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

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Rookie: First Day

September 1976

You have to start somewhere.  You have to be the rookie.  They give you the worst tasks, and they test you.  There's no other way.

A neighbor told her boyfriend-of-the-week that I was looking for a job.  Pierce, the boyfriend-of-the-week, was a construction foreman.  He strutted over to my cottage at Wagon Wheels and knocked on my door. 

Pierce was a tall skinny guy with curly blond hair.  A pompous bastard.  He let me know first thing that he'd studied architecture at Yale.  Then he interviewed me:

"Have you ever worked on a construction crew before?"


"Do you have construction experience?"

"Some.  I rebuilt a couple of houses."

"By yourself?"


"Do you have a Skilsaw?"


"Then I can't hire you."

"I have a power saw.  Not a Skil."

Pierce smirked.  "Can I see it?"

I showed him my Black and Decker worm gear saw.

Pierce said, "I didn't know Black and Decker made a worm gear saw."

"That's what everybody says."

"Doesn't Black and Decker make hobby tools?" 

"This is tougher than a Skil.  It's a bulldog."

"Looks like you worked the crap out of it."

"Uh huh."  I didn't mention that I bought the bulldog used, and it was already beat-up from years of work.  It made me look more experienced.

"Okay, can you start tomorrow?  Bring the bulldog."

So most of the interview was about the saw, not me.  If I'd had a sidewinder saw,
Pierce wouldn't have hired me.  In 1976 on the west coast if you were serious about carpentry, you had a worm gear, usually a Skil.  It was like a law.   

Pierce made the right decision to hire me — I'm a hard worker — but for the wrong reason — the Black and Decker.  He flaunted Yale credentials, then invoked — not quite successfully — worm gear machismo. As a rookie carpenter, I'd be working for a rookie foreman.

* * *

First day, I worked with Jim, a short guy built like a pickle.  Friendly.  Jim had a dusty old Plymouth station wagon with a surfboard sticking out the rear window.

Jim was not far from being a rookie himself.  He'd started a week before me.  Together we spent the morning hauling pressure-treated 2x10s in the hot sun.  "Rasty wood," Jim called it.  The greasy poison soaked into our T shirts and cutoffs while smearing our exposed arms and legs.  We hammered the rasty 2x10s upright to a frame, constructing the world's ugliest garden fence.  The two-bys made it massive; the toxic ooze had a lethal smell.  I suppose it looked gardenish, though, being green.

We broke for lunch.  Jim told me he used to have a leather and glass shop in San Luis Obispo, “a bitchin' little town if you like small towns and don't mind everybody knowin' every time you take a shit or who you’re fuckin'.”  Jim said he'd had a show in Aspen, selling his leather and glass.  He came back to California — something about a surfing contest — but soon would be moving back to Colorado for an architectural job in Glenwood Springs. 

"You're an architect, Jim?"

"Got the degree.  Kept me in San Luis for five years." 

Unspoken was the fact that right now Jim was working as an entry-level carpenter, probably for the same wage as me, five bucks an hour.  I wondered how much architecture-trained Yalie
Pierce was earning.

"Glenwood Springs, I'll mostly be emptyin' wastebaskets," Jim said.  "Fetchin' donuts.  But at least they're architects."

"Not much surf in Colorado."

"They got snow."

I asked, "Is everybody on this job an architect?" 

"Are you?" Jim asked.


"Then I guess not everybody."

* * *

After lunch a man drove up in a Jeep Wagoneer.  He was dressed in a pinstriped shirt, button-down collar, and scruffy blue jeans — the architect's dress code of that era.  Above the waist, a businessman.  Below the waist, casual and independent and arty.  

Next his wife stepped out of the Jeep.  Architects, having an eye for structure, always marry great-looking women.  She glanced around the job site, caught my eye and held it.  She smiled at me. 

The Architect had a goatee and a worried frown.  He strode over to our new fence and drew a sharp intake of breath that whistled with stress.  He said, "This isn't what I want."

"Did we get it wrong?" I asked.

The Architect cocked an eyebrow at me.  I was being told: Shut up, carpenter.  He took another sharp intake of breath, another whistle of stress.  "I'm making a field adjustment," he said.  He told us to knock out every fourth 2x10 and reinstall it with a piano hinge so it could open like a vent. 

It would break up the mass and provide an interesting, quirky detail.  "Nice," I said.

Again The Architect cocked an eyebrow at me: I don't need your approval, it said.

Over his shoulder I saw that once again his wife was staring at me.  No longer smiling, she was biting her lip, looking concerned.

I learned later that he was a well-known up-and-coming architect with an eccentric style.  He considered a floor plan to be like a rough outline with multiple adjustments made in the field.  His detractors — and building inspectors — accused him of making it up as he went along.

