Sunday, March 22, 2009

Adios a Pedro

In construction, as in love, it pays to appreciate what you have today knowing that it may be gone tomorrow.
Perhaps ten months ago I had a chat with Juan about how he came to be where he is, doing what he is doing. It seems that he and his uncle Pedro had for some time worked in construction for the same contractor. The contractor ran a busy, far-ranging business all over the Westside, San Fernando Valley, Simi Valley, Ventura, etc. There was apparently no shortage of work, but the guy was lax about paying his employees and would often be weeks behind payroll. Many of his employees would only show up on Monday because they knew that the likelihood of being paid in full, though slim, was extremely doubtful if they did not report for work at all. Both Juan and Pedro were weeks behind in their salaries and what with family responsibilities, bills to pay, children to clothe, etc., the situation grew daily more frustrating. For obvious reasons Juan knew this sort of thing could not keep up forever, so he began to cast about for other opportunities and eventually ended up doing work for Greg, our architect and then, on Greg’s recommendation, for me.
Pedro always showed up for work early, sometimes napping in his truck while waiting for the city’s official 8:00 AM start time. So, one morning when I didn’t see him I asked Juan where he was. Juan explained that he was finished here and went to work on another job. Though disappointed to find that Pedro was not going to be around, I figured that Juan meant that he’d shifted his uncle to another one of his projects in the area. Pedro’s skills as a craftsman and problem-solver make him a very valuable aide-de-camp. But no, it seems that Pedro was lured back to work for the contractor for whom he had formerly worked. I guess a deal was struck whereby Pedro got his back-pay and some sort of guarantee that he would be properly (and promptly?) reimbursed in the future. At least I hope so.
Juan seemed at least as sorry as I was to see Pedro go. He was invaluable as a coordinator of labor, and with his leaving it is clear that Juan will have to take over a much larger share of the day-to-day supervision. Juan knew, as I did, that if he had to show up to my property every day and closely monitor the progress he would have to cut back on other jobs he may have had in the works. Or would I be the one who got the short end of the stick? As it turned out, we both felt the pain in very different ways.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Break-in

A couple of weeks ago I was returning from an errand and as I pulled into the driveway a little Japanese woman ran over to the car to tell me she was locked out of the house. She was pretty upset. She was wearing what seemed to be her workout clothes, microfiber tank-top, tights and athletic shoes; hopping around from one foot to the other and wringing her hands. Her English was probably about as good as my Spanish, but she was certainly capable of letting me in on her dilemma. She had locked herself out of the house. The telephone, her little dog, keys; everything was inside. She seemed most upset that she had to be at work and wasn’t going to make it on time. I got the impression she wanted me to call a locksmith. I brought out a phonebook from the house and started calling but for whatever reason I couldn’t get a response from any of the numbers I was calling. It was also pretty clear that even if I was able to get a locksmith to come out there would be inevitable complications: delay, how could she prove she actually lived in this house?, expense, jimmied doorknobs, etc. I suggested we take a walk round the house and see what we could come up with.

Our neighbor is a very nice man and a bit mysterious – but not at all in an annoying way. His name is John and he is very quiet. A man about my size with a calm face and gentle demeanor, he is the CFO of some local company I don’t believe I was ever told the name of. He is the one who bought the house to the south of us and had it remodeled to his specifications about three years ago. It was through that work that I snagged the guy who eventually became our electrical contractor. John is not, as near as any of us can tell, married. I figured he was gay, as he is easily in his mid-to late forties. Also, when he was first moving in we were talking to a friend of my wife’s who was doing some landscaping for him. She knew him personally and had only the nicest things to say about him. She is probably a lesbian. She said he was pretty well-off financially and involved in some unspecified social causes.

John was present and visible for the first month or two that he lived in the house, but as time passed he was there less and less…and Japanese girls began to appear. By girls I mean young Japanese women between the ages of, say, 23 and 30. The individuals in question change from time to time, but they always fit the same demographic slice and, I am ashamed to admit, all pretty much look alike. For whatever reason that house has always appealed to room-letters. The guy who lived there before was divorced with a sometimes son who stayed there about half the time and he also let out rooms to Asian girls. It most likely has something to do with the college down the street. (Another friend of ours who is Japanese -nisei- has told us that a large percentage of the Asian students at the local two-year College – and who could account for 80% of enrollment - are for the most part “rubbish children” from Japanese homes whose parents are disappointed in them; girls and boys who have been unwilling to adhere to traditional standards of behavior or academic application and are shipped to Los Angeles at substantial expense to get a second chance and do it in a place where they will bring no further embarrassment to their families. This may or may not be the case as our friend is something of a crank.) So anyway, we see less and less of John and more and more of the young Japanese women who actually live there on a day-to-day basis.

