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

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Custom Electric Mandolin, Old Growth Redwood Closet Trim

December 4, 2012

It's a simple closet, 3' wide and 2' deep.  I'm adding shelves and re-painting because — in my empty nest — I'm re-purposing my son's old bedroom into a sewing room/guest bedroom. 

My son Will, who is now 30, left his favorite bear behind, along with a couple of instruments he built.  That's an electric guitar on the left with the humbucker pickup and Will's version of a sunburst finish.  It's the second guitar he ever built (at the age of 13).  On the right is an electric mandolin which Will built as a seasoned old luthier at the age of 18.  

The mandolin is unique, an experiment built as a senior project in high school for which he received a B minus for some bullshit reason.  Not sufficiently challenging or something.  CHALLENGING?  I mean, jeez, at high school, how many kids design and build their own one-of-a-kind electric mandolin?  I think actually Will got the B minus for being, at a prestigious academy, the only kid with dreadlocks, just as the police used to stop him for Driving With Dreadlocks.  I confess, he did look sort of like a pineapple.

Will didn't care about the B minus, but he was never satisfied with the instrument's timbre or the sheer weight, so here the custom-built mandolin sits in my closet.  I'm damn proud of it.  And proud of my son, who likewise is one-of-a-kind.  (Here's a sample of his music, if you're interested.)

But I digress.  This is a post about a closet.  Specifically, the closet trim.  In 1979 I salvaged a pile of 1x12 siding from a garage that had been built around 1932.  After de-nailing, ripping, planing, sanding, staining, I had these lovely old boards for the cost of a few sanding belts plus days and days of hard labor.  Some of that lumber was old-growth redwood with tight vertical grain. 

I was totally poor back in 1979 when I was building my house, so salvage was an economic necessity, not a philosophy.  (Now — these days — like James Adams, salvage is my creed.)

And here's the thing: 34 years later, as I'm prepping to repaint the interior of that closet, I stick my head in there and discover that I trimmed the inside.  I mean, this isn't a walk-in closet.  Nobody was ever going to see it from the inside.  I could have simply butted the drywall to the jamb or used some of that thin cheapo trim like they use in the tracts (when they use trim at all).  But no, I used my lovely salvaged ancient redwood where nobody would see.  Not the best pieces, apparently, as you can see from the wide grain and from the knothole at the top of the vertical casing.  But, still, each piece was precious for the perspiration that went into it.

A pleasant surprise.  Here's proof that 34 years ago I was crazy enough to bring beauty to the inside of a closet that no one would see.  And then I'd forgotten all about it, just as Will has forgotten about that insanely beautiful mandolin that he built with such care, such pride, such goofy hair.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Deposit, Return

November, 1984

Caroline C. hires me to build a deck and a woodshed, replace some lights, install a faucet.  She lives in a badly built but glitzy McMansion overlooking a golf course.  She has three teens and five cars.  The house is utter chaos. 

The older daughter is watching a television movie exclaiming “Oh my God I can’t believe it — Oh my God he’s doing it — Oh my God how awful…” as a kid commits suicide on screen.  She shouts for her little sister to answer the phone and only accept certain calls.  For the others she’s "in the shower." 

Meanwhile little sister is listening to the radio in her room, loudly.

The son is in the driveway building a go-kart when the father comes home and says, "What happened to the lawnmower?"  He's a stockbroker.  Mr. C. goes to the kitchen, turns on another radio — loudly — and pours bourbon into a glass. 

A golf ball bounces into the driveway.  As a golfer approaches, the son deliberately sets the ball on fire with an oxyacetylene torch.

A delivery truck brings a large carton, a Kohler low-boy.  Caroline says it is for me: while I'm here, she wants me to replace their toilet. 

The next morning a team of housecleaners has converged with vacuum and squeegee and dusters.  I work around them; they work around me.  Nobody else is home. 

I pull the old toilet and hook up the Kohler.  A sticker on the base says "Leak tested." 

It leaks.  Badly. 

There's a crack in the bowl.  Shame on Kohler.  And shame on Shady Plumbing Supply for selling it.  And shame on me for not noticing the crack before installing it.  Multiple botch.

I call Shady, and they say they will send out a van to pick it up today, just leave it by the driveway.  It's Friday.  They'll deliver a new one on Monday. 

The housecleaners depart at noon.  I finish early, tidy up, go home.

Monday evening I call Caroline C. to ask if the toilet was delivered, and she tells me I'm fired.  Further, she's deducting $95 from my bill to cover the plumber she hired to install the new toilet.  Seems that Shady Plumbing decided not to pick up the toilet on Friday since they could simply get it on Monday when they delivered the new one.  When Mr. and Mrs. arrived home Friday evening with Important Clients to Impress, there sat the cracked toilet — on their front steps. 

"I left it by the driveway," I say.

She talks right over me.  "Imagine the surprise of my guests," Caroline says, "to find a toilet at the front door.  And somebody had made a, um, deposit in the bowl."

"Wasn't mine," I say.

She owes me a thousand dollars. 

A week later I receive a check in the mail, full payment, no deduction.  Maybe she asked her son what happened.  Boys will be boys.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

At the Bank

Wednesday, November 23, 1994

He's wearing a pinstriped suit, slightly frayed.  The necktie is narrower than the fashion these days.  In the breast pocket is a smartly-folded handkerchief with a small dark stain.  He has a gray beard which is neatly trimmed but smells dirty. 

He's a black man in a white town.  I'm standing behind him in line at the Wells Fargo Bank where it's crowded, last day before the Thanksgiving holiday in wealthy Woodside, California.

Two tellers are open.

"I want to withdraw fourteen dollars," the man says.

His teller is a young woman with short dark hair, a soft sweater.  Her eyes widen when she sees him.  "There's only — let me check — yes — fifty-two cents in the account."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."  She tilts her head.  "Sorry."  The sorrow is genuine.

"There might be—"

"No.  It's always the same."

For a moment the man closes his eyes.  A long moment, standing at the window.  The teller rubs her nose.

The man opens his eyes.  "Blessings on you," he says.  He walks away with a shuffle.

I cash my check, a big one from three days of messy muscle-work for a matron of the horsey set.  I'm in a sweatshirt and jeans, dirty. 

My teller counts out a stack of fifties.  I feel rich.

Outside the bank, in the parking lot of glistening cars I look around for the man.  I might offer him something.  He might refuse to take it.  Anyway, no matter: the man has disappeared like the last stagecoach. 

Only the blessing remains.

Friday, November 16, 2012

My First McMansion

Autumn, 1981

John P was a stocky guy with red hair and a red mustache.  From the moment you shook his hand, you liked him.  He had an open personality and an engaging smile. 

In the gold mine of real estate known as Los Altos, California, John P bought a new house with enormous rooms on a cul de sac of similar structures.  Back in 1981, I don't think anyone had coined the term "McMansion" yet for mass-produced, oversized dwellings with ersatz architecture.  But ready or not, here they came. 

John P hired me to replace the chintzy globe in his entry hall with a colossal chandelier.  He liked my work.  "I'm going to get you a pair of Forty-niner tickets," he said.  It was, from him, the ultimate compliment.  He quickly decided to install track lights, sconces, and wall washers all over the place.  And a couple of Casablanca fans.  Oh — and how about outlets in the wine cellar, the master bath, the walk-in closets?

John P was a child.  He'd interrupt me when I was speaking to someone else and once — I don't know how he did this — he had the operator break into a phone call at my own home so he could ask me a question about his fireplace.  Another time when I arrived at his request after a 45 minute drive, he told me he'd decided to go to a golf match and would I please come back another time?  When he couldn't figure out how to operate his dishwasher (which I had not installed), he called me at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night asking if I could talk him through it, and I couldn't get angry because from the sound of his voice, he was on the verge of tears.

John P had a daughter who was pretty, blond, and simple.  She liked to watch soap operas, sun herself by the backyard pool, and bake cookies.  Young men would come around, and she'd go off in their shiny cars.  She loved babies.  She wore a health profession uniform, didn't seem to work very often, and had an endless closet stuffed with expensive clothes.  When she found out that I'd written several novels, she crinkled her nose and said, "How do you think of all that stuff?"

