The photo is from 1978. My son, his truck. Behind him, my truck.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Bag Lady of the Suburbs

December, 1987

I'm working on a man's shower.  I go out to my truck for a tool and find a crazy lady peering over the tailgate into the bed.  My first thought is that she's looking to steal something but all I say is: "Hello.  You need something?"

She jerks back and says, "I live in the house next door up the hill."  She's old.  She has red scars on her arms like they'd been shot full of holes.  "This is my dog."

A scruffy mutt is dropping a pine cone at my feet.  He looks up at me expectantly, wagging his tail. 

The lady, too, looks at me expectantly.  "He wants you to throw it for him," she says.

So I do.  Again and again.  While I'm playing throw-and-fetch with the dog, she says, "I could use a handyman to fix a drain plunger.  And a screw came out of the vacuum cleaner.  The furnace doesn't make any heat.  The dishwasher caught on fire and I had to pull the plug.  I could make a whole list of things."

"Uh huh," I say.  From inside the house I see the homeowner glaring at us.  I'm charging by the hour to fix his shower, so I'll have to adjust for the time spent out here.

The woman is speaking: "I’ve been reading the instruction manual about how to drive my car.  I haven’t driven it in four years but I have to go to the dentist tomorrow because my tooth fell out.”  She sticks a finger in her mouth and makes her cheek bulge where the molar is missing.  “Did you think it only happens to children?  Happy Hanukkah, huh?  I like your shirt.  Now that I’ve sold the property across the street finally I’ve got the money to fix things up.  I only need you for an hour.”

I say, "What you've got sounds like it will take many hours.  Several days."

Suddenly she’s angry.  She draws herself up straight and says, “Listen, buster, it will take less than an hour because I say so.  I’m the boss.  Get it?” 

Back inside the house, the man says, "I see you met Nelda.  You wouldn't know it, but she could probably buy half of San Jose.  She owns six houses on this road.  For God's sake, don't work for her."

"I can't work for her.  She already fired me."

"Lucky you."

Back home when I'm unloading the truck, I realize I'm missing a toilet auger.  It had been sitting in the bed.

After a flash of anger, I feel sad for Nelda.  Is she really going to ream her own toilets?  She's a lonely lady with an old dog.  If she were poor, I'd help her for free; but she's loaded and she stole my tool — a rusty, smelly, ten dollar tool.  She's a bag lady without the bag, with property.  How do you help somebody like that?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Flossing the Deck

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Today's job is cleaning out the cracks between the boards of my deck.  Since I have about a thousand square feet of decking with a dozen giant redwood trees dropping duff all over, flossing is a big task.  For 30 years I've done it on my knees with a screwdriver or a putty knife or by running my power saw with an old blade.

This year, I googled "flossing the deck" and found this wonderful tool.  

Deckhand tool
I called up the guy who invented it, placed an order (he'll talk your ear off), and I'm pleased to report that the Deckhand tool is worth every penny of the $35 I paid for it ($25 plus shipping).  It works fast and handles well.  It saves your knees.  What used to be a multi-day job I can now do in a few hours.  Fantastic!

Flossing the deck

And hey — Santa!  If you're stumped for a holiday gift for the somebody-who-has-everything, I bet your somebody doesn't have a deck flossing tool. 

(I paid for the tool.  I get nothing for endorsing it here.)

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Chris Craft Cure

Tuesday, November 28, 1994

Isabella, my favorite decorator, calls and says, "I need you right away to install cable in my bedroom so Henry can watch TV in bed."  Henry is her husband.

"That's an emergency?" I ask.

"Yes.  On Thanksgiving morning he woke up blind.  He thought he must be dreaming.  Then he tried to touch his eyes because he thought they might have disappeared or something.  He didn't blink because he couldn't see his fingers coming, so he touched his eyeballs.  I drove him to the hospital which was a trip because he likes to sleep cool and he was so angry and upset that he wouldn't let me dress him.  So I walk him across the front yard and get him in the car and of course he won't even put on a seat belt so I throw a blanket over him and he starts thrashing and I drive this naked old blind man in the front seat of my car to the hospital without a seat belt and you know I'm a fanatic about seat belts.  It was a stroke.  A mild stroke.  His eyes still work but his brain lost the pathway."

There are pathways in Isabella's brain that seem to get lost, too.  As she says, sometimes she's "totally blond."  Other days, she's simply smart.  If you were to divide the world into Yes and No, Isabella is a Yes person.  Today, though, she's understandably flustered.

I ask, "Are you okay?"

"Do I sound okay?  I'll be okay if you'll come over today and install the cable."

"Can Henry see now?"

"No, I told you, he's blind as a bat."

For some reason I say, "Bats can see."

"And so will Henry as soon as you install the cable."

An hour later I'm at their house, letting myself in.  Isabella and Henry are at the hospital. 

It doesn't take long.  My drill bit hits the wall cavity on the first try, and I stuff the cable through the hole.  I know their crawl space by heart.  I do small jobs at Isabella's house for free in exchange for all the work she sends my way.

That night, Isabella calls.  "Thank you," she says.  "He's sort of starting to see.  It's the powerboat races."

Henry loves powerboats, especially old wooden Chris Crafts.

1928 Chris Craft Cadet (from Wikipedia)
Isabella continues: "He couldn't stand it that he couldn't see the boats, so he reorganized his brain.  That's what you have to do after a stroke."

Medical science, as filtered through Isabella and implemented by me, has restored Henry's sight.  

"Call me if you need anything," I say.

"Yes," Isabella says.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Poem

Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving Day is
     for lizards that scuttle over logs,
     big-bellied spiders that creep in my woodpile,
     fungus that forms a bright wedge of slime.
Thanksgiving Day is
     for life in every corner,
     wet cells sucking nourishment, giving birth,
     teeming through every grain of earth.

We drink water once swallowed by Jesus,
breathe atoms once blown by Buddha,
share the light of stars
     with unknown beings
     on undiscovered planets.
For this light, this water and air,
     this brotherhood
     of countless souls
I give thanks.

I wrote this poem after visiting my wet woodpile on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1982.  I showed the new poem to a friend and was shocked when he said it was "dark" and "creepy."  I meant it as a celebration of life.  Most of my firewood consists of construction scraps from something I was either building or demolishing — and then burning.  The same atoms, cycling endlessly...

(Update: I was going to post the poem on Thanksgiving Day, but at the last moment once again I thought it would be too dark and creepy.  In the light of a new day — and much too late — here it is.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Diary of a Small Contractor

Monday, November 3, 1986

All day
shaping lumber with a
clear heart.
I've built a cabinet and a laminated-wood countertop: cutting, gluing, clamping, sanding.  A pleasure.  Now, just before bed, I want to apply a first coat of finish.

To many woodworkers, the use of polyurethane is a mortal sin.  I'm sympathetic.  In fact, my favorite wood finish is good old tried-and-true linseed oil, a 100% natural product.  But tonight I'm finishing a bathroom countertop which will be under constant assault.  I'm going with poly. 

A long time ago I used poly-euw (as we call it) for some other project.  I ended up with half a quart unused, so I poured it into a jelly jar and screwed the lid down tight.  Air tight.  Exposure to air, of course, makes poly harden.

Now the lid is frozen to the jar.

As a child I learned a trick from my mother: she used to open the stuck lids of food jars by tapping the handle of a butter knife along the outside of the lid, glancing blows in the direction she wanted it to turn.

Mother knows best.  In the basement where I'm working, I don't have a butter knife handy but I do happen to have a 22 ounce framing hammer in my tool belt. 

Tap.  Tap.  A few glancing blows on the lid. 

It still won’t come off.  I rotate the jelly jar in my hands, tapping.  I make dents in the lid, but it just doesn't —


Broken glass in my hand.  Poly-euw all over my clothes, the worktable, the radial arm saw, the basement floor.  Poly-euw mixed with blood.  Sticky.  Smelly.  Gooey.  Unwashable.



“I can’t do the poly tonight,” 


“I just broke the jar.”


“I was just trying to open it.”

“With what?”

“A framing hammer.”

Bless her, she keeps a straight face.

Stripping off my shirt and pants, I throw them in the trash.  Rose wipes and then binds my hand with gauze and tape.  Then I go directly to bed. 

