Saturday, March 30, 2013

365 Jobs: Brother William

Adirondack Sketches:

Brother William

Between a charcoal grill and a keg on ice
before a half dozen friends who tried to dress nice,

Brother William pronounces: "Husband and wife."
Couples by the hundred he's bonded for life
— or some brief stretch of it — in back yards, grassy
parks, open space under birches.
Never in churches.
These are joyous affairs with a simple touch.
"For people," he says, "who can't afford much."
He does it for free. 
He says: For love.

Note: The man who I call "Brother William" is the man who introduced me to the Plattsburgh Hillbillies.  He's a noble man (in the untitled sense), as you might expect since he's the son of Ken LaundryHe's also the only man I've ever met who has been turned into a bobblehead doll.  If you would like to buy a genuine William D. Laundry bobblehead for $20, the proceeds go to an endowment at SUNY Plattsburgh.  Call 800-964-1889.

365 Jobs: At the Dock, Among Mountains

Adirondack Sketches

At the Dock

A warm breeze rises
over black water.
A meteorite —
so silent!
Your little finger
seeks my hand.
This, our cabaret.
Entranced we linger
among fireflies
sporting in
the nightlife.
Above hulking mountains
float stars,
the Milky Way
like city lights
of heaven.

Among Mountains

Returning as an old man
maybe now I understand:
The terrible weather of the Adirondacks
makes you treasure the good.
You find the right woman and stop.
You ride out storms.
You stir the glowing coals.
You learn to crave the taste
of wild blueberry
plucked fresh, staining lips,
sweetness so intense
you will climb peaks, gorge yourself,
filling pockets
for deep winter.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

365 Jobs: In the Burlington Airport

Adirondack Sketches: Thursday, July 12, 2001

In the Burlington Airport

Two men in T-shirts are sun-roughened,
muscular in that non-bodybuilder way. 
They know physical work.

On the window glass with a smudgy finger
the older man sketches a map from memory. 
They speak of willow trees, a trickling spring.
A rocky field.  Twin graves on a hill.

The younger man says, "That land was like home to me.
Every time I set foot on it, I felt like I was being hugged."
Embarrassed, perhaps, they each look away
through the glass.  On the runway, jets are rolling. 
Newark. Chicago. Some goddamn city. Now boarding.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

365 Jobs: Catching a Cab in Burlington, Vermont

Adirondack Sketches

Catching a Cab in Burlington, Vermont

The sun has set, the dusk is deep.
You wipe your fingers of hamburger grease
while the counter girl cleans up, humming,
closing.  Stepping out, you catch a taxi
for the five minute ride to the Ho Hum Motel.
The driver, Amanda, looks college age.
She says her father owns the cab.
Chatty, she says she's lived here
her whole life.  It's a safe town:
"I mean, look at me, I'm driving a taxi at night."
A pleasant trip.
You overtip.

Morning, you head for the lake where
sailboats flutter like delicate moths.
Your cabbie, Albert, blares the horn: "This is what
I hate about this town.  People
don't get out of the way.  People walkin'!
Y'know what I'm sayin'?"
Albert's a whiner, a short guy.
"I can't wait to go back south in a couple
months when my service ends."
Oh, service.  Meaning: Albert's on parole,
a work-release.  What crime? 
Probably no danger, but strange.
You count your change.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

365 Jobs: While Buying Groceries in Burlington, Vermont

Adirondack Sketches: Saturday, June 30, 2001

While Buying Groceries in Burlington, Vermont

Something, I forget what, reveals I'm from San Fran,
so the bread stocker, a big white guy, tells me
he lived in California for six months,
college in Long Beach,
had a "brown-skin girlfriend,"
but he had to leave because he's "earthquake sensitive."
He woke up one morning with the certain knowledge
that there would be a killer quake within three days.
He warned everybody.
"Was there a quake?" I ask.
"Yes.  In Mexico City."
"So you were off by a few thousand miles."
"No.  The way I see it, I prevented it from happening locally
by calling it.  Then I got the hell out."
"The girlfriend?"
So now he's married with kids and drives
a bread truck in Burlington, Vermont.
He smiles.  "It's a good town."
I agree.

