IT’S PRACTICALLY A MIDDLE CLASS pastime to romanticize working class jobs. We have this idea that manual laborers are nobler or more decent, while those people mostly like to drink and watch TV. I shouldn’t say “we” or “those people” though; all I can speak for, really, is “me” and “my Great Uncle Pete.”
With regards to romanticizing, during my Senior year at USC, while being asked by friends and family about my career plans, I developed a notion I could get a shack by the beach and spend my days writing and whittling furniture out of driftwood. It wasn’t a real plan, per se, but a creative career demands a manly job or hobby on the side. Charles Bronson was a miner, Burt Lancaster a truckdriver, and Ernest Hemingway spent his spare time bullfighting, boxing, and fishing, all to develop the manual dexterity necessary to aim a shotgun at his own head and pull the trigger.
Plus, carpentry’s in my blood. My Great Uncle Pete was a contractor out West who worked well into his late 70s. I met him just long enough once to shake his hand, which was rough and worn like beef jerky. You can tell a lot by person’s hands. My Uncle Pete either lived a full life or had a contagious skin condition.
While I didn’t know where to find a beach shack or scrap driftwood, I did know the contractor who was renovating my parents’ house in Connecticut that summer. A few under-the-table conversations later and I had a $10/hour carpenter’s assistant job through the “Good Ol’ Boy Network.”
The job wasn’t technically carpentry. The contractor I worked for did “cabinetry and woodworking,” a two-stage process:
1. First, you work the wood until it’s shaped like a cabinet — or a door frame, or floor- and ceiling-trim — in an enclosed shop full of air so thick with sawdust and paint particles that the workers can count on a lifetime of chronic respiratory issues, even with the tiny paper masks they get to wear.
2. Then, when the wood has been worked, the finished products get taken to clients’ homes for installation.
I was always involved with Stage 2 — “the field” rather than “the shop” — because the owner knew my parents and knew they’d be mad if I died and and autopsy found my lungs stuffed with sawdust like I’d been to a taxidermist. I normally hate preferential treatment of any kind, but this I could live with (getting to live).
First day, I was assigned to work in a huge mansion owned by a stockbroker and his big-assed wife from Long Island with a guy nicknamed “Matty Muscles” whose arms were as big as my legs. A genuinely nice guy, one of the best people I’ve ever met, I tend to say he reminds me a lot of myself, probably because I’m hopelessly egotistical.
Our first assignment was to attach tiny ornamental flowers to the living room ceiling in a symmetrical design. The living room an asymmetrical. Beside the general issue that the task was impossible, the flowers themselves were annoying to work with. They were composed of a hard, glue-based substance that needed to be set on a screen above a dish of boiling water for five minutes until it softened and “sweat” glue, at which point the flowers would become tacky and moldable enough to stick on the ceiling by hand where they needed to be held until they re-hardened. We put them up, one by one, to form designs that we improvised on the fly to get around things like air conditioning vents and different-sized light fixtures. The whole thing took a week, and I’d guess there are 1500 individual flowers on the ceiling of this one room. After all that, I’m guessing the flowers got painted over, scraped off, or sold piece by piece to cover lawyers’ fees; I found out later the stockbroker and his big-assed wife split up. Perhaps the glue flower custody was part of the settlement:
STOCKBROKER: “You take the dog and kids but leave me the glue flowers!”
BIG-ASSED EX:”Your Honor, I object! He can’t have the glue flowers!”
JUDGE: “What the fuck are ‘glue flowers’?”
Our work was in southwestern Connecticut — Fairfield County — but Matt lived an hour north and commuted. Fairfield County is a wealthy area but bona fide celebrities actually live up near Matt, for privacy’s sake. Once, Matt saw Conan O’Brien driving through an intersection — “Conan’s head is huge,” he told me. Matt had seen Nicole Kidman too, at a White Stripes concert, and flirted with her from a distance before her bodyguard ended the courtship. LA gets the press but Connecticut’s the real celebrity hotbed. And speaking of beds, I once went to a mattress store in Westport and the salesperson showed me the model Paul Newman always purchased. “He likes them stiff,” I was told.
Matt was into indie music. We were the only tradesmen who put on the local NPR affiliate and rocked out to Fleet Foxes and Nick Cave’s “Dig, Lazarus, Dig.” We changed the station at noon, however, when they aired the insane ramblings of a local conspiracy theorist — “Vaccinations are a form of mind control!” — and late afternoons when they broadcast live from a bluegrass coffee house open mic. Once, Matt mentioned offhand that he took some photography classes in college. I love hearing about the secret artistic aspirations of 9-to-5ers, so I probed further: “Oh, what college?”