Maybe it's a message from the wood sprites.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Peace and Love and Wall Thermostats

Diary of a Small Contractor, Day 23

Wednesday, October 29, 1986

An early morning consult.  Taylor is an intense, speedy young man in blue jeans and a black mustache.  In less than an hour we plan about $2000 worth of small projects in his glorious house, a beam-and-stone castle with a broad view over Silicon Valley.  Whenever I name a price, Taylor immediately says "Okay" so quickly that I wonder if he heard it.  He gives me a business card: he's an electrical engineer, a manager at Hewlett Packard.  By my reckoning he's about 24 years old in a ten-room house with no wife, no kids.  King-size bed. 

Standing in the driveway we agree to a timetable for the work.  Taylor zooms off in a shiny black Porsche.  Hesitating for a moment under the quiet redwoods, I can see sunlight glinting off tiny windshields on a fabric of highways from Palo Alto to San Jose.  A whole world is zooming off.

It's 1986; I'm 39 years old.  I've just bought my first computer, a Mac Plus.

From Taylor's tony estate, next stop is Sonny’s bungalow right next to the rush and rumble of the Bayshore Freeway.  Lovely red-haired sparkle-eyed Lorraine, Sonny's wife, is dealing with a three-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son.  Lorraine says she always thought she wanted seven children, but now she’s wavering.  “But don’t tell Sonny.  The minute I show the slightest doubt, he’ll run out and get a vasectomy.”

In one long day I install a sink, a faucet, a garbage disposer, a dishwasher, a vent fan, plus switches and outlets.  Sonny arrives at the end.  He's been out installing doors — his niche.  I tell him the parts cost a hundred dollars.  From his wallet he whips out a hundred dollar bill.

Sonny can’t stand to have anyone do favors for him.  This was an even trade, and he knows it, but still he won’t let me leave without giving me a screwdriver, a bran muffin, a cup of coffee.  Sonny is probably the most generous person I've ever met.  He's also a hardworking hippy, if you can handle such a combination of terms.  Sonny is part of a whole cadre of hardworking, hardplaying freaks in the crafts.  After the Haight came the diaspora.  They learned skills, found niches, and held onto their values.

From Sonny’s, next stop is an apartment complex near Stanford University.  Most of the residents are foreign-born students along with their spouses and sometimes their grandparents.  They don’t know how to use garbage disposers or dishwashers, and as the maintenance guy I end up performing some very simple repairs while trying to teach non-English-speaking housewives from Thailand and Paraguay and Nigeria how to use an American kitchen.

It’s dark when I arrive at the apartments.  Everyone is cooking dinner.  I smell rice frying here, pork baking there.  One of the units has “an electrical problem.”

It’s a bad light bulb.

Another unit has a "broken heater."  It's turned off.  I try to teach a Croatian-speaking grandmother how to operate the wall thermostat.

I'm not sure she gets it, but she seems satisfied.  She gives me something that looks like stuffed grape leaves.

It's 7 p.m.  I've been working since 7 a.m.  It's the era of Ronald Reagan.  The Fox Network has just launched.  I drive through rain to pick up 4 gallons of milk at a Menlo Park supermarket where, selecting vegetables, there is a lovely young couple. 
Menlo Park, by the way, is the headquarters of Sunset Magazine.  Back home, on the Mac Plus I write this:

He wears an ill-fitting gown   
in this Sunset Magazine town.
She's dressed as a peasant.
The effect is pleasant
and flamboyant in this middle class store
of homeowners writing checks, wanting more.
This couple wants less.

Her hair needs care.
His beard is straggly, partly bare.
Age: about nineteen,
faces fresh, eyes keen.
The decade of their birth
was a struggle on Planet Earth.

In this cornucopia of Wonder Bread and Froot Loops
they choose rice, wheat germ, and chocolate soup.
On one hand he wears an embroidered glove.
What does he know of the Sixties, the Summer of Love?
Naive, laughed-at, sincere. . .

. . . back then, it was me
cruising the ghetto A&P
in paisley and sandals
for peace lighting candles
and what I mean is, God bless you, young couple
as your bubble of idealism washes down
a sea of weary shoppers in a too wealthy town.
My cart fills with yogurt and imported beers.
Somehow we saved the planet these nineteen years.
So much we learned!
Now it's your turn.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

I wrote that poem 25 years ago.  The Menlo Park supermarket is now a Safeway so vast you can get lost in it.  The young couple of 1986 would now be age 44.  Perhaps they have children, teenagers.  The Sixties are four decades gone, a time as distant and unreal to a present-day teenager as the Roaring Twenties were to me.  

Much of the world becomes middle class.  We are wealthy but feel poor.  We live better than medieval kings — better food, softer beds, longer lives.  In every castle we have music and jesters at the push of a button.  We have dishwashers, garbage disposers and wall thermostats.  Do we want more?

So much has changed.  And so little.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Good Craftsmanship is the Lack of Botch

Diary of a Small Contractor, Days 17 and 18

Saturday, October 18, 1986

Surrounding the ultra-wealthy center of deep Woodside lies a territory that is merely well-off and sometimes, on the periphery, downright normal.  Today I'm in shallow Woodside working for normal people, spiffing up some closets. 

Magda is a chainsmoker, a “financial advisor” whatever that is — a tough-looking woman whom I wouldn't want to cross.  Her house is set on stilts clinging to a steep hillside.  The structure is solid but small.  The bathroom has been remodeled and is a knockout.  The bedrooms are plain.  The kitchen is an eyesore, poorly laid out.  The living room is falling apart, awaiting a remodel.  They seem to be upgrading the house piece by piece as money allows.

For Magda I install two sets of sliding mirror doors.  Easy.  Takes less than an hour, and I do a perfect job.  In this case, a perfect job is one that nobody will ever notice — the absence of botch. 

Next, Magda wants me to install a pair of birch doors on a sliding track for another closet.  These doors are solid core, heavy, easily scratched, difficult to carry without banging into something.  I install the track, the rollers, take meticulous measurements.  I place towels over sawhorses, scribe my cuts with a knife to prevent chipping, slide my power saw over paper to prevent rub marks on the wood.  After three cautious hours, the doors are hung — and one is nearly an inch shorter than the other.

Sacré bleu!

I had meant to trim 7/16 inch off each door.  Instead, I trimmed the same door twice!

So I have to trim the other door 7/8 inch too short, which means I have to lower the track that suspends them, which means I’ll have to buy and install a wider apron to hide the track, and I’ll have to eat the cost for time and material.  The doors would’ve looked better with the extra inch.  And I was so careful! 

So far Magda's husband, Kerry, has spent the entire day on the sofa flipping channels on Saturday afternoon television — a football game, an old movie, a panel interview, a standup comic.  Magda's gone out, so I tell Kerry I need to discuss a small problem with the doors.  From the sofa Kerry waves me off and says, “I’ll never drink again.  Until next time.”

A few minutes later, Magda returns.  I tell her we need to discuss the doors.  Without waiting for an explanation, Magda stomps to the bedroom and pushes the wooden doors along the track. 

"Why do they stick?" she asks.  "They're too hard to push."

Aha.  She hasn't even noticed the door length. 

"That's a light-duty track and roller set," I say. 

She frowns.  "It's what they gave me at the door store." 

"For solid core doors, they should have given you heavy-duty track and rollers."

"I'll get them," Magda says.  "And I'll give that salesman a piece of my mind."

I pity that man.  But I benefit from his mistake.  At least for a while.

Tuesday, October 21, 1986

When I return, Magda has the new heavy-duty track and new wheels for the closet door that I botched — and she still hasn't noticed that they're nearly an inch short.

To my delight, the new track and wheel combination requires nearly an inch more space.  My botch is perfect!  The doors are pre-trimmed!

Magda also asks me, as long as I’m there, to try to make some recessed lights fit into her ceiling.  I say okay.  She goes off to work and leaves me a bakery roll and a cup of coffee.  Nice lady.  Seems tough as nails at first.  But nice.

Whoever installed the recessed lights didn’t cut large enough holes for them.  His error becomes my pay.  I spread a dropcloth, remove the cans, resaw the holes, replace the cans, pick up the dropcloth, clean up some dust that settled on the floor.  Like most craftsmanship, in this case doing it right means doing nothing showy or creative — nothing you'd notice — it means simply the lack of botch, followed by a good cleanup.

It takes four hours to do the additional chores.  All billable.