So, now we’re back to a couple of weeks ago when I was trying to help one of the women break into her own home.

I began at the front door and worked my way around the house trying each door and window for any crack, wiggle-room or opening that might be exploited to gain entry. Since this place was so newly remodeled it was securely designed and tightly shut; there was no place I could see that gave me the smallest opportunity, except…. On the north side of the house there are two little bathroom windows, one above the other like square portholes and probably no larger than 15” across. They are high on the wall, designed for venting and not for seeing out of and opening, transom-like, from the bottom. One of these was ajar. We both began looking around for something to stand on so that one of us could get at the opening. The woman found a plastic bench near the pool and dragged it over, but it was not nearly tall enough - the window was about six or seven feet off the ground. With a ladder from my garage I was able to get at the window and even put my head and one arm through to see a small dog looking at me from the other side. I suggested that the woman - the very small and light-weight woman - might want to try it herself, so she gamely climbed the ladder and crawled through the window while I maneuvered her legs to keep them from getting hurt against the sharp windowsill. Shortly after her feet disappeared I could hear her shouting excitedly and running around the house. She immediately came out the front door beaming and joyous over finally having gained entry and, one presumes, retaining her employment. Her elation was so great that her English failed her and she was left with an odd variety of hand signs – thumbs up, V for victory, high-five – with which to indicate her happiness and gratitude for what was clearly at least the second-greatest rescue of her life. Gamely, I bowed and mumbled out a lame “do-itashimashita” which only served to elicit animated expressions and another round of curious gestures.
The next day she brought over some very nice sweet-bean cookies.

Neighborhood Watch

Not too long ago a guy down the street decided to do something about his yard. It had always been so bad that I wondered if anyone even lived there; barren patches of dusty dirt, the occasional clutch of low weeds; a discarded toy. It seems that he might have had it in mind to do something along the lines of our front yard, but the job went terribly awry from the first.

Initially I saw him digging in the front for a few days. He turned over some soil and tried to contour the land somewhat. Lacking a clear vision and a sense of proportion his efforts yielded nothing more than a yard with “irregularities”, creases and bumps rather than anything that might have suggested a natural landscape. Next, with no real soil preparation he went out and bought some plants – not nearly enough – and stuck them around the yard. The spacing was unnatural. There were no groupings or attempts to combine sizes, colors or textures; just a plant here and a plant way over there and another one over there. The very next day I awoke to find his driveway heaped, filled with broken bits of wood. These were not the kinds of bark nuggets or shavings you ordinarily use for landscaping, these were big; anywhere from the size of a hot dog to a fist. He started throwing shovelsful of this stuff around the yard. It went on for a couple of days. The overall effect, when he was finished, was that of a pine grove having imploded on his front yard. And of course the teenie little plants had all but disappeared amid the rubble, too insignificant to matter. Eventually he had spread about 6 to 8 inches of this broken wood around. And that was it. So now, instead of having a neighbor whose yard screams “PUT WRECKED CAR AND OLD REFRIGERATOR HERE!” we have one whose yard resembles a diorama of Mt. St. Helens.


After the holidays were over I decided it was time to try and get the last of my city inspections taken care of. Unfortunately, when I tried I wasn’t able to get into the computer system because my building permit had expired; you only get a year. I didn’t know that one needed a valid permit to get final inspections; I assumed that once the construction was complete a permit was no longer needed. So, I had to go down to the city and arrange for an extension on the permit.

While I was down at our charming and historic art deco city hall I was told that I could, if I was able, take advantage of a five day grace period during which I might be able to complete the inspection process without having to file (and pay for) an extension to my original permit. However, I was also told that l could not get any final inspections without first checking with various city agencies to make sure I had received their approvals. I needed to call the Office of Environmental Whatever to make sure I had not been cited for damage to trees, parkways, etc., I had to contact the fire department to ensure that I had complied with regulations regarding smoke detectors and if sprinklers were required they had been properly installed, and I had to check with the Business Licensing Division to make sure that all of my sub-contractors were properly licensed. Had I known about this last one I think I’d have listed fewer sub-contractors; as owner/builder I can claim to have done all of the work myself if I wish. But it was too late. The form had already been filed with the city. In checking they discovered that my electrician was behind in his business license payments and my plumber had no Santa Monica Business License whatsoever. Given that the amount of money involved was not huge – a couple hundred dollars – and I was in a hurry I opted to pay the money owed out of my own pocket and try to collect from the electrician and plumber later.

