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

Saturday, April 30, 2011

New Market Hardware, St. Louis

Monday, April 30, 2007

I'm only in St. Louis for one weekend helping my daughter and son-in-law remodel their bathroom.  St. Louis plumbing - at least, old St. Louis plumbing - is different from California plumbing.  Fortunately, there's an old St. Louis hardware store.

There's nothing "new" about New Market Hardware, and that's exactly the charm.  The store was bought as an ongoing enterprise by the current owner-family in 1914, so it's even older than that.  They moved to the present location in 1932. 

If you're ever in the mood to step back to 1932, just step into this store.  For a quick tour, there's a good video here.

The owner says, "We are fast."  Don't believe it.  Maybe they're fast by the standards of 1932, but when I buy one item there in 2007, it involves following a salesman down a rabbit warren of narrow aisles lined floor to ceiling with stacks of old wooden drawers the size of library card-catalog drawers, searching among several before finding the odd-size fitting I need, then a good ten minutes writing out the receipt by hand, looking up the sales tax by hand from a sheet of paper.

But then, have you ever gone to Home Depot for one item and spent 45 minutes crossing the endless parking lot, walking the endless aisles, trying to get non-existent "help" from some clueless clerk, waiting in an endless checkout line
?  And Home Depot would never carry the obscure fitting I was seeking.  They have it - in drawer #872 or whatever - at New Market Hardware.  If I lived in St. Louis, I'd be there every weekend.

To be fair, my ten minute checkout might have been slowed by the fact that as the clerk is writing out my receipt, he sees that my address is in California.  Immediately I'm surrounded by three or four clerks who all want to talk about governor "Ah-nold" as they call him.  They think he's hilarious.  They all take turns imitating "Ah-nold" saying "It's not about me."  And that, too, is part of the charm of this place: personal service, which just might
include ten minutes of Arnold Schwarzenegger imitations.

New Market Hardware is in the Central West End at the corner of Sarah and LaClede.  The neighborhood itself is classic St. Louis brick.

Go there and get a key duplicated.  Or buy a bit of plywood and watch them cut it on their one-hundred-year-old table saw.  Yes, one hundred years old.  It's an experience.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Peace of Mind

Tuesday, April 29, 1986

"I'm a little nervous about earthquakes," she says.  "I experienced a six point four quake in Santa Barbara.  Would you take a look at my foundation?" 

Her name is Marilyn.  She has a nice house in Los Altos. 


"And also tell me if you see any fire hazards?  My husband—"  Her eyes indicate a back bedroom.  "My husband is on one hundred per cent oxygen twenty-four hours a day.  I'm a little nervous about fires."

She's young.  She's gentle.  She has grade-school children.

I crawl under the house.  I return and report that her sills are properly bolted to the concrete.  No fire hazards, either.  Their home is already safer than 90% of the dwellings in California.  If she wanted to be any safer I could attach steel plates to the foundation posts where they meet the beams.  Right now the beams are toe-nailed, the weakest link.

"I want it," she says.  "But wait.  Let's run it by my husband.  I try not to completely emasculate him."

She leads me to the back bedroom.  A young man - somehow I can tell that he's young, though he looks like he's ninety - lies in bed, propped by pillows, with tubes up his nose and a big steel oxygen tank at his side.

I explain the situation, describe the steel plates as optional but something that might give them peace of mind.

"Fine," he says.  He looks at his wife.  "That's what I want for you.  Peace of mind."

In the hallway I have to stop, compose myself.  Marilyn glances at me and says, "You're right.  It isn't fair."  She offers no explanation of his condition, and I don't ask.

I spend the rest of the day on my back under the house banging 44 steel plates onto 44 foundation posts.  Upstairs, I'm sure he can hear - and probably feel - every strike of the hammer - pounding for peace of mind, the one thing nobody can give.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


Saturday, April 23, 1983

I'm repairing a dishwasher at an apartment complex in Palo Alto.  I've removed the front door panel when suddenly a voice is shouting "WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU?"

He's a big burly guy with a toolbox.

"I'm Joe."


The apartment manager, a little thin man, is standing behind, looking frightened.  "I'm sorry," he's saying.  "My wife called Red.  She didn't know I'd called you."

In a wrestling match, Red would have me by 75 pounds and a mean streak.  "It's all yours, Red."  I pack up.  I can tell from the look of the apartment manager's wife that Red may have won the battle, but he's already lost the war.  I leave the door panel detached - no point undoing my work - but while Red is outside berating the apartment manager, I plug the dishwasher's electric cord back into the outlet and turn the water shutoff back on.  It just seems like the right thing to do.

A week later, I'm back.  The dishwasher remains unrepaired.  "What happened?" I ask.

"We'll never call him again," the manager says.  "First thing he does is stick his hand in there, and he nearly electrocuted himself.  Then a minute later he flooded the kitchen.  Then he messed around for an hour and never figured out what the problem was."

Rarely does life work out so well. 

The dishwasher had two glitches, the timer and the float valve.  Red got confused because it's harder to diagnose multiple breakdowns.