John P had an elderly mother who would follow me around, pushing a walker, fretting about dust and cautioning me about black widow spiders which she was convinced were everywhere though I never saw one and, she admitted, neither had she.  When she wasn't banging around in her walker, she'd sit watching the soaps, occasionally muttering "That bitch!" to herself as evil unrolled on the screen.

At first it seemed odd that such a large new house had been built with such minimal lighting.  Then I started noticing nail-pops in the drywall.  When I cut holes for new outlets, there were gaps in the insulation.  Standing at a Palladian window, I saw a crack of light around the frame — I was seeing right through the exterior wall!  The window had no flashing, no caulking.  Incredible! 

I told John P about the problems.  "You should go after the builder," I said.  "He should fix this stuff."

"The builder?  He's incompetent.  You've just shown me the proof.  So do you know any good carpenters?"

The one who happened to be available was Fuckin' Floyd.

Floyd tackled the problems with his usual gusto.  He ripped out siding and slapped flashing around windows.  He carried gallons of tar — which he called monkeyshit — up a ladder to the roof.  He struck up conversations with granny — who had an almost equally salty vocabulary — and they quickly became friends. 

Floyd kept a watchful eye on the daughter sunning by the pool, but he scarcely spoke to her.  Puzzled, I asked, "You got a girlfriend, Floyd?"

"First I get paid.  Later, maybe I get her."

Meanwhile, Floyd had made an assessment of the house with the high-end kitchen, the Jacuzzi bathroom, the multiple fireplaces (in balmy California), and then all the shoddy details: "Whip cream on a turd."

Like a lot of homebuyers, John P wasn't stupid.  He just wanted a large house with goodies.  In California in the 1980s, plenty of big-time builders scrambled to meet that need.  Catching the first wave, I surfed for years as a small contractor cleaning up the details that the big guys ignored. 

John P paid promptly with both cash and praise.  He recommended me to his friends.  I don't know what happened, if anything, between Floyd and his daughter.  One thing, though: I never got those 49er tickets. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Fuckin' Floyd

It's Veterans Day in the USA.  I don't write specifically about veterans issues, but I do occasionally write about people who happen to be vets.  You might like Jim the Plumber.  Or The Chewing Gum Teacher.  Or here's a new one:

August 1979, August 1981

The first time I met Floyd was also one of my first jobs as a solo electrician.  "Fuckin' pleased to meet ya," Floyd said.  We were rebuilding a cottage in Mountain View.  Floyd was framing like a madman while I was drilling holes, running Romex.

Floyd was a skinny guy with an extreme mustache like the bad guy in a cowboy movie.  He wore cutoff shorts, steel-toed boots, and a tool belt.  Nothing else.  On a jobsite, I never saw him wearing a shirt.  There was a wildness in his eyes like the untamed gaze of a coyote.

We were freaks, hippies, dropouts who liked working with our hands.  In the late 1970s we were a loose collective of hairy craftspeople working the boomtowns of the Silicon Valley. 

We all started as carpenters.  Gradually we diversified and specialized.  I became the hippie electrician, reliably unstoned and logical.  Floyd was, first and always, the hard-core carpenter.

For this job, I spent a 12-hour day inch-worming over fiberglass insulation while old rusty roofing nails scraped my back.  At least 2 of those hours were spent on my belly reaching under a 6 inch overhang to splice wires in a junction box at the far end of the attic. It was easily 110 degrees up there.  At last I flipped the main breaker back on — and nothing worked.  It took me another hour and a half to track down the problem, which was in the original knob-and-tube, not my fault.  Floyd had cut a neutral wire in his frenzy of framing. 

"Oops, fuckin' sorry," Floyd said.

The next day, while waiting for the Mountain View building inspector, Floyd told me tales of women he'd known.  As a 19-year-old he'd been a grunt in Vietnam with R&R in Pee Eye — the Philippine Islands.  "I'm a hunter," he said, "and I learned a thing or two about females."  Now in the USA he was still hunting but having a little trouble meeting women as a noncommercial transaction.  Disaster after disaster.  Drugs, disease, demands.  "I'm not what they think.  All I want is a little fuckin' companionship.  Is that so fuckin' hard?  I'm a sensitive person."

"Maybe," I said, "you should tell them what you want."

"Ya think?"

"Where do you meet these women?"


The inspector arrived.  He hated us.  None of us were licensed, but the homeowner had a valid permit and could hire whoever he wanted.  We thought we were outlaws, sticking it to The Man.  Later we figured out that mostly we were sticking it to ourselves, unable to earn premium wages as long as we stayed outside the system.

The inspector combed the structure — never before or since have I seen such meticulous scrutiny — until at last his flashlight beam detected the junction box at the far end of the attic.

"I'm citing that," the inspector said.  "All junction boxes must be accessible."

Floyd exploded.  "No fuckin' way!" he shouted.  "He fuckin' crawled back there and installed it, so by fuckin' definition it's fuckin' accessible."

Floyd proceeded to call him a fuckin' ignorant fuckhole, but somehow the inspector was not persuaded.

We bonded right there, Floyd and I.  He thought I'd suffered an injustice.  I knew the inspector was right.  I'd made a rookie mistake.  It would have saved me hours of itchy labor if I'd located the junction box elsewhere.  But I appreciated how Floyd had leaped to my defense, regardless of the facts. 

I spent a couple more hours in the hot dusty coffin, rerunning Romex.  Later, unpacking the truck at home, I realized I'd lost my favorite chisel.  It must have fallen from my tool belt somewhere in that attic.  No way would I go back for it.

I didn't see Floyd for a couple months.  One day, though, I found an odd bundle attached to the front door of my cottage with a rubber band: my chisel, a $5 bill, and a note:

Found it in the attic.
Sorry I kept it so long.
Here's a "tip" for the inconvenience.
I appreciated the tip.  Mostly, I was impressed that he'd written 3 entire sentences with correct spelling and the use of quotation marks, and without swearing.   Buried somewhere in his background, the mustachioed desperado had a fuckin' education.

* * *

A couple years later my friend Sonny got married.  Sonny, the ultimate hippie carpenter, wanted a conventional wedding with all the trimmings.  My wife baked an enormous wedding cake using, as I recall, 24 pounds of butter.  I hired a stripper named Brandy (a story in itself), and the night before the wedding we had a bachelor party at somebody's house in Mountain View. 

Brandy was a pro.  Great body, friendly personality.  Sonny removed her last item of clothing with his teeth.  She then removed clothing from several of the men, dancing all the while.  One of those men was Floyd.

At the halfway point, Brandy said she needed a break, so she followed me to the kitchen where I handed her some bottled water.  Since I'd hired her, she treated me as the boss even though it wasn't my house.  We then proceeded to have a business-like conversation in the kitchen, me and a naked woman sipping bottled water in front of the refrigerator while the other guys watched from the living room.

There was never any physical contact with Brandy, other than Sonny's teeth on her panties, and her fingers removing clothing from several of the guys.  At the end, with the only flesh-to-flesh touch, she shook my hand, thanking me for the job.  Then she was gone, and we all stood around in stunned disbelief.  What had just happened?  We'd never done a bachelor party before.  We were used to casual nudity among friends at beaches, in hot tubs, or at the saunas in San Francisco.  Our straight friends called us the let's-get-naked crowd, but this was a whole different vibe.  We'd never experienced the unspoken, rigid rules of conduct with a stripper.  And if we hadn't sensed the rules, Brandy was accompanied by a male escort who sat silently watching us, unsmiling, packing heat.

The only one of us familiar with the stripper scene was Floyd.  And now everybody was ready to call it a night — except Floyd.  He was urging us to go to a sleazy bar: “I want to get stomped on, pissed on, beat up and thrown out.  I want to be degraded, man.”  We just shook our heads. 

Sonny told his naturally curious bride-to-be what happened at the party.  She of course told her friends.  The next day at the wedding I overheard Floyd, champagne in hand, telling the sister of the bride: "It's fuckin' painful to be such a sensitive person like me." 

"Yes," she said.  "It must be difficult."

"Let's dance," he said.

"No," she said, walking away.

