Wednesday, January 5, 1977
It's a cheapo stucco box, a six-unit apartment building in a low-rent section of Sunnyvale. Looks like a dump. (Sunnyvale in 1977 was half tech-boom town, half fruit orchards and honkytonk bars.)
John, the owner, looks like an old wino with uncombed hair, red eyes, beard stubble. He lives in one of the units, rents the other five. He says he's a retired elementary schoolteacher.
John says the building has a few problems. The partner of the man who built it is now in jail; the building inspector has been fired for accepting bribes.
In fact, the entire building is atrocious. They cut corners in silly ways, like by using putty instead of wax to seal the toilets to the floor - saving maybe fifty cents per toilet for a total of six toilets. Why bother being so cheap? All the plumbing leaks, every unit. Floors are rotted. The building is about fifteen years old.
John's unit is the worst. His decorating style might be described as post-tornado, except this is California. Post-Big One. You walk among piles: envelopes, magazines, garbage bags, newspapers, books. There's a rotten hole in his bathroom floor big enough for a basketball. Through the gap you can see - and smell - the damp clay of the crawlspace.
"Fix all the drips," he says. "Each unit."
"And the floor?"
"It'll have to wait."
I'm the cheapest plumber he could find, charging my rookie rate of seven bucks an hour which is practically minimum wage, and he thinks I cost too much.
I persist: "Gotta fix that hole, John. Somebody could come in here and fall right through. Break a leg."
"Nobody comes in here. Are you kidding? Look around."
"Or you, some night, sleepy, maybe a little boozy, fall in. See that nail? Castrate yourself."
"Might be a good idea," he says, peering down the hole. Then he covers it with a piece of cardboard.
I go unit to unit, fixing faucets and toilets. Most of the tenants are transient car culture types. One guy is a Vietnam vet, crippled, bum legs, chain-smoking in a ratty old chair in the dark. One woman advises me to "pad the bill." A kid orders me, "Hey mister, carry my bike up the stairs." (I say I'm too busy). A young woman living alone talks to her cat, curtains drawn, and watches reruns of Medical Center on TV.
In the only clean unit, I find an immense brown lady with lovely white leather furniture, a giant Holy Bible prominent at the center of the room on a coffee table. As I repair her faucets and replace her angle stops, countless teenaged and grown children keep coming and going, all respectful, all courteous. She's the matriarch.
She offers me some juice.
"No thank you," I say.
"You will have some juice," she says.
"Uh, yes ma'am." I sit on the immaculate sofa, sipping orange juice, taking a break. She asks about my family. I ask about hers. She has me beaten in the children competition. At this point I have one child. She has fourteen. And six grandchildren. She couldn't be a day over fifty.
I return to John's unit and repair his kitchen faucet while he worries about a runaway kitten. At one point some kids are playing outside his front door. John opens the window and shouts "Fuck you!" through the screen. The kids run away.
He's staring at me. "You an outdoor person?" he asks.
"I could tell. You have that look." He lights a cigarette. "Me, too. I hiked almost the entire John Muir Trail."
"You gonna finish? Hike the rest of it?"
"Why'd you quit teaching?"
He scowls. "Didn't quit," he says, and he walks out the front door. I don't see him again.
When I finish, I leave a bill and a self-addressed envelope on top of his toilet seat, the only uncluttered spot in his apartment.
Two days later, I receive the check.