"I'll fix it," I say.  I'm the Super Handyman.  My cape is brown and slightly soiled.  At this moment on this day, I could fix any problem.  Sometimes the power strikes you like a beam of light.  "Anything else I can do for you?"

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The $4.17 Sermon

Friday, April 20, 1979

On this drizzly day a great big truck pulling a tractor-driven drilling rig shows up at my building site.  They're costing me $400 per hour.  The quiet hillside becomes a bedlam of growling engine, chewing tractor treads, smelly diesel exhaust - and then the powerful grind of the drill. 

For the foundation we need 11 holes, 12" in diameter, extending to whatever depth the soil engineer - at $100 per hour - decides we need to go.  The engineer in white hard hat studies the clay and rocks as the steel blade screws them out of the hillside.  Eleven feet deep for this hole, 13 feet for the next.  We never strike bedrock - often in La Honda bedrock is 30 or 50 feet down, and not all that solid anyway - but the engineer decides that a dozen feet of "skin friction" will support the piers.  (Nowadays, standards are higher.) 

This is to be my house. 

At one point, a pile of dirt needs to be moved.  The only construction machinery on this hillside is the blue-painted drilling rig.  It's a task for a man with a shovel.  Me.  I start digging.

The rig operator is a young white man wearing a yellow hard hat and a T shirt that says MALCOLM DRILLING.  He leans out of the rig and sneers, "Where's your Mexican?"

Shit, that's ugly.  I'm familiar with bigotry - I grew up in southern Maryland - but this kind of casual gratuitous racist insult always seems to catch me by surprise. 

I glare at the rig operator.  Surprised, he glares back.  Muscles twitch.  Bystanders - the truck driver, the engineer - watch expectantly.  It's one of those hair-trigger moments.  And it passes.  We've got jobs to do.

At $500 per hour, I'm not going to take the time - and the futility - of engaging in a teach-in on the subject of Brotherhood.  Best estimate: a 30 second glare.  Which cost me $4.17 at the going rate.

Nothing is changed.  Or maybe, ever so slightly, something has.  The operator makes no more comments.

We move on.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Bill (Part Four)

Friday, April 19, 2002

Isabella, my favorite decorator, wants me to install lights for a new client.  "White carpets, no kids," she says.  This is code.  A warning.  Children are the great leveler.  Clients without kids sometimes suffer the delusion that perfection is possible.  They have the free time to obsess over it and the money to try to buy it.  Clients with white carpets, same delusion.  Combined, it's double trouble.

To install the downlights I have to move a sofa out of the way, place a drop cloth, set a ladder.  Running wires, I cut a hole in the ceiling, then patch it.

She's a whiner.  While I work she complains about the crows in her mimosa tree, the declining quality of Coca Cola, the daffodils that refuse to bloom.  The house is immaculate.  She's a former stewardess for United Airlines, successful in her marriage quest, now dwelling in a wealthy enclave with no job, no children, a life of shopping and lunches and serving one high-flying man.

By this stage of my career, I'm a pro.  If you aren't careful, a retrofit downlight will be wobbly, not quite flush with the ceiling, expose chipped edging around the hole, get a scratch on the trim, or it can overheat if you don't clear the insulation.  Here, I do a damn good job. 

I carry the ladder back to my truck, pick up the drop cloth, and am about to move the sofa when she says, "There's a stain.  On the carpet."

Yes, there is.  A pale brown stain in a white carpet.

"That stain is all dried out," I say.  "It's brown.  I was using white plaster, and anyway the carpet was covered by a drop cloth."

"Then how'd it get there?"

"It was hidden by the sofa.  It's been there a long time."

I write up a bill.  The stain, I'm thinking, is the color of old Coca Cola.

"I'll mail you a check," she says.

"I have a policy."  Actually, I don't.  "I have to get a payment before I leave."

She squints at me.  I don't move.  It's a silent argument.  There's body language in my stance, nonthreatening but nonyielding.  What I'm counting on is her desire for order, to be alone once again in her almost perfect, slightly stained little world.  When she was six miles above the earth stewarding the aisles in search of marriage material, a tradesman was not what she was seeking and she does not want another minute of my presence in her domain.

Let's for a moment acknowledge what I do, entering women's houses, working among their private places.  Call it metaphor or call it Freudian, it's the same thing.  At least on a subconscious level, most women are aware of it. 

She writes a check.  And I'm gone.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Baseball and the Pope

Friday, April 18, 1986

In Los Altos Hills I install track lighting for a woman named Mary.  On the wall hangs a gilt-framed photo of Mary and her husband with the Pope. 

Mary is tentative, decision-averse.  She can't make up her mind exactly where I should install the track.  She wants reading light, but she also wants to spotlight some paintings - and the Pope photo - on the wall.

I tell her that track lights, like all ceiling lights, aren't particularly good as reading lights, but they're great for spotlighting art, so she should place the track where it will do the best job of lighting the wall.  Or have two separate tracks.  Still, she dithers.  Finally - and she knows the clock is ticking on my labor charge - she chooses to put the track half way between where it would be best for the wall or for the sofa.