Sometimes, everything works out.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

What We Do Is Dangerous

October 13, 2011
Photo by Joseph Kral

Construction accidents can happen when you least expect them.

Yesterday on a narrow road in La Honda, a truck from GraniteRock was delivering 9 yards of concrete for the final pour of a house.  As he approached, the construction workers offered to help guide him with hand signals around the last hairpin turn.  The driver waved them off.  He had years of experience and had delivered to this same project on earlier pours. 

Making the turn, the rear wheels went off the pavement onto the soft shoulder of the private road.  The barrel of the truck was still mixing, which may have shifted the load off center.  As the shoulder crumbled, the guard rail collapsed.  The truck slid sideways and backward into the canyon of a creek.  The cab flipped.  The force of 30,000 pounds of concrete falling into a canyon flattened the cab as if it had been put through a crusher.  The driver died immediately.  It took the entire day and into the night before they could get his body out of there.

Photo by Joseph Kral

Fred Eisenstaedt, the driver, was 62 years old.  Everybody liked him.  Sometimes he brought his terrier dog along with him on deliveries.  Not this day.

A day later, the truck body has been removed.  The barrel containing 9 yards of hardening concrete is still in the canyon.

Lawyers and insurance companies will argue over who was at fault.  We in the trades only need to know that a good man is gone.

Be careful out there.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Starting Out

Saturday, September 3, 1983

At Plum Court Apartments in Sunnyvale the new carpets are too high, causing doors to drag.  I'm here to trim them.  The entire unit was refurbished after an old couple moved out.

The walls are utterly bare.  The tenants have no furniture.  No chair, no table, nothing.  Two sleeping bags zipped together.  The plush carpet will be their bed.

They look like kids,
so strong and fresh.
Bright paint in the kitchen.  
Tattoos on young flesh.
The girl has one large cardboard carton; the boy, a backpack.  There's an air of hasty arrangement in their move.  Amid the high energy there's a gentleness between them, a constant checking of eyes.  Little touches.  Fingertips.  They are totally in synch.  Buoyant.  Inspiring.

Besides the box and backpack, they have a kitten which is mewing and lapping water from a bowl on the kitchen floor.  From a small radio, strange drums are blasting.

"Just married?" I ask.

"Not yet," the boy says.

The girl smiles at him, blushing.

"Oops.  Sorry," I say.

"It's cool," the girl says.

Are you pregnant?  I want to ask.

The young woman is counting their money: not enough for a pizza.  "Top Ramen," she says, and she fills a pot with water.  She glances at the boy, bites her lip, a spark in her eye.  She turns to me.  "Are you almost done?"

"I'll be out of your way in a minute," I say.

They're so in love.  So sweet.  So simple.

There's hope for us all.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Hello, Old Dog

September 1986
Hello, Old Dog

You smell so bad
and walk so slow,
lucky for you
you love old Joe.


I wrote that poem in 1984.  Now it's 1986, Sunday morning.  I’m the first to awake.  Quickly without dressing I go upstairs and let out the dog:  Quinn, age 14, arthritic, incontinent.  This morning, I catch him before he pees in the house.  He hobbles to the door, hesitates at the top of the stairs, looks back as if to say, “Do I have to?”

I nod.  You have to.

Gingerly, sideways, he takes the first step.  Next, the tricky part.  At a 45 degree angle he takes the second painful step.  Arthritis has welded his spine.  Sometimes he has to drag his rear end.  This time he sways but somehow stays on his feet. 

I remember once when he was young, I was walking him at night on a leash.  He took off after a cat and dragged me on my belly down a hill.  I came home looking like I'd been on the losing side of a fight.  Years later, my children held the leash without incident.

Now Quinn drags himself back up the stairs.  Sometimes, climbing, he gets stuck.  His hind legs lock straight out like a rabbit, and he can’t make them bend.  This morning he makes it.

A few minutes later as I'm getting dressed, Will finds me.  He's four.  Will says, “Daddy, Quinn is throwing up all over the house.”

There’s a puddle in the kitchen, another in the dining room, two in the living room and one under the computer — foamy, oily, clear vomit with no grass.  Sometimes he vomits his pills, which currently are an awesome pile:  two Butazoladin, seven Medrol, two Epinephrine, and a vitamin E.  But he hasn’t had his morning meds.

I invite Quinn to go out on the deck.  There, if he vomits any more, I don’t need to clean it up — just hose it down.

He can’t get up.

Puppy Quinn

I carry him, 70 pounds of ribs and fur, out to the deck, set him down and shut the door.  We only selected 4 of those pounds at the Philadelphia dog shelter.  In his prime, he weighed 85.

My wife and I go for a run. 

Returning home a half hour later, Quinn hasn’t moved.  He looks up at me and smiles, panting, dripping saliva from his pink and purple tongue.  He hasn’t vomited since I put him there on the deck.  Gently, I hold his legs in a way that usually allows him to get mobilized.  Nope.  He can’t move.

Now for the first time, I’m worried.  I guess it’s a sign of his decrepit condition that up to this moment, I wasn’t concerned.

Rose is stretching, post-run.  Speaking softly so the kids won’t hear, I say, “Quinn seems to be paralyzed.”

We share a worried look.  We’ve both been dreading this development.
Rose examines him.  She knows tricks, therapy tricks, that can unlock his legs.

“He’s not paralyzed,” she says.  “But his abdomen is distended and his gums are pale.”

Suddenly we both have the same thought:  poison.  A neighbor’s dog was poisoned two weeks ago.  Time to move fast.  I call the neighbor, Kurt, who owns a car repair shop and has, coincidentally, a German Shepherd who looks just like Quinn.  What were the symptoms when his dog was poisoned?

“Bleeding from the nostrils,” says Kurt.

“Did his stomach swell up?”


So that's not it.

Rose and I hurriedly talk it over.  We're thinking:  blocked intestine.  Sometimes in big dogs they get twisted and nothing can pass.  The problem occurred — or may have occurred — once before on a weekend when our regular vet was getting married.  We took Quinn to the Emergency Vet in South Palo Alto.  This man diagnosed intestinal blockage but nearly killed Quinn with anesthesia in the process.  We later showed the x-rays to our regular vet, who said it didn’t look like a blockage at all.

Now, this being a Sunday, we are stuck with the Emergency Vet again.  They have a terrible reputation, not just from our experience but from everybody we've talked to.  We also doubt that Quinn would survive the 45 minute drive over the mountain.  Rose wants to intervene, to help.  I want to let nature takes its course.  For weeks we’ve dreaded the prospect of having to put Quinn down.  Now it seems that nature has stepped in to do the job for us.

Rose calls the Emergency Vet and describes the distended abdomen, the pale gums and vomiting.  The woman who answers the phone says, “Bring the dog in right away or he will die a slow and painful death.”

Rose is dancing on hot coals.  I point out that the woman is a receptionist, not a vet, probably doesn't know her ass from her elbow, and in any event she had no business making that kind of a statement.

Rose calls Fawn, a friend whose old decrepit Irish Setter recently died, who keeps horses and runs a 4-digit monthly vet bill, who above all has a clear head and will be less emotionally wracked than we are.  Fawn comes right over.  Good friend.  Quinn, meanwhile, hasn’t moved.  He lies there, looking up at us, panting, sometimes smiling.  His eyes are getting cloudy.

Fawn’s first act is to put her arm around my back.  I’m moved by the gesture because  Fawn is not a touchy-feely sort of person — and neither am I.  She says, “Quinn looks just like my dog on the day he died.”

Fawn knows of some vets who make house calls.  Rose tries calling one and, miraculously, he answers the phone.  He listens carefully and speculates that Quinn is either having congestive heart failure or “a tumor that has outgrown its blood supply and burst” (which I don’t understand, but which seems to make sense to Rose).  The vet says it doesn’t sound like intestinal blockage because Quinn doesn’t seem to be in pain.  It’s now 11 am.  He’ll be home until 4 pm.  We can call him again, or bring the dog in.

Bless you, unseen vet!

I bet it’s heart failure — possibly brought on by the Epinephrine which we gave him for bladder control but which is a stimulant and made him restless all night.

The children have been standing around, asking questions we haven’t had time to answer.  Now we put it to them:  Quinn is dying.  He can’t move.  We can’t fix him.  All we can do is be with him and try to make him comfortable.