The fire department and outdoor environmental people signed me off quickly and I was able to arrange an inspection the next afternoon. When the guy got there he was somewhat surprised to find that I had called for a Final Inspection as it was not printed on his paperwork, but inasmuch as he was in a good mood and had a relatively light schedule I agreed to look around and see what he could see. All in all I didn’t do too badly. He found about a dozen things that weren’t quite right and most of them were minor. I needed to secure a length of wire in the attic, fix additional grounding to the water heater, install the ground-wire on the Jacuzzi motor, run a bead of sealant around the base of all toilets, repair some broken screens on the attic vents and build screened covers for each of the crawlspace entries. Stuff like that. The bigger jobs involved relocating the water heater behind my office – it seems to be about eight inches too high on the wall – enlarging one of my crawlspace entry point – mine was three inches to narrow from top to bottom - and putting in real steps for the rear exit.
I decided that as long as I had to put in regulation steps (not more than seven and three-quarter inches rise per step) at the back doors I might as well put in a deck, so over the next few days I built a redwood platform that goes from one side of the patio area to the other and creates a downstep for both of the doors. After that was in I just needed one additional step to get to ground level. It was slow, methodical work; the weather was warm and the wood gave off a summery scent. After I finished, my aged mother-in-law found that she liked to sit out there on warm afternoons and of course Scout, our dog, immediately took it over as his sunning area as well.

I scheduled another inspection for the following weeks. I wanted to ask some questions about the repositioning of the water heater before I actually did it, and I wanted to see if there was any way I could wheedle out of enlarging the crawlspace access hole which would necessitate cutting either stucco or concrete and was bound to get ugly.

The subsequent visit from the building inspector started out badly and ended only slightly better. The guy – who I’d never seen before - walked in angry. He asked me what he was supposed to do there and when I told him I wanted a final inspection he looked apoplectic. He’d never been to the house before; had never seen any phase of construction, was new on the job and had recently moved out here from Denver. He couldn’t believe they would send him out to do a final inspection on a project he’d had no experience with at all. Oh, was he disturbed. “What do I look at?” he asked. “I mean, where do I start? I don’t know what’s new construction here and what’s old. How do they expect me to…?” Air rushed in and out of his nose like tides. He barely spoke. He spent the first minute or so just standing there looking up at …nothing. He’d take a couple of steps one way, then pause and take a couple steps another way, then mumble, “What are they thinking?” Then he’d go stick his tester into an electrical outlet, then stand up and walk to another electrical outlet and do the same thing. Now, even if you don’t have as much experience with inspectors as I do you don’t have to be psychic to see that there was virtually no way the situation was going to work out well for me. Very likely this guy was going to begin charging around like a wounded bear ripping away at everything he could find out of sheer frustration and pique. He’d find just one thing out of compliance and from then on I’d be a dead duck. I’d get dinged for a mirror hanging one-quarter inch out of plumb; I’d be written up for using the wrong shade of green in the guest bath and having the toilet paper rolling backwards; I’d be ordered to remove the dog’s soiled bedding from what would eventually be the laundry area. He’d hate everything he saw, or he was going to throw up his hands and walk away. The latter being the better choice of the two I adopted my usual approach when dealing with upset people, I was very sympathetic, understanding; undemanding and most of all on-his-side. “Oh, this is a very bad spot those people have put you in”, I said, shaking my head slowly from side to side. “How can they expect you to….” and “I don’t really know what you can do what with the circumstances and all.” I took on a pained, deeply sympathetic expression. I reflected just how deeply troubled I was by this grave injustice that had been inflicted upon him. I called upon his expertise, “What do you think I ought to do right now? What do you think is the best approach to dealing with those people and the mess they’ve created.” That sort of thing. I was good, if I do slay so myself. Not showy or obvious; subtle and realistic You’d have been impressed.

He walked around to the back of the house, opened the electrical panel and commented on the missing ground connection between the hot, cold and gas lines at the rear water heater. I ran before him whisking away dog turds so he wouldn’t accidentally…(oh, aye dios mio, I don’t even want to think about it). Then he’d come back in again, make exasperated sounds and review the ceiling, visible whisps of steam floating off and away from his head. More than once I figured I was a sunk skunk, but eventually I did notice a slight calming. He looked over the plans I showed him and grudgingly remarked that he liked the electrical work. He thought the plumbing looked “OK”. He suggested that I call in for another inspector and try to get “Mechanical”, “Plumbing” and “Electrical” all done on the same day. By the time he left we were no longer combatants, but compatriots struggling against the outrages of “the system”. He didn’t sign anything or approve anything, but that was OK; just having him step out the door was a relief.

So, I gave myself a couple of days to recover from the trauma and then managed to schedule three inspections for one day. This morning when I checked on-line to see when I could expect the inspector to arrive I saw that they had scheduled the same guy who had shown up previously. I’m serious. Really. Imagine! I was a bit edgy awaiting his arrival. I only knew that he’d show up between 8 am and 12, but that is a lot of time to wait for trouble.