I start to install it.

After an hour her husband strides into the room.  He's a little man with a big presence.  With one glance at the track, he says, "That was a mistake.  Why'd you put it there?"

I explain the issues.

"We should have two tracks," he says, and he marches out.

The man is CEO of a big Silicon Valley company.  He controls a room the moment he enters.  He makes you want to salute. 

In this case he's right.  Firm, clear, fast.  But is he infallible?  He isn't the Pope.  What happens when he's wrong?  Can you appeal?

Twenty-five years later, I still remember how he could walk into a room and start barking orders.  

The company went bankrupt.  

He made millions in his failure.  Could it ever enter his mind - the tiny seed of self-doubt - thinking all things considered, he should have been a major league umpire?  

He would have been great.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Poets Pounding Nails

Today after 106 consecutive daily posts about my own work life (with the emphasis on "life"), I'm going to take a break and talk about other authors who write about working in the building trades. 

There are several authors I've read and quoted and reviewed in my Clear Heart blog.  Some of the writers are tradespeople themselves, others are observers.  Most are poets.

If you want to read about work in the trades, here are some people to know:

Joseph Millar, poet:

"Red Wing" from Fortune.

"Fat City" from Overtime.

"Tools" from Fortune.

"Telephone Repairman" from Overtime.  (In the Writer's Almanac blog.)

Mark Turpin, poet:

"Gene Lance" from Hammer: Poems

"Before Groundbreak" from Hammer: Poems

"Last Hired" and "The Box" from Hammer: Poems.  (In the Writer's Almanac blog.)

Gary L. Lark, poet:

"Becoming a Librarian" from Men at the Gates.

"Getting By" from Men at the Gates.  (In the Writer's Almanac blog.)

"Driving Nails" from Getting By.  (In the Writer's Almanac blog.)

"Men at the Gates" from Men at the Gates.  (In the Writer's Almanac blog.)

Sue Doro, poet:

"Red Dust" from Blue Collar Goodbyes.

"Where's My Hammer?" and "Paper Napkin Poem for Larry" from Heart, Home & Hard Hats.

Clemens Starck, poet:

"Changing the Alternator Belt in your 504" from Journeyman's Wages.

"Putting in Footings" from Journeyman's Wages. 

"Journeyman's Wages" from Journeyman's Wages.  (In the Writer's Almanac blog.)

"A Brief Lecture on Door Closers" from Traveling Incognito.  (In the Writer's Almanac blog.)

Terry Adams, poet:

"Last Draft" from Adam's Ribs.

"Pieta" and "The Dump" from Adam's Ribs.

Jody Procter, carpenter, actor, memoirist:

Toil: Building Yourself 

Support the poets.

Buy their books.

Keep them writing.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Black and Decker Worm Gear Saw

Tuesday, April 15, 1975
Not mine, but similar

Sonny says if I want to be a genuine carpenter, I need a worm gear saw.  And he's found one.  Together we drive in Sonny's old truck to an industrial area of San Jose where he finds a guy working out of a garage. 

Sonny, always friendly, says, "Hi.  I'm Sonny."

The guy avoids our eyes.  "Pleasedameetcha," he mumbles, wiping greasy fingers on a rag, then briefly shaking hands.  He has a black mustache and hair that needs a brush.

He's got two worm gear saws for sale at this moment, each a rebuild.  "That's what I do," he says.  "Fix 'em and sell 'em."

"Where do you get them?" I ask.

He frowns, looks away.

Oops.  Some things you aren't supposed to ask.  I don't want to buy a stolen saw, but these tools are freshly rebuilt with bright new copper windings on the motors.  If you want to steal construction equipment, you don't grab the broken stuff.

My instant character judgment is that this mumbly dude is good at his work, shy with people, has a shady past but has found his niche.  He can handle salvaging tools but not much else.

It's a choice between a clean-looking silver Skilsaw for $80 or a roughed-up old Black and Decker for $70.  New, they sell for $129.

Sonny asks, "Which is better?" 

Mustache guy picks up the Black and Decker.  "Looks like piss because it's older.  And yeah, it's heavier.  Nobody wants it, but they built 'em better back then.  I put new windings.  Forget the paint job.  Paint don't cut.  I make more money on the Skil, but honest to God, this is stronger."

"I'll take it," I say.  Rebuilding that Black and Decker, I sense, was a work of love.

He wants the check made out to "Cash."  He never told us his name.

I'll use - and abuse - that saw for the next 21 years.  I'll build decks, rooms, entire houses in good weather and bad, cutting good lumber and bad, working that saw just as hard as I work my own body.  In other words, I'll work the crap out of it. 

Near the end, the top handle came loose and would lift off when you were in the middle of guiding a cut.  Then the blade went out of alignment putting extra load on the motor.  The blade guard jammed and broke off, turning the tool into a lethal weapon.  And at last - on March 20, 1996 - when I'm ripping timbers, the motor starts bubbling, and the saw dies in a cloud of black smoke. 