Note: I usually come to the Adirondacks by flying into Burlington, Vermont, followed by a ferry ride across Lake Champlain.

Monday, March 25, 2013

365 Jobs: Au Naturel

Adirondack Sketches: 
Au Naturel


After Labor Day, speedboats gone,
the weather turns gorgeous.
Teacher Jim, age eighty-two,
and nurse Edith, a mere seventy-eight,
at the dock nonchalantly strip.
In the cold water they soap themselves,
bare butts etched like driftwood.
The air is warm, breeze gentle.
World, carry on.



Free like an otter I swim
without suit nor jock,
then spy a mom and (uh oh) young girl
at the neighboring dock. 
They wave, (whew),
smiles on their lips.
There's something so wholesome
about a skinny dip.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

365 Jobs: Alone, Moose Mountain

Adirondack Sketches: Sunday, Sept 14, 2003

Alone, Moose Mountain

The man climbs foolishly alone
into clouds.  Breaking spider webs,
he's first to follow this abandoned path
in a long while.  A final, steep scramble
up rocks and he's atop
Moose Mountain.
Clouds lift.  Brilliant view, shared:
Perched on a near spar, an alert falcon.

Tired, descending a different
faint trail, he hasn't seen
another human all day.
Crossing a creek, he hops to
a slick rock and falls so fast
there is no time to raise his arms.
His jaw slams against a boulder.
Is the bone fractured?

He's in the cold creek,
getting soaked, seeing stars,
mad as hell.  He was always good at bearing
pain but this is amazing.
He gets up swearing,
screaming at nobody, the gods,
everything.  Where's the hat?
Shit!  He stumbles down the creek searching
and slips again.  Fuck! 

He's too tired, too wet,
too banged up and crazy.
Farewell, beloved Tilley hat.
Socks squishing,
he continues along a trail so little used
the duff bounces under his boots.
Moss, fungus, throb.
Birch, pine, stab.
Squirrel, jay, pang.

Two weeks later — two weeks in which it was impossible
to swing a hammer — a doctor purses her lips and says,
"You're crazy, hiking solo where nobody would find you.
You almost broke your jaw.
And didn't it occur to you," she asks
shaking her head, "you dislocated your shoulder?"
She pops it into place.

Above Moose Mountain
a falcon soars.

Note: Yeah, I confess, I was that man. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

365 Jobs: Ken Says

Adirondack Sketches: 2001

Ken Says

The first time my father took me to the Forks
— the town, Ausable Forks —
those fifteen miles took all day by wagon.
On Blueberry Hill you had to stop and chock
the wheels so the team could rest.
Later I'd ride our old mare
and later still — this would be, oh, 1929 —
me and some boys shared a Ford Model A. 
A mounted patrol stopped us.
Our driver was fourteen, no license of course.
The trooper consulted his gelding, I swear,
turned his back to us and muttered,
adjusted the saddle for five minutes
while we stewed, scared.
Well, the man let us go
'cuz we needed a way to get to school.
That's how things was done.
It was horse sense.

Evenings after a glass of scotch, Ken would tell a story with a straight face so you never knew exactly when the truth was left behind, if ever.  I heard this one several times.
Here's another:
32 Ford, '80 Calendar, '64 Story

Friday, March 22, 2013

365 Jobs: How Often?

Adirondack Sketches: Thursday, June 24, 1999

How Often?

How often will a weary cashier see
long after midnight, shopping in a
Plattsburgh Price Chopper grocery
cheerful mature men, all three
giddy as kids going to summer camp? 
Which we are.

Arriving near dawn,
directly to the lake we're drawn.
No need for flashlights on
this trail learned by heart
a lifetime ago.

We strip and dive
— WAHOO! —
startling the loons.
Purple water
split by the moon
so calm,
ice-cold on flesh
like balm.