New architecture grads — in this case Jim and
Pierce — would apprentice themselves to The Architect just for the experience. 

I quickly caught on that the man never smiled or showed any emotion except irritation, which was constant, accompanied by sharp whistling intakes of stress.  The way I could gauge his mood was to see how it was reflected by his wife.  She in turn always seemed to be watching me.

* * *

After The Architect moved on,
Pierce proudly showed us an antique tool he'd bought at a flea market.  He'd haggled it down to twenty bucks.  This was his first chance to try it out.  Looking like a weird wedding between a pry bar and a riding crop, it was called a slide hammer nail puller.  You place the jaws over a nail head, then slide the handle up and down to get a grip on the nail.  Then you pry.
Slide hammer nail puller
Pierce tried it on a few nails.  After five minutes and several failures, he actually removed a 16d nail.  "There's a learning curve," Pierce said.  "Have at it."  He tossed the antique to Jim, then drove off to a hardware store to buy some piano hinges.

Jim studied the slide hammer skeptically, then passed it to me and brought out his crow's foot nail puller.  I examined
Pierce's tool and could see that the jaws were chipped so they couldn't get a good grip on the nail head.  It might've been a wonderful tool at one time.  Now it was crap.

I brought out my own crow's foot.  By the time
Pierce returned, we'd removed all the nails from all the vent boards.

"How'd you like it?"
Pierce asked.

"Nice tool," Jim said.

Pierce beamed.

* * *

There were 14 boards to be hung on piano hinges.  Each bright brass Stanley hinge was 6 feet long with screw holes every 2 inches on each side of the hinge.  For this little task, Jim and I would need to drive 980 bright brass screws.  Slot head screws.

I don't know when cordless drills/cordless screwdrivers first went on the market, but nobody had them in 1976.  Most screws were slot head, and mostly you drove screws by hand. 

Pierce, as it happened, had another flea market bargain: an old Yankee screwdriver which operated by a push-pull spiraling ratcheting action.  Jim tried it.  For the Yankee to work, the screw couldn't offer much resistance.  The slot had to be deep enough to keep the blade from sliding out.  With these rasty boards, the tool jammed; the blade slid out.
Yankee screwdriver
Besides Jim and myself, there was one other carpenter on the job, and he was the real thing: a German master carpenter named — I kid you not — Adolf.  No mustache. 

Adolf could hang a door in 6 minutes flat.  Jim and I were in awe of him.

Adolf wandered out on a break just in time to see Jim struggling with the Yankee driver.  Adolf studied the tool.  "Scheisse," he said.  He held out one cupped hand.  "Give me your hammer."  Borrowing Jim's Vaughan framing hammer, Adolf looked around to see if anybody was watching, then whacked a screw.  One whack, one installed screw.  No pre-drilling, no twisting.  Just whack.

It held tight like a ring nail, but you could back it out with a screwdriver.

"No foss, no moss," Adolf said.  Then he wandered away.

Together Jim and I whacked 980 screws in less than an hour. 

(This is the first installment on a series about my first job on a construction crew.  To be continued...)

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Kid

Starting in 1963

I met The Kid in the summer of 1963.  He was a lanky 14-year-old with a friendly, unimposing, almost naive manner.  I was 15 years old.  The Kid and I bunked in the same cabin at Hawkeye Trail Camp.  We were both escaping the heat to spend a summer in the Adirondacks.  

Sharing an interest in science and a scorn for bullshit posturing, we loved canoe trips on the Saranac Lakes and hiking up some of the lesser-known mountains, especially a rugged little gem called Catamount.  We weren't close friends, but we were summer camp friends.

When that summer ended, we went our separate ways and never saw each other, never tried.  The Kid was eager to make his way in the established world pursuing his love of science; I was increasingly anti-establishment pursuing the end of war.  It was the Sixties.

When you're young, the world keeps expanding larger and larger.  As you get old, it starts shrinking.  In that smaller world I met The Kid again, in the year 2001.  The summer camp where we'd first met had died and been split into parcels.  The Kid had bought one parcel including the cabin where we had bunked together.  My friends Duncan and JK had bought another parcel including the Blue Heron, where they allowed me to stay. 

In the 38 years since I'd last seen The Kid, he'd earned a Ph.D. and pursued a career in scientific research.  Then he'd run for congress and, on his second try, won the election.  He still needed a place in the Adirondacks to escape the swelter of Washington where the heat, these days, is mostly political.

The Kid who I encountered in 2001 remained friendly and unimposing.  He actually seemed small and sort of shy for a congressman, not the backslapping power guy who walks in and dominates a room.