Floyd, smiling, moved on to the next bridesmaid.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Wall Whisperer

Saturday, November 9, 1996

Running electric cable through wall cavities from an upstairs bedroom, I had to saw two small holes in the vast ceiling of a McMansion living room.  If I was slightly off in my positioning, if the wire wasn't waiting where I cut the ceiling, I'd have to enlarge the hole.  Which would be bad. 

Sometimes everything goes perfectly.  The wires were exactly at the cut.  Twice.  Minimal work, minimal patching required. 

The client was watching me, amazed.  "Dead on!" he shouted.  He was a banker, but he seemed like a pretty decent guy.  "How'd you know it would be right there?"

"Just lucky," I said.  Not true, of course.  I knew from measuring that I'd be within a couple inches of the spot.  And then I'd studied the ceiling — you learn how to interpret drywall, after a while, so you can almost see the joists in a finished surface, especially in a tract house.  A McMansion is basically a big tract. 

"Now would you hang a mirror in my bedroom?"

My screw hit the stud, first try.

"How'd you do that without using one of those stud-finding thingamajigs?"

"After a while, you get a feel for these things."

As the banker paid the bill, he gave me two bottles of white wine.  "You're a wall whisperer," he said. 

Sometimes you get praised for silly things.  I'll take it, though, and I won't worry until the walls start whispering back.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Paper Route

1958 Joe Cottonwood, paper boy
November 6, 2012

Twice I had a paper route when I was growing up in the D.C. suburbs.  This was in the late 1950s.  First I had a morning route delivering the Washington Post, and later I had an afternoon route delivering the Washington Star

It gives you perspective, tossing papers to a front porch in the dark of morning on a snowy day.  It gives you perspective, seeing the senator from Minnesota come out in his bathrobe to pick it up.

They're just people.  Politicians, yes, but still they were people and they knew, most of them, how to get along with other people.  The best tipper was a lobbyist.  The worst was a member of the President's cabinet.  The scariest was a general.

Snowy days, sometimes my best friend and I would knock on doors, offering to shovel sidewalks for a buck or two.  It was probably the hardest I ever worked, but the money came fast.  One man invited us inside for a cup of hot cider, and then he wanted us to watch his model trains, but the vibe was creepy and we got the hell out of there.

Fifty years ago I saw a congressman painting his own garage.  I saw a member of the President's cabinet wearing plaid shorts and a T shirt in his yard raking leaves, and when he bent over I saw his butt crack.

Never, in those days, would a member of Congress have shouted at a President, "You lie!"  I had an extremely low opinion of President Eisenhower (much higher in retrospect), but I would never have shown any disrespect in his presence.  You just didn't do that.  The White House wasn't on my paper route, but some big white houses were.  People lived there.  They had dogs and kids and smelly garbage cans.  Just like the rest of the world.

Barack Obama could not have lived on my paper route back then.  No black people could.  It just wasn't allowed.  My parents, and a few others, would have welcomed a black family, but we were in the minority.

In some ways, the world is better now.  In other ways, meaner.  Today I'm voting for Barack Obama.  Again.  Welcome to the neighborhood.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Paying for Power in Palo Alto

Monday, November 2, 1981
A pleasant street in Palo Alto.  Plush lawns.  A man asked me to repair the wooden fence that separated his property from his neighbor.  A small job.  He said he'd pay me in full: "My neighbor should pay for half of it, since we share the fence, but Bella's such a cheapskate, I don't even want to deal with her."

When I show up, there's a problem: the man isn't home; his house is locked, and there's no outdoor power supply.  I need to use my electric saw.  Next door, Bella has an outlet on her porch.

I ring the doorbell.  She's an old woman living alone in a nice house.

"I'm repairing the fence," I say.  "Could I borrow a cup of electricity?"

"Whose paying for it?" Bella asks. 

I'm surprised.  Never been asked before.  But: "Okay," I say.  "I'll reimburse you for all the electricity I use."

She narrows her eyes.  "How will you know?"

"Hm.  I tell you what.  I'll keep track of how long the saw is running.  It's rated at thirteen amps, so at a hundred twenty volts I can calculate the number of kilowatt hours.  Then we can calculate the cost."

From the look on her face, I can see that she doesn't know an ampere from a volt from a kilowatt hour.  But she nods, pensively.  "Okay," she says.  "Cash."

I try to look as serious as I can.  "I shouldn't pay cash," I say.  "This will be a business expense, so I'll have to write you a check from my business account.  Otherwise my accountant will get angry."

Bella thinks it over for a moment.  "All right," she says.  "I'll take a check.  But then the IRS will think I'm getting taxable income, so you'll have to add twenty percent."

"Um, okay."

"Make it thirty."

"All right.  I'll add thirty percent."

I repair the fence.  It takes a couple of hours, which includes about five minutes total of running the power saw.  Let's call it six minutes, which is an even 1/10 of an hour.

I put the tools away, coil the extension cord, ring the doorbell.

"I'm ready to pay," I say.  "Shall we do the numbers?"

"Go ahead," she says.

I press buttons on my calculator, walking her through it: 

13 amps X 120 volts = 1560 watts, or 1.56 kilowatts. 
0.1 hour X 1.56 = 0.156 kilowatt hours of usage. 
Current electric rate [this is 1981] is 6 cents per kilowatt hour. 
Therefore I owe you 0.156 X 6 cents = 0.936 cents. 
Adding 30 percent for tax purposes, 0.936 X 1.3 = 1.2168 cents.
I can see she doesn't follow any of this.  "So you'll pay?" she says.

I write a check.  Generously, I round the 1.2168 up to a full 2 cents.  Signing it with a flourish, I tear the check loose and hand it to her.

Holding the check at arm's length, squinting, she makes a careful study — date, signature, amount. 

"Fair and square," she says. 

Money in hand, stepping back into the house, Bella closes the door.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How Insurance Is Done

August 1989

Isabella, my favorite decorator, sends me to a grand battleship of an Atherton estate, serviced by a flotilla of pickup trucks of which I am but one.  Carol, the owner, shows me a gate post that was struck by a delivery truck.  The post is a pagoda-like structure with cedar shingles.  One of the shingles is damaged.   

"Write me an estimate," Carol says.  Then she shows me a number of projects: widening a doorway, building an elaborate bench around an oak tree.  Classy work.  I've struck the mother lode. 

"Give me an idea what it'll cost," Carol says.  "Something I can tell my husband."  She winks.  "Then once he's on board, we can build whatever we want.  When can you start?"

"I can start next week.  I'll write up some numbers."

"Don't write it up.  Just tell me.  Except the gate post.  I need a written estimate for the insurance company.  Fax it to me.  Don't be cheap on that one.  I'm in the insurance business, so I know how this is done."

She must sell a lot of insurance to own this estate.

So here's the game: She expects me to bid low for most of the work — a nonbinding oral bid, so I'm fine with that — and bid high for the insurance work.  That evening, I write an estimate for the gate post.

Replace one cedar shingle:  Labor $150, materials $50.
Total: $200.
It's an outrageous estimate.  I'll do the entire job in fifteen minutes.  The materials — one shingle, two nails — will cost less than $1.  I'll make $10/minute on labor, with a 5000% markup on the shingle.

I fax it to Carol. 

She never responds.

Next week I call Isabella.  "What happened to Carol?"

"She didn't like your estimate for the gate post," Isabella says.  "In fact, she was furious."

"Yeah, it was grossly inflated.  She told me, 'Don't be cheap.'"

"No.  Not that.  It wasn't high enough.  Didn't she tell you she knows how insurance is done?  She's always saying that to me."

"She wanted it higher?"

"More zeroes.  Each number should've had one more zero."

"Can I change it?"

"No.  She's decided you're an idiot."

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Saturday, October 6, 2012

Jeff climbs down from the cab of the Bobcat 331E excavator and plucks a couple of objects from the pile of dirt.  "Bones," he says.

My heart feels a jolt.

There are three bones.  One is old and large and decayed, the leg of a cow, most likely.  Tibia, I think.  I don't know how it came to be buried in my yard, but I'm guessing a dog was involved.

The other two bones are clean, relatively fresh, and a dog was definitely involved.  These are the tibia and fibula from a hind leg of my dog Norm, who I buried ten years ago.  I hadn't realized that I'd placed him right next to my lower septic drain field.

