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.

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