Will, though raptly attentive, doesn’t seem distressed.  He’s silent, sucking thumb and holding his raggedy blue blanket for comfort.

My daughter is eight.  She says she doesn’t want Quinn to die.  She cries.  Never one to repress her emotions, she gets it out of her system for the moment and moves on.

Jesse, age nine, gets very quiet.  He brings out his old sleeping bag, one with a “4x4 Truckin” pattern, now oozing stuffing from multiple wounds.  He lays it over Quinn’s rear legs and back.

Sometimes our job is just to be there.  To bear witness.  To comfort.  We stay with our dying dog.

But nothing happens.  Quinn gets neither better nor worse.  My daughter wants to know if we’ll bury him.  I say yes.  Where?  In the yard.  I feel uneasy discussing his death as we kneel over him.  He can hear us.  He’s always known the sense of what we’re saying if not the words.  But I’m sure he already knows he’s dying.  And he seems calm about it.  Maybe, I wonder, he feels relieved.

I’ve never witnessed a natural death before — only violent ones, or ones from sickness.

With nothing happening, the kids start wandering off.  I go to the garage and start building a wall.  Just yesterday, Quinn was out here helping — hobbling after me or sitting with his feet on his tail at the top of the driveway watching his favorite view:  the parade of dogs and children and joggers and bikes on the road below.

I remember the time Quinn chased a burglar out of our house.  A neighbor saw it.  First the burglar alarm went off — which is probably the only reason Quinn woke up — then the burglar leaped over the balcony rail with Quinn biting his butt.

That’s the purpose of our burglar alarm:  to wake up the dog.

When Jesse was a toddler, he used Quinn as an armchair.

When you have a 70 pound dog and a 10 pound child, you must have trust.  And training.  We only messed up once.  Will has — and shall always have — a scar on his cheek where Quinn nipped him.  It was our fault for letting Will crawl over to the food bowl and play with the kibble while Quinn was eating.  Afterwards, the dog apologized endlessly.  Go on, he seemed to be saying.  Eat my kibble.  You can have it.

You have to trust.

Other than that, he's been the kids' guardian.  It's his job.

Quinn was always a lover of puddles, a chaser of birds, snapper of bees — if he caught a bee, he made a face but never seemed to get stung.  When Rose and I quarreled, he’d stand between us — silently, solidly — as if to break it up.  He’d wake us with a warm wet greasy tongue.  If we tried to take a family photo, he'd always barge in front.

He had a big heart.

And now the heart was shutting down.

Rose calls to me where I'm working down by the garage:  “You may want to come back,” she says.

Quinn’s eyes are sinking in.  His tongue hangs down on the boards of the deck.  His eyes glaze — and then suddenly he twitches.  For a moment he acts alert.  His ears prick.  What does he hear?  He tries to move, fails, and drops back on his side.

We watch.  There’s no telling how long it will go on.  The vigil begins to seem like an ordeal.  We tell Jesse that he can go play if he wants.  Jesse touches Quinn’s neck, the soft fur, the friend he’s grown up with who followed him and woke him with that same greasy tongue.  “Goodbye, Quinn,” he says. 

I remember the time I left Quinn locked in our car, and he destroyed it.  At the body shop the manager said he'd only seen one other car shredded like this: by a bear at Yosemite.

I stay with Quinn.  He seems to be slipping away.  His breath is slowing down.  There are pauses when he is breathing neither out nor in.  His eyes, though open, are gone.  I rub his neck.

The breaths come farther and farther apart.  I’m still fondling his fur.  Then, as I am wondering when the next breath will begin, I realize it won’t.

We cry.

Jesse removes Quinn’s collar with its jangly dog tags and fastens it around his own neck.  When he moves, he jangles.  It startles me.

We decide to bury Quinn in the sleeping bag which is still draped over his rear.  I don’t cover his face.  I want to look at him.  He looks peaceful at last, jaws still open from his last clenching breath.  He never got mean, never snapped at us, not even at the end.

I’m amazed at how much water my eyes can make.  My glasses steam up.  I wipe them and they steam up again. 

I find two shovels and a pick.  Jesse, Will, and I dig a hole right where the ground is hardest on the hillside that we call our yard.  Solid clay and rocks.  We chose this spot because Quinn used to lie at the window and look out — for hours — on this ground. 

The work feels good.  I attack with a fury.  We haul dirt away in a wheelbarrow.  He was so full of life, it's hard to believe one small hole could contain him.

I wrap Quinn in the sleeping bag.  He’s half stiff.  I have to bend him — like unwarping a plank of wood — to fit him in the hole.  Taking turns, we each take a shovelful of dirt and drop it on the sleeping bag.  I bring some garden dirt we’d been saving in a garbage can.  Then I bring a compost pile I’d created last year.  Quinn’s grave will now be the richest soil on the hillside.

My daughter and Will pick wildflowers and lay them on the grave.  Jesse finds a jagged slab of broken marble that I’ve had laying around for years and sets it on top of the mound of earth.

Once as an experiment I left Quinn in my neighbor's house, went home, closed the doors and windows.  From my kitchen window I could see Quinn in the kitchen next door.  "Quinn," I whispered.  His ears shot up.  Amazing!  I repeated several times.  Each time, he could hear my whisper across a hundred feet through the walls of two houses.

I go to bang on the garage.  Hammering nails seems to be exactly what I need right now.  My plan for the day had been to build this wall on the rear of the garage, meet with two people about estimating jobs, and finish repairing a shower for my next door neighbor, Mark.

Mark finds me nailing in the garage.  He wants to know if I can work on the shower.  I say I feel like banging nails.  He understands.  But then I snap out of it.

Finishing the shower means cutting and gluing a sheet of CPE plastic for the shower pan.  The glue fumes are deadly.  Mark opens windows until a cold blast is roaring through the bathroom.  His family starts screaming that they’re freezing.  I’m probably stoned from glue-sniffing, but I don’t feel it and I don’t care anyway.

Dinner.  Sundays we make a point of having a special family dinner.  It’s usually the only day we’re all together.  Tonight we are all subdued.   The windowsills surrounding the dining room are deeply scratched where Quinn used to claw at them, expressing his anger at dogs he could see passing on the road.

After dinner I go down to the garage and try to finish the wall, defying darkness.

For bedtime, we read That Dog to the kids — a story by Nanette Newman of a boy whose dog dies, who thinks he will never want another, then is won over by a puppy.  Right now, it's hard to believe.

But it's true.  It will happen to us.  Quinn was my favorite dog in the whole world, and so will be the next one, and the one after that.  We'll go through this cycle several more times until our own cycle has passed. 

Tucking Will in, he remembers a puppy we met a couple of weeks ago named Litho.  Only, Will calls him “Licko.”  An excellent name.  He also says we had “barkeley" for dinner (broccoli).  Good names.

Standing at the back door I look out at the marble slab, the flowers, the mound of earth.  "Quinn," I whisper.  "You had a tough old heart."

I know he hears.

Quinn also makes an appearance in these posts:
Jim the Plumber
Bad Toilet
The Airplane Room Part Two.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


October 2002

As he opens the front door I say, "Hi, Lee.  How are you today?"

"Not so good."  He's a sun-spotted man with thin white hair.  Stooping shoulders. 

I've been maintaining Lee's properties for years.  He's wealthy, retired, walks with a cane.  

Today in his residence I replace a vent fan and a couple of light bulbs.  He always has a couple of lamps that need changing.  He could do it himself, but he waits until he needs me for some other job, then adds the bulbs to the list.  I think it's just to make me linger a little longer.  He gets lonely.

While I replace bulbs, we talk.  Lee's always been a straight shooter, so I shoot right back.  It's why we can get along even though, politically, we're polar opposites.

Lee says, "I've been told I have five more years here, so I hope you repaired accordingly."

"Are you moving?  Or dying?" 

"The latter."  He laughs.  "My warranty will expire."

I examine the carton.  "Looks like the vent fan has a ninety day warranty."

"Ninety days?  I've got ice cubes that last longer than that."

"Your old vent fan lasted twenty-five years, so this one probably will, too."

"What about the light bulbs?" Lee asks.

I examine the box.  "Rated for two thousand hours."

Lee calculates for a moment.  "That's even less than ninety days."

"Not if you turn them off."

