Friday, July 21, 2006

Work A Mile In My Shoes

Itinerancy and carpentry go hand in hand fairly well. Itinerancy takes you from place to place. Carpentry takes you inside the lives of people who live in that place.

The world is made up of dwellings. Look around you. Where you are right now was built by somebody willing to get a little dirty.

You have a roof installed by somebody willing to stoop in the hot sun for hours at a time, walk on ankle twisting slopes and, in some cases, put up with the smell of hot tar and the ever present reality that you may be badly burned.

You may be looking at paneling fabricated in large plants full of horrific dust and the stench of glue.

Your feet may be resting on carpet or linoleum, installed by guys willing to crawl around on their knees for most of the day, everyday, for years and years...

Framers built the frames and workmen hung siding, stone, brick, sheetrock, wiring, plumbing, paint, tile, and whatever you see right to the frame. Everywhere in the world, you have houses built by men and women willing to get a little dirty.

There's no real big story here. Just some anecdotes about being alive and doing things for the sake of another's comfort, years down the road. Most people who work hard for a living have a knack for shutting out the discomforts and pain, and "getting on with it", doing what needs to be done, complaining in a manner that makes it all funny, as if laughing about spider's eggs inhaled up your nostrils will make them stop tickling your throat, as if laughing about cat piss in your hair will make it not smell like cat piss in your hair.

At 43, I've finally learned to say NO to certain jobs. I won't crawl around in insulated attics anymore. Even my own. At some point, the body says enough is enough, and my body tells me that by swelling into hives from the dusty insulation that sticks to sweaty skin like dog hair sticks to tree sap.

I won't pick up a refrigerator by myself anymore. My spine has had enough.

I won't be around any sprayed enameled paints or laquers anymore. If I'm gonna kill brain cells, I want to do it with beer.

I remember being sixteen and working for a Christian family man who had probably come to these same conclusions. Enough for him, he thought. Better to get a kid full of enthusiasm and tell him how it is done.

He sent me under a house that had three inches of water under the whole thing.

"You can change when you get out."

"I didn't bring extra clothes."

"I've got over-alls that'll fit you."


With an electric grinder, a pair of safety glasses, and these instructions.

"Don't let the cord get in the water."

"What if it does?"

"I'll pull the plug."


"And make sure you grind so the sparks fly away from you."

"I'm not stupid."

"I know you're not."


I needed to grind out a cast iron trap and replace it with a plastic one. All for a grotesquely fat and lazy wellfare recipient that wouldn't thank me later.

So picture this. Three inches of water. Holding a bunched cord in my left hand. Laying underneath the trap and sending sparks directly at my groin area. My boss holding the extension cord connection in case I electrocuted myself--like a manual breaker. Ten minutes of this hell, holding my head out of the water while my neck ached, and the toilet trap finally breaks and falls and hits me in the chest and dumps its contents there.

Week old poop and four or five well used maxi-pads.

Sitting on my chest.

And I can't roll over because of limited space. I can't put down the electric grinder or the cord because of the water.

I have to just look at this pile and deal with it being there. I had to actually take the time to think.

I got out, I got cleaned up (there are few limitations on how much soap and scrubbing a man can do) and my boss gave me an "I owe you one."

I think I owe you one, was what I was thinking in return.

And today, the little kid or the lady or the man and his magazine sitting on that toilet, will never know what I did for them. Nor will they care. As long as it works!

In the nineties I did alot of work for famous people. I also did alot of work for a few boutique wineries in and around Healdsburg, Ca..

I was playing tennis one afternoon and got a call from a desperate owner of one of these wineries-- an extremely kind and funny man who had started his winery thirty years prior and built it up into a great maker of Pinot Noir--

The crush was on, he had trucks full of picked grapes lining up in his driveway and down the street, and his crusher was broke.


Or something like that.

I showed up to find six or seven people standing around, the oldest, all in their late sixties and no longer viable repair candidates, coming and going with wine glasses in their hands, the wine maker himself and his two assistants, one from Mexico, the other from Israel.

Juice had collected in the bottom of the crushing unit and would not drain out. An auger that was supposed to expell the stems and debris was also jammed. The company who had manufactured the unit was not going to be able to send a repair man for several days. The Israeli assistant wine maker was sure there was a stick or something large caught between the auger and stuck in the drain hole (a million to one chance) keeping the fluid in and the auger from rotating.