Some tools you're fond of.  Some you just push hard.  That old Black and Decker was a solid worker, and I maintained it - or near the end, failed to maintain it - without sentiment.  I don't have a photo.  I never thought of it as a memory I'd want to preserve.

Instead of throwing it out, my son Jesse wanted it.  In college he was studying to be an engineer (and a philosopher).  In the summer, he was a counselor at a summer camp.  He took the dead saw to Plantation Farm Camp where in a stroke of genius he'd invented a popular activity in which he and his campers would take apart old broken tools.  They'd handle the parts.  Pull springs.  Turn gears.  Touch the grease and sawdust and dirt.  Spread little pieces over a concrete floor.  With a sense of wonder and play they became familiar with human industrial ingenuity. 

As a final act, the campers took turns with a sledge hammer.  Gleefully, they smashed everything to bits.  Jesse knew just what kids wanted.

In that final dismantling and smashing, as in Mr. Mumbly's long-ago rebuild, the old Black and Decker received more respect than I'd given it in 21 years.

Some day my overworked motor will start bubbling, too.  I'm already out of alignment.  Some people would claim that my top handle comes off with more and more frequency.  Maybe I'll go out in a cloud of black smoke.  Then please, I ask you, dismantle me. 

See how I'm put together.  Handle my parts.  Touch the grease and sawdust and dirt that I'm sure are inside me somewhere. 

Appreciate the biological ingenuity.  Show some respect. 

Then, if you want, take turns with the sledge hammer.  I've got one you could use.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

"A Little Water Problem"

Monday, April 14, 1986

On the phone he says he won't be home but I can come by anytime because the problem is outside.  "A little water problem," he calls it.  So I visit a handsomely designed house of redwood and glass in Portola Valley where an underground leak has dug a gully under a concrete patio, sending a gush of water cascading down an embankment and into the street. Right now it's dry.

A neighbor wanders over and says he told the homeowners about the problem a couple of months ago. The owners' response was to shut off the main valve to the house.  In the morning the neighbor would see one of the owners walking out to the street in a bathrobe carrying a big wrench, kneeling in the dirt to turn the valve so they could take a shower.  Then a half hour later, dressed to the nines, they'd turn it off and drive away.  They've been living mostly without water for the last two months.

“When did they call you?” the neighbor asked.

“Last week."

“Amazing,” the neighbor says.

“People procrastinate,” I say.

The neighbor shakes his head. “Either they’re cheap or they’re idiots.”

Together the neighbor and I study the house. It's probably worth several million. The husband is a surgeon, the wife an attorney.

“Don’t underestimate inertia,” I say.

“Or tightwads,” the neighbor says, and he wanders off.

. . . In retrospect, I see that I used this job as an incident in Clear Heart almost exactly as it happened.  Sometimes, you can't improve on real life.

In the novel, Wally (the contractor) accepts the job.  In real life, I turn it down.  That lifeless gully of rock and bare dirt emerging from under cold concrete is scary somehow, a desolate distant planet.  If somebody waits two months to call you while living in a million dollar house without water, he might wait another two months to pay you.  As a contractor, you have to develop a sixth sense about weird situations.  There are too many Mr. Lunders in the world. 

Better to lose a few jobs than get sucked into a bad one.  And the wife is an attorney.  This job gives me shivers.  No thanks.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Wednesday, April 13, 1977

"I'm Sheila," she says as she opens the door.  "Some people say I'm a witch."  She's old, gaunt, with long straggly blond hair.  (I'm young - 29 - skinny, with straggly brown hair.)

It's an aging house, not quite gothic, in disrepair.  She says she hears mysterious gurgling.  It's creepy in the middle of the night when she's alone.  "If I were really a witch," she says, "maybe it wouldn't bother me."

I tighten a no-hub coupling, open her clean-out and listen, investigate her toilet, fix a leak in a faucet.

I like her.  She likes me.  We chat.  She says she was an economist but now she's a therapist.

"What kind of therapist?"

"Hypnosis," she says.  "I teach self-hypnosis."

"Wouldn't work on me.  I never let myself lose self-control."

She laughs.  "You don't lose self-control under hypnosis.  You enhance it.  That's what it's good for.  You'd be a pushover.  It's the physicists and engineers who have a hard time."  She's having an open house that very evening at her office.  She invites me to drop by.

That evening, I show up at a conventional office building in Menlo Park.  Her therapy room looks like your basic business conference room - carpet, drapes, sterile smell - but no furniture.

We sit on the carpet.  There are about half a dozen people in attendance, including one talkative couple: the woman is a nurse taking a course in business management, the man an engineer.  Both of them seem to flit from fad to fad, transcendental meditation to auras to crystals - and now to hypnosis.  They sound open-minded but seem to have no core.  Maybe that's what they're seeking.

Sheila describes what she can and, mostly, what she cannot do.  Hypnosis can't make you do something against your will.  It can help you do what you really want to do.  She's unpretentious and matter-of-fact.  She says some people fall easily into a hypnotic state, others find it nearly impossible.  Then she has each of us hold pendulums and concentrate on the motion - just like in old bad movies - and in good faith I give it a try. 