Finally he showed up, sneezing; some allergy thing. I was all set to offer chicken soup, coffee – some of the fresh tortillas my mother-in-law had just made or whatever it would take to make him feel better. But, to my surprise, this was a very different version of the same guy. He was smiling, happy to see Scout, animated, conversational; all of the things he had not been on the previous visit. I pulled out a ladder so he could look up in the attic area, he came back down and starting pouring over his sheaf of paperwork. I remembered to bring out my permit and the copy of my approval sheet and when I got there he just started initialing things. Wham. Zip. Just like that he had initialed approvals on Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing. I tentatively, and more than a little nervously, asked, “So, what’s my next step here?” and he scribbled another set of initials next to “Comprehensive Approval” and said, “Nothing. You’re finished. Its done”. I was dumbstruck. Just like that the whole thing was over! I felt as though someone had pulled the rug out from under me, the flooring and the earth’s geographical surface as well. I floated like Major Tom.

Among the remarkable things about having completed this process is the jobs l never had to do. Just two weeks earlier an inspector had told me that I had to lower one of the water heaters eight inches, enlarge one of my crawlspace access openings, and two or three other jobs that were either difficult, time-consuming, expensive or problematic. Now, forget about it. Just like the last day of school there was a whole batch of problems, concerns and worries that never materialized or were attended to and suddenly became completely irrelevant.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Mr. Shan and the Lost Outlet

Tools. Yikes, what a mess.

Juan has rarely removed any of his tools from the job site since he started. Each new crew brings their own. I have my tools. They all get moved around, picked up, put down and mixed up. It is hard enough keeping track of my tools when I am working between the house and the garage, back and forth all day, but if other people are moving my tools around while I’m not looking the frustration is compounded. I lost my big T-square this past week for several days. There must be four on the site so I had others to borrow. My level was missing most of yesterday though I ultimately found it cast in a pile far from where I had left it. No one takes anything from my garage, but if I leave something laying around it is almost sure to be moved and, as a consequence, lost for some period of time. For one such as myself who takes an ordered, methodical approach to tasks this is perplexing and annoying.

Work crews are notoriously messy. They drop trash wherever they happen to be standing. Every couple of days I roam the site picking up soda cans, plastic water bottles, cookie wrappers, fast food debris, etc. and depositing it in the proper bins out back. To make matters worse, many of the cans, bottles and wrappers are only half-consumed. If Scout finds them before I do he is happy to finish the job, but as often it is the ants who move in to take charge. I’ve always made sure the workers have access to snacks, canned soda and bottled water since the job began. I figure it costs me maybe an extra twenty dollars a week, but earns me a lot of goodwill with the people who spend time here. I recycle the plastic and sell the empty cans back to the city when I get a couple of plastic bags full. But the mess…what a dismaying prospect.

Interruptions and delays are discouraging. Momentum is key to progress. Last Monday I was getting work done and able to see things moving ahead in spite of the drywall guys around me. My rhythm was deliberate and measured, I was already very dirty and I knew I was good for maybe three more hours before I’d have to quit for the day. Then I heard someone calling me, “Mr. Shan!”.

It was the electrician; he’s the only one who calls me Mr. Shan (rhymes with Chan). He wasn’t supposed to be there. I hadn’t seen him in weeks and he wasn’t due back until the drywall was finished. He told me he was nearby and thought he’d come in to check on progress. That was fine with me (as long as he left me alone) so I told him to roam around at will. I went back to work in the shower, but not more than two minutes later I hear him calling me again. “Where is the outlet here?” he asks. I don’t see an outlet and don’t really know what he is talking about. “There are three outlets on this wall”, he says, “One here, another here and there is one more. Where is it?” He answers his own question, “They covered it up.” Well, I have business to take care of so I get out my pencil, mark an “X” and write on the wall, “OUTLET?” I’ll look for it later.

He leaves and I go back to work. One minute more, then, “Mr. Shan!” he calls from somewhere else in the house. I find him in another bathroom with the same problem. “They covered up another one here” he tells me and punches a hole in the drywall with a screw driver. I mark it also. By this time the drywallers have caught on and are looking none too happy. “And you want to see something?” I really didn’t. “Look up there,” he gestures toward the ceiling. “There is a smoke detector outlet up there somewhere I don’t know.” He walks a few feet down the hall. “Someplace along here there is the smoke detector”. This time he indicated a 12 foot expanse of hallway ceiling behind which was the missing outlet. I thought a moment then told him that I had a lot of photographs of the construction and I’d go check to see if one of them might show where to look, or poke with a screwdriver. “Can I go with you?” he asked. I explained to him that the photographs were on my computer and that people were sleeping (my daughter and mother-in-law were napping) on the other side of the wall. He relented.