"That's what I'll do.  I'll sit in the dark."  He laughs.  "That way they'll last forever."

Five years pass. 

And four more.

Lee is still calling me.  I built a ramp to his front door, installed grab bars everywhere. 

The latest.  Lee calls: "I need a new water heater.  What can you get me?"

"They come with five-year or ten-year tanks."

"Get me a one-year."

I don't say so, but I'll bring him a ten.

"Also," Lee says, "I've got some light bulbs burned out."

May we all outlast our warranties.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Hamilton Holmes

October 1983

Hamilton Holmes

Hamilton Holmes has a heart condition.
You want to listen?
In his garage he found under a wheel
six hundred shares of U. S. Steel.
A broker would make him wait seven days.
He's in a hurry.  How much will you pay?
See that Audi?  Almost new.
Worth four grand.  He'll take two.
The reason is, he needs surgery real quick.
Pay cash now.  Then go for a trip.
You want it?  You like him?
Don't fall for his art.
Remember he warned you:
he has a bad heart.

(Not his real name, by the way.)

I got a call from an apartment manager asking if I could break into a unit.  A tenant had changed the locks.

As I've written before, carpentry is great training for a burglar.  In this case, all I had to do was pry out the door stop and cut the deadbolt with a recipro saw.  Unlike a burglar, I didn't have to worry about noise.

The tenant was gone and so was the furniture that came with the unit.  So were the faucets, shower nozzle, toilet, light fixtures, schlock artwork, drapes, carpet, doormat, stove, refrigerator, dishwasher, and garbage disposal.  He left the bathtub.

Now I had a couple day's work restoring this unit. 

The manager said the guy had a British accent and a charming manner.  He wrote a bad check late Friday afternoon which didn't bounce until Tuesday.  The manager spent all day Wednesday trying to contact him.  Thursday, the manager picked up the local paper and, by golly, the tenant's mug shot was on the front page.  He'd been flim-flamming people all up and down the San Francisco Peninsula.  A detective with the San Jose police was quoted as admiring the guy's work ethic:  "He was tireless.  He cheated people at six a.m. and he cheated people at midnight.  The man never quit."

He'd been trying to raise money for a heart operation.  The harder he worked, the more he needed it.

In prison, I bet he got the surgery.  For free.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Rookie: First Day

September 1976

You have to start somewhere.  You have to be the rookie.  They give you the worst tasks, and they test you.  There's no other way.

A neighbor told her boyfriend-of-the-week that I was looking for a job.  Pierce, the boyfriend-of-the-week, was a construction foreman.  He strutted over to my cottage at Wagon Wheels and knocked on my door. 

Pierce was a tall skinny guy with curly blond hair.  A pompous bastard.  He let me know first thing that he'd studied architecture at Yale.  Then he interviewed me:

"Have you ever worked on a construction crew before?"


"Do you have construction experience?"

"Some.  I rebuilt a couple of houses."

"By yourself?"


"Do you have a Skilsaw?"


"Then I can't hire you."

"I have a power saw.  Not a Skil."

Pierce smirked.  "Can I see it?"

I showed him my Black and Decker worm gear saw.

Pierce said, "I didn't know Black and Decker made a worm gear saw."

"That's what everybody says."

"Doesn't Black and Decker make hobby tools?" 

"This is tougher than a Skil.  It's a bulldog."

"Looks like you worked the crap out of it."

"Uh huh."  I didn't mention that I bought the bulldog used, and it was already beat-up from years of work.  It made me look more experienced.

"Okay, can you start tomorrow?  Bring the bulldog."

So most of the interview was about the saw, not me.  If I'd had a sidewinder saw,
Pierce wouldn't have hired me.  In 1976 on the west coast if you were serious about carpentry, you had a worm gear, usually a Skil.  It was like a law.   

Pierce made the right decision to hire me — I'm a hard worker — but for the wrong reason — the Black and Decker.  He flaunted Yale credentials, then invoked — not quite successfully — worm gear machismo. As a rookie carpenter, I'd be working for a rookie foreman.

* * *

First day, I worked with Jim, a short guy built like a pickle.  Friendly.  Jim had a dusty old Plymouth station wagon with a surfboard sticking out the rear window.

Jim was not far from being a rookie himself.  He'd started a week before me.  Together we spent the morning hauling pressure-treated 2x10s in the hot sun.  "Rasty wood," Jim called it.  The greasy poison soaked into our T shirts and cutoffs while smearing our exposed arms and legs.  We hammered the rasty 2x10s upright to a frame, constructing the world's ugliest garden fence.  The two-bys made it massive; the toxic ooze had a lethal smell.  I suppose it looked gardenish, though, being green.

We broke for lunch.  Jim told me he used to have a leather and glass shop in San Luis Obispo, “a bitchin' little town if you like small towns and don't mind everybody knowin' every time you take a shit or who you’re fuckin'.”  Jim said he'd had a show in Aspen, selling his leather and glass.  He came back to California — something about a surfing contest — but soon would be moving back to Colorado for an architectural job in Glenwood Springs. 

"You're an architect, Jim?"

"Got the degree.  Kept me in San Luis for five years." 

Unspoken was the fact that right now Jim was working as an entry-level carpenter, probably for the same wage as me, five bucks an hour.  I wondered how much architecture-trained Yalie
Pierce was earning.

"Glenwood Springs, I'll mostly be emptyin' wastebaskets," Jim said.  "Fetchin' donuts.  But at least they're architects."

"Not much surf in Colorado."

"They got snow."

I asked, "Is everybody on this job an architect?" 

"Are you?" Jim asked.


"Then I guess not everybody."

* * *

After lunch a man drove up in a Jeep Wagoneer.  He was dressed in a pinstriped shirt, button-down collar, and scruffy blue jeans — the architect's dress code of that era.  Above the waist, a businessman.  Below the waist, casual and independent and arty.  

Next his wife stepped out of the Jeep.  Architects, having an eye for structure, always marry great-looking women.  She glanced around the job site, caught my eye and held it.  She smiled at me. 

The Architect had a goatee and a worried frown.  He strode over to our new fence and drew a sharp intake of breath that whistled with stress.  He said, "This isn't what I want."

"Did we get it wrong?" I asked.

The Architect cocked an eyebrow at me.  I was being told: Shut up, carpenter.  He took another sharp intake of breath, another whistle of stress.  "I'm making a field adjustment," he said.  He told us to knock out every fourth 2x10 and reinstall it with a piano hinge so it could open like a vent. 

It would break up the mass and provide an interesting, quirky detail.  "Nice," I said.

Again The Architect cocked an eyebrow at me: I don't need your approval, it said.

Over his shoulder I saw that once again his wife was staring at me.  No longer smiling, she was biting her lip, looking concerned.

I learned later that he was a well-known up-and-coming architect with an eccentric style.  He considered a floor plan to be like a rough outline with multiple adjustments made in the field.  His detractors — and building inspectors — accused him of making it up as he went along.

New architecture grads — in this case Jim and
Pierce — would apprentice themselves to The Architect just for the experience. 

I quickly caught on that the man never smiled or showed any emotion except irritation, which was constant, accompanied by sharp whistling intakes of stress.  The way I could gauge his mood was to see how it was reflected by his wife.  She in turn always seemed to be watching me.

* * *

After The Architect moved on,
Pierce proudly showed us an antique tool he'd bought at a flea market.  He'd haggled it down to twenty bucks.  This was his first chance to try it out.  Looking like a weird wedding between a pry bar and a riding crop, it was called a slide hammer nail puller.  You place the jaws over a nail head, then slide the handle up and down to get a grip on the nail.  Then you pry.
Slide hammer nail puller
Pierce tried it on a few nails.  After five minutes and several failures, he actually removed a 16d nail.  "There's a learning curve," Pierce said.  "Have at it."  He tossed the antique to Jim, then drove off to a hardware store to buy some piano hinges.

Jim studied the slide hammer skeptically, then passed it to me and brought out his crow's foot nail puller.  I examined
Pierce's tool and could see that the jaws were chipped so they couldn't get a good grip on the nail head.  It might've been a wonderful tool at one time.  Now it was crap.

I brought out my own crow's foot.  By the time
Pierce returned, we'd removed all the nails from all the vent boards.

"How'd you like it?"
Pierce asked.

"Nice tool," Jim said.

Pierce beamed.