We're repairing the leach line.  After 32 years of service, roots have destroyed the pipes.  Muscular wooden creepers have strangled from the outside, while a solid mass of threads have blocked the inside.  It's all part of the challenge of living in a redwood forest.  The big trees, harvesting my sewage, are thriving.

I'd chosen to bury Norm just below the spot where I'd buried his best friend, my older dog, a golden lab mix named Oak.  In life, Oak had always roosted on a wooden loveseat in a sunny spot on my deck.  Norm would curl up at the foot of the loveseat, as close as Oak would allow. 


When Oak died, I buried him on the hillside below the deck.  I placed the old rotten loveseat over his grave, soon covered by vines of honeysuckle and ivy.  It seemed only fitting that when Norm died, I'd bury him at Oak's feet beside that now-collapsed loveseat.

Norm was a bouncy galumphus of a puppy who grew into a bouncy galumphus of a full-size black bear.  He looked like a mix of flat-coat retriever and newfie.  He slobbered.  He loved puddles.  

Norm had a tendency to overwhelm newcomers, so we often had to restrain him.  One day a Hindu panditji came to our house in connection with my daughter's wedding.  This wonderful, wise old man radiated lovingness while knowing only a few words of English.  Norm, of course, instantly loved him.  The panditji was delighted by antics that would lead most people to try to place a chair between themselves and the dog.  The panditji stared into Norm's eyes and said, "Big soul."

He could just as well have mentioned: Big paws.

Norm made a great pillow.


My youngest son, Will, grew up with Norm.  

It was Will who first placed a red bandanna on the dog.  It was Will who took Norm on long walks in the La Honda hills.  It was Will who shared his galumphing teenage years with Norm, growing his hair into dreadlocks, climbing (and falling out of) trees, playing in a rock band, wrecking the car, messing with girls, sampling illicit items, testing the limits of parental patience.  Maybe it's no coincidence that when Will went away to college, Norm declined rapidly.

Dogs give you years of love.  Then they leave you with a broken heart.  My kids had all left home; my daughter was getting married, and the day came when I knew Norm was dying.  On the deck outdoors under the trees I sat with him in daylight and into the night, touching him.  His breathing came hard.  "Dream of beaches," I said, rubbing the fur over his heart.  The breathing slowed.  And then stopped.

The big soul was released.  The woods were quiet and dark.  The moon was setting low among the redwoods.

Norm was a giant dog, and the next day I dug him a giant grave.  I placed his head uphill, facing Oak and the loveseat.  The panditji had left us bracelets of bright threads.  I was still wearing one around my wrist.  Now I placed another around Norm's front paw.  He wore a red bandanna around his neck, as he had for most of his life. 

Ten years later his legs, downhill, were clipped by the excavator.  When the work is finished, I'll bury the bones again.  With a fresh bandanna.  And freshly-blessed threads.

May he then rest in peace.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Danny Ain't: The Mitt and Ann Romney Edition

My novel Danny Ain't was written in 1990 and published in 1992.  Some of my friends are claiming that I wrote it about the 2012 presidential election.  I can see their point.

A large part of the story is about work.  About how to get ahead.  Since this blog is about work, I'm including it here.  I've been putting Danny Ain't on YouTube as an audiobook while I wait for the podcast to come out.  Episode 14 gets to the heart of it:

"Danny?  Have you already eaten?  Or would you like to join us for dinner?”

“I might have a few bites,” I said.

I walked over the white carpet down the hallway, following the smell of steak and baked potatoes in the air.

As soon as I sit down I grab a glass of milk and pour it straight down my throat until it’s gone with a few drops dribbling down my chin.  Then I cut off a big hunk of steak and slam it into my mouth, and cut another and stuff it in there before I finish chewing the first one so my cheek bulges out and I can’t even close my lips, and I cut another and happen to look up and see that Mrs. Livermore was just sitting there with her fork halfway to her mouth, staring at me.

“Hungry, Danny?” she said.

“A little.  I — uh — I’m not used to eating so late.”

Mr. Livermore was looking at me, too.  Like he’d look at a big hairy spider.

I slowed down.  Mr. and Mrs. Livermore drank red wine with the meal, one whole bottle and half of another.  I drank two more glasses of milk, ate another slab of steak, and helped myself to one and a half baked potatoes.

Mrs. Livermore with the blonde hair and blue eyes, the diamond earrings, and fancy dress looked to me like a movie star.  She could’ve been dressed for the Oscars instead of just for dinner.  Mr. Livermore had dark hair and one of those faces that always look like they need a shave.  Next to her he looked old and tired and angry.  His shoulders slumped forward, and his jaw looked like concrete.

When Mr. Livermore finished eating, he leaned back in his chair.  “Well, Norma,” he said, “I spoke with that man Henry Hoggle, and he said he could begin work on the pool tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Mrs. Livermore said.  “My, that’s quick.  Oh, this is excellent.”

Mr. Livermore nodded his head and said, “It’s a pleasure to speak to a man who’s eager to earn his money.”  He looked at me.  “Don’t you think so, young man?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.  “I mean, what other way is there to get money?”

“Some people,” Mr. Livermore said, “seem to think they can get money by whining for it.  There’s only one way to get ahead in this world, and that is to work for it.  Work hard.  It’s a choice you make.  You can choose to be poor, or you can choose to be rich.  You aren’t going to choose to be poor, are you, young man?”

“No, sir.  I’m not.”  Hear that?  I’m not.  Sitting at the Livermores’ table with Mrs. Livermore wearing diamond earrings under a sparkling chandelier, I could talk right.  It sounded right.  I said, “I’m not going to be poor.  I’m not going to make any more wrong choices.”

Mr. Livermore raised his eyebrows.  “You’ve made some already?”

“Well.  One,” I said.  A big one.  The first choice of my life.  If you believe that stuff.

Mrs. Livermore smiled.  “We’re all entitled to one mistake, Danny,” she said.  “But be careful.  There are a lot of temptations.  Sometimes it’s hard to stay focused on what you want.”

“I can stay focused,” I said.  “It’s not hard.”  Check it out: It’s not.  No more ain’t for me.  I was feeling like one classy dude.

Mr. Livermore sat leaning back in his chair, scowling.  He spoke, not to me but to his wife: “The main temptation of the poor,” he said, “is that they spend all their money as fast as they can get it.  They get paid, and they go directly to a tavern.  When I drive by that bar in town and I see all those decrepit old cars parked outside — and motorcycles — I can’t imagine what pleasure they see in there.”

“They meet their friends there,” I said.

“And spend all their money, no doubt,” Mr. Livermore said.

“Not really.  Pop goes there, and he doesn’t drink half as much as you do.”

Mr. Livermore winced. 

Mrs. Livermore said, “Danny, that’s not a nice thing to say.”

Mr. Livermore went back to scowling.  He leaned forward.  “Don’t mind what he says, Norma.  He’s just a little urchin.”

I’d seen urchins washed up on the beach.  They were purple with spiny things all over.  I didn’t know why he called me that.  But I didn’t like it.

“Well,” Mrs. Livermore said with a smile that seemed to take a lot of work, “tell me about this soccer game you’ve roped Law into playing tomorrow.  What is the name of your team?”

I coughed.

“What, Danny?”

“I forget.”

The funny thing was, I was taking a liking to Mrs. Livermore.  She meant well.  She could’ve brushed me off like a fly, but here she was feeding me dinner at her table and talking to me like she cared about me and encouraging Law to be friends with me, even though she didn’t know — she couldn’t even imagine — the way I live.  All she knew was that my clothes were raggedy and my skin was brown — two reasons for her to freeze me out of her life, if she wanted to.  But she didn’t.  The one who wanted to was Mr. Livermore, I think.  I guess that’s what he meant, calling me that name.

“Mr. Livermore,” I said, “about what you were saying — about earning money?  Could I ask you a question?”

“What is it, young man?”  He looked uneasy.

“How did you earn the money for that car?”

“Oh.  Well, you see, I was a Cee Eee Oh.  That means Chief Executive Officer.  I was the boss.  I ran a company.”