For ten summers now our paths have occasionally crossed as we each return to the old camp on our separate schedules.  We've shared dinners.  One year The Kid helped me take out my dock, another year I helped take out his.  I've seen him and his wife spend an entire weekend up on the roof of their funky old cabin tearing out, then re-roofing, working together.

One summer day my son and his college friends — a mix of boys and girls — were with me on the dock.  Hesitantly my son asked, "Uh, Dad, would it be okay if, like, we all went skinny-dipping in the lake?" 

Just at that moment from the neighboring parcel we heard a screen door slam and two voices laughing.  A second later The Kid and his wife, both in their sixties, went running bare-ass over their own dock and dived into the cool water of Silver Lake.

"Yeah, it's okay," I said. 

I remember one particular dinner with The Kid and his wife and some friends.  The Kid revealed that one of their grand ambitions was to climb Catamount, that rugged little gem, and spend the night.  There's nothing like the sunset vista from a mountain top, the starry night, the orange dawn.
View from Catamount
Over red wine I asked The Kid if he felt people in congress — present company excepted, of course — were as cynical and corrupt as they are often portrayed in the media. 

"No," he said.  "Of course we've got some bad apples.  But I believe the majority of congresspeople serve for altruistic and idealistic reasons.  At first.  Unfortunately I also believe that most of us, once we've become incumbents, tend to view getting reelected as an end, not a means."

"Have you?" I asked.

The Kid looked at his wife.  "Have I?" he asked.

His wife is an independent spirit.  "Not yet," she said.  "But I'm watching you."

It was a lively and thoughtful evening.  We sparred over policies, respectfully disagreeing.  The next day, the unpredictable weather of the Adirondacks turned glorious, followed by a starry night.  I wonder if The Kid and his wife achieved their Catamount dream.  I haven't seen them since that dinner.

It's good to meet politicians face to face when the cameras and microphones are off.  Amid all the hate-speech of talk radio and the internet, it's good to remember that we're all human beings, we all start out as kids.  We share the wonder of life on this earth.  Whatever your age, whatever your politics, there's nothing like the joy of jumping bare-ass into the cool water of a mountain lake.  May we never forget that.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Universal Language

September 17, 1983

Universal Language

The man tells me in Chinese
with gestures
how the water drips from upstairs
into his kitchen.
I understand.
I tell the man in English
with gestures
how I repaired the tub.
He understands.
The water doesn’t speak
or understand.
We hear it, though,
still dripping.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Devil's Grip

Monday, September 16, 1974

It's 1974 and I'm operating computers on graveyard shift, but also I'm a handyman for Jan, my landlady.  Today I promised to clean out and prop up the rotten old garage where her husband Ray used to repair his taxi fleet and where he dropped dead 20 years ago.  Heart attack.  With the clean-out, Jan is finally ready to move on.

After riding the bike home from work, I fix the usual breakfast of 3 eggs and hash browns cooked in the grease of some ground pork sausage of questionable vintage.  You could say I had a healthy appetite but not-so-healthy diet.

I start hauling decomposed tires and smelly rat nests out of the dirt-floor garage and come upon an old wooden soda box full of hand tools.  Woodworking tools: a brace and several bits, a couple of try-squares, big slot screwdrivers, several planes — all with wooden handles burnished by the grip of Ray's fingers so long ago.  I have to pause and appreciate this treasure.  

Of course I never met Ray, but I know him.  He's the man who married and attempted to tame my spunky kittenish landlady.  He's the man who constructed an elaborate plank multi-level walkway for raccoons to come to his kitchen window where Jan still offers them food every night.  If Jan forgets to close the window, the coons come right inside and trash the place.  He's the man who ordered and assembled four Montgomery Ward cottages, one of which is my home.  He's the man who collected dozens of old wooden wagon wheels and lined them along the fence, giving this acre its name: Wagon Wheels.

Ray must have been a practical jokester.  By the creek at one edge of this property there's a metal lid, like the top of a small garbage can.  Painted on this lid are the words:
Everybody who sees it for the first time (including me) lifts the lid, expecting to see a natural spring, some gurgling water, something lovely.  What everybody finds is a concrete-lined hole with a metal bed spring embedded in the bottom.

Ray must have dug that hole, formed that concrete, embedded that spring.  A lot of work for a laugh.

I can almost feel Ray's ghost, peering over my shoulder.  The sunlight is fractured by the spiderwebs and broken glass of the window over the workbench where I stand.  My fingertips sweep over the corroded blade of a try-square.  Would naval jelly restore it? 

Suddenly I bend over clenched in pain.  Have I been shot?  Stabbed?  No.  Cramps.  It's my stomach.  No — my chest.  Holy shit I'm having a heart attack.  No.  Food poisoning.  It was bad sausage. 