First as campers, later as counselors, now as owners (and I, friend-of-owners), we gather in late June for a long weekend to open the cabins.  There's water to turn on, pipes to repair, docks to install, weeds to hack.  In 1999 we met in the Montreal airport baggage area, each from separate flights, near midnight and drove across the border.  Customarily we buy groceries in Plattsburgh, then drive along the Saranac River through sleeping villages until at last we arrive at Silver Lake.  Door-to-door for me it's a 15 hour journey.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

365 Jobs: Hairy Brown Spiders

 Adirondack Sketches: Sunday, Sept 3, 2000

Hairy Brown Spiders

Hairy brown spiders cling
trembling to the underside
of boards, then drop
to dark water
as we dismantle a dock.

My brawny son,
goofy-haired, so tall,
is distressed,
refusing to rip nails
until he observes:
these spiders can swim!

Good boy.

Note: I don't normally feel a need to fact-check a poem, but in this case I did and here's what I learned:  They're called Dock Spiders, genus Dolomedes.  They are nocturnal.  They walk on water.  They eat insects and even small fish.  They can go underwater, breathing air captured as bubbles on their hairy bodies.  Cool critters.
Here's a photo from Wikipedia:

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

365 Jobs: Or They Will Destroy

Adirondack Sketches

Or They Will Destroy

You must learn the appetite of insects,
the temper of trees,
the sex life of local fungus.
Or they will destroy.
Know the weight of snow,
the force of frost,
the humor of stone, the habits of soil,
even the chemistry of the local air.
Or they will destroy.
Talk to people.
Customs are the accumulated wisdom of a place.
Respect the very soul of these folk, this land.
Or they will destroy you
as they should.

I learned this lesson in the Adirondacks, but it's true everywhere.  Construction is local.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

365 Jobs: Helping Ken

Adirondack Sketches: Tuesday, June 27, 1999

Helping Ken

"Need a hand?"
"Can I help anyway?"
"Doubt it."
(Which means yes.)

Old Ken couldn't lift this dock alone,
but he would manage
with the wile of eighty-odd years
to winch, drag, set it in place.
His movements, stiff.
His knees, weathered.
His grip, when we shake hands,
like the clamp of death.

Job done,
he climbs aboard his
skeletal tractor,
a relic, 'Fifty-One Ford,
for the uphill journey home.
Maintained where it counts,
the naked motor

I've written extensively about Ken Laundry, starting here:
Ken Laundry: The Ice Saw, The Double-Bladed Ax
and ending here:
Another Death in the Family.

Monday, March 18, 2013

365 Jobs: Overhaul

Adirondack Sketches: Friday, June 25, 1999


Being men, we can't just talk
so we eviscerate a
vacuum cleaner
as a social vehicle
while the radio
plays oldies,
our music.

We sort screws, test wires,
gathered around a table
with hand tools to
mend and maintain
a well-worn friendship,
aware that the Hoover
will never run.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

365 Jobs: At the Hardware Store

Adirondack Sketches: Saturday, August 23, 1997

At the Hardware Store
Two rock-jawed old men: 
“You don’t want a gallon of that.” 
“Why not?” 
“Bad for you.” 
“Yes.  It causes work.”

Most summers, I return to the Adirondacks.  I go as a working guest.  For pay, for play, I have a hard time telling the difference.  You don't get to choose what you love.  Somehow, the Adirondacks chose me.
Over the years, I've jotted sketches.  I'll publish a few of them here over the next few days…

Friday, March 8, 2013

365 Jobs: The Goat-Tree

August 1976 to March 2013

Molly and Mike bought an acre of mountaintop.  A forty-niner had settled the place just after the gold rush, building a stagecoach stop halfway between the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean.  There was a small barn for the horses.  The stage stop became a hunting lodge.  Now Molly and Mike wanted to turn it into a house for themselves and their eight-year-old daughter.  They had a giant stone fireplace, virgin redwoods, bad water.

"I need country air," Molly said.  "I'm part Cherokee."

"Which part?" I asked.