Sure enough, one of the photographs showed that particular area of hall, but it was a long shot from the door of the master bedroom down the hall to the guest bath. Still, I could tell that it was centered in the ceiling two stud-bays from one of the recessed can-lights. Figuring two stud-bays at a little more than 32” it didn’t take long to get a general idea of where the missing receptacle was. Still, the electrician had to cut two fist-sized holes in the ceiling before he was able to locate the exact spot. the drywall crew quietly seethed.

The conclusion to the story is that I never was able to return to work until he left, and by the time he did leave he had pointed out three other outlets/switchboxes that had been covered up by the drywall crew. We were all glad to see him go, though in all truth I needed to have those fixtures pointed out to me. I wouldn’t want to wait another three weeks to start wondering why I don’t have anyplace to plug in my toothbrush. And these are just the sort of problems that an “owner/contractor” is expected to contend with.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Plumber's Butt

Yesterday was a very busy day. At one point I had Juan’s crew, a guy from BDM Heating and Air Conditioning (giving me a bid on ducting), two electricians and three plumber’s assistants. I also learned about a new aspect of construction I had not yet experienced, inter-crew rivalry. At first Juan said that he didn’t want the plumbers until next Tuesday or Wednesday (I don’t know why), but it worked out that the plumber had set a schedule that brought him here sooner. When I told Juan that the plumber was going to be here working while his crew was still installing the flooring joists he jokingly said that it was OK and if the plumber got in his way he’d “drop a hammer on his head”.

So, Juan’s guys got in about a half day on their work Friday before the Westside Plumbing and Heating Crew arrived. Now, when the plumber’s crew arrived they hit the site like noisy weasels and this as much as anything can serve to symbolize the differences in approach. Juan’s crew are scruffy gentlemen: they don’t shout, play loud music, smoke, curse in English, run or make more noise than is absolutely necessary. The plumber’s crew is quite different. Bill, the boss, – he’s the one who laughs like Elmer Fudd – undoubtedly works with the same guys all the time, probably the same guys he drinks with, hangs out with and goes to see WWF Wrestling with on weekends. Their boisterous bonhomie forms a striking contrast to Juan’s workers’ quiet dedication to task. When these guys rushed in from the back of the property it looked more like a raid than an entrance. And once they’d thrown down a few dozen feet of copper tubing and dirty cardboard boxes of fittings, angles and caps there was no doubting their presence. To further complicate matters, once they arrived Juan just sort of disappeared. He left behind a small contingent of stucco-demolishers who spoke no English at all and it took me a while to figure out who was a plumber and who wasn’t.

Just prior to the arrival of the plumbing crew the electrician had been here. He showed up by surprise; I hadn’t really known he was coming. He wanted to set up for work he was doing early next week. Essential to his plan was a short section of wall framing he wanted in place right away so he could mount his main panel. He called me later and said he was told by Juan that the wall would not be ready by then. I wondered, was Juan just asserting his droit de seigneur or was there really a reason why that little short section of framing couldn’t be done on time?

The plumbers worked fast. I was expecting a two-person job, (All of the plumbers I have seen before work in pairs) but after Elmer dropped off his guys it appeared that there were three or four of them working away in what will eventually be our master bathroom. One guy is fastening pipes to the underside of joists, another is running lengths of pipe from one source to another, while a third is soldering and cutting short pieces for angles, risers, etc. It doesn’t seem cost effective to me, but it is pretty fast work. Within a couple of hours they had removed the old plumbing from what had been our daughter’s old bathroom and installed new hot and cold lines to the shower, toilet, dual sinks and tub of the future master-bath.

Bill, the head plumber, wasn’t around much. He said he had to go buy some supplies, but I think the real reason is that he can’t go more than a few minutes without a smoke. He seems to know that most people don’t want him smoking on the job, but every time I see him getting out of his truck he is, like Mephistopheles, accompanied by a grey, billowing haze. The windows of his cab are yellowed. Even when he isn’t smoking he has a fresh one between his lips awaiting ignition.

He has, however, done me some real favors. After he moved the main gas line to a new position he showed me how to reset the automatic earthquake shut-off valve. If someone were to hit, jar or kick the mechanism the gas would automatically be shut off, and since someone at least once a day bangs up against the gas line knowing how to reset it has been invaluable. But it also requires re-lighting the pilot on the water heater, otherwise we wake up in the morning with nothing but tepid shower water at best.