“You don’t anymore?”

“Well . . . no.  The company doesn’t exist anymore.”

“You mean you quit?”

“No.  The company quit.  It went bankrupt.”

“Bankrupt?  Doesn’t that mean it went broke?”


“That sounds like a dsh situation.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“How can you get rich if your company goes broke?”

Mr. Livermore frowned.  He didn’t answer.

Mrs. Livermore leaned forward and explained: “You see, Danny, he didn’t own the company.  He just ran it.”

“Norma,” Mr. Livermore said, “it is not necessary to explain — ”

“The boy wants to learn,” Mrs. Livermore said.  “You see, running a company is a very important job.  So they pay you a lot of money.”

“But if the company goes broke, doesn’t that mean you didn’t do your job right?  Isn’t it your job to keep the company from going broke?  Why would they pay you — ”

“That’s enough!” Mr. Livermore said.

“Yes, Nathan,” Mrs. Livermore said.

And they both poured themselves another glass of wine.

“So,” I said, “the way to get rich is to run a company that goes bankrupt.”

Mrs. Livermore shook her head, but she also smiled.  Mr. Livermore just scowled.

“Going bankrupt,” Mrs. Livermore said, “is very complicated.  I never understood it myself.”

“Then I guess I can’t, either.”

“Some day you will, Danny.  When you learn more about business.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do.”


“I’m going to work hard and earn a lot of money and buy a car just like yours.”

“Good, Danny.”  Mrs. Livermore looked pleased.  “We all should earn the money for the things we want.”

“What about you, Mrs. Livermore?  How did you earn the money for that car?”

“Me?  Oh, well, I married Nathan.”

“Is that like going bankrupt?”

Mr. Livermore pushed back his chair with a screech that made me wonder if he’d ripped the carpet.  Mrs. Livermore raised an eyebrow and watched him leave the table.

She never answered my question.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Gone podcasting...

I've interrupted my posting of 365 Jobs.  I'll get back to it in a few weeks.  Every once in a while - I'm sorry - but I have to do a podcast.  I just have to.  I've started recording a new one, and it will take a few weeks.  It's an obsessive, all-consuming project.  There's no time for anything else.

I became interested in podcasting about 5 years ago, when it was a relatively new frontier.  I'd just finished writing my novel Clear Heart and was looking for what every writer needs, the two "pubs": publicity and publication.

I ended up self-publishing Clear Heart and self-publicizing it by recording it as an audiobook to be distributed as a podcast.  I hoped that people would hear the podcast (for free) and then want to buy a copy of the book (for money). 

The podcast was and still is a popular success, but it didn't convert into book sales.  And why should it?   People listen, then they're done with the story - why read it again?

In the process, I came to love podcasting.  I love making audiobooks.  It's like a street performance with my hat out on the sidewalk seeded with a few dollar bills.  There's very little money to be made - a few people leave "tips" for the podcaster, but most people simply listen and then move on.  And that's okay. 

Five years after I started, the podcasting of audiobooks remains a relatively obscure subculture.  With the worldwide reach of the web, podcasting has the potential to reach billions of people.  One could at least dream of reaching millions.

In reality, I've reached about 60,000 people.  I'm still reaching a couple of thousand new people every month.  As a radio show, those numbers would mean I'm a dismal failure.  As a podcaster, I'm not ashamed.

For the new podcast, I'll be recording Danny Ain't.  By now I have realistic expectations.  There's no recognition by any other media.  It won't help sales of print or ebook versions.

I do it for love.  I love giving voice to what I've written, and I get satisfaction from having people hear it.  I love literature as an oral tradition, and I love being part of that tradition. 

I want to thank Evo Terra and all the folks at for hosting my podcasts and for their technical help.

If you're interested, you can download my podcasts from the iTunes "store."  They're free.  Simply go to the iTunes store and search for "Joe Cottonwood."  The most popular title is Babcock, followed by Clear Heart and then Boone BarnabyClear Heart is strictly for adults.  Babcock and Boone Barnaby are for all ages.

And of course, I'll let you know when Danny Ain't becomes available for downloading as a podcast.

If you don't care about podcasts, my apologies.  I'll get back to blogging (which I love as much as podcasting) in a week or two.  Or three.  It's summer.  Let's have fun.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Picnic Table

Sunday, June 10, 2012

For several years now I've been buying outdoor deck furniture from a strong young woman who sells from the back of her pickup truck, usually accompanied by her mother riding shotgun in the cab. 

She makes chairs and side tables using the kind of redwood that would be rejected by most self-respecting furniture makers: full of sapwood, wanes, knots and voids.  The design is somewhat chunky and the workmanship is less than thorough.  I'll be lucky if they last ten years through our soggy winters. 

finished with clear linseed oil
And yet I like them.  They have a simple honesty.  They use lumber that would otherwise go to waste.  They're inexpensive.  They're local.  I like buying directly from the craftsperson.  The young woman has a simple honesty, just like the chairs.  Most important, she has a vulnerability that brings out my protective instinct.

So I asked her if she built picnic tables, and she said yes.  I ordered a round one, five feet in diameter, plus four rounded benches.  I needed them in one week.

A week later, she delivered. 

The table was massive.  Immediately I saw that it was too tall, which seemed to surprise her.  "How high should they be?" she asked.  We measured two old picnic tables on my deck, which are 30" high.  Hers was 32". 

She agreed to cut the legs down, so I got my power saw.  "Is that a hand saw?" she asked.

Clearly she had no idea how to use the worm gear Makita, and also she seemed puzzled as to how to mark the angled legs to remove two inches.  So I measured and cut the legs myself while she watched, learning.

After she left, I whacked a few nails that she'd left sticking out.  The table still looked kind of crappy, and upon study I realized that it was the massive edge that made it look like the work of an amateur.  Running my half inch rounding router bit along the edge created a much more pleasing effect.  Later, I stained it with Superdeck Red Cedar so it will shed water, at least for a while.

I bet it's the first large round table she ever made.  I bet she had to rush to meet my deadline.

She charged me about one fifth what it would have cost in a store.

I love it.

finished with oil-based stain
I spent my career hiring beginners, often teenagers, and training them.  This woman is no teen and not exactly a beginner, but I feel like I've just done it again.  Her next table will be better — and probably built in less of a rush.

Was I too soft on her?  Not by my values.  I remember when I was starting out, taking jobs I'd never tried.  How else can you grow?  Sometimes I failed.  My customers were usually kind to me even in failure.  The ones who were unkind hurt me badly.  A few more of them, and I would have quit.  Fortunately if you're straight with people, usually they're forgiving, as long as you do your best to make up for the mistakes.  In this case, the price made up for the problems.  I enjoyed my part in the process, helping to fix it up. 

Deck furniture can come with good karma.  I'll be buying more from this woman.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

How to be a Fly in the Milk

An Evening in May

I'm a dinner guest among about a dozen people at a home in Palo Alto.  A house down the street is owned by, let's just say, a world-famous billionaire.  It's that kind of neighborhood. 

My hosts have lived in this home for less than a year.  It's a comfy old place with high-end conveniences tucked into a relaxed decor.  Knowing my interest in houses, the husband gives me a tour before we sit down to dinner.

I scarcely know these people, though I like them instantly.  I'm a guest because of relationships, though we're not related — it's complicated — and the hosts are gracious enough to include me as part of the package.  Among this small group are a Federal judge, two attorneys, and a Superior Court judge.

During dessert served with an exquisite French tea, the hostess notices that I'm staring at the ceiling of the dining room.  She follows my eyes.  There's a circular wave in the surface, about twelve inches in diameter, like a ripple on a pond.  It's subtle.  There's no discoloration, no crack.

I should have looked elsewhere.  I can't help it, though.  I notice these things.  And I know how to read drywall.

"What is it?" she asks. "Do you think the roof has a leak?  Do you think the ceiling is wet?"

Standing on a (lovely) chair, touching it with a finger, I say, "It's wet.  Isn't there a bathroom directly above?"

A minute later, the hostess is watching as I crawl into a space behind the shower and bath.  Parting some insulation, I place my hand between joists — and my fingers feel a puddle.  "Uh-oh," I say.