I stagger to the cottage next to the garage and pound on the door.  Steve Marks is a medical student, and he's home.  I start blabbering that I have no idea how to treat a stomachache and I'm embarrassed to go to a doctor when probably all I need is something simple like Pepto-Bismol or something — but what?  I don’t want to take the wrong thing and make it explode.  Maybe I need my stomach pumped?  The pain is getting worse every second. 

Steve says, "You must be uncomfortable." 

I admire that.  By choosing understatement, he's seizing authority.  He's calm, doctoral. 

Steve fetches a stethoscope and listens to my chest.  "You know I can't practice medicine yet," he says.  "But your heart sounds okay."

Again I try to explain the symptoms.  Steve says, "If it's a tummy ache you could take some baking soda."

Tummy ache.  I admire that.  Steve wants to be an oncologist.  He'll be a good one.  I say, "I don't think I can swallow anything.  This really hurts, Steve.  It hurts to just breathe."

"It could be pericarditis," Steve says.

"What's that?"

"You should see a doctor."

"I am."

"Cheapskate.  See a real doctor."

My wife is at work.  I don't think I can drive in this condition.  One thing about being sick, though: it makes you stupid.  Unable to operate a car, suffering chest pains, I decide I can ride my bicycle to the clinic, which is about 5 miles away.  On the bike I wobble out the driveway past the wagon wheels, turn onto the side of Alpine Road, advance about 20 feet and topple over.

Abandoning the bike, I teeter home and fall onto the bed.  I'm sound asleep when my wife finds me an hour later.  Steve had called her.

"Are you okay?"

"No.  I'm being tortured.  And I'll tell them anything.  Tell them he's hiding in the crypt."


She drives me to the clinic where I lie on a sofa curled up in fetal position.  A nurse calls Dr. Perkins to come out and look at me.

Perkins dashes out and stops short, next to the sofa.  He gives me a tender look, which seems unusual for a doctor, and asks if I can walk.

"Walk?  I can ride a bike."

My wife is shaking her head.  She and Dr. Perkins help support me as I walk half-bent in pain to an examining room.

"Steve thinks it's pericarditis," I say.  "He's a med student."

Dr. Perkins looks amused.  He pokes and listens and then says, "Not a bad diagnosis for a medical student."  He explains that I have epidemic pleurisy.  The medieval name for the ailment is ‘the devil’s grip’ because it feels like the hand of the devil clutching your heart.  It's a virus that inflames the muscles of the chest wall.

Dr. Perkins says I'm the second one today with this condition.  A kid this morning was sitting in class at Foothill College when he had a sudden attack.  He gasped and fell to floor, rolling and groaning, clutching his chest.  The teacher panicked.  A counselor drove the kid to the clinic.

Somehow this makes me feel better.

Dr. Perkins gives me a painkiller and a sleeping pill.  My wife drives me home.  I sleep painlessly though stiffly for about 13 hours and wake up at 5 a.m.  A new moon is rising.  I'm pain-free but weak.  I have this weird feeling that I just swam the English Channel.

I eat a small, cautious breakfast: toast and water.

As the day brightens, I seem to be okay.  Back to the garage!  Twenty-four hours, lost.  That's all.  I'm ready to work, to clean up after Ray.  If he will just leave me alone.

Monday, September 12, 2011

From Russia With Luck

September, 1985

I'm installing a light outside an office in Palo Alto.  A small man with stooped shoulders is watching.  He wears dumpster clothing with a Giants baseball hat.

I'm pulling wires through thin-wall pipe known as EMT, or Electrical Metallic Tubing.  It's a two-man job, but I'm working alone.  As I'm pulling wires at one end of the EMT, the little man goes to the other end.  Without asking he starts guiding the wires into the pipe, which is exactly what the second man should be doing.

In 3 minutes, it's done.  Working alone, it would have taken 30 as I walked end to end, over and over, pulling then guiding, pulling then guiding.

"Thanks," I say.  "You knew just what to do."

"Got smoke?" he asks.  He smiles.  Gold teeth.

"No. Sorry."

"In Russia," he says, "I do this."

"You were an electrician?"

"Da."  He handles my rusty old fish tape that I bought at a garage sale.  I'm using the fish tape as a wire puller.  The little man frowns and says, "In Russia they got this.  Not so good.  In Russia, everything, not so good."  He fingers an EMT coupling.  "In Russia, do different.  Not so good."

"Are you an electrician here?"

"Garden.  I garden."

"Are you asking me for a job?"


I almost never need an electrical assistant.  Today is a rare exception.  "Next time I need somebody, I'll give you a call.  How can I reach you?"

"I be around."

"You have a phone?"

"I be around."

I am so lucky to live in the USA. 

"Here."  I give him a five dollar bill.  "For smokes."

"Spas-ee-bah," he says, or something like that.  Whatever, he clearly means "Thank you."

