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

Thursday, October 13, 2011

What We Do Is Dangerous

October 13, 2011
Photo by Joseph Kral

Construction accidents can happen when you least expect them.

Yesterday on a narrow road in La Honda, a truck from GraniteRock was delivering 9 yards of concrete for the final pour of a house.  As he approached, the construction workers offered to help guide him with hand signals around the last hairpin turn.  The driver waved them off.  He had years of experience and had delivered to this same project on earlier pours. 

Making the turn, the rear wheels went off the pavement onto the soft shoulder of the private road.  The barrel of the truck was still mixing, which may have shifted the load off center.  As the shoulder crumbled, the guard rail collapsed.  The truck slid sideways and backward into the canyon of a creek.  The cab flipped.  The force of 30,000 pounds of concrete falling into a canyon flattened the cab as if it had been put through a crusher.  The driver died immediately.  It took the entire day and into the night before they could get his body out of there.

Photo by Joseph Kral

Fred Eisenstaedt, the driver, was 62 years old.  Everybody liked him.  Sometimes he brought his terrier dog along with him on deliveries.  Not this day.

A day later, the truck body has been removed.  The barrel containing 9 yards of hardening concrete is still in the canyon.

Lawyers and insurance companies will argue over who was at fault.  We in the trades only need to know that a good man is gone.

Be careful out there.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Starting Out

Saturday, September 3, 1983

At Plum Court Apartments in Sunnyvale the new carpets are too high, causing doors to drag.  I'm here to trim them.  The entire unit was refurbished after an old couple moved out.

The walls are utterly bare.  The tenants have no furniture.  No chair, no table, nothing.  Two sleeping bags zipped together.  The plush carpet will be their bed.

They look like kids,
so strong and fresh.
Bright paint in the kitchen.  
Tattoos on young flesh.
The girl has one large cardboard carton; the boy, a backpack.  There's an air of hasty arrangement in their move.  Amid the high energy there's a gentleness between them, a constant checking of eyes.  Little touches.  Fingertips.  They are totally in synch.  Buoyant.  Inspiring.

Besides the box and backpack, they have a kitten which is mewing and lapping water from a bowl on the kitchen floor.  From a small radio, strange drums are blasting.

"Just married?" I ask.

"Not yet," the boy says.

The girl smiles at him, blushing.

"Oops.  Sorry," I say.

"It's cool," the girl says.

Are you pregnant?  I want to ask.

The young woman is counting their money: not enough for a pizza.  "Top Ramen," she says, and she fills a pot with water.  She glances at the boy, bites her lip, a spark in her eye.  She turns to me.  "Are you almost done?"

"I'll be out of your way in a minute," I say.

They're so in love.  So sweet.  So simple.

There's hope for us all.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Hello, Old Dog

September 1986
Hello, Old Dog

You smell so bad
and walk so slow,
lucky for you
you love old Joe.


I wrote that poem in 1984.  Now it's 1986, Sunday morning.  I’m the first to awake.  Quickly without dressing I go upstairs and let out the dog:  Quinn, age 14, arthritic, incontinent.  This morning, I catch him before he pees in the house.  He hobbles to the door, hesitates at the top of the stairs, looks back as if to say, “Do I have to?”

I nod.  You have to.

Gingerly, sideways, he takes the first step.  Next, the tricky part.  At a 45 degree angle he takes the second painful step.  Arthritis has welded his spine.  Sometimes he has to drag his rear end.  This time he sways but somehow stays on his feet. 

I remember once when he was young, I was walking him at night on a leash.  He took off after a cat and dragged me on my belly down a hill.  I came home looking like I'd been on the losing side of a fight.  Years later, my children held the leash without incident.

Now Quinn drags himself back up the stairs.  Sometimes, climbing, he gets stuck.  His hind legs lock straight out like a rabbit, and he can’t make them bend.  This morning he makes it.

A few minutes later as I'm getting dressed, Will finds me.  He's four.  Will says, “Daddy, Quinn is throwing up all over the house.”

There’s a puddle in the kitchen, another in the dining room, two in the living room and one under the computer — foamy, oily, clear vomit with no grass.  Sometimes he vomits his pills, which currently are an awesome pile:  two Butazoladin, seven Medrol, two Epinephrine, and a vitamin E.  But he hasn’t had his morning meds.

I invite Quinn to go out on the deck.  There, if he vomits any more, I don’t need to clean it up — just hose it down.

He can’t get up.

Puppy Quinn

I carry him, 70 pounds of ribs and fur, out to the deck, set him down and shut the door.  We only selected 4 of those pounds at the Philadelphia dog shelter.  In his prime, he weighed 85.

My wife and I go for a run. 