* * *

There were 14 boards to be hung on piano hinges.  Each bright brass Stanley hinge was 6 feet long with screw holes every 2 inches on each side of the hinge.  For this little task, Jim and I would need to drive 980 bright brass screws.  Slot head screws.

I don't know when cordless drills/cordless screwdrivers first went on the market, but nobody had them in 1976.  Most screws were slot head, and mostly you drove screws by hand. 

Pierce, as it happened, had another flea market bargain: an old Yankee screwdriver which operated by a push-pull spiraling ratcheting action.  Jim tried it.  For the Yankee to work, the screw couldn't offer much resistance.  The slot had to be deep enough to keep the blade from sliding out.  With these rasty boards, the tool jammed; the blade slid out.
Yankee screwdriver
Besides Jim and myself, there was one other carpenter on the job, and he was the real thing: a German master carpenter named — I kid you not — Adolf.  No mustache. 

Adolf could hang a door in 6 minutes flat.  Jim and I were in awe of him.

Adolf wandered out on a break just in time to see Jim struggling with the Yankee driver.  Adolf studied the tool.  "Scheisse," he said.  He held out one cupped hand.  "Give me your hammer."  Borrowing Jim's Vaughan framing hammer, Adolf looked around to see if anybody was watching, then whacked a screw.  One whack, one installed screw.  No pre-drilling, no twisting.  Just whack.

It held tight like a ring nail, but you could back it out with a screwdriver.

"No foss, no moss," Adolf said.  Then he wandered away.

Together Jim and I whacked 980 screws in less than an hour. 

(This is the first installment on a series about my first job on a construction crew.  To be continued...)

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Kid

Starting in 1963

I met The Kid in the summer of 1963.  He was a lanky 14-year-old with a friendly, unimposing, almost naive manner.  I was 15 years old.  The Kid and I bunked in the same cabin at Hawkeye Trail Camp.  We were both escaping the heat to spend a summer in the Adirondacks.  

Sharing an interest in science and a scorn for bullshit posturing, we loved canoe trips on the Saranac Lakes and hiking up some of the lesser-known mountains, especially a rugged little gem called Catamount.  We weren't close friends, but we were summer camp friends.

When that summer ended, we went our separate ways and never saw each other, never tried.  The Kid was eager to make his way in the established world pursuing his love of science; I was increasingly anti-establishment pursuing the end of war.  It was the Sixties.

When you're young, the world keeps expanding larger and larger.  As you get old, it starts shrinking.  In that smaller world I met The Kid again, in the year 2001.  The summer camp where we'd first met had died and been split into parcels.  The Kid had bought one parcel including the cabin where we had bunked together.  My friends Duncan and JK had bought another parcel including the Blue Heron, where they allowed me to stay. 

In the 38 years since I'd last seen The Kid, he'd earned a Ph.D. and pursued a career in scientific research.  Then he'd run for congress and, on his second try, won the election.  He still needed a place in the Adirondacks to escape the swelter of Washington where the heat, these days, is mostly political.

The Kid who I encountered in 2001 remained friendly and unimposing.  He actually seemed small and sort of shy for a congressman, not the backslapping power guy who walks in and dominates a room.

For ten summers now our paths have occasionally crossed as we each return to the old camp on our separate schedules.  We've shared dinners.  One year The Kid helped me take out my dock, another year I helped take out his.  I've seen him and his wife spend an entire weekend up on the roof of their funky old cabin tearing out, then re-roofing, working together.

One summer day my son and his college friends — a mix of boys and girls — were with me on the dock.  Hesitantly my son asked, "Uh, Dad, would it be okay if, like, we all went skinny-dipping in the lake?" 

Just at that moment from the neighboring parcel we heard a screen door slam and two voices laughing.  A second later The Kid and his wife, both in their sixties, went running bare-ass over their own dock and dived into the cool water of Silver Lake.

"Yeah, it's okay," I said. 

I remember one particular dinner with The Kid and his wife and some friends.  The Kid revealed that one of their grand ambitions was to climb Catamount, that rugged little gem, and spend the night.  There's nothing like the sunset vista from a mountain top, the starry night, the orange dawn.
View from Catamount
Over red wine I asked The Kid if he felt people in congress — present company excepted, of course — were as cynical and corrupt as they are often portrayed in the media. 

"No," he said.  "Of course we've got some bad apples.  But I believe the majority of congresspeople serve for altruistic and idealistic reasons.  At first.  Unfortunately I also believe that most of us, once we've become incumbents, tend to view getting reelected as an end, not a means."

"Have you?" I asked.

The Kid looked at his wife.  "Have I?" he asked.

His wife is an independent spirit.  "Not yet," she said.  "But I'm watching you."

It was a lively and thoughtful evening.  We sparred over policies, respectfully disagreeing.  The next day, the unpredictable weather of the Adirondacks turned glorious, followed by a starry night.  I wonder if The Kid and his wife achieved their Catamount dream.  I haven't seen them since that dinner.

It's good to meet politicians face to face when the cameras and microphones are off.  Amid all the hate-speech of talk radio and the internet, it's good to remember that we're all human beings, we all start out as kids.  We share the wonder of life on this earth.  Whatever your age, whatever your politics, there's nothing like the joy of jumping bare-ass into the cool water of a mountain lake.  May we never forget that.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Universal Language

September 17, 1983

Universal Language

The man tells me in Chinese
with gestures
how the water drips from upstairs
into his kitchen.
I understand.
I tell the man in English
with gestures
how I repaired the tub.
He understands.
The water doesn’t speak
or understand.
We hear it, though,
still dripping.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Devil's Grip

Monday, September 16, 1974

It's 1974 and I'm operating computers on graveyard shift, but also I'm a handyman for Jan, my landlady.  Today I promised to clean out and prop up the rotten old garage where her husband Ray used to repair his taxi fleet and where he dropped dead 20 years ago.  Heart attack.  With the clean-out, Jan is finally ready to move on.

After riding the bike home from work, I fix the usual breakfast of 3 eggs and hash browns cooked in the grease of some ground pork sausage of questionable vintage.  You could say I had a healthy appetite but not-so-healthy diet.

I start hauling decomposed tires and smelly rat nests out of the dirt-floor garage and come upon an old wooden soda box full of hand tools.  Woodworking tools: a brace and several bits, a couple of try-squares, big slot screwdrivers, several planes — all with wooden handles burnished by the grip of Ray's fingers so long ago.  I have to pause and appreciate this treasure.  

Of course I never met Ray, but I know him.  He's the man who married and attempted to tame my spunky kittenish landlady.  He's the man who constructed an elaborate plank multi-level walkway for raccoons to come to his kitchen window where Jan still offers them food every night.  If Jan forgets to close the window, the coons come right inside and trash the place.  He's the man who ordered and assembled four Montgomery Ward cottages, one of which is my home.  He's the man who collected dozens of old wooden wagon wheels and lined them along the fence, giving this acre its name: Wagon Wheels.

Ray must have been a practical jokester.  By the creek at one edge of this property there's a metal lid, like the top of a small garbage can.  Painted on this lid are the words:
Everybody who sees it for the first time (including me) lifts the lid, expecting to see a natural spring, some gurgling water, something lovely.  What everybody finds is a concrete-lined hole with a metal bed spring embedded in the bottom.

Ray must have dug that hole, formed that concrete, embedded that spring.  A lot of work for a laugh.

I can almost feel Ray's ghost, peering over my shoulder.  The sunlight is fractured by the spiderwebs and broken glass of the window over the workbench where I stand.  My fingertips sweep over the corroded blade of a try-square.  Would naval jelly restore it? 

Suddenly I bend over clenched in pain.  Have I been shot?  Stabbed?  No.  Cramps.  It's my stomach.  No — my chest.  Holy shit I'm having a heart attack.  No.  Food poisoning.  It was bad sausage. 

I stagger to the cottage next to the garage and pound on the door.  Steve Marks is a medical student, and he's home.  I start blabbering that I have no idea how to treat a stomachache and I'm embarrassed to go to a doctor when probably all I need is something simple like Pepto-Bismol or something — but what?  I don’t want to take the wrong thing and make it explode.  Maybe I need my stomach pumped?  The pain is getting worse every second. 

Steve says, "You must be uncomfortable." 

I admire that.  By choosing understatement, he's seizing authority.  He's calm, doctoral. 

