Jerry lived by the creek down the hill from me. He scuffed out a living doing odd jobs. He was a short man with eyeglasses, rough speech, somewhat older than me.
We'd just put in our septic system - this would be about 1980. Due to some poorly-planned tractor work, we'd lost our topsoil and were left with a hillside of bare clay.
I hired Jerry to rototill the hillside. He did the job over several hot days, hard work for cheap pay. We talked a bit. Though his speech was unschooled, there was something respectful in his manner, the way he'd adjust his glasses, cock his head to the side, and squint up at you as he spoke. He didn't curse. He was good with machines, if coaxing and maintaining that old rototiller was any indication.
In those subtle ways you can't quite explain, you sensed that you could trust this guy, that there was a history to him - and a future - of more than odd jobs. Maybe his life had taken a detour. Maybe the world had chosen him for random bad luck. Jerry was guided by a moral core and would find his way back.
Around town Jerry and I would see each other from time to time, exchange a few words, pass on.
One evening I brought my kids to the La Honda school so they could roller skate on the flat parking lot. At the same time, an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting was taking place in the school multipurpose room. When the AA meeting ended, among the people walking out was Jerry.
Another time at the school, Jerry was among a group at an adult literacy class. I thought of the time I'd shown Jerry a newspaper clipping and he'd said he didn't have his reading glasses.
All this time, Jerry was fixing up the old wreck of a house he'd bought down by the creek. He gave me a tour of what he'd done. This was an honor, as Jerry didn't like having visitors. The place was magnificent, a work of love, a museum of self-taught craftsmanship. Among his treasures was a bathroom of wonderful tiles. I asked if he liked tile work. Yes. I offered him a job at my house.
Jerry, I discovered, was a natural designer. He talked me into adding an alcove between the studs, which would add difficulty to the project but didn't seem to worry him. He suggested adding a corner soap dish he'd found at a flea market. He was a perfectionist. He laid a solid base and then meticulously, artistically set the tile. A natural craftsman. Some people are born to it.
I recommended Jerry to some clients of mine.
At one job I removed a toilet for a wealthy stockbroker and his wife. Jerry would re-tile the floor, and then I would install a new water closet. Jerry asked if he could haul the old crapper away, offering some cockamamie story: "I want to break it up and spread it on my driveway." Of course it was fine with the stockbroker.
Later I asked Jerry, "Did you really break up that toilet?" It was a one-piece lo-boy model, once considered the Mercedes of toilets around here.
"Of course not," Jerry said. "I just didn't want them to realize what it was worth."
He had no idea what world these people lived in, how trivial small sums of money would be to them, how they would never engage in something as demeaning as the sale of a 20-year-old toilet.
I called Jerry back to my house for another tile project, this one a fireplace. He asked if my clients were happy. I told him my clients loved his work, and he should be charging what he was worth. He was billing $15 an hour when the going rate was $30-40.
While he set tile around my fireplace, Jerry told me a bit about his life. He grew up near San Francisco. He and his wife were high school sweethearts. Jerry took over his father’s liquor store. One day three men held up the store. They made everybody lie on the floor. Jerry thought he was going to die. The men ran out. Jerry ran out after them with a pistol and fired six shots. He hit one guy in the shoulder, who was arrested when he went to the hospital. Jerry was in trouble for shooting a fleeing man. And Jerry decided he’d had enough. He got out of the business and moved to La Honda. It was the beginning of a bad period, he said. Then cocking his head with a squinty half-smile he said, "Lately I think this is the beginning of a better one."
I'd given him a break just when he needed it. I hired him, then recommended him to clients, got him started on a path where he had a calling. Mostly, of course, he did it himself. Rehab jobs aren't always of houses, and the best are the ones you do yourself.
At the end of the fireplace job, he gave me a bill. The labor charge was at $35 an hour. I had to laugh.
Jerry was back.