Returning home a half hour later, Quinn hasn’t moved.  He looks up at me and smiles, panting, dripping saliva from his pink and purple tongue.  He hasn’t vomited since I put him there on the deck.  Gently, I hold his legs in a way that usually allows him to get mobilized.  Nope.  He can’t move.

Now for the first time, I’m worried.  I guess it’s a sign of his decrepit condition that up to this moment, I wasn’t concerned.

Rose is stretching, post-run.  Speaking softly so the kids won’t hear, I say, “Quinn seems to be paralyzed.”

We share a worried look.  We’ve both been dreading this development.
Rose examines him.  She knows tricks, therapy tricks, that can unlock his legs.

“He’s not paralyzed,” she says.  “But his abdomen is distended and his gums are pale.”

Suddenly we both have the same thought:  poison.  A neighbor’s dog was poisoned two weeks ago.  Time to move fast.  I call the neighbor, Kurt, who owns a car repair shop and has, coincidentally, a German Shepherd who looks just like Quinn.  What were the symptoms when his dog was poisoned?

“Bleeding from the nostrils,” says Kurt.

“Did his stomach swell up?”


So that's not it.

Rose and I hurriedly talk it over.  We're thinking:  blocked intestine.  Sometimes in big dogs they get twisted and nothing can pass.  The problem occurred — or may have occurred — once before on a weekend when our regular vet was getting married.  We took Quinn to the Emergency Vet in South Palo Alto.  This man diagnosed intestinal blockage but nearly killed Quinn with anesthesia in the process.  We later showed the x-rays to our regular vet, who said it didn’t look like a blockage at all.

Now, this being a Sunday, we are stuck with the Emergency Vet again.  They have a terrible reputation, not just from our experience but from everybody we've talked to.  We also doubt that Quinn would survive the 45 minute drive over the mountain.  Rose wants to intervene, to help.  I want to let nature takes its course.  For weeks we’ve dreaded the prospect of having to put Quinn down.  Now it seems that nature has stepped in to do the job for us.

Rose calls the Emergency Vet and describes the distended abdomen, the pale gums and vomiting.  The woman who answers the phone says, “Bring the dog in right away or he will die a slow and painful death.”

Rose is dancing on hot coals.  I point out that the woman is a receptionist, not a vet, probably doesn't know her ass from her elbow, and in any event she had no business making that kind of a statement.

Rose calls Fawn, a friend whose old decrepit Irish Setter recently died, who keeps horses and runs a 4-digit monthly vet bill, who above all has a clear head and will be less emotionally wracked than we are.  Fawn comes right over.  Good friend.  Quinn, meanwhile, hasn’t moved.  He lies there, looking up at us, panting, sometimes smiling.  His eyes are getting cloudy.

Fawn’s first act is to put her arm around my back.  I’m moved by the gesture because  Fawn is not a touchy-feely sort of person — and neither am I.  She says, “Quinn looks just like my dog on the day he died.”

Fawn knows of some vets who make house calls.  Rose tries calling one and, miraculously, he answers the phone.  He listens carefully and speculates that Quinn is either having congestive heart failure or “a tumor that has outgrown its blood supply and burst” (which I don’t understand, but which seems to make sense to Rose).  The vet says it doesn’t sound like intestinal blockage because Quinn doesn’t seem to be in pain.  It’s now 11 am.  He’ll be home until 4 pm.  We can call him again, or bring the dog in.

Bless you, unseen vet!

I bet it’s heart failure — possibly brought on by the Epinephrine which we gave him for bladder control but which is a stimulant and made him restless all night.

The children have been standing around, asking questions we haven’t had time to answer.  Now we put it to them:  Quinn is dying.  He can’t move.  We can’t fix him.  All we can do is be with him and try to make him comfortable.

Will, though raptly attentive, doesn’t seem distressed.  He’s silent, sucking thumb and holding his raggedy blue blanket for comfort.

My daughter is eight.  She says she doesn’t want Quinn to die.  She cries.  Never one to repress her emotions, she gets it out of her system for the moment and moves on.

Jesse, age nine, gets very quiet.  He brings out his old sleeping bag, one with a “4x4 Truckin” pattern, now oozing stuffing from multiple wounds.  He lays it over Quinn’s rear legs and back.

Sometimes our job is just to be there.  To bear witness.  To comfort.  We stay with our dying dog.

But nothing happens.  Quinn gets neither better nor worse.  My daughter wants to know if we’ll bury him.  I say yes.  Where?  In the yard.  I feel uneasy discussing his death as we kneel over him.  He can hear us.  He’s always known the sense of what we’re saying if not the words.  But I’m sure he already knows he’s dying.  And he seems calm about it.  Maybe, I wonder, he feels relieved.

I’ve never witnessed a natural death before — only violent ones, or ones from sickness.