I got my Takagi tankless water heaters this week. There are two, so we should always have plenty of hot water when we need it. One will be closer to the kitchen and one will be back by the master bathroom. Both of them are gas-powered and outdoors mounted which saves the trouble of venting them. Yesterday Mr. Plumber told me that he’d need valves for all of the faucets soon, so I went to work ordering a bunch of faucets, showers, tub-fillers, etc. That’s fun. I’d done a lot of research in advance so I pretty much knew what I was getting. I do all of this buying on line so it saves me the trouble of driving all over comparing prices, etc. And then there is the added advantage of frequently
Bill, of the thudding, staccato laugh, has turned out to be quite a Dickensian fellow. As I learn more about him I find him oddly sympathetic for all his rough edges, and he is nearly ALL rough edges. We were passing in the yard the other day and he, out of nowhere, asked, “So, do the _______’s know the _______s?” (referring to a local family with a similar last name). I thought he was heading towards some kind of geneological observation. I answered, “no”. “Oh,” he says, “I thought you might know them”. They live over on Grant near 14th Street. I know them from when I went to ________ High School.
My ears perked up. I had taught at that particular school for about 16 years. “You went to _______?” I asked.
“Yeah. Well, just for one year. I was really bad. I made a lot of trouble. They hated me there. After that I went to Phoenix (a Continuation School).”

Well, for a lot of kids the relaxed, less regimented approach at Olympic is a much more positive experience so I asked, “Really? So how’d you like it at Olympic?”

“Oh, I wasn’t there very long either. I think I was there three or four months. I got in a lot of trouble in those days. I hated that place. Alls I could say was !*&#@ this &*%#@ I want to join the Navy.”

Now the only dates Bill can give me for his one year at ________ High School are 1984/85. That was almost 23 years ago. Bill is probably thirty-eight, but he has a young face; the kind of face that can just as easily show old hurts as malice. I’m sure when he wasn’t terrorizing classrooms, rolling drunks or breaking and entering he was an angry, neglected (and somewhat sympathetic) little guy. I’m sure that if he and I had been at Samohi at the same time – and we were not – I’d have both felt sorry for him and wanted to assassinate him.

So, Bill went to the nearest recruiter. By then he’d got his GED somehow – most likely beat someone up for one – but the irony was that it wasn’t enough for the Navy. “They’d a took me in with the GED if I didn’t have a (criminal) record, but since I had a record they said I had to get a real high school diploma before they’d take me. So I *%#@ had to go to *%#@ Redondo Beach night school to get my *%#@ diploma and then they let me in.” (Perhaps night school was less onerous than day school as it didn’t interfere with stealing cars (flex-time), holding up liquor stores (graveyard shift) or sleeping all day.)

Last week Bill went to use the tall, yellow portable toilet I have parked out back behind my wife’s educational materials shed. It gets serviced every week and as a consequence has never emitted a bad smell. It is kept pretty clean considering there are up to a dozen different people using it. I was working in the garage nearby at the time, but I don’t think Bill saw me. Everyone else was working at the front end of the house, or under it. He just left the house and rushed to the back where the outhouse is talking to himself. “Oh, I’m gonna wreck this place,” he muttered. He goes in and slams the door behind. “Oh!,” (more a shout than a moan), “Oh”, he calls to no one at all. “Aw, ^*#%@ this place ain’t gonna smell like cinnamon any more!” Pause. “Oh, dude, everybody stay away!” Perhaps he thought his dog was sitting outside patiently waiting. He came out the way he went in, waving his arms and talking to himself. “Oh, God,” he grumbled, Let’s get out of here before the thing explodes and we get blamed for it!”

Bill was treated rudely by the inspector this morning and I felt sorry for him. I had called for an inspection on the foundation framing/joists, and really needed to get an OK quickly so Juan could get on with laying sub-flooring and framing walls. While I was running for the permit sign-off card and my plans Bill started asking the inspector a question about installation of a recess box for my Takagi water heating unit. For whatever reason the inspector was being unusually testy. It seems he was there for framing and wasn’t about to put on his plumbing hat just to answer an off-topic question. He was nice enough to me, but he imperiously told Bill to go away and stop bothering him. I knew just how hard it must have been for a character of Bill’s historic impulsivity to tolerate that kind of cruel and arbitrary exercise of authority. A few minutes later I saw him off to one side, alone, smoking up a tornado, waiting out the inspector’s stay.

I made a point of going up to him later. I wanted him to know I felt he’d been “disrespected”. (Among the underclass and dangerous types “disrespected” is just about the worst thing that can happen. Even worse than somebody “talkin’ trash” about your mom.) He seemed to have weathered it all well enough and even waxed philosophical on the incident. “You know,” he said, “when the dude gets all hard like that you just got to %#@ step back and let him go. He was all cool last Friday when he checked my pipes; I don’t know what the ^%&# got into him today.”

“Of course,” I say, “if you hassle with the guy you’re not going to win.”