She gave me a curious look.  "My lungs, at least."  Molly was a nurse who worked at the same hospital as my wife.  They'd become friends.  As with many of my wife's healthcare colleagues, I sometimes felt like the oddball dropout who they tolerated in order to have the pleasure of her company.

Besides the friendship of our wives, Mike hired me not for my experience (I had none) but because I was one of the few tradesmen willing to go so far up into the mountains and actually find the place where you look for the dirt road after the split pine tree, turn at the second gate (be sure to close it behind you), go slow when you ford the creek, then watch for a blue mailbox. 

At the time (August 1976), my wife was pregnant with our first.  I'd just quit my reliable, high pay, full time job as a computer operator.  My goal was to become a low pay, part time carpenter/handyman and then get rich writing novels.  Career planning was never my strong suit.

My first task for Molly and Mike was installing the metal chimney for a wood-burning stove.  In the process, I somehow lost my old cheapo Stanley hammer.  When Mike paid me, he added five dollars.  "For the hammer," he said.

Nice guy.  Generous.  Or was it charity?

My next job was to modernize the wiring.  I crawled under the house through stagecoach dust, running Romex.  I insulated.  I drywalled.  Mike kept overpaying me.  A hardwood floor.  I learned skills and applied them. 

My baby son became a child.  My wife gave birth to a daughter.  We left the flatlands and built a house among massive redwood trees in La Honda, not far from Mike and Molly.  Their daughter was growing, too.

In 1982 we had our third child.  Molly and Mike had just the one, who was now a teenager spending all day in her bedroom watching soaps and playing the same rock record over and over while giggling and screaming on the phone.  Our paths were diverging.  Mike, who was an expert in biotech, had taken a big-bucks job advising a venture capital fund.  I was not so flush.

Mike hired me to build a deck.  I presented them with several choices of how to design the railing.

"Which is better?" Molly asked.

"They're about equal," I said.  "It's a matter of taste."

"Right," Molly said.  "Some folks have it, and some folks don't."

Their taste was for clean wood, simply crafted.  I built the stairs for the deck on a day when I was too tired.  The next day, Molly was waiting for me.  Frowning, she said, "I wonder what my father would have said if he saw those steps.  He was a carpenter for fifty-one years back home in Oklahoma."

I'd used knotty wood, and the nails weren't in a line.  "He'd kick me down the stairs," I said.  "Then he'd tell me to tear it out."

"He never kicked people," Molly said. 

Actually, I felt as if Molly had just mentally kicked me down the stairs in her no-nonsense nursely way.  I replaced the steps with clear lumber, nailed straight in a line.  At my expense.  I owed it to the old man.  And to Molly.

Often, the house on that wind-swept ridge would be gloomy and cold, but you could see a beautiful, sunny day in the air just a hundred feet above if only the fog would clear.  Which it wouldn't, not for weeks at a time.  Then one day the sun would come out, the view would clear to the ocean, and it would be a lovely spot to work.  Heaven.

Mike and Molly came home later and later.

Molly asked me to fix up the old barn.  They wanted to use it as a garage.  Half the cedar roof shingles were missing — eaten by a goat, they'd been told — and the walls leaned badly.  In fact, the entire barn would have collapsed except that its tilt had been stopped by a youthful redwood tree, which easily buttressed several tons of lumber.  The goat had been chained to the tree.  You could still see chain burn around the young trunk — young, that is, in redwood years, which are counted in centuries.

Repairing that barn was a fun job.  In late October after nailing the final shingle, I sat on the roof facing the ocean as a cold drippy fog blew into my face, and in dampness I jotted something like this:

The gold miner settled this hilltop
a century ago,
built this barn next to this tree
and watched the stagecoach pass twice a day.
Hand-hewn timbers
now sag.
Doors hang off hinges.
Glass windows — added later — now are shattered.
Square nails, rusted.
Old roof covered with moss
except where the goat ate the shingles.
Walls lean downhill
until stopped
braced against the redwood tree
which will be there
to hold them without effort
for another, oh say, millennium or so.
I was going to add lines about my repairs and a wish that the new construction might endure for some small fraction of the lifetime of that goat-tree.  My new lumber in that unheated structure, washed by ocean fog, host to insects, fungus, owls and cats, would go the way of dead wood.  Before I could write any more, Molly came home with the Volvo trunk full of apples and pumpkins.  The mood passed. 

