November 1989 to January 1990
In the mail I receive a handwritten letter on lined paper, careful script, from a Mrs. Soo of Honolulu who I've never met. I imagine a trim desk, elegant pen, a pot of tea. She says, "You repaired a bathroom for my daughter in Portola Valley. By her report, you do excellent work. I own a condominium in Palo Alto which is rented by a nice young doctor who desires to make some changes. Please do whatever he wishes and send me the bill."
I come to a meandering complex of condos on El Camino behind a gas station. When I meet the "nice young doctor," he introduces himself as "Doctor Strimwick" and calls me by my first name. He looks to be about 17 years old. He wants to divide a room.
I ought to ask for an advance, but I don't. The whole setup is so bizarre that it could only be honest. Or at least, that's what I tell myself.
The day after Thanksgiving when I show up to begin the job, there is a note pinned to the steel security gate: "Get in as best you can." The gate is six feet high. I climb over. As my feet touch the ground, a man's voice says "What the hell are you doing?" I show him the note, which the kid has signed as "Doctor Strimwick." Opening the gate from the inside, I start moving all my tools, two-by-fours, chop saw, drywall, and a bucket of mud down the long passageway, into an elevator, and down another hallway to Kid Doctor Strimwick's unit on the third floor.
He's an orthopedic surgeon. Already having an MD, he's now taking classes at Stanford for an MBA. He must be a hot property in the marriage marketplace. While I'm working, six different women leave messages on his answering machine. It's Friday. He'll have a busy night.
When I return on Saturday, the kid is home. I install two doors and trim while he rearranges all his belongings, which seem to consist mainly of shirts, medical texts, and a stack of Playboy magazines — "Anatomy manuals," he says with a boyish grin. Watching as I drill holes and drive screws, he says, “I do the same thing in my job.” He studies my chop saw. "Brutal," he says, shaking his head.
A tenant from downstairs comes to complain about the noise but loses his nerve. Maybe I'm intimidating, standing at the entry cradling a 22 ounce Vaughan Framing Hammer and a Makita 6 amp drill with a 2 ⅛ inch hole saw, plus probably a demeanor of taking-no-shit while my clothes are coated with gypsum dust. Yeah, I've got attitude.
The doors take hours longer than I expected, and the doorknob doesn’t fit. Lugging all my tools back to the truck, I prop the gate open with a scrap of wood. When I return, another tenant is waiting, holding the scrap. "I removed it," he says. "For security reasons." He actually said "for security reasons" in normal conversation. I find this abnormal. The whole condo complex gives me the creeps. Too tidy. No children.
I can't return for a few weeks, overbooked, making good money but missing time with my kids. I like being so busy in December that I don't notice the short days, the goddamn darkness. When I finally return on a Friday, December 22, day after solstice, I'm all alone. More messages pile up on the answering machine, smiley voices — you can almost smell the perfume and feel the powder. I install the doorknob, paint the walls and doors and trim which takes all day. Painting is meditative, and I have a backlog of contemplation to catch up on.
By evening, I'm mellow and the job is done. All jobs are done. As I pass the pond near my house, a young coyote runs across the headlight beam of my truck. Home, parking, I step out under swaying trees. There's the scent of rain, the chill of a storm approaching from Alaska as so many big ones do.
Inside I write out a bill that is 50% over my estimate and lick the envelope addressed to Honolulu. My father-in-law calls and advises me to incorporate. He wants me to run the business like a business. Two of my children are setting up Christmas decorations while the oldest, age 13, needs help hanging a hammock in his bedroom. Relaxed, I help with the decorations and drill hooks into studs for the hammock. Hot mulled cider is brewing.
Two weeks later, daylight now increasing, the quince already in bloom, there's a check from Hawaii. A hand-written note on lined paper: "Perfect. Thank you." Just that. Which is plenty.