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

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Rolltop Desk

Friday, March 16, 1973

“Do you hear the cats?” she asks.  Her name is Pat.  She lives next door.


“At night.  They make a racket.  We can’t sleep.”

Pat and her housemate Amy live in a shabby bungalow.  I live above three garages.  In one of those garages Pat and Amy keep a white 1963 Cadillac, Arizona plates.  In another of those garages I stand right now, working with wood and talking to Pat.
“It’s not my cat,” I say.  But I understand what she's saying.  At night, when the cats make their racket, Pat and Amy are afraid to come out of their bungalow.

Pat and Amy are two white girls going to Stanford.  Graduate students.  Other than walking to and from their car you never see them.  Self-contained in that little house, they are not a part of this very mixed neighborhood - and the neighborhood takes note.  On the street in front of their bungalow somebody has painted FUKN DYKZ. Welcome to Cooley Avenue, East Palo Alto, California.

“I’ll see what I can do about the cats,” I say.

“Thank you.”  Pat is tall, very pale, with straight black hair that hangs to her waist.  She glances at my wood, my tools.  “What are you making?”

“A rolltop desk.”

“Wow.  You know how to do that?”


That night, I hear no cats.

I’ve finished a novel and mailed it to Atheneum, who seem the most likely publisher, and while waiting for a reply I’ve decided to make my living with wood, to build something people might want, to craft it well and sell it.  For guidance I'm reading a book written by some fussbudget Brit about how to build a rolltop desk. 

Up to now I have never made a mortise-and-tenon joint in my life.  In the garage with the door wide open I work with chisel and back saw, brace and bit.  Not only will I build a roll-top desk, but I'll do so with hand tools.  The Brit would approve.

The white Caddy, emitting a wisp of blue smoke, pulls into its garage, Amy steering.  Amy is short and tanned, nicely rounded, with a bowl of curly blond hair.  “Hi.  I’m Amy?  I live next door?  Thank you for quieting the cats.”

“I didn’t quiet them,” I say.  “I didn’t do anything.”

An hour later a Ford Pinto pulls up in front of the garages.  Scattered on windows are seven Stanford decals.  On the bumper:  IMPEACH NIXON.  A bearded guy is driving with Pat riding shotgun.  Suddenly - it seems like an impulse - the bearded guy steps out of the Pinto.  Laughing, he unbuckles his belt, pulls it through the loops of his jeans, and hands it to Pat.  Then he drives off.

Smiling, a spring to her step, Pat doesn't even notice me as she skips to the house. 

That night before going to bed I step out on the balcony that runs along the front of the building just above the garages.  I'm listening for signs of the warring cats. 

In the darkness a moist wind rustles the eucalyptus tree, scenting the air like medicine.  Traffic growls on the freeway, just one block away.  The sky is black but a warm glow spreads upwards from a skylight in the bungalow next door.  In the daytime I never even noticed the skylight, but now on this night it is like seeing a well-lit stage from the dark balcony of a theater.

Tall pale Pat stands not quite naked in front of a mirror.  She wears white socks and is holding a black leather belt.  Lifting the buckle to her nose, she lets the belt hang down in front of her like a sword.  Her black hair flows down her bony back.  She has small pert breasts, surprisingly wide hips and a jet-black bush.  Studying her image in the mirror, she ties the belt around her waist, pursing her lips, looking critical and almost bored as if choosing what to wear to school tomorrow - if she were to attend Stanford clothed only in a belt and socks.

Still facing the mirror, Pat starts talking.  I can't see the rest of the room, but she must be speaking to Amy.  Pat places the thumb of each hand inside the belt like a western gunslinger.  It is not a casual chat.  Pat’s face has that serious, painfully picky demeanor of a woman analyzing a relationship. 

Suddenly Amy appears, throwing her arms around Pat from behind.  Shoulders heaving, Amy is crying.

Pat stands rigid.  Her thumbs remain hooked to the belt.  On her face: surprise and self-doubt.