“Uh… community college, Mike. I don’t think I’d be doing this if I’d gone to an actual college.”
Oh, right. That was a running theme. One of the other workers was a young guy who’d been there under a year and complained about everything. His back was always sore, his feet were always tired, and he’d always just driven over in a “stupid truck without air conditioning.” One day he asked me, “What’s your story?”
“I just graduated from USC–”
“–What the fuck are you doing here?”
Steve, the elder statesman of the group, would’ve been a perfect shop class teacher, because he was friendly and patient but only had three fingers on his right hand. I assumed he lost them during a freak table saw accident or something, but never asked; for all I know, he could’ve lost them while knitting. Steve’s assistant was Carl. “Carl” seems like an odd name to just have. Can you imagine a newborn named “Carl?” I feel like it’s a name you grow into in your 40s working as a mail carrier or detective. But no one called him “Carl.” At five feet tall and 120 pounds soaking wet, he got the nickname “tidbit.” One time, Carl brought a picture of his girlfriend to show the guys. She was an overweight girl with numerous facial piercings. She got the nickname “tackle box.”
The nicknames came from Greg, the racist job foreman. He had a thick mustache and glassy eyes, like a mugshot for a serial killer. When homeowners stopped by, he was, “Yes, ma’am,” “No, ma’am,” and “Lovely purse, ma’am.” When they weren’t there — during lunch break in the garage, for example — he would hold court and tell stories that opened with lines like, “Did I ever tell you about the time I almost shot a N*gger?”
(He didn’t use the asterisk.)
When I told him I planned to go back to LA to be a writer, he said, “All those Hollywood writers are pickle-pumpers. You know that, right?” “Pickle-pumpers” was a term he used that I’ve never heard elsewhere; it was meant as a gay slur but sounded more like a job in a deli. “You’re not a pickle-pumper, are you?”
My personal favorite moment of the summer was when Matt and I were installing huge custom doghouses in someone’s mud room, and using 10″ screws to fix antique beams from an old barn to the ceiling of a room above the garage, which gives you a sense of the size of this house. We weren’t the only people on the job, and from time to time we’d run into a competing contractor working there who Matt knew personally. He introduced me to him: “This is Mike. He’s the son of one of the homeowners we’re doing work for right now. He’s helping out for the summer.”
The other contractor replied, “Don’t you hate that? Some homeowner says, ‘Take my kid. He’s a hard worker.’ And the kid never does shit. They’re always fucking worthless…” He went on for a good thirty seconds while I stood there in front of him, right after shaking his hand and saying, “Nice to meet you.”
The stigma created by scores of lazy teenagers and twenty-somethings from wealthy families attempting manual labor was too much for me to overcome in one summer. I left in August, and what happened next is a story in itself.
One year later, my dad flew out to Los Angeles to drive with me to my Uncle Pete’s 85th birthday at his home in Las Vegas.
You might assume that after years of hard, physical work, Pete retired to go have fun. But Pete had always had fun. The contracting business he owned in Los Angeles was right near the tracks at Hollywood Park. He and his sons — also in the business — went during lunch every day to play the horses. His entire family line, most of whom I’d never met before, were so devoted to gambling that carpentry seemed less a business than a practical necessity to feed an addiction.
The party started at Sam’s Town casino, on the outskirts of Vegas, in the sports betting room. Pete started talking about “parlays” and “teasers” while suggesting I might be a “chalk player” who should “hedge” more. I didn’t know the lingo so I smiled and kept my mouth shut. My dad and I trusted Pete with the casino credit of $100 we’d been given as a party favor to pool a bet on a horse race. We lost. We found out Pete put the money on a horse with a terrible nickname, like “longshot” or “no chance” or “last place.” Meanwhile, the winning horse was called “lucky.” True story.
Back to Pete’s house, he proudly showed us the addition he’d just built all by himself, a small guest bedroom off the living room. He was proud not for being incredibly fit for his age, but for earning the $30,000 he put into the room gambling on horses. He couldn’t remember the winning horse’s name; I was fairly sure it wasn’t “no way in hell” or “bottomless pit where your money goes.”
My dad cites my Great Uncle Pete as an example of what the health community now agrees is the surest way to a long life: not diet, exercise, or good genes, but doing whatever you want all the time. Pete drinks, smokes, gambles, and makes crude jokes about running out of Viagra with his 30-year-younger wife. His eternal youth is due to a magic cocktail called “having a fantastic life.” And good for him.