It's a huge bathroom with two sinks, a steambath/shower, and a separate Jacuzzi, all encased in elaborate marble slabs.  "Best case," I say, "it just needs recaulking."  I point to some areas of peeling sealant.  "Worst case, you need to repair or replace the Jacuzzi, which would require pulling out all this marble."

"Who do I call?" she asks.

This is exactly the kind of job that used to be my specialty: too small to interest the big contractors but too complicated for a handyman.  With my bad back, I just can't do it anymore.  Unfortunately, the only tradesmen I'm familiar with are people who lack the plumbing skills or else lack the, uh, social delicacy to work for such high-end clients.

"Well, thanks for looking," she says.

Back at the dining table, all eyes keep checking the ring on the ceiling.  "I wonder if it will collapse on me," says the Federal judge sitting directly underneath.

I whisper to my wife: "I don't think they'll ever invite me again."

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Gino the Quiet

From 1983 to Sunday, July 19, 1992

Gino was a strapping gorilla of a kid with dark hair and thick eyebrows.  First time I saw him, he was racing his bicycle down a sidewalk and launching himself airborne over a concrete staircase.  He landed upright on two wheels on the gravel below.  No helmet.  He was thirteen years old.

Gino had a hearing impairment.  You had to stand in front of him to make sure his attention was engaged.  Then when you spoke to him, he was slow to respond and talked with a bit of a “deaf accent” which might give you the impression that he was retarded.  His eyes were bright; his body, quick.  Even with a hearing aid, his life was mostly silence interrupted by bursts of static like radio transmissions in outer space.

When Gino was sixteen, I asked his mother if I could hire him for a couple hours of digging.  He dug three foundation holes in thirty minutes, then stayed with me all day mixing concrete, moving piles of lumber, de-nailing old boards. 

Soon I had him building walls.  He could carry a 150-pound bathtub without strain.  Never complained. 

When you work with somebody, they don’t have to talk about their values.  With my 72-inch spirit level in his hands, it was obvious that Gino had no concept of “good enough.”  Plumb was plumb; level was level — and anything else was just plain wrong.

Gino would answer a direct question, but he wouldn’t chat.  Not that he was surly, just private.  Ask too many questions — and two was too many — he’d clam up and leave.

For school he lived with his father in a stucco neighborhood of San Francisco.  I could only employ him on vacations when he stayed under the redwoods with his mom.

At age 17 he was still doing stunts on his bike.  I asked if he was going to get a driver’s license, and he said, simply, “No.”  That’s all. 

I drove him to jobs.  One summer day I hauled Gino to Stony Ridge Ranch where he cut poison oak and helped me hang a power line.  At a house in Portola Valley, Gino dug a drain line.  At the dentist’s office in Menlo Park,  Gino sat in the truck while I got my teeth cleaned.  At an apartment complex in Palo Alto, Gino held my ladder and reported on the sharpness of the TV picture as I fiddled with antenna wires on the roof.  Back home in La Honda, though I’d kept Gino for 11 hours, he would only accept payment for 9.  “You can’t pay me for sitting in your truck,” he explained.

So I gave him a raise instead.

Gino used some of his earnings to buy equipment and set up a bicycle repair business in his mother’s garage.  He charged me $10 to give my bike a complete tune-up.  A month later when I broke a pedal, he repaired it for free.  “I guarantee my work,” he said, though it wasn’t his work that had broken.

In some ways I envied him.  Without invasive sounds, he seemed at peace in an orderly, private sphere.  Rather than feeling shut out of society, it was us he shut out.

Eventually Gino got a driver’s license — and an old El Camino that he restored — and enrolled at the state college.  He’d still join me for the occasional job. 

The last time he worked with me was in July of 1992.  He was 22 years old, a college graduate with a degree in Industrial Arts.  I remember a week of baking hot sun.  We were constructing a deck on a hillside, digging holes, erecting posts and beams.  You work nearly naked under those conditions, just shorts and boots.  For once I was happy to have a wiry body, built for rapid shedding of heat. 

Up against a deadline, we completed the framing on a Sunday around noon.  Wiping his face with a rag, Gino said, “I can’t come back after lunch.  I’m too tired.”

I was shocked — and stricken with guilt.  In the nine years I’d known him, it was his first complaint.  How he must have suffered sweating buckets with his bulky, powerful body in the sun.

At my house on the shady side of La Honda it is so much cooler.  After lunch on that same Sunday afternoon while I sat on my deck in the shadow of redwoods, I saw Gino riding his bike on the street below.  Too tired?  Weaving among gigantic trees, there was a pile of dirt that Gino was using to launch himself, again and again.  How he didn’t blow out his tires, I’ll never know.  An overgrown boy on a rock-solid bicycle, perfectly tuned, Gino performed stunts for no one’s pleasure but his own in a quiet, lovely world.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Heroism of Ladders

Wednesday, August 11, 1993

The contractor was driving the family van with his wife and three kids.  Carrier boxes on the rooftop were whistling, crammed with camping gear.

The Interstate was brutal through Seattle and stayed bad through Olympia.  Farther south it was less hectic, a four lane highway.  After a gas stop, the contractor accelerated to what seemed to be the consensus cruising speed of 70 miles per hour, a strain for the old van.  

Ahead in a gap of traffic he saw a ladder fall off a pickup, which never stopped. 

The car in front of the van swerved, crowding into the left lane.  The contractor swerved to the right onto the shoulder, stopped, turned on blinkers.  More cars coming.  He got out, a dangerous move.  

"Please be careful," came a voice from the van.  The sun was bright and there was a dusty highway smell.

Dashing into the road, he picked up the six-foot sturdy aluminum stepladder and set it against a chain link fence.

Was he genetically programmed for this?  Or was he trained?  Was it just that he couldn't stand to see a good ladder wrecked?  Without hesitation he'd put himself at risk. 

He turned off the blinkers, pulled back onto the highway, made it through Portland listening to Beatles tapes.  We do indeed live in a yellow submarine. 

For his own contracting business at home the contractor had graduated to fiberglass ladders — for safety — three of them with different lengths.

That night in central Oregon the family pitched their tents among Winnebagos at Schwartz Campground.  It was a friendly place, mostly RVs in a field next to a dam and an artificial lake.  The old folks were out on lawn chairs under the Milky Way watching a meteor shower.  With each meteorite, everybody let out a cheer. 

The family built a campfire of store-bought wood and lay on their backs under the spectacular sky, watching not with cheers but with wonder, something akin to worship, feeling like tiny pieces of an awesome natural design.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Crucifixion by Ladder

(After posting 288 true* stories to the blog, this one is fiction.  It's from the first chapter of my novel Clear Heart.  I'm including it here because it fits with the ladder theme and because if you've read the previous four ladder entries plus an earlier entry called Impaled — all of which truly happened to me — you will know the origins of this fictional event as well.)

. . .

Somehow, each new day, year after year, the plywood seemed heavier while the quality seemed crappier—just like my body, Wally was thinking. 

Awkwardly balanced on the ladder, Wally pushed a raggedy four-by-eight-foot panel up toward the roof. Sweat trickled along the hairs of Wally’s armpits and dripped to the second-story subfloor fourteen feet below. He supported the plywood with the top of his belly, a splinter digging into his flesh, as he shifted his grip.

Standing above Wally, straddling two roof trusses, Juke was ready. While Juke took hold of the top of the panel and lifted from above, Wally pushed the plywood from below.

Laying the plywood over the trusses, squinting a practiced eye, Juke lined up the edge and set to work with the nailgun. Phap phap phap.

Wally slid the next sheet of 19/32 CDX ply up the ladder. 

With a final phap phap from the nailgun, Juke leaned down and grasped the top of the next sheet of plywood with his fingers.  He lifted.

And at that moment on that hillside where the frame of a house was rising among live oaks and wild oats with a red-tailed hawk soaring above, the world stirred. On this calm day, with neither Juke nor Wally noticing, clouds had formed. The oak branches bent. The oats flattened. The hawk shot out of sight.

Juke was just turning sideways when the wind hit. Suddenly, from out of nowhere a bolt of air was pulling the plywood—and Juke along with it—like a big, stiff kite.