I'm there.  It's fascinating.  Like a tunnel. 

When she brings us out of it, the fad couple say how marvelous it was.  "I'm not sure you got there," Sheila says.  

Then Sheila turns to me.  "You fell fast," she says.

"So that was hypnosis?" I ask.


It was such a familiar feeling.  I go into that state - call it hypnotic, or not - whenever I write.  It's the feeling of obsessed, shielded, narrow concentration.  Sometimes with other craft work - carpentry, plumbing - I'm the same way.

"I haven't heard any creepy gurgling since you left this morning," Sheila tells me as I'm leaving.  "It's like you cast a spell on the house."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fingertip Feedback

Wednesday, April 12, 1989

The decorator wants me to install a switch and 3 downlights in the Cantor's living room.  The attic is difficult: stuffy, cramped, hot.  I have to lie in dusty insulation, stretch out my arms to a spot I can't even see, and make wire connections by touch.  It's amazing what you can do based solely on the feedback of your fingertips.

When at last - ta da! - I turn on the switch, the light pattern is not what the decorator or the Cantor had expected. 

The decorator frowns.

The Cantor looks embarrassed.  He has an ornate old armoire of dark carved wood.  Highlighted in the new light, it is suddenly obvious that the carvings are of naked women.  Of course they were always there, but now they jump out at you.  Their bodies - at least certain parts of their bodies - are polished as if someone has constantly rubbed them to a high sheen, glowing in the new light, while the rest of the wood remains dark, unrubbed.

"We'll install another light," the decorator says.  "To - um - balance things a little better.  I won't charge you for it."  She looks at me meaningfully.

"I'll be happy to do it," I say.  What I'm obviously expected to say - but don't - is: "No charge."  Not if I have to crawl in that attic again.  He isn't my cantor.  Heck, I'm not even Jewish.  And anyway, it's the oldest law of business.  Some services you provide at a loss, some at normal cost, some at a premium.  There's probably a great Yiddish phrase for this, but here it is in English: In the world of commerce, the more nookie, the more you pay.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Last Comes the Bathroom Door

Tuesday, April 10, 1984

At the playground my son meets another boy his age.  Immediately, they hit it off.  I chat with Jennie, the boy's mother.  As any parent knows, your social network is formed by your children.  Jennie, it turns out, lives just down the street from me. 

We visit Jennie's house so the boys can continue their play.  Jennie and her husband live in a shell - a house frame with a relatively complete exterior.  Inside, they've been camping out for several years, completing rooms as time allows.  Just like my wife and me. 

Camping in an unfinished house, you learn your priorities.  First, running water.  A toilet, a sink.  At least one functioning electric outlet.  Each little improvement is a quantum leap in comfort.  Then heat.  What luxury!  Some kind of stove.  Then hot water!  A bathtub or shower.  Life is good.

Privacy came just about last.  Neither Jennie nor I had given much thought to it, but talking together we realize that in a close family, you can live a long time with stud walls.  Eventually, you put up drywall.  Even then, with young children there's little that's private, not even your bed.

Jennie says, "We didn't put doors on our bathrooms for about three years."  She laughs.  "Then my mother came to visit, so we finally got around to it."

"Same here!" I say with surprise.  I'd never thought about it.  "Except it was my father-in-law."

It seems odd, looking back.  Maybe it was a generational/counterculture thing.  We may have hung a blanket over the doorway from time to time to accommodate guests.  But for the in-laws, by golly, you need a door.

Once you have a roof to keep the rain off your head and walls to keep the coyotes from wandering through, what are your priorities?  Here were ours:
1.  Water.
2.  Toilet and sink.
3.  Electricity.
4.  Heat.  (In a colder climate, heat would rank higher.)
5.  Stove.
6.  Hot water.
7.  Bathtub.
Then came insulation, permanent lights, a kitchen sink, drywall, a comfortable chair, a shoe caddy, a shelf for toy trains and little stuffie bears.  And finally, for Jennie's family and mine:
100.  Bathroom door.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Toy Chest

Monday, April 9, 1984

On this day in 1984 I'm building a toy chest for Will's second birthday.  In six days my son will be two years old.

I'm using 16-inch pine planks that I pried from Wagon Wheels just before the poor cottage was crushed.  Unlike my older two children, Will never lived at Wagon Wheels, but this toy chest will give him a piece of it.

Though not quite two years old, Will actually assists me in the construction at least to the extent of picking up sweet-smelling pine shavings and placing them in a pile.  His older brother Jesse, age seven, helps run the plane over the top.  Everybody loves to plane.  Then both Jesse and Will watch the quickening of color as I apply oil to the wood - no stain, no varnish, please. 

And oh how I love salvaged wood.  Here's a photo from 2007 which I've been advised never to show anybody because "there's something creepy about a man hugging a toy chest."  In the photo you can see the shape of the chest (an old Shaker design), the extraordinarily wide planks of the sides, the planed top.  You can also see that the chest is somewhat banged up from 23 years of use.  Eventually Will left it behind, not needing a toy chest at Dartmouth - so it remains where I can hug it again if ever I feel so inclined. 