With nothing happening, the kids start wandering off.  I go to the garage and start building a wall.  Just yesterday, Quinn was out here helping — hobbling after me or sitting with his feet on his tail at the top of the driveway watching his favorite view:  the parade of dogs and children and joggers and bikes on the road below.

I remember the time Quinn chased a burglar out of our house.  A neighbor saw it.  First the burglar alarm went off — which is probably the only reason Quinn woke up — then the burglar leaped over the balcony rail with Quinn biting his butt.

That’s the purpose of our burglar alarm:  to wake up the dog.

When Jesse was a toddler, he used Quinn as an armchair.

When you have a 70 pound dog and a 10 pound child, you must have trust.  And training.  We only messed up once.  Will has — and shall always have — a scar on his cheek where Quinn nipped him.  It was our fault for letting Will crawl over to the food bowl and play with the kibble while Quinn was eating.  Afterwards, the dog apologized endlessly.  Go on, he seemed to be saying.  Eat my kibble.  You can have it.

You have to trust.

Other than that, he's been the kids' guardian.  It's his job.

Quinn was always a lover of puddles, a chaser of birds, snapper of bees — if he caught a bee, he made a face but never seemed to get stung.  When Rose and I quarreled, he’d stand between us — silently, solidly — as if to break it up.  He’d wake us with a warm wet greasy tongue.  If we tried to take a family photo, he'd always barge in front.

He had a big heart.

And now the heart was shutting down.

Rose calls to me where I'm working down by the garage:  “You may want to come back,” she says.

Quinn’s eyes are sinking in.  His tongue hangs down on the boards of the deck.  His eyes glaze — and then suddenly he twitches.  For a moment he acts alert.  His ears prick.  What does he hear?  He tries to move, fails, and drops back on his side.

We watch.  There’s no telling how long it will go on.  The vigil begins to seem like an ordeal.  We tell Jesse that he can go play if he wants.  Jesse touches Quinn’s neck, the soft fur, the friend he’s grown up with who followed him and woke him with that same greasy tongue.  “Goodbye, Quinn,” he says. 

I remember the time I left Quinn locked in our car, and he destroyed it.  At the body shop the manager said he'd only seen one other car shredded like this: by a bear at Yosemite.

I stay with Quinn.  He seems to be slipping away.  His breath is slowing down.  There are pauses when he is breathing neither out nor in.  His eyes, though open, are gone.  I rub his neck.

The breaths come farther and farther apart.  I’m still fondling his fur.  Then, as I am wondering when the next breath will begin, I realize it won’t.

We cry.

Jesse removes Quinn’s collar with its jangly dog tags and fastens it around his own neck.  When he moves, he jangles.  It startles me.

We decide to bury Quinn in the sleeping bag which is still draped over his rear.  I don’t cover his face.  I want to look at him.  He looks peaceful at last, jaws still open from his last clenching breath.  He never got mean, never snapped at us, not even at the end.

I’m amazed at how much water my eyes can make.  My glasses steam up.  I wipe them and they steam up again. 

I find two shovels and a pick.  Jesse, Will, and I dig a hole right where the ground is hardest on the hillside that we call our yard.  Solid clay and rocks.  We chose this spot because Quinn used to lie at the window and look out — for hours — on this ground. 

The work feels good.  I attack with a fury.  We haul dirt away in a wheelbarrow.  He was so full of life, it's hard to believe one small hole could contain him.

I wrap Quinn in the sleeping bag.  He’s half stiff.  I have to bend him — like unwarping a plank of wood — to fit him in the hole.  Taking turns, we each take a shovelful of dirt and drop it on the sleeping bag.  I bring some garden dirt we’d been saving in a garbage can.  Then I bring a compost pile I’d created last year.  Quinn’s grave will now be the richest soil on the hillside.

My daughter and Will pick wildflowers and lay them on the grave.  Jesse finds a jagged slab of broken marble that I’ve had laying around for years and sets it on top of the mound of earth.

Once as an experiment I left Quinn in my neighbor's house, went home, closed the doors and windows.  From my kitchen window I could see Quinn in the kitchen next door.  "Quinn," I whispered.  His ears shot up.  Amazing!  I repeated several times.  Each time, he could hear my whisper across a hundred feet through the walls of two houses.

I go to bang on the garage.  Hammering nails seems to be exactly what I need right now.  My plan for the day had been to build this wall on the rear of the garage, meet with two people about estimating jobs, and finish repairing a shower for my next door neighbor, Mark.

Mark finds me nailing in the garage.  He wants to know if I can work on the shower.  I say I feel like banging nails.  He understands.  But then I snap out of it.

Finishing the shower means cutting and gluing a sheet of CPE plastic for the shower pan.  The glue fumes are deadly.  Mark opens windows until a cold blast is roaring through the bathroom.  His family starts screaming that they’re freezing.  I’m probably stoned from glue-sniffing, but I don’t feel it and I don’t care anyway.