Enough theater.  I turn away.  Partly I'm embarrassed to be watching; partly I'm afraid somebody will catch me.

In the street something is creeping along the gutter.  Not a cat.  A small raccoon.  Then comes a clatter.  Another, larger raccoon shoves aside the lid of a garbage can.  A bungee cord was holding the lid in place, but Big Coon has displaced it far enough to enter.

Small Coon stands on hind legs and starts rocking the can with Big Coon still inside.  Big coon pokes his head out the top and hisses.  They howl.  They growl.  Garbage war!

On the balcony are several bricks left over from a brick-and-board bookshelf I constructed - the kind of furniture I am capable of building.  Grasping one of the bricks, I toss it like a shot-put.  The brick lands with a crash on the lid of the metal garbage can.  Immediately a ringed body bursts from the top of the can and hits the ground running.  In seconds, both animals are gone.

The next morning, Amy and Pat depart together in the white Caddy, grim-faced and silent. 

I'm determined to create dovetails for the drawers, hoping to gain confidence before I return to the frustrating mortise-and-tenons.

The first dovetail sucks.

The second is okay.  Almost okay.  A few days ago I talked with the owner of a furniture store in North Beach, Columbus near Grant, an old Italian who showed me a desk he was selling, running his fingers over the side of a drawer, a look of distaste on his face, saying, “Feel it.  Feel for yourself.”  Though the wood looked smooth, my fingers felt roughness that just a little sanding would have cured.  “Nobody in America has taste,” the man said.  “Everything I sell is slightly shoddy.”

I would rather burn this rolltop than have someone call it slightly shoddy.

I try more dovetails. 

By the time the white Caddy returns I have built three drawers, slightly shoddy. 

“It was raccoons,” I call to them as they close the garage door.  “Not cats.”

“Can you do something?” Pat asks.

“I threw a brick.” 

Amy seems stricken - as if I punched her stomach.  “Please don’t hurt them,” she says.

“I just scared them,” I say.

Pat and Amy exchange a look.  Pat glares at me and says, “Don’t you dare hurt them.” Together they walk to the bungalow whispering, shaking their heads.

For that one moment at least, I have united them.

I tie a second bungee cord over the lid of the garbage can.  Just before bed I go out on the balcony to, uh, check for raccoons.  The skylight is dark.  No coons, either.

Over the next few days I become almost good at dovetails.  I resume  mortising - and chisel the tip off my left ring finger.  When I return from Urgent Care, it looks as if somebody spilled a can of tomato juice in the garage. 

For a couple more nights I check the raccoon situation - just doing what the ladies asked - but the skylight is dark or, if lit, nobody is visible. 

The coons never return.  Atheneum rejects my novel.  The letter arrives seven days after I mailed the manuscript.  The swiftness is stunning - and feels like a brick lobbed at my garbage can.

A job agency calls.  I accept a temporary assignment operating a computer for a tax-preparation company.

All those romantic songs, all those commencement speakers who tell you to reach for the stars - it’s idiotic.  Here’s my advice:  Start small.  Use veneered plywood, for Pete’s sake, instead of solid clear fir.  Use power tools and simple joinery until you get the hang of it.  And write what you know.

In the garage I take a sledge hammer to the unassembled pieces of rolltop desk. 

Without much hope I mail the rejected manuscript to an agent in New Jersey.  Up above the garages in my study, a door for a desk, wooden crates for shelves, I jot notes for a new novel with a subject I might know something about: a young man who with the best of intentions fails at everything.  I call it Famous Potatoes.

For my remaining time on Cooley Avenue I never again walk to the end of the balcony.  Unobserved, Amy and Pat will deal in private with their passions, their painful choices.  As will I.  The job I've just accepted leads to three solid years operating computers without enthusiasm, making decent money, moving out of East Palo Alto to a more rural slum, writing a pretty good novel about the man who fails at everything and loves everyone in a slightly shoddy way.

Cooley at 101, East Palo Alto, 1973

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