I'll never see him again.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Graveyard Shift, Tilt-slab Ghetto, Mountain View


For three years I worked the graveyard shift.  Again I was operating computers, this time running a hospital information system in Mountain View, California.  The hospitals that employed us didn't appreciate the g-word, so when the suits were around we tried to remember to call it "night shift."  Mostly we forgot, and mostly the suits were scared to mess with us because graveyard workers tend to be cranky, anti-social — and hard to replace. 

I was one of a half dozen unshaven, badly dressed, all male crew operating a gaggle of computers, printers, tape drives, disk drives, and a decollating machine from midnight to dawn.  In the hospitals that we served, no doubt each night had drama: babies born, heroic surgery, blood spilled, and last breaths sighed — but we had no idea.  In our sealed climate-controlled empire, the only drama came from the little TV in the decollating room. 

The decollator took a printout on five-part paper and separated it into five stacks of one-part paper while disposing of the carbons between each layer.  Though noisy, dirty, and dull, the decollating job was popular because it kept you in front of the TV.  One of the San Jose stations ran three or four old black-and-white movies every night interrupted by Dodge commercials and a corny host who would urge people not to commit suicide.  Apparently it really bugged him that so many people killed themselves while watching his flicks. 

In my three years on graveyard I got an education in the oeuvres of James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Jimmy Stuart.  Everybody on graveyard could quote most of the good lines in, say, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  We'd drop what we were doing and gather to cheer the grapefruit-in-the-face scene in The Public Enemy.

For some workers, graveyard was temporary — an entry level, or a final demotion.  They soon moved on, or out.  For others, it was a lifestyle.  For myself, I took graveyard for the 10% salary bonus and the short hours.  We worked a six and a half hour shift from 12:30 to 7 a.m. with no scheduled breaks — although in actuality we took breaks all the time. 

We never left the building — why would we?  This wasn't North Beach.  This was a tilt-slab Silicon Ghetto.  If you aren't familiar with tilt-slab, it's a valid and useful construction method.  Concrete walls are formed and poured flat on the building site, then lifted — tilted by cranes — into an upright position, quick and cheap.  The result is a rock-solid structure, though ugly and lifeless.  Perfect for computer work.


At midnight I'd strap lights onto my legs and ride my old red Raleigh bike through the Stanford campus and the sleepy streets of south Palo Alto to the tilt-slab ghetto in Mountain View.  The ten mile ride at night was peaceful and meditative except when I got mooned by three men in a convertible or the time I got ambushed by water balloons near the campus.  Mornings, I'd ride home in the rising sun as drivers sipped coffee waiting at red lights.

Maintaining a marriage took some adjustments.  The moods didn't mesh.  I'd arrive home feeling chatty and wired just as my wife was groggily trying to wake up.  Or likewise she'd come home charged up from her day job just as I was awaking grouchy and stupid.

Days off were equally out of sync.  When my wife was off I'd try to stay up all day, which was the equivalent of taking an all-nighter.  On my days off I couldn't sleep at night, though I tried.  I'd take walks at 3 a.m. feeling like a criminal skulking the empty streets.  Many nights off, I'd take my dog walking into the summer-dry foothills to return at dawn reeking of pennyroyal and sage.  One night, walking across the Stanford golf course, the sprinklers suddenly came on.  I tore off my clothes and streaked the course, my dog and I, wet and joyous and totally alone.

In the winter rains I'd hang out at all-night restaurants.  At Kazu's Koffee Kup I shared a few silent breakfasts at the counter with pro football quarterback Jim Plunkett of all people.  He was an early riser.  We had an unspoken agreement: I'd never ask him about football, and he'd always borrow my sports section, The Sporting Green.  For some reason he never seemed to buy a newspaper.  Later I learned his father had been a news vendor with progressive blindness.

Other nights, I'd just sit at my desk and write.  I'd listen to country music.  I loved all-night trucker's radio from KOB Albuquerque.  I felt akin to the long-haul drivers all over the West.  A lot of that trucker vibe found its way into the novel I was writing, Famous Potatoes.

I became a friend of the night sounds: the distant freight train, the chuk-chuk of sprinklers, the owl perched in the oak outside my study.  From a hilltop of the cow pasture across the street from my cottage, I watched the winking of radio towers and descending lights of airplanes, the blackness of the San Francisco Bay ringed by silent street lamps.  I became a friend of the sunrise: the purple sky, the slowly surging energy of suburban flatlands as cars filled the streets and children walked to school.

Sunrise over Stanford

After 3 years of graveyard, my brain and body started sending unmistakable messages that all boiled down to this: Stop fucking with your circadian rhythm.  Besides, I'd seen all those movies 2 or 3 times.  I could have donned a necktie and switched to day shift, but for me the day culture at a computer shop would be a disaster.  For better or worse, I was solidly counterculture.