Building that chest was such a pleasure - and such mental therapy - that I recreated the experience in a chapter of my novel Clear Heart.  If you're curious you can read all about it - Chapter 30 to be exact. 
Or episode 14 of the Clear Heart podcast.

I'd quote the chapter here, but it's a bit too long for this setting.  But, hey, I tell you what.  For the rest of April readers of this blog can buy the ebook of Clear Heart for half price!  Such a deal!  Just follow this link to Smashwords, put Clear Heart in your shopping bag, and use this discount code at checkout: CJ48P.  You'll get 50% off the price of a book that already costs less than one beer at Sullivan's Pub.  Now it costs just half a beer!

Here are the words of some people I respect, craftspeople who could build a far finer toy chest than I:

" I LOVED Clear Heart. In fact, I couldn't put it down.  It's about a 55 year old ex-hippy carpenter named Wally—and the interaction between true craftsmen, their good-natured joking, routines and habits (like sometimes getting too friendly with female clients). It's male bonding at its finest, filled with endearing characters and fast-paced, nail-biting mishaps.  And it made me want to ask Wally: 'You hiring?'"—Kari Hultman, The Village Carpenter

" I just couldn’t put it down. It was a great read.  Now I have met many of the people in Joe’s novel, quirky sub contractors, stupid clients and the like. I found myself (I believe for the first time) actually rooting for fictional characters. The book is gripping. It is a love story and so much more.  I should also tell you that it is a book for adults.  I wouldn’t have my (prude) sister read the book."—Stephen Shepherd, Full Chisel Blog

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Creating the World

(Before writing these blog entries, I go back through my journals reading one particular day for each year, sort of a Ground Hog Day movie except that each time everybody is one year older, and in the end I still haven't gotten it right.  Here are three such days.)

Saturday, April 7, 1979

A good garage sale can cure a bad mood.  So can a ride in a pickup truck.  Today I apply the double cure to my son Jesse, age two-and-a-half.  He's been horrible, a not uncommon condition for a two-year-old, but enough is enough.

We're still living in the Montgomery Ward cottage at Wagon Wheels while building our new house in La Honda.  The new house, I believe, is the cause of Jesse's crankiness because it takes me away from home all day every day, and he's used to having me around. 

In the pickup (known as the Twuck), I let Jesse lean forward in his car seat and push the radio buttons, choosing random music.   

At one garage sale Jesse falls inexplicably in love with an old brass coat rack, so we buy it to install in his bedroom.

Stopping at a grocery store, Jesse's eyes alight on a display rack.  "What's that?"

"Those are called pocket pies."

"You put them in your pocket?"

So I buy one.  As it happens, Jesse has no pockets today, so I put it in mine.  In Palo Alto we drive to a quiet street of big green lawns.  We park but remain sitting in the twuck under the shade of a sycamore.  We unwrap and share the pocket pie.  From a grocery bag I remove a beer and open it.  I pop an old Beatles tape into the radio/cassette player.

A pregnant woman with two travel bags is walking down the street, crying.  Jesse grabs his teddy bear from the dashboard of the truck and holds it, watching the woman.  She's wearing a long blue dress which is flapping in the wind.  She’s stopped walking.  Her fingers are on her lips.  Still crying.  I want to help but know I would only be interfering.  After a moment, she walks on.

Driving home, I see the world through Jesse's eyes, the world I've brought him to - the sun burning over six lanes of El Camino Real, glinting off cars, while Daddy listens to old rock tapes with a bit of beer on his breath.  A large part of Jesse's world will be whatever I bring to him, such as cruising the garage sales and eating pocket pie.  The woman in the long blue dress will no doubt create a far different world on this, our shared planet.

Saturday, April 7, 1990

Jesse is now thirteen and a half.  He's in eighth grade and sometimes discovers that I'm weird.  We live in the house I built in La Honda.  The truck is a Ford.  We listen to Grateful Dead tapes - Jesse's choice - and drive to Palo Alto where we hit some garage sales and come away with a turntable.  Jesse in his lifetime has never played a record album but has seen my crates of them stored in the attic.  He'd like to listen.

After the sales, we drive to a medical office building on Welch Road near Stanford Hospital where together we repair six entries for six psychiatrists.  I need Jesse's help to remove and replace each solid-core, dark mahogany, massive door.  He's old enough - and big enough - to help dad earn a living. 

For three hours labor on this, his first paying job, I give him $30, a great wage for a thirteen-year-old.  And he knows that he accomplished something. 

Back home the turntable works.  In fact, it's excellent.  My old records - John Prine, Phil Ochs, Big Bill Broonzy - have never sounded so good.  I haven't heard them for ages, and now I'm hearing them through Jesse's ears, a whole new world.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Today I'm providing childcare for my grandson, age two and a half.  Raj was born in San Francisco and recently moved to the suburbs down the Peninsula.  I could stay at Raj's house where he is comfortable and happy, but I consider it my job as grandfather to introduce him to the more rural life in La Honda. 