After I'd cleaned up, Molly gave me apple pudding, and she told me they were putting the house on the market.  Their daughter needed a better high school.  "It'll happen to you, too," she said.

At that time, my kids were six, four, and one year old.

On an impulse, I gave Molly the soggy unfinished poem.

"How cute," she said.  "I'll show it to Neil.  Maybe he'll turn that old barn into a song."   Neil Young lived nearby on his Broken Arrow Ranch.

Molly  and Mike bought an upscale house in Portola Valley, an upscale town.  Over the next four years they hired me to install track lights, to convert a closet, to rebuild a pool house.  It was in August, 1986 that I came into their daughter's bedroom one day and surprised Molly, who was bawling on the bed.  "I'm all right," she said.  "Empty nest."

A couple weeks later I stopped by to touch up some details and met Scott and his young wife Sara, who was obviously pregnant.  "We're housesitting," Sara explained.  "Molly and Mike are in Switzerland." 

Scott was building shelves in the dining room.  They were young, just starting out.  They were me and my wife, a flashback.  Our decade was over.  Molly would nurture them.  Mike would overpay them. 

"They're the nicest people," Sara said.

"Yes," I said.  "You'll enjoy working for them."

Since then, another quarter century has passed.  I haven't worked for Mike and Molly again.  The stagecoach stop has passed through several owners.  I've stayed in La Honda where sixteen giant redwoods grow on my little plot of land.  Does one, indeed, "own" a redwood?  I think they own me.  My kids attended high school, then college without the benefit of a better zip code.

I never completed that poem.  I don't know if Molly showed her fragment to Neil, but I'm pretty sure he never wrote a song about it.  He's an old fart now, cranky and delightful.  The goat-tree remains youthful in redwood years.  The barn is sagging in places, aging once again in barn years.  The fog keeps coming, cold and damp, unchanging.  Fog years are the longest of all.

Monday, March 4, 2013

365 Jobs: The Wedding Mandap (Part Three)

March 2013

I built a mandap for my daughter's blended Indian/Christian/Jewish/American wedding in 2002.  I tell that story here: 

The Mandap (Part One)
 and here:

 The Mandap (Part Two).

After the wedding, I was told that according to Indian family tradition, the mandap wood should be re-used to build something that would be meaningful and appropriate to the newly bonded families.  I saved the wood but did nothing for a while.  A few years later, when the wedded couple were expecting their first child, they suggested that I use the wood to build a cradle.  What could be more appropriate and meaningful than that?  So I gave it a lot of thought.  The wood amounted to four redwood 2x2s and eight redwood 1x3s, each about eight feet long.

I never built it.  Redwood is notoriously soft, weak lumber.  The expectant parents were extremely safety-conscious (which I applaud) and would require a totally fail-safe cradle.  I couldn't come up with a safe, good-looking, functional design.

Their son is now five years old.  Actually, as he would immediately correct me, he is five and six/twelfths old.  Perhaps I should say five and twenty-seven/fifty-seconds.  He likes to be accurate.

I've made picture frames out of the mandap wood.  In consultation with the parents, we decided to keep the lumber looking pretty much as it was: old whitewashed redwood that had flowers and ivy stapled to it and then was stored in my damp garage for ten years with spiders and banana slugs crawling over it.  In other words, looking like used lumber. 

When I pulled out the lumber, a few dry ivy stems were still stapled to it.  Ivy is like the cockroach: it will survive nuclear Armageddon. 

I removed staples and gave the wood a light sanding to clean it up.  Then I built simple frames.  I re-applied the original white stain and filled a few screw holes.  The staple holes remain. 

I hope the frames look appropriate: mandap wood with a special history, now displaying family photos and the artwork of that amazing bundle of life, fruit of that special wedding.