I looked at all the other possibilities and could find no other explanation. The Israeli, unfortunately, was on to something.

The juice from a cabernet or merlot grape is a deep crimson purple, the color of a nasty bruise. You can't see through it. All you can do is stick your hands in there and feel around.

Trouble was, to do that you had to get inside the vat itself. You had to lie in almost two feet of grape juice. You had to stick an ear in it and an outstretched arm.

I was wearing a pair of white tennis shorts and a white T-shirt. Shoes and socks.

"I want a new winery souvenir T-shirt, burgandy, XXL."


"I want a case of your '98 old vine zin." (My absolute favorite.)


"You wanna hose me off before I go in? I've been playing tennis..."

"A new flavor!" joked the wine maker.

They hosed me down.

I got into the vat and lay down in the grape juice, stems and vineyard junk. I put half my head in the juice. I hooked my arm and felt around the auger to where the hole was. I found the problem. A stick, miraculously wedged-- from an oak it turned out-- about an inch and a half in diameter. I couldn't grab it to pull it out. Maybe I could whittle it.

"Somebody get me my utility knife. Make sure there is a sharp blade in it."

Grape juice will turn your skin purple. The longer you soak, the purpler you become. I had no idea I was about to become the "purplest dude I ever saw". I was busy laying in crushed grapes introducing my own sweat to the uncannily nuanced world of winemaking. I got the knife and started whittling away. In another ten minutes, I had freed the situation of the oak embargo and climbed out of the vat.

The boys washed me down with a hose. The juice came off, but the color only slighly faded. Later that day, while filling up gas on my way home, wearing a burgandy souvenir T-shirt and a pair of borrowed Bermuda shorts from the owner of the winery, standing under the flourescent lights of a gas station island pump station, a four wheel drive redneck truck pulled out and then put it in reverse and came back to look at me a second time. The cowboy dude and his dog both stared at me. He spit tobacco in a cup he was holding.

"Man," he said to me, "you are the purplest dude I have ever seen..."

"I know." I said to him. "I know."

"I know. Get the Yank to do it." It was me. I was the Yank. In Australia, in the northeast, you have to build for cyclones. That means adding extra straps to all your susceptable joints, in cases where nails just aren't enough. And inspectors are pretty serious about this too. You forget, you don't get let off the hook. You go back and do whatever it takes to get it right. If you got a Yank working for you, all the better. Better him than one of your own.

Six units in Port Douglas, part of the Sheraton complex built there, had had their space sheathing straps spaced completely by eager boys. They put tile roofs on over four by twos, and forgot to put straps to hold down the four by twos in the cases of monstrous winds. The inspector wasn't going for any of this, and the tile roofs were going to have to come off, and the straps placed properly.

I don't know if what I said was what made the decision to have me crawl around in 150 degree attics the one chosen, but that is what happened. I was asked to crawl around in 150degree attics--coming down every five minutes to douse myself with water and drink lots more of it-- and I smiled brightly and willfully said "sure, I'll do it," (with a few minutes of clarifying what I meant by sure, as this is not an Australia affirmative at all).

Perhaps when the problem came up, and the idea of removing all the tiles on the roofs and then replacing them was contemplated, I never should have offered up the following--

"I can get 'em in from underneath."

150degrees in 98 percent humidity amounts to a simmering of vegetables for a light California cuisine. Things do cook in those conditions. I just had to make sure I was rare enough to get home for a beer when I was done.

I did one a day for six days. I put a wet t-shirt on my head. When it was dry, I came out. I worked three or four hours each day, and they paid me for eight. The swimming pool for the hotel had been finished and filled-- but not opened-- but they let me swim the afternoons away (deadly box jellyfish were lurking in the ocean that time of year) and sent a complimentary couple bottles of beer my way as a sort of restitution for saving the builders probably thirty thousand in added cost. You couldn't save much of a tiled roof when you took it off, and you had to pay to have it taken off and then replaced.

"We owe you one, Yank" they told me when I had gotten them done.

"You're damn right you do." I was sure to tell them all.