Meanwhile I wanted to get out of the easy money and easy work of computer operation and into something harder, something that seemed more real to me: building stuff.  Construction, repair and rehab.  A lot of people would consider it a downward career move, like a banker choosing  to be a welder.  For me it seemed right.  My wife was pregnant.  I wanted to work with my hands in a life that allowed for time off, for raising a child, for working part time so my wife could also work at a job she loved.  If I didn't get out of computers now, I'd never escape.

The day I gave notice, they took it kindly.  In fact, everybody said the same thing: "I'd like to get out of data processing, too."  On my last night, they gave me going-away presents of all my favorite things: a jar of peanut butter, a bag of peanut butter cookies, a box of It's-Its, a six-pack of Coors.

For the last time I rode my bike home as the sun rose. 

Late in the afternoon I woke up depressed.  To my surprise it was suddenly clear to me that I liked that job.  I'd come back part time if I couldn't find enough construction work. 

Graveyard screws up your life but it gets in your blood.  How weird.  I was going to miss it. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Swing Shift, San Francisco


Different cities, different rhythms.  Working swing shift in San Francisco was very different, indeed.

I was still operating a computer.  The job was still:
    Mostly physical.
    Easy money.
Instead of brain waves I was now processing credit card charges.  In those days there were no telephone transactions, so every purchase arrived in the form of a flimsy credit slip that had to be read and sorted by an IBM 1419 sorting machine.  If I remember correctly, the 1419 converted each charge into a punchcard which we would then feed into a card reader which in turn would go through the IBM 360 computer to end up on magnetic tape.  

Larry at the 360

If a punchcard jammed in the reader, the first question we asked was "Is it data or is it money?"  If the card was data, we'd throw it out.  Usually data meant some new person applying for a credit card.  Who needs 'em?  If it was money (that is, somebody's credit card charge), we'd retrieve every little piece of the card and send it back to the reconciliation desk. 

When I saw how many things could go wrong, I opened up a MasterCharge account for myself.  Sure enough, a couple of items that I bought never appeared on my bills.  Another punchcard had been mangled beyond recognition.

We were blue collar labor doing blue collar chores: feeding punchcards, changing paper in the printers, unloading massive printouts, dismounting and mounting tapes, swapping those heavy disks that looked like a stack of phonograph records.  My fellow workers were like a Central Casting cross-section of San Francisco:

Bernie was an Irish alcoholic.  With dimpled cheeks, white hair and fuming breath, he could recite thousands of limericks.  Soon he was fired.

Charles looked like a cute clean-cut white boy.  He had a big dong (so he said).  Charles acted in porn films which apparently didn't pay well but had other benefits.  A dark-haired man, he underwent electrolysis to have all his facial hair removed.  He'd show up with Band-Aids on his cheeks and neck and chin.  With a silly grin Charles would operate the 1419 sorter for 8 hours, stoned, while describing strange sexual encounters.  He was fired.

Bill drove a VW microbus with GROOOVE painted on the side.  With ponytail and mustache Bill was an articulate college dropout whose parents were psychoanalysts in Manhattan.  He'd offer a joint to anybody (off hours) but never smoked himself while everyone around him got wasted.  Bill was a magnet for straight women.  He had a flexible sense of time.  The day he was fired, he raised a huge stink until finally they allowed him to return to the computer room, under guard, so he could repay the $20 he'd borrowed from me.  "I don't want you to think I'd rip you off," he said, and then the guards escorted him out of the building.

Sho, the angry Black Panther, would occasionally punch the metal side of the 360 with his fist talking about how "the man owes me" this or "the man owes me" that.  He wasn't fired.  Nobody dared.

Kate was Chinese-American and at first seemed as normal as noodles.  She had lovely long black hair, a quick smile, and never took a single day off.  Her job was to manage the "library" — a vast vault of computer tape — which she guarded with obsessive/compulsive zeal.  If we brought back one of her tapes with a "data check" — meaning the computer couldn't read some part of it — she'd become angry.  She took it as a personal affront.  Data checks, incidentally, were a nightly occurrence.

Roger, the mama's-boy shift manager — the only suit on the shift — had a crush on Kate the neurotic tape librarian but never asked her out.

Bob was a dignified bespectacled Chinese-American who wasn't too bright but was dependable and hard-working, which is really all you need.  Computer operation is basically factory work.  Software programmers are the brains (and highly paid); operators are the brawn (and paid accordingly).

Then there was Sigrid, a gorgeous Scandinavian woman who always wore a shiny silver crucifix around her neck.  Tight-lipped, scowling Sigrid had the social skills of an insect — and, it was rumored, the sexual habits.  She was known as the Praying Mantis. 