Dinner.  Sundays we make a point of having a special family dinner.  It’s usually the only day we’re all together.  Tonight we are all subdued.   The windowsills surrounding the dining room are deeply scratched where Quinn used to claw at them, expressing his anger at dogs he could see passing on the road.

After dinner I go down to the garage and try to finish the wall, defying darkness.

For bedtime, we read That Dog to the kids — a story by Nanette Newman of a boy whose dog dies, who thinks he will never want another, then is won over by a puppy.  Right now, it's hard to believe.

But it's true.  It will happen to us.  Quinn was my favorite dog in the whole world, and so will be the next one, and the one after that.  We'll go through this cycle several more times until our own cycle has passed. 

Tucking Will in, he remembers a puppy we met a couple of weeks ago named Litho.  Only, Will calls him “Licko.”  An excellent name.  He also says we had “barkeley" for dinner (broccoli).  Good names.

Standing at the back door I look out at the marble slab, the flowers, the mound of earth.  "Quinn," I whisper.  "You had a tough old heart."

I know he hears.

Quinn also makes an appearance in these posts:
Jim the Plumber
Bad Toilet
The Airplane Room Part Two.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


October 2002

As he opens the front door I say, "Hi, Lee.  How are you today?"

"Not so good."  He's a sun-spotted man with thin white hair.  Stooping shoulders. 

I've been maintaining Lee's properties for years.  He's wealthy, retired, walks with a cane.  

Today in his residence I replace a vent fan and a couple of light bulbs.  He always has a couple of lamps that need changing.  He could do it himself, but he waits until he needs me for some other job, then adds the bulbs to the list.  I think it's just to make me linger a little longer.  He gets lonely.

While I replace bulbs, we talk.  Lee's always been a straight shooter, so I shoot right back.  It's why we can get along even though, politically, we're polar opposites.

Lee says, "I've been told I have five more years here, so I hope you repaired accordingly."

"Are you moving?  Or dying?" 

"The latter."  He laughs.  "My warranty will expire."

I examine the carton.  "Looks like the vent fan has a ninety day warranty."

"Ninety days?  I've got ice cubes that last longer than that."

"Your old vent fan lasted twenty-five years, so this one probably will, too."

"What about the light bulbs?" Lee asks.

I examine the box.  "Rated for two thousand hours."

Lee calculates for a moment.  "That's even less than ninety days."

"Not if you turn them off."

"That's what I'll do.  I'll sit in the dark."  He laughs.  "That way they'll last forever."

Five years pass. 

And four more.

Lee is still calling me.  I built a ramp to his front door, installed grab bars everywhere. 

The latest.  Lee calls: "I need a new water heater.  What can you get me?"

"They come with five-year or ten-year tanks."

"Get me a one-year."

I don't say so, but I'll bring him a ten.

"Also," Lee says, "I've got some light bulbs burned out."

May we all outlast our warranties.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Hamilton Holmes

October 1983

Hamilton Holmes

Hamilton Holmes has a heart condition.
You want to listen?
In his garage he found under a wheel
six hundred shares of U. S. Steel.
A broker would make him wait seven days.
He's in a hurry.  How much will you pay?
See that Audi?  Almost new.
Worth four grand.  He'll take two.
The reason is, he needs surgery real quick.
Pay cash now.  Then go for a trip.
You want it?  You like him?
Don't fall for his art.
Remember he warned you:
he has a bad heart.

(Not his real name, by the way.)

I got a call from an apartment manager asking if I could break into a unit.  A tenant had changed the locks.

As I've written before, carpentry is great training for a burglar.  In this case, all I had to do was pry out the door stop and cut the deadbolt with a recipro saw.  Unlike a burglar, I didn't have to worry about noise.

The tenant was gone and so was the furniture that came with the unit.  So were the faucets, shower nozzle, toilet, light fixtures, schlock artwork, drapes, carpet, doormat, stove, refrigerator, dishwasher, and garbage disposal.  He left the bathtub.

Now I had a couple day's work restoring this unit. 

The manager said the guy had a British accent and a charming manner.  He wrote a bad check late Friday afternoon which didn't bounce until Tuesday.  The manager spent all day Wednesday trying to contact him.  Thursday, the manager picked up the local paper and, by golly, the tenant's mug shot was on the front page.  He'd been flim-flamming people all up and down the San Francisco Peninsula.  A detective with the San Jose police was quoted as admiring the guy's work ethic:  "He was tireless.  He cheated people at six a.m. and he cheated people at midnight.  The man never quit."

He'd been trying to raise money for a heart operation.  The harder he worked, the more he needed it.

In prison, I bet he got the surgery.  For free.