Building inspectors fall into three categories: the good, the bad, and the criminal. Previously, La Honda and all of western San Mateo County had a very bad inspector, a bullying vindictive man. Now (it's 1989) we have Mike. He's gray-haired, nearing retirement, cares passionately about safety and quality, and occasionally will look the other way if it's just a technicality. Or if you're holding a baby in your arms.
I discovered Mike's soft spot by accident. Back in 1982 he arrived at my home for the Final Inspection just three days after my son Will was born. I escorted Mike around the house with Will in my arms, following Mike's eyes with a sinking feeling as he glanced at some exposed Romex, a basement door without a self-closing mechanism, and a couple of other small violations. "I'd put a spring hinge on that door if I were you," he said, and then he signed me off. Later, telling another contractor how easy Mike had been, he said, "Oh, yeah, Mike's a sucker for the baby ploy."
Today I have no baby. Will is almost seven years old, and he's at school. Mike remembers me, though. He's inspected me on several jobs, and usually ends the inspection by saying, "Nice work," or "Good job." From an inspector, that's high praise.
Mike is inspecting a deck that I've built. It's a large project, 1000 square feet of decking on 3 levels with stairs and handrails. Today is supposed to be the Final Inspection.
Mike looks pained. "I can't pass these handrails," he says. "I'm sorry."
He explains that they've added a new requirement for handrails: they have to close off at the ends. That is, the end of each handrail can't be left hanging in open air; it has to curve back and join the wall or the post.
Mike shakes his head. "It's a new rule. Some lady caught her sleeve on the end of a rail, fell down the stairs and sued." He seems disgusted. "Now everybody has to close off the ends."
I can see the reasoning. I just hate the surprise. Mike hates to be the enforcer of bad news, but sometimes it's part of his job.
|The hand rail with end closed.|
After school on that same Friday I pick up my son Will and also my ten-year-old daughter. Today is a big day for her. She's being scored in gymnastics - a Final Inspection of a different sort. Based on her score, she might make the advanced gymnastics class.
Will and I watch the tryouts from a balcony of the Burgess Gym in Menlo Park. There are about 20 girls. My daughter isn't the best, but she's clearly in the top 10.
Ten are chosen. My daughter isn't one of them. A cute little blond girl who is clearly less skilled is chosen. She's the coach's pet.
My daughter is crushed. Many of the parents are shaking their heads. All the girls who were chosen take private lessons from the coach. None of the girls who were rejected take private lessons from the coach. The fix is on.
I go to the office at the side of the gym. I tell the manager that coach Angus is showing favoritism, that he has a financial interest in his favoritism, and furthermore coach Angus seems dangerously cozy with that cute little blond nine-year-old. You better watch out.
The manager of Burgess Gym responds, basically, that I'm another of those dreadful parents seeking special treatment for his child. He dismisses me.
I keep reading news articles about sports coaches who are arrested for molestation. Everybody always says, "You never would have guessed it." I don't know about those cases, but I sure as heck could see that something was rotten at Burgess Gym.
Now let's skip ahead: The next week Mike re-inspects the deck and signs me off. Meanwhile I enroll my daughter at a gym in Redwood City where they not only place her in the advanced class but recruit her for their traveling team.
A few months later, coach Angus is arrested.
Beyond the building inspectors of this world, we all face our final judgements: good, bad, criminal. Flunking Mike's inspection made me respect him even more. You have to be fair. You have to follow rules. And it doesn't hurt to have a soft spot - a genuine, healthy soft spot - for children.
Note: If you've read my novel Clear Heart, now you know where I got the model for the building inspector in that book.
Another note: "Angus" is not the real name.