“Oh, I you can fight if you want,” he counters. “Call out his supervisor and all that *%#@, but that takes time and I don’t want to waste my time.” Then, with plumbing crews busily working two locations at this site, Bill and his dog Smoky jumped back into the nicotine-yellow cab of their black Ford F-10 and took off for some other thing entirely.

(At the end of the day he returned to warn me: “You know we’ve left about 50 feet of new copper exposed in that trench across your front yard. If you hear any noise in the night, call the cops.”)

Thursday, March 27, 2008


One thing I hadn’t counted on in my construction and remodeling computation was the question of debris disposal. Naturally, had I signed on with a general contractor he’d have figured that into his bid, but my deal with Juan was for a fixed amount on labor plus unspecified costs on materials (plus 10% markup for him) and no frills. So the business of arranging for and paying guys to pickup literally tons of stuff has been left to me.

Most work-sites will somehow have room for a dumpster to be brought in, but not this one. The alley in the back is too narrow to accommodate a dumpster left in place. Residents and city trash trucks cruise up and down regularly. The rear driveway is always filled with stacks of building materials, debris, one bright yellow portable toilet and a large mitre-saw that belongs to Pedro, Juan’s uncle. I could stick a dumpster in the driveway at the front of the house, but then I’d have to solve a new set of problems: Where does the car go? Do I really want to make these guys wheel heavy loads through a circuitous route around the back of the house, down the narrow side, through two gates to the dumpster? Where will I put my dog, Scout while all of this is going on? So, since I may not bring in a dumpster I am forced to rely on any of the thousands of free-lance truck owners in the city who specialize in “TRASH REMOVAL – TREE TRIMMING – CONCRETE – GARAGE CLEAN UP – DIRT”. Los Basureros.

Before all of this started I probably thought I could count on having a load picked up and disposed of for, maybe, $200 to $300. After all, these are by no means skilled laborers. On the construction hierarchy they fall below wall-knock-downers and hole diggers. The boss invariably drives a horrible, old truck with plywood sides and his equipment might consist of a wheelbarrow, two shovels and a bent and dented aluminum ramp. His business overhead might consist of an oil change every 50,000 miles or so and gas. Lots of gas, and that might just be his Achilles heel. At any rate, the standard tariff for these guys seems to be $600.00 per load. Now a load might be 24 inches deep evenly across the bed of the truck for heavy stuff like dirt and cement, or piled high with wooden sides bulging like a frigate in the case of wooden debris and mixed heaps. Either way its six-hundred…cash. (These are not guys with bank accounts. In any country.)

Now today, for example, I really needed Alfredo to show up at 8:30 to haul away piles so broad and high they were actually impeding work and making it difficult to get from one part of the project to another. He shows up on time…
(As an aside, I am most surprised by the promptness of all these guys so far. Everyone on this job, without exception, shows up on time or a little bit early. Its like they’ve got some point to prove. Fine with me. It makes it easier to plan my own coming and goings.)
….and waits to take a look at what l’ve got. His discerning eye is solely on weight and mass. I don’t think he cares what he is looking at; its all about density and how much space it will take up. He appraises my heaps warily. Even though we now have a relationship, he’s shrewd enough to know that I’ve hidden anything really heavy and ugly underneath less offensive materials. A big chunk of shiny copper might catch his attention, but if he saw a human foot or a Guttenberg Bible I’m sure he wouldn’t even pause. He sidles over to me and murmurs quietly, “nine-hundred”. That’s dollars, not pounds. Right away I know he’s figuring one and one-half loads. Now that means that to this point I’ve spent $4,200.00 just getting rid of “stuff”. That’s a pretty sad way to spend money, paying to have some guy haul away ugly heaps you didn’t want in the first place. And its not like these guys are getting rich, either. You figure two guys and a truck, four or five hours of dirty, sweaty work, a long drive (twice) out to wherever he leaves it, unloading, and he has to pay disposal fees at the receiving end so I get my essential receipts. He might clear $700.00 after fees and spend another $60 to $80 on gas. Lets say he pays his partner $150.00 ( it could go as low as $85.00, but that would be really cruel). All of a sudden he’s down to $500.00 for a day’s work, which would be fine if he worked every day…but you can bet he doesn’t (I’ve never had him say, “Wait, I must check my Blackberry” when I call and ask him to show up with very little advance notice.)