Steve fetches a stethoscope and listens to my chest.  "You know I can't practice medicine yet," he says.  "But your heart sounds okay."

Again I try to explain the symptoms.  Steve says, "If it's a tummy ache you could take some baking soda."

Tummy ache.  I admire that.  Steve wants to be an oncologist.  He'll be a good one.  I say, "I don't think I can swallow anything.  This really hurts, Steve.  It hurts to just breathe."

"It could be pericarditis," Steve says.

"What's that?"

"You should see a doctor."

"I am."

"Cheapskate.  See a real doctor."

My wife is at work.  I don't think I can drive in this condition.  One thing about being sick, though: it makes you stupid.  Unable to operate a car, suffering chest pains, I decide I can ride my bicycle to the clinic, which is about 5 miles away.  On the bike I wobble out the driveway past the wagon wheels, turn onto the side of Alpine Road, advance about 20 feet and topple over.

Abandoning the bike, I teeter home and fall onto the bed.  I'm sound asleep when my wife finds me an hour later.  Steve had called her.

"Are you okay?"

"No.  I'm being tortured.  And I'll tell them anything.  Tell them he's hiding in the crypt."


She drives me to the clinic where I lie on a sofa curled up in fetal position.  A nurse calls Dr. Perkins to come out and look at me.

Perkins dashes out and stops short, next to the sofa.  He gives me a tender look, which seems unusual for a doctor, and asks if I can walk.

"Walk?  I can ride a bike."

My wife is shaking her head.  She and Dr. Perkins help support me as I walk half-bent in pain to an examining room.

"Steve thinks it's pericarditis," I say.  "He's a med student."

Dr. Perkins looks amused.  He pokes and listens and then says, "Not a bad diagnosis for a medical student."  He explains that I have epidemic pleurisy.  The medieval name for the ailment is ‘the devil’s grip’ because it feels like the hand of the devil clutching your heart.  It's a virus that inflames the muscles of the chest wall.

Dr. Perkins says I'm the second one today with this condition.  A kid this morning was sitting in class at Foothill College when he had a sudden attack.  He gasped and fell to floor, rolling and groaning, clutching his chest.  The teacher panicked.  A counselor drove the kid to the clinic.

Somehow this makes me feel better.

Dr. Perkins gives me a painkiller and a sleeping pill.  My wife drives me home.  I sleep painlessly though stiffly for about 13 hours and wake up at 5 a.m.  A new moon is rising.  I'm pain-free but weak.  I have this weird feeling that I just swam the English Channel.

I eat a small, cautious breakfast: toast and water.

As the day brightens, I seem to be okay.  Back to the garage!  Twenty-four hours, lost.  That's all.  I'm ready to work, to clean up after Ray.  If he will just leave me alone.

Monday, September 12, 2011

From Russia With Luck

September, 1985

I'm installing a light outside an office in Palo Alto.  A small man with stooped shoulders is watching.  He wears dumpster clothing with a Giants baseball hat.

I'm pulling wires through thin-wall pipe known as EMT, or Electrical Metallic Tubing.  It's a two-man job, but I'm working alone.  As I'm pulling wires at one end of the EMT, the little man goes to the other end.  Without asking he starts guiding the wires into the pipe, which is exactly what the second man should be doing.

In 3 minutes, it's done.  Working alone, it would have taken 30 as I walked end to end, over and over, pulling then guiding, pulling then guiding.

"Thanks," I say.  "You knew just what to do."

"Got smoke?" he asks.  He smiles.  Gold teeth.

"No. Sorry."

"In Russia," he says, "I do this."

"You were an electrician?"

"Da."  He handles my rusty old fish tape that I bought at a garage sale.  I'm using the fish tape as a wire puller.  The little man frowns and says, "In Russia they got this.  Not so good.  In Russia, everything, not so good."  He fingers an EMT coupling.  "In Russia, do different.  Not so good."

"Are you an electrician here?"

"Garden.  I garden."

"Are you asking me for a job?"


I almost never need an electrical assistant.  Today is a rare exception.  "Next time I need somebody, I'll give you a call.  How can I reach you?"

"I be around."

"You have a phone?"

"I be around."

I am so lucky to live in the USA. 

"Here."  I give him a five dollar bill.  "For smokes."

"Spas-ee-bah," he says, or something like that.  Whatever, he clearly means "Thank you."

I'll never see him again.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Graveyard Shift, Tilt-slab Ghetto, Mountain View


For three years I worked the graveyard shift.  Again I was operating computers, this time running a hospital information system in Mountain View, California.  The hospitals that employed us didn't appreciate the g-word, so when the suits were around we tried to remember to call it "night shift."  Mostly we forgot, and mostly the suits were scared to mess with us because graveyard workers tend to be cranky, anti-social — and hard to replace. 

I was one of a half dozen unshaven, badly dressed, all male crew operating a gaggle of computers, printers, tape drives, disk drives, and a decollating machine from midnight to dawn.  In the hospitals that we served, no doubt each night had drama: babies born, heroic surgery, blood spilled, and last breaths sighed — but we had no idea.  In our sealed climate-controlled empire, the only drama came from the little TV in the decollating room. 

The decollator took a printout on five-part paper and separated it into five stacks of one-part paper while disposing of the carbons between each layer.  Though noisy, dirty, and dull, the decollating job was popular because it kept you in front of the TV.  One of the San Jose stations ran three or four old black-and-white movies every night interrupted by Dodge commercials and a corny host who would urge people not to commit suicide.  Apparently it really bugged him that so many people killed themselves while watching his flicks. 

In my three years on graveyard I got an education in the oeuvres of James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Jimmy Stuart.  Everybody on graveyard could quote most of the good lines in, say, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  We'd drop what we were doing and gather to cheer the grapefruit-in-the-face scene in The Public Enemy.

For some workers, graveyard was temporary — an entry level, or a final demotion.  They soon moved on, or out.  For others, it was a lifestyle.  For myself, I took graveyard for the 10% salary bonus and the short hours.  We worked a six and a half hour shift from 12:30 to 7 a.m. with no scheduled breaks — although in actuality we took breaks all the time. 

We never left the building — why would we?  This wasn't North Beach.  This was a tilt-slab Silicon Ghetto.  If you aren't familiar with tilt-slab, it's a valid and useful construction method.  Concrete walls are formed and poured flat on the building site, then lifted — tilted by cranes — into an upright position, quick and cheap.  The result is a rock-solid structure, though ugly and lifeless.  Perfect for computer work.


At midnight I'd strap lights onto my legs and ride my old red Raleigh bike through the Stanford campus and the sleepy streets of south Palo Alto to the tilt-slab ghetto in Mountain View.  The ten mile ride at night was peaceful and meditative except when I got mooned by three men in a convertible or the time I got ambushed by water balloons near the campus.  Mornings, I'd ride home in the rising sun as drivers sipped coffee waiting at red lights.

Maintaining a marriage took some adjustments.  The moods didn't mesh.  I'd arrive home feeling chatty and wired just as my wife was groggily trying to wake up.  Or likewise she'd come home charged up from her day job just as I was awaking grouchy and stupid.

Days off were equally out of sync.  When my wife was off I'd try to stay up all day, which was the equivalent of taking an all-nighter.  On my days off I couldn't sleep at night, though I tried.  I'd take walks at 3 a.m. feeling like a criminal skulking the empty streets.  Many nights off, I'd take my dog walking into the summer-dry foothills to return at dawn reeking of pennyroyal and sage.  One night, walking across the Stanford golf course, the sprinklers suddenly came on.  I tore off my clothes and streaked the course, my dog and I, wet and joyous and totally alone.

In the winter rains I'd hang out at all-night restaurants.  At Kazu's Koffee Kup I shared a few silent breakfasts at the counter with pro football quarterback Jim Plunkett of all people.  He was an early riser.  We had an unspoken agreement: I'd never ask him about football, and he'd always borrow my sports section, The Sporting Green.  For some reason he never seemed to buy a newspaper.  Later I learned his father had been a news vendor with progressive blindness.

Other nights, I'd just sit at my desk and write.  I'd listen to country music.  I loved all-night trucker's radio from KOB Albuquerque.  I felt akin to the long-haul drivers all over the West.  A lot of that trucker vibe found its way into the novel I was writing, Famous Potatoes.

