out of society, it was us he shut out.

Eventually Gino got a driver’s license — and an old El Camino that he restored — and enrolled at the state college.  He’d still join me for the occasional job. 

The last time he worked with me was in July of 1992.  He was 22 years old, a college graduate with a degree in Industrial Arts.  I remember a week of baking hot sun.  We were constructing a deck on a hillside, digging holes, erecting posts and beams.  You work nearly naked under those conditions, just shorts and boots.  For once I was happy to have a wiry body, built for rapid shedding of heat. 

Up against a deadline, we completed the framing on a Sunday around noon.  Wiping his face with a rag, Gino said, “I can’t come back after lunch.  I’m too tired.”

I was shocked — and stricken with guilt.  In the nine years I’d known him, it was his first complaint.  How he must have suffered sweating buckets with his bulky, powerful body in the sun.

At my house on the shady side of La Honda it is so much cooler.  After lunch on that same Sunday afternoon while I sat on my deck in the shadow of redwoods, I saw Gino riding his bike on the street below.  Too tired?  Weaving among gigantic trees, there was a pile of dirt that Gino was using to launch himself, again and again.  How he didn’t blow out his tires, I’ll never know.  An overgrown boy on a rock-solid bicycle, perfectly tuned, Gino performed stunts for no one’s pleasure but his own in a quiet, lovely world.