From my house we take a walk.  There are no sidewalks in La Honda, so we walk the narrow streets.  A bit up the hill from my house are two llamas in a pen.  One sleeps; one watches us with a steady gaze.  I explain to Raj that you will never see both llamas sleep at the same time; they watch out for each other.

We walk downhill a bit to another house and feed carrots through the fence wire to a couple of goats.  The bigger goat keeps butting the smaller one away with a thwack of horns.  He can eat an entire carrot in a matter of seconds.

Farther down the hill, we throw popcorn to the ducks in the pond.  Farther still, we come to "the cookie store" otherwise known as the La Honda Country Market, where we select one large chocolate chip cookie from a glass jar.

Back home we read a book I just got from the bookmobile: Gramps and the Fire Dragon, which becomes the event of the day.  To Raj it's an utterly gripping tale in which a boy and his grandfather encounter a fire-breathing dragon who chases them up an apple tree which they escape in a hot air balloon, but the dragon follows through jungle and cave and finally is melted by water from a fire truck's hose.  When Raj enjoys a story he's all over it fingering pictures, flipping pages, shouting, laughing.  We read it six times, cover to cover.  What a great book.

We talk about the fire dragon all the way home in the car.  Raj reprises episodes and adds new ones involving butting goats, hungry ducks, watchful llamas - framing the story and the events of the day, coming to grips with the fear, the excitement, the camaraderie.  To Raj there is no line between encountering a dragon and what we did today; it's all part of the wonderful web of life.  For me it's a beautiful lesson in the purpose and power of story - why we tell them, how we respond and grow.  I brought Raj to my world; in return he brings me to his.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Bill (Part Three)

Wednesday, April 3, 1996

Every day we check the mail for college news, envelopes fat or thin.  So far my daughter has received two fat, two thin, but the most important two have not arrived.  Meanwhile I secretly wonder how we will pay.

Today's mail brings neither fat nor thin for my daughter, but green for me.  Scholastic, my publisher, has sent a check of $1890 representing my royalties for the last six months.  I don't need college-level math to figure that for half a year my earnings as an author amounted to $10 a day.

Most of the afternoon I'm finishing a project from yesterday, crawling around under a house sistering joists to rotten ones that I have soaked with poison.  For two days I get paid $1153, of which $804 is profit.

It's pretty clear that poison and muscle, not pencil and paper, will pay for whichever fat envelope is eventually chosen. 

So in the evening I check out a rotten shower for a nice doctor lady, Michelle, in Woodside who specializes in treating alcoholics.  She gives me tea and says contractors are the second worst group of alcoholics - postal workers are first, though unlike contractors, postal workers won't maim themselves and will never lose their jobs.  Then she asks what I "really" do.  I get this question a lot. 

"I write novels and poetry and songs."

"Are they funny?"


"Who reads all that sad stuff?  I deal with sad people all day long."

"I tell you what.  When I do this job, I'll whistle happy songs.  All I ask in return is that you pay me on time."

"It's a deal.  And will you write me a song?  Enclose it with my invoice?"

"I'll give you a poem.  Songs cost extra."

"You plumbers are so expensive!"

Your Payment Is Overdue

The plumber wears a white coat
Clean as a boat;
Spins the wrench with a flick of the wrist;
Your pipes are kissed.
On his hands are white gloves
Soft as doves.
With holy water your faucet he blesses.
He never guesses.
He knows how to fix the stubborn toilet:
He simply oils it.
He's handsome, he's smart, his smile is sunny.
Please give him the money.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Bill (Part Two)

Monday, April 2, 1984

For seven and a half hours Mr. Lunder follows me around through the five apartments he owns in Mountain View.  He says, "I had a handyman before you who charged half as much."

"So why isn't he your handyman now?"

"It got sticky," Mr. Lunder says.

I don't say so, but his previous handyman did shoddy work - and I'm fixing it.

I'm happy to have owners watch me work, ask questions, chat, as long as it's of a friendly nature or out of a genuine curiosity to learn what I'm doing.  Mr. Lunder is neither friendly nor curious.  He's standing over me, checking his watch and frowning.  I'm beginning to see why it got sticky.

Among other chores, I patch a foot-size hole in a wall.  Mr. Lunder says his previous handyman could have had that wall patch mirror-smooth in one pass.  I say you can't do that.  You have to let it dry, then come back and finish it - and his handyman would have done that, too.

In the morning before I came to this job, I called Mr. Lunder.  Because space was tight in my truck that day with a cabinet I was delivering, I asked if I needed to bring my plumbing tools.  No, he said.  Now he asks me to replace a sink drain.  "Can't," I say.  "I didn't bring my plumbing tools.  You told me I wouldn't need them."

"No, I didn't."

I install a timer for a recirculating hot water pump.  Mr. Lunder only wants the water to recirculate when people are likely to use it.  This man is cheap, which is okay, but irrational, which isn't.  The price of the timer and the labor to install it will cost more than he will ever save on utility bills.  And saving money is the only motivation - he couldn't care less about the environment.

When I finish with the recirculating pump, the thermostat quits working.  I try to test it, but Mr. Lunder is fussing, distracting me: "What happened?  Did you break it?  Don't you know how to put it together?  Can't you do anything?" 