I became a friend of the night sounds: the distant freight train, the chuk-chuk of sprinklers, the owl perched in the oak outside my study.  From a hilltop of the cow pasture across the street from my cottage, I watched the winking of radio towers and descending lights of airplanes, the blackness of the San Francisco Bay ringed by silent street lamps.  I became a friend of the sunrise: the purple sky, the slowly surging energy of suburban flatlands as cars filled the streets and children walked to school.

Sunrise over Stanford

After 3 years of graveyard, my brain and body started sending unmistakable messages that all boiled down to this: Stop fucking with your circadian rhythm.  Besides, I'd seen all those movies 2 or 3 times.  I could have donned a necktie and switched to day shift, but for me the day culture at a computer shop would be a disaster.  For better or worse, I was solidly counterculture.

Meanwhile I wanted to get out of the easy money and easy work of computer operation and into something harder, something that seemed more real to me: building stuff.  Construction, repair and rehab.  A lot of people would consider it a downward career move, like a banker choosing  to be a welder.  For me it seemed right.  My wife was pregnant.  I wanted to work with my hands in a life that allowed for time off, for raising a child, for working part time so my wife could also work at a job she loved.  If I didn't get out of computers now, I'd never escape.

The day I gave notice, they took it kindly.  In fact, everybody said the same thing: "I'd like to get out of data processing, too."  On my last night, they gave me going-away presents of all my favorite things: a jar of peanut butter, a bag of peanut butter cookies, a box of It's-Its, a six-pack of Coors.

For the last time I rode my bike home as the sun rose. 

Late in the afternoon I woke up depressed.  To my surprise it was suddenly clear to me that I liked that job.  I'd come back part time if I couldn't find enough construction work. 

Graveyard screws up your life but it gets in your blood.  How weird.  I was going to miss it. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Swing Shift, San Francisco


Different cities, different rhythms.  Working swing shift in San Francisco was very different, indeed.

I was still operating a computer.  The job was still:
    Mostly physical.
    Easy money.
Instead of brain waves I was now processing credit card charges.  In those days there were no telephone transactions, so every purchase arrived in the form of a flimsy credit slip that had to be read and sorted by an IBM 1419 sorting machine.  If I remember correctly, the 1419 converted each charge into a punchcard which we would then feed into a card reader which in turn would go through the IBM 360 computer to end up on magnetic tape.  

Larry at the 360

If a punchcard jammed in the reader, the first question we asked was "Is it data or is it money?"  If the card was data, we'd throw it out.  Usually data meant some new person applying for a credit card.  Who needs 'em?  If it was money (that is, somebody's credit card charge), we'd retrieve every little piece of the card and send it back to the reconciliation desk. 

When I saw how many things could go wrong, I opened up a MasterCharge account for myself.  Sure enough, a couple of items that I bought never appeared on my bills.  Another punchcard had been mangled beyond recognition.

We were blue collar labor doing blue collar chores: feeding punchcards, changing paper in the printers, unloading massive printouts, dismounting and mounting tapes, swapping those heavy disks that looked like a stack of phonograph records.  My fellow workers were like a Central Casting cross-section of San Francisco:

Bernie was an Irish alcoholic.  With dimpled cheeks, white hair and fuming breath, he could recite thousands of limericks.  Soon he was fired.

Charles looked like a cute clean-cut white boy.  He had a big dong (so he said).  Charles acted in porn films which apparently didn't pay well but had other benefits.  A dark-haired man, he underwent electrolysis to have all his facial hair removed.  He'd show up with Band-Aids on his cheeks and neck and chin.  With a silly grin Charles would operate the 1419 sorter for 8 hours, stoned, while describing strange sexual encounters.  He was fired.

Bill drove a VW microbus with GROOOVE painted on the side.  With ponytail and mustache Bill was an articulate college dropout whose parents were psychoanalysts in Manhattan.  He'd offer a joint to anybody (off hours) but never smoked himself while everyone around him got wasted.  Bill was a magnet for straight women.  He had a flexible sense of time.  The day he was fired, he raised a huge stink until finally they allowed him to return to the computer room, under guard, so he could repay the $20 he'd borrowed from me.  "I don't want you to think I'd rip you off," he said, and then the guards escorted him out of the building.

Sho, the angry Black Panther, would occasionally punch the metal side of the 360 with his fist talking about how "the man owes me" this or "the man owes me" that.  He wasn't fired.  Nobody dared.

Kate was Chinese-American and at first seemed as normal as noodles.  She had lovely long black hair, a quick smile, and never took a single day off.  Her job was to manage the "library" — a vast vault of computer tape — which she guarded with obsessive/compulsive zeal.  If we brought back one of her tapes with a "data check" — meaning the computer couldn't read some part of it — she'd become angry.  She took it as a personal affront.  Data checks, incidentally, were a nightly occurrence.

Roger, the mama's-boy shift manager — the only suit on the shift — had a crush on Kate the neurotic tape librarian but never asked her out.

Bob was a dignified bespectacled Chinese-American who wasn't too bright but was dependable and hard-working, which is really all you need.  Computer operation is basically factory work.  Software programmers are the brains (and highly paid); operators are the brawn (and paid accordingly).

Then there was Sigrid, a gorgeous Scandinavian woman who always wore a shiny silver crucifix around her neck.  Tight-lipped, scowling Sigrid had the social skills of an insect — and, it was rumored, the sexual habits.  She was known as the Praying Mantis. 

And then there were a couple of normal guys: Larry and Steve.  And me.  I was pretty normal — that is, by swing shift standards. 

Larry wore cashmere sweaters, had a gentle voice, gentle manners, and drove a big bad car with big fat tires. 

Steve Chambers

Steve had a weird sort of psychodrama father-son antagonistic relationship with Roger, the supervisor, though Roger was only slightly older. 

Most operators were non-collegiate and upwardly mobile.  They got into computer operation as a smart career move and, I hope, stayed on to rich success.  It was a great time to enter the field.

For a Christmas bonus, each employee received two jars of Smuckers jelly.  Nobody could accuse MasterCharge of largess. 

Working swing shift, my lunch break was at 8 p.m.  The computer center was at the edge of North Beach near Fisherman's Wharf.  Most nights I'd dash up to Columbus and Broadway where Carol Doda and all the topless ladies danced while barkers barked on the sidewalks: "Naked college coeds!  Yes!  They're totally naked!"  From the doorway the barkers held back the curtain for a flash view.  The show might be fun for men in groups.  Alone, it would make you more alone.

Columbus and Broadway

I'd grab a cappuccino at Cafe Trieste or browse in Discovery Books for used copies or next door at City Lights Book Store for new ones.  Once I met Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was churlish (but I was nobody).  Maybe he was having a bad night.   Another time I stumbled upon Alan Ginsberg, who exuded a surprising generosity mixed with self-obsession.  I met Richard Brautigan, who was playful.  Most electrifying, I met Neal Cassady and of course couldn't get a word in edgewise.  He had charisma.  When Neal was in a room, everyone else faded.

Haight Street in those days was a death zone.  I stayed away.

At midnight I'd drive home.  One night I narrowly missed a head-on collision with a screaming Porsche.  Another car wasn't so lucky.  Six people died.

Clement Street, home sweet home.

Returning to our flat in the Richmond District, I'd walk the dog while foghorns blatted and moaned, then have a glass of wine with my amazing wife.  We'd sleep until noon.  Afternoons, we'd take the dog to the beach down by Playland and the Cliff House.  One time on that beach we came upon Janis Joplin doing cartwheels in the wet sand next to the surf.  Then she dashed to a van waiting in the parking lot saying she had a gig in L.A.  Two months later she was dead.

There were a couple of intriguing cults forming in San Francisco at the time, and we felt drawn toward each of them at least to check them out.  Stephen Gaskin's Monday Night Class was wonderful, but before we could become attached, the entire group departed on a cross-country bus caravan.  Having just finished a cross-country adventure of our own, we wanted to settle down for a while right where we were.

Across town, an attractive church was forming with a charismatic leader by the name of Jim Jones.  The vibes were a little weird there, and we decided it wasn't for us.

At 4 p.m. I'd go to work, a simple ten-minute drive.  Like a tide the job would draw me in, then send me back. 

The days had rhythm like a song.  The melody was San Francisco; the harmony was North Beach; the tempo was full tilt boogie.  That was swing shift.