And then there were a couple of normal guys: Larry and Steve.  And me.  I was pretty normal — that is, by swing shift standards. 

Larry wore cashmere sweaters, had a gentle voice, gentle manners, and drove a big bad car with big fat tires. 

Steve Chambers

Steve had a weird sort of psychodrama father-son antagonistic relationship with Roger, the supervisor, though Roger was only slightly older. 

Most operators were non-collegiate and upwardly mobile.  They got into computer operation as a smart career move and, I hope, stayed on to rich success.  It was a great time to enter the field.

For a Christmas bonus, each employee received two jars of Smuckers jelly.  Nobody could accuse MasterCharge of largess. 

Working swing shift, my lunch break was at 8 p.m.  The computer center was at the edge of North Beach near Fisherman's Wharf.  Most nights I'd dash up to Columbus and Broadway where Carol Doda and all the topless ladies danced while barkers barked on the sidewalks: "Naked college coeds!  Yes!  They're totally naked!"  From the doorway the barkers held back the curtain for a flash view.  The show might be fun for men in groups.  Alone, it would make you more alone.

Columbus and Broadway

I'd grab a cappuccino at Cafe Trieste or browse in Discovery Books for used copies or next door at City Lights Book Store for new ones.  Once I met Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was churlish (but I was nobody).  Maybe he was having a bad night.   Another time I stumbled upon Alan Ginsberg, who exuded a surprising generosity mixed with self-obsession.  I met Richard Brautigan, who was playful.  Most electrifying, I met Neal Cassady and of course couldn't get a word in edgewise.  He had charisma.  When Neal was in a room, everyone else faded.

Haight Street in those days was a death zone.  I stayed away.

At midnight I'd drive home.  One night I narrowly missed a head-on collision with a screaming Porsche.  Another car wasn't so lucky.  Six people died.

Clement Street, home sweet home.

Returning to our flat in the Richmond District, I'd walk the dog while foghorns blatted and moaned, then have a glass of wine with my amazing wife.  We'd sleep until noon.  Afternoons, we'd take the dog to the beach down by Playland and the Cliff House.  One time on that beach we came upon Janis Joplin doing cartwheels in the wet sand next to the surf.  Then she dashed to a van waiting in the parking lot saying she had a gig in L.A.  Two months later she was dead.

There were a couple of intriguing cults forming in San Francisco at the time, and we felt drawn toward each of them at least to check them out.  Stephen Gaskin's Monday Night Class was wonderful, but before we could become attached, the entire group departed on a cross-country bus caravan.  Having just finished a cross-country adventure of our own, we wanted to settle down for a while right where we were.

Across town, an attractive church was forming with a charismatic leader by the name of Jim Jones.  The vibes were a little weird there, and we decided it wasn't for us.

At 4 p.m. I'd go to work, a simple ten-minute drive.  Like a tide the job would draw me in, then send me back. 

The days had rhythm like a song.  The melody was San Francisco; the harmony was North Beach; the tempo was full tilt boogie.  That was swing shift.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Swing Shift, St. Louis


Residential construction work doesn't usually have "shifts" as in day, swing, and night shift.  I've done evening and even late-night construction projects, but the occasional job isn't the same as shift work. 

Shift work is an alternate world.  It makes you an outsider.  In business, shift work defines you as Labor.  Management — the suits — work days.  In personal affairs, it takes you outside the rhythm of normal life.  You sleep at odd times.  You shop and play when most people are working.

Swing shift is the twilight realm.  It begins in daylight just as the suits are heading for the parking lot, then grows progressively more ... strange.

In the 1960's while I was in college I took a full-time swing shift job.  I was operating a primitive computer that with peripheral equipment filled an entire room but had less brainpower than the cell phone I carry today.  The work was:
    Mostly physical.
    Easy money.
The computer was located in a mental hospital in St. Louis.  Wires ran to an electroencephalograph which was attached, via more wires, to the head of a patient who had received a dose of the drug-of-the-day, sometimes LSD.  Through the computer an EEG would be plotted while a clunky printer would chock out numbers. 

Meanwhile, the patient was supposed to be sleeping.  When the drug was LSD the subject rarely wanted to sleep and sometimes had to be strapped down.  Have a nice trip.

Giving LSD to crazy people was, um, unhelpful to their mental health.  This was obvious to everybody except the doctor who was conducting the experiment.  By 1969 he certainly should have known better.  Fortunately I rarely had to interact with the patients except when they wandered into the computer room with wires dangling from their heads.

Siv, a college classmate of mine and a free-spirited soul, had recommended me for the job even though I had absolutely no experience operating a computer.  "You'll learn it in an hour," she said.  "I did."

She was right.

