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

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.