"Please be quiet so I can think."

When Mr. Lunder talks, he doesn't meet my eyes.  He's short, so he's talking to my chest or else looking away toward a wall.  He says, "Have you ever worked on a recirculating pump before?"

"Yes.  Once or twice."

"Did you break those ones, too?"

"I didn't break this.  Please be quiet so I can think."

"I'd better call a real plumber."

The man has me thoroughly rattled.  I give up.  "I'll have to get a new one," I say.

"You'll pay for it," Mr. Lunder says.

"I didn't break that thermostat.  But I'll go out right now and get a new one.  Let's see how much it costs.  Then we can talk about it."

"Just leave," Mr. Lunder says.  "Don't come back.  This whole job is a botch." 

"What did I botch?"

"The wall.  The thermostat.  You didn't even bring your plumbing tools."

"I'm not charging you for plumbing.  I didn't do any plumbing.  But I will charge you for the work I've done."

"I don't think I can pay you."

"Why not?"

"It's a rip-off.  I'll have to call my mother about this."

At this moment, I realize I'm dealing with a sick man.  Sick in the head.  Which doesn't give me one bit of sympathy toward him.  He is one irritating little fart.  I write out a bill.  I raise my voice as I say, "I'd like you to pay me right now."

Mr. Lunder flinches at the raised voice.  Interesting.  He says, "I have to call my mother.  I don't think she'd approve paying a crook."

I raise my voice another notch.  "Mr. Lunder, I am not in the business of ripping people off.  I've been doing this for eight years now.  I can give you a list of references as long as your arm.  I have a waiting list.  I have to turn away jobs."

"Don't shout at me.  I have a heart condition.  Don't get me excited."

I raise my voice another notch.  "You're questioning my honesty.  My integrity.  Your previous handyman probably installed that thermostat wrong and it would've stopped working no matter who touched it next."  I'm so angry I'm shaking.

Mr. Lunder backs off a bit.  He looks fearful.  "This bill is unprofessional," he says.  "You wrote it in pencil."

"Got a pen?  I'll write a new one."

"You should have a pen.  You should be more professional.  I'm not paying you for the time we spent talking."

"I already wrote the bill.  This talk is free."

"We spent time talking before the job."

"Of course we did.  You had to show me what you wanted me to do."

"I shouldn't have to pay for talking."

"God damn you annoy me."

"Now you're shouting.  I'll pay you half.  This is hurting my heart.  I'll pay you half just to get rid of you."

He's right - I'm shouting.  He's also right that it was unprofessional not to bring my plumbing tools.  And the time spent talking would normally be negotiable but not with this man.  Not now.  I continue shouting: "CALL YOUR MOTHER!  TELL HER I'M TAKING YOU TO COURT!"

"Keep my mother out of this."


Mr. Lunder is clutching his heart. 

I feel cruel.  I don't care.  "PAY ME NOW OR I'LL KEEP SHOUTING."  This isn't me, I'm thinking.  But it is.

Still he hesitates.

"I'll knock off fifty dollars.  Okay?  Now please pay the fucking bill."




One Mississippi.  Two Mississippi...  Ten Mississippi.  "All right."

With shaking fingers, Mr. Lunder writes a check.

I drive straight to his bank and cash it.  As the cashier counts out the money at the teller window, my own fingers are trembling. 

A few weeks later, examining a similar thermostat, I realize that I had reversed the wires in Mr. Lunder's device.  If he'd just left me alone for a minute, I would have figured it out.

There is no redeeming way to end this story.  Physical work isn't just physical.  There are personalities involved.  Personal chemistry.  The wrong mix can explode.

To my credit, I was never tempted to lay a hand on him.  And yet I almost killed that man.  Death by shouting.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Bill (Part One)

Wednesday, April 1, 1987

"Could y'all come out and gimme a contractor's opinion 'bout somethin'?" 

His name is Bob.  He has a drawl.  I meet him at a house he's selling in Portola Valley.  The termite report says he needs to tear the wall out of a bathroom. 

"It's bullshee-yitt," Bob says.  "I don't see no water."

The termite inspector saw water stains on a baseboard.  When I touch the baseboard, it feels damp.  "There's water inside that wall," I say.  "The question is how long has it been there and is there any damage.  The termite inspector is assuming the worst.  It might be there's no damage yet.  The only way to find out is to open up the wall."

The wall in question is shared by the bathroom and a hallway.  On the hall side, it's only drywall, easy to repair.  So that's where I cut a hole.

It's soaking wet in there with slick curly fungus sprouting from the two by fours.

Bob explodes:  "The buyer's gonna remodel ANYWAY!  He already SAID so!  If I repair this wall he's just gonna TEAR IT OUT!  He's lookin' for a CREDIT on the sales price!  I'M SCREWED!  I'm PAYIN' for his god damn REMODEL!  THIS STINKS!"

This is the point where I have to present Bob with my bill.


Then he pays.

"Ain't yore fault," he says.  "Thanks for puttin' up with me."