Down below, meanwhile, Wally still had a hand on the plywood in addition to supporting it with his belly and, for one brief moment, no grip on the ladder. The updraft whipped the plywood out of his fingers and knocked his body off balance. Instinctively, Wally shifted his weight.

The ladder shifted, reacting to Wally’s sudden move.

Up above, Juke realized that if he didn’t let go he would be lifted to hang-glide into the sky under a four-by-eight panel of plywood. So he let go. The rough edge of the sheet ripped the tips of his fingers and sailed away. Juke fell back against the nailgun, which started to slide down the slope of the roof decking. Juke, with raw, bleeding fingertips, reached for the nailgun and at the same time saw that Wally had lost his balance on the ladder just below.

Their eyes locked.

Wally was fourteen feet up a ladder that was moving to the right while his body was twisting to the left. Juke lunged for Wally’s hand just as Wally, whose body had now spiraled a hundred and eighty degrees, was desperately reaching over and behind his head to grab the king post of the truss. Juke had the nailer in his grip. All three—nailgun, Wally’s hand, king post—met at the same moment.


For Wally, it was a moment of absolute clarity. He felt—and even smelled—the puff of compressed air, stale from a hundred feet of hose, that had driven the nail through his wrist. He felt Juke’s hand grabbing his own free left hand, the one that wasn’t nailed to the post. He heard the sliding of the ladder and then the clatter as it hit the floor below. He heard a mighty thud and a splintering of wood as the nailgun, dropped by Juke, struck the floor a moment later. He kicked his feet in a broad arc searching for support even though he knew that nothing was there.

“Jesus fuck!” Juke shouted from above.

And there was a woman. Where she had come from Wally had no idea. Already she was lifting the fallen ladder, but she wasn’t strong and the ladder was heavy.

Inside the nailed wrist, Wally felt two separate bones grinding against the nail. Or maybe the nail had shot right through one bone, splitting it in two. He couldn’t tell. All he knew was that inside his body, bone was in contact with steel, that the bone and nail and flesh were supporting the weight of his body, that the flesh was ripping as he wriggled, that the nail felt solid and unforgiving, that the bone felt as if it was bending and would be torn from its little sockets and pop like a broken spring out of his skin. 

Weird explosive shock waves were racing up the nerves of his arm to overload and confuse his brain. Even more urgent, rising into Wally’s awareness above the flood of pain: He couldn’t breathe. The weight of his body was stretching the muscles across his chest so that only with a supreme effort could he exhale, making quick ineffective puffs. With rapidly de-oxygenating air in his lungs, he was suffocating.

Juke, still holding Wally’s left hand in one of his own, lay down flat on the roof decking and placed his free hand under Wally’s armpit. When he had a solid grip he moved his other hand to Wally’s other armpit, supporting all of Wally’s weight.

With an explosion of fusty air Wally exhaled, coughing, and then sucked a deep gasp of breath.

Juke’s face was now pressed up against Wally’s, cheek to cheek, stubble to stubble, sweat to sweat.

Wally was panting, catching up on oxygen.

Meanwhile, down below, the woman couldn’t lift the ladder. Whoever she was, she’d never before dealt with the unwieldy heft of an OSHA Type A Louisville fiberglass extension ladder.

Juke called down to the woman: “You—uh—you—”

Wally could feel Juke’s jaw moving against his own.

“You gotta—” Juke was trying to tell the woman how to raise the ladder but he was handicapped by his speech impediment—an inability to open his mouth without cursing. Juke’s personal law of carpenter etiquette wouldn’t allow him to swear in the presence of a lady. He might be rough but he was gallant. Or if not gallant, at least fearful: Juke still had nightmares starring angry nuns.

“Walk it up,” Wally said in a voice that sounded strangely high-pitched to his own ears.

The woman, confused, raised her face toward Wally. “What?”

For an instant, Wally stared. Her eyes, even at this distance, the eyes of a puppy, luminous and brown.

Juke, meanwhile, stared as well. He could see right down the front of her jersey. Nice rack.

“Grab one end,” Wally squeaked, trying not to screech, to remain calm, to ignore the electric buzz that was running up his arm. “Place the tip against the wall, and then walk under the ladder, lifting it higher as you go, keeping one end against the wall. Can you do that, please?”

The "please" came out a little higher than Wally had intended. Screechy high.

The woman tried. She raised the ladder half way, sliding it up the studs. A moment of extended arms, trembling. As she tried to shift her grip, she lost it. The side of the ladder bounced against her shoulder and then rattled to the floor.

“I’m sorry,” she said. Briefly she laid a hand on her shoulder, wincing.

“You all right?” Wally said.

“My God. What a thing for you to ask right now.” Already she was trying again. This time she seemed to get a better angle on it, walking the ladder up the frame of two-by-fours without overextending her arms.

With something like a ballet move, Wally was able to arch his potbellied body and swing his legs sideways while the woman slid the ladder until his foot, and then two feet, once again supported his weight.

Juke could now let go of Wally. There were bloody fingerprints on Wally’s arm. Wally’s body was blocking Juke’s access to the ladder. Juke whispered, “Now what, Boss?”

Wally spoke to the woman below. “See that saw? No, behind you. The Milwaukee. There. Yes, that. Can you bring it up the ladder and give it to my partner here? Carry it by the handle so you don’t touch the trigger.” Always Mr. Safety. “Make sure it stays plugged in to the extension cord. Okay?”

Oops. His voice had squeaked again on the "okay."

Juke whispered, “No, Boss. I ain’t cuttin’ your hand off.”

“Cut the post,” Wally said.

And that’s exactly what Juke did.

Wally walked on his own two feet out of the house and straight to his truck, his hair powdered with fresh sawdust, his left hand cradling an eighteen-inch piece of two-by-four Douglas fir that was still nailed to his right wrist, trailing blood…  

 . . .

*True:  Based on fact.  I frequently change names or other details to protect people's identities and avoid lawsuits by billionaires.  Occasionally for ease-of-storytelling I'll combine two characters into one, or I'll compress a time line or use other implements of the trade.  I've been wearing a novelist's tool belt just as long as I've been wearing a carpenter's, so it comes naturally now to reach for the handiest chisel, or pliers, or plot device.  I'll smooth the rough spot out of a messy story just as I'll rub a little sandpaper over a piece of wood.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Loneliness of Ladders

Wednesday, October 14, 1981 
Quoting "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" by William Carlos Williams
    According to Breughel
    when Icarus fell
    it was spring
The electrician was standing at the maximum extension of an aluminum ladder in an automobile body shop.  This was in the industrial section of Sunnyvale, California — a town less lovely than its name.
    a farmer was ploughing
    his field
    the whole pageantry

    of the year was
    awake tingling
It was a steel building with a concrete floor covered by puddles of water.  Men were banging sheet metal.  Brt brt of pneumatic wrenches.  The roar of engines, gas and diesel, the smell of smoky exhaust.  A radio blasting rock and roll. 

The electrician, a beginner, did not have the $300 it would cost to buy a fiberglass extension ladder, though he was hoping to have it soon.  He had set the rubber feet of the aluminum ladder on a tarp as an extra precaution against providing an electrical path while he was working with live wires.  He was not a complete fool, and he knew how to handle live wires — cautiously — replacing ballasts in fluorescent fixtures.  The owner of the body shop did not want any circuits turned off, did not want any interruption to the flow of body jobs.

The electrician could have refused to work with live wires.  In that case, he would not have been hired at all.  Forgive us, somebody, please.  The things we do for money.  The chances we take.  As it happened, electricity was not the problem.
    the edge of the sea
    with itself
Without warning, the ladder dropped.  There was a pipe to grab.  The electrician reached for it — got it — but he had already fallen four feet and the momentum of his body broke his grip.  He was falling toward the concrete floor.
    sweating in the sun
    that melted
    the wings' wax
I'm going to break my leg, he thought.  And there's nothing I can do about it.  That was the electrician's only thought during free fall.  That, and waiting for his leg to break.

He hit the concrete simultaneously with the ladder and somehow — he never figured out how — a rung of the ladder fell on top of one foot and beneath the other.

The painter nearby looked up from his paint gun, pulled down his mask and said, "Hey.  You all right?"