"It's like entering an alternate world," she said.

She was right about that, too.

When Siv moved up to programming, the operating position opened.  Siv's boss, Tammi, thought I looked a bit ... scruffy.  I'd showed up for the interview wearing flip-flops and sporting scandalously long hair that almost reached my eyebrows.  Plus a beard.  Tammi agreed to hire me, on one condition: "You have to wear shoes."

Tammi was a good-looking 30-year-old virgin.  She was the suit in our wing of the hospital and indeed she often wore actual suits.  Of course she worked a conventional day shift and appeared to be a conventional midwesterner. 

Tammi had a boyfriend named Roy who was becoming a little frustrated.  One time Tammi asked Siv, "Do you really do all those ... married things ... with your husband?"

"Uh-huh," Siv said.

"How do you stand it?"

Siv, of course, told me.  Siv was still a student like me.  To accommodate her classes, Siv worked a schedule that overlapped the end of day shift and the beginning of swing, so she stayed in touch with both worlds.

Another time Tammi asked Siv, "Before you met your husband did you ever do ... those things ... to yourself?"

"Every night," Siv said.

"Okay," Tammi said.

"Okay what?" Siv asked.

Tammi changed the subject.

Later Tammi broke up with Roy.  Siv said Tammi became much easier to work with.  Maybe some people are just meant to be single.  Or different.  Maybe Tammi should try swing shift.

One patient, Bonnie, was mute.  She had curly hair, a cute face, and never spoke except to giggle.  Bonnie was at home in the foggy realm of swing shift.  She wasn't a subject of the experiment but seemed to have free run of the hospital, sort of like a trustee in a prison.  As a teenage girl she could approach a man, run her hands up and down his arm, and flash a wicked grin.  Doors seemed to magically open. 

Bonnie was sweet on Johnny.  A Vietnam Vet with a Tennessee accent, Johnny was supposed to be monitoring the experimental subject of the night while the subject in turn was supposed to be sleeping.  Nights when Bonnie came around, subjects tended to go unmonitored for a while. 

Johnny smoked marijuana on the job and talked about Pee Eye (Philippine Island) whores.  He said they were the most loyal women in the world.  I tried to convince Johnny that he shouldn't mess around with Bonnie who was after all a mental patient — and jailbait — but Johnny had a somewhat ... detached ... attitude.  You never knew whether he actually heard anything you said, though he'd talk a blue streak about whatever was on his own mind — usually pickup trucks or Pee Eye adventures.  Never 'Nam.  That subject was closed.

One day, the same day when Bonnie was discharged, Johnny without warning didn't show up for work.  Nobody at the hospital ever heard from them again.  It's an incomplete story for which I can imagine many endings, some good, some bad, all passing through the twilight realm.

Working swing shift, I'd ride my bike after classes from the Washington University campus through Forest Park.  In the late afternoon I'd pedal through the little insular neighborhoods on the south side of St. Louis, brick row houses, mothers on stoops, kids playing ball.  I loved it. 

Before the Interstate was complete I'd cross Route 66, Gravois Avenue, at a traffic light where the long-distance trucks and overstuffed station wagons were trapped — puzzled, or simply furious — among city traffic. 

Most nights, after running a few punchcard programs through the card reader, I could study for uninterrupted hours — and get paid for it — with occasional breaks to change paper in the printer or reboot the temperamental IBM 1620 CPU.  Every two minutes the printer would go chock-chock, printing two more lines of numbers which presumably explained what was happening in the patient's brain while the CalComp plotter would go scritch-scratch, placing another line on the graph.

After midnight, I'd ride home through those same little neighborhoods, each with its own ethnic group — all white, this being the south side — Italian, German, or hillbilly — with its own little tavern and its own little grocery.  Then I'd pedal among the amazing stillness and fog-halo lights of Forest Park to the tougher streets of the north side where I had cheap rent.  I lived above a liquor store on Delmar Avenue in a black neighborhood.

Working swing shift in the relative isolation of a computer room in a mental hospital, you start to feel somewhat removed from the real world.  Returning after midnight through city streets, you feel like an alien, an observer.  Which, as a writer, I was. 

Note: For another brush with LSD experiments, go to "Plumbing and LSD."

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Happy Clean-cut Angel of Death

September, 1987

At a traffic light in Redwood City, I'm in my pickup, waiting for green. 

When the light turns, I look down the road to see if anyone is coming.  Sometimes I do this; most times I don't. 

This time, a flatbed Dodge with a load of steel culvert comes barreling along from the left.  He runs the red light neither speeding nor slowing as if he never sees it. 

If I'd started without looking, I'd be dead.  He'd have struck me broadside.

A happy, oblivious, clean-cut young man was at the wheel, my almost angel of death.

Glad I looked.