The electrician was standing upright.  Like a gymnast sticking a landing amid the clatter of aluminum on concrete, he had held his balance.

With all the din of a body shop, the other workers hadn't even noticed his fall.

The electrician studied his feet.  At that moment, he wished — aching — to smell a wildflower.  To hear his children laugh.  To touch a woman.

What he smelled was paint.  What he heard was brt brt thud clang.  What he touched — what he felt — was raw banging pain.

The electrician lifted his right foot off the ladder.  He pushed the ladder off his left foot.  He wiggled his toes.  They hurt — bad — but they moved.  Already they were swelling.  He thought of the cost of an x-ray.  A doctor.  No insurance.  No time.  A day's wage, quickly gone.  Family to feed.  At home.  Waiting.  Milk.  Cotton sheets.
    off the coast
    there was

    a splash quite unnoticed
Pain is an electrical impulse.  No more, no less.  That night, his feet would be purple.  "Yeah," the electrician said.  "I'm all right."
    this was
    Icarus drowning
The painter slipped his mask back over his mouth and nose. 

The electrician raised the ladder back into place, setting it at a higher angle this time.  You have to get the proper slant.  He had used this ladder hundreds of times.  Only once before had it slid.  This tarp was too smooth.  Sometimes, precautions cause new hazards.

Slippery base, he thought as he climbed again higher, rising gingerly, rung by rung, to his job. 

("Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" is from Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems by William Carlos Williams, a wonderful book by a wonderful man — doctor, poet, writer — who wrote poems between delivering babies or listening to hearts, a man who understood the nature of work, and the work of nature.  I hope I have honored him here.) 

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Revelation of Ladders

Sunday, December 8, 1980

The father was fourteen feet up the aluminum extension ladder in his own house when he felt himself go.  There was no warning. 

He had the sensation of floating.  One moment he was standing there getting ready to drill; the next he was floating.  Falling.  Flying. 

He dropped the drill and grabbed for a ceiling beam, a four by twelve.  He couldn't reach the top of the beam but somehow managed to grip the bottom.  The wood was smooth except for one notch in the side: a termite hole.  Just the size of a thumb.
    Bless you
    dead termites
He was holding his weight with only his thumb, bent at the knuckle.

The ladder crashed to the floor.  The drill struck the cast iron kitchen sink and broke into six pieces.  The father would be next.

The mother came running.  Lifting almost beyond her strength, she hoisted the ladder and held it while he swung his feet to the side — swung his body, a hundred and sixty pounds — until the feet found the ladder, and he was safe.

When he got to the floor, he was out of breath.  Between gulps of air he said to his wife: "I was hanging by my thumb."

"How could you do that?"

"I couldn't."  He shook his head, amazed.  "But I did."

A child was crying.  The mother went to comfort him.

The father cleaned up the broken pieces of drill.  He could buy a new one.  He lowered the ladder and carried it outside.  Next time, he'd brace it better. 

Sometimes you discover a power that is hidden, dormant, in your body.  Sometimes you amaze yourself.

The thumb was sore for weeks.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Sunday, March 25, 2012

James Adams: Local Salvage

(Note:  I wrote this piece as an article for The La Honda Voice, my local newspaper, in hopes of bringing James a few new clients.  With small changes, the article fits the theme of 365 Jobs.  James' life has been somewhat less tidy than my own, but I am focusing on the good.  As a contractor I've subbed work to him and as a homeowner I've hired him.  We've been friends for 30 years.)

James Adams, cabinetmaker, has been accumulating trees for a while.  Not entire trees, exactly, but the rough-sawn lumber milled by woodcutters around La Honda.  From Con Law, there was a walnut tree.  From Orril Fluharty, a pine.  From Neil Young’s Broken Arrow Ranch, a cypress.  Here and there, a bay laurel, a black acacia.  Trees that were sick or in the way or felled by a landslide.  Some of the wood, such as the black acacia, was of questionable value.  The lumber was salvage, and local, and would need to dry out for a few years.  “It was pure speculation,” James said.  “I had no idea.”

One day James, needing a new guide for his table saw, grabbed a rough scrap of  black acacia.  First he sanded it.  What he saw made him sand more, then apply a coat of finish.  “It just popped,” he said.  “It looked like koa, only better.”  (Koa is a highly valued hardwood from Hawaii and is a member of the acacia genus.)

What began as speculation became fine furniture, such as a cabinet James made for Russ Haines, a La Honda resident.  In this detail, the top is claro walnut while the support is black acacia:

“I’m a big fan of James’ work,” Russ says.

In a recent project, James built the kitchen cabinets for Maggie Foard, the well-known goat farmer and cookbook author.  Maggie already knew she wanted to use salvage.  Architect Lori Hsu drew the layout.  James chose details of how to integrate.  
Some of the wood, such as the panels of these cabinets, came from an ancient fence on the Driscoll Ranch:

Befitting their origin at a working cattle ranch, the fence boards included a few bullet holes (apparently not employed in the cabinet panels).

Under the big kitchen sink, James placed posts on which he carved bun feet and fleur-de-lis:

Working on a smaller scale, James makes sets of coasters from hard and softwoods obtained locally.  From left to right, on top are walnut and bay laurel (with a few insect holes to assure authenticity); on the bottom are black acacia and pine:

For another project, James is gathering driftwood at San Gregorio Beach.  Speaking of his finds, he can joke or wax poetic:  “Many pieces have spalting, a network of black lace-like patterns randomly suffusing the grain, acquired as the fallen wood lay on the forest floor before having been washed to the sea.  There’s one piece of redwood with stunning reds and blacks like shaded fire and smoke, and harder than Chinese algebra.  I never knew redwood could be that hard.”

Like many craftsmen, James’ language belies the popular image of the uneducated woodworker.  His father taught English at Palo Alto High and College of San Mateo.  From a childhood in Menlo Park, James came to the Haight Ashbury.  He says, “I bummed around, did my hippy thing.”  One day, he pursued a job listing for a cabinetmaker’s helper, which turned out not as expected:  The cabinetmaker wanted somebody to paint his house.  Needing the money, James took the housepainting job and eventually eased his way into various cabinet shops.  From “bang bang” shops turning out a cabinet every fifteen minutes to classical mortise and tenon work, from the Hard Rock Cafe to roulette wheels for the East Palo Alto mafia, from the Atomic Energy Commission to NASA (he built a cabinet to display a moon rock), “I had kind of a history working for somebody six to twelve months, catching up on the technology, then moving on.”

Along the way, James moved to the relative peace and quiet of La Honda, where he has lived for three and a half decades.  For many of those years, he was the town’s long-running multi-league soccer coach.  With age, he says, “I’ve hung up my cleats.” 

James is an astronomy freak who owns a collection of telescopes, including a home-assembled refractor.  On occasional nights he has set up the eight foot long telescope in the school parking lot and shared it with anybody in town who wanted to drop by.  A lifetime enjoyment of science fiction has encouraged his viewing of planets and deep space nebulae.  He is also something of a raconteur, telling tales of riding a Vincent Black Lightning motorcycle or participating in psychedelic "research."

James lost his house in the recent financial meltdown.  Feeling snookered by his mortgage company, James became a picketer outside Chase Bank, much to the institution’s displeasure.  Partly disabled by arthritis, he is engaged in salvage of the most local sort: his own life.  Currently he lives in a trailer and engages in part-time cabinetry.

In spite of financial hardship, James says, “I love the fun of woodworking.  Things fun don’t pay as well.” 

These days, he seeks creative challenges.  Inspired by legendary craftsman George Nakashima (and Nakashima's book The Soul of a Tree), James seeks a natural style that gives an idea of what the original tree was like.

Right now, among James’ projects are a commission to build a trestle table without hardware but with a leaf.  He’s also  designing a steampunk guitar. 

Creative challenges, local salvage.  As James wrote:  “Discoveries.  In found pieces of trees, beauty in flotsam littering a beach, in the jetsam of discarded pieces of wood.  If only there was some way to apply this principle to our day-to-day experiences…”  Which of course, there is.

(The photos of the Foard kitchen are used by permission of Lori Hsu, architect, who retains all rights.)