So, the first guy I hired to haul debris for me was told, repeatedly and emphatically, that I needed the weigh receipt from the disposal station where he off-loaded his debris (which in his case was primarily dirt and broken pieces of cement foundation). The next morning he shows up with nothing. I repeated the story to the guy, so then he goes to his truck and returns with a piece of paper on which he has hastily scribbled “dirt”, “2/4/2008” and “$600.00”. Now I can’t really tell if this guy is messing with me or just dumb, so I call over Juan. Now, Juan has a lot more experience with this sort of thing plus three talents I do not possess: a more expansive Spanish vocabulary, the essential facility of chit-chat one needs to conduct proper negotiations with latinos, and a big, silver right canine tooth. Juan essentially tells the guy the same thing that I had told him – but with a lot more finesse. In addition, he did what I could not, he explained the reasons why I need this receipt is so desired by me, essentially that “this guy is going to be in trouble very serious with the authorities of the City of Santa Monica if not is able to produce” the receipts. Now, the guy had already been paid for Monday’s load and he’s there for Tuesday’s load so I work out this deal. On Wednesday he has to show up with Monday’s receipt AND Tuesday’s receipt from the disposal site weigh station. I doubt that he can do it, but we need to get rid of about a small mountain of earth and compromise seems the best solution.
Monday morning bright and early (7:30 to be exact) I see this guy – Filiberto is his name – sitting out in the alley in his truck. I amble out that way and after the requisite “goodmorning,sir,howya’doin’kinda’coldoutside no?” I ask for my receipts. He pretty much hands me the same nonsense as before only this time he accompanies the hand-written receipt for $600.00 with a sun-faded, coffee-stained, well-creased scrap of cash register tape on which the only legible printing was the sum of $55.00 and “Have a Nice Day!” It looked like the sort of thing a bum or cat-lady might carry around wadded in a pocket. (He might just as well have grabbed any one of a thousand pieces of equally useless flotsam on his dashboard or between the seats.) While etiquette demanded that I stay calm, he could not have mistaken the lemon-sucking expression that came over my face and my response of “I feel sorrow very much, sir, but the problem has continued and for this I am unable to pay more”.

I knew what this guy was up to. He was in all likelihood disposing of this stuff in ways that would make me, the City of Santa Monica and Al Gore weep, like the Midnight-Construction-Site-No-Dogs-Around dump site or the Behind-The-Big-Building-In-South-Central-You-Keep-Watch-While-I-Shovel-At-Two-AM transfer station. I take small consolation in the fact that this dirt was twenty years of prime, composted, well-nourished, rich gardening soil, but I don‘t want to think about what he did with the head-sized clods of cement.

Well, months ago I’d had a talk with a friend of Olivia’s from the gym who was a professional property developer. She has a lot of enthusiasm for this sort of thing and gave me a lot of good advice, but one rule she gave me was “always show up to the job-site with the understanding that you might have to fire somebody”. So I figured that day three of construction was time to flex my Owner/Builder biceps and can somebody. Besides, I’m a nice guy, not too picky, I say “yes” a lot, am self-effacing, avoid conflict and defer to the other guy’s expertise most of the time, so it might be good for my image to be seen as decisive and willing to play hardball when necessary. When I told Juan that this guy was not going to be picking up any more of my waste henceforth Juan shook his head sadly and agreed that I was never going to get what I wanted from Filiberto. (Though I suspect he had mixed feelings about it. Filiberto might have been a friend, neighbor or family member for all I know.) He also agreed that I better get right inside the house and start making some phone calls because the pile was getting bigger and space is at a premium. In order to preserve my image as a “Can-Do” kind of guy I got right on the phone and started asking for prices from other guys with ratty old trucks and rusty wheelbarrows.

The next guy showed up an hour or so later in what appeared to be Filiberto’s truck. He was muscular, surly and suspicious. He understood me just fine, but responded in unusual verb tenses I think were intended to trip up the “huero”. He also wanted $600 per load with a guarantee –warning? – of two loads minimum. Juan and I both gave him the emphatic story about my need for legitimate receipts. He explained that while he was hauling the stuff to Florence he would, in fact, return the following morning with a receipt before taking the second load. Oh, and I needed to know that payment was required “en efectivo”, cash. Here was a man who’d been burned at least once and wasn’t taking any chances. Since I don’t walk around with $1200 in my pocket that meant a trip to the bank. At least he didn’t demand payment in Euros.

The next morning I called the phone number on the receipt just to make sure it was legit. The driver was annoyed, but I wasn’t taking any chances. My next concern was the second receipt. I knew that once this guy had been paid and left his load in Florence or wherever he was unlikely to want to drive all the way back just to hand me a receipt. (At least some small portion of the wee hours each morning is spent anticipating these problems and reviewing necessary vocabulary.) My plan was this, I would pay him $300.00 now, and he would carry the stuff to wherever he was going. Then on Saturday morning he would drive back to Santa Monica to deliver the receipt and get the rest of the $300.00. Olivia agreed it was a good plan, so did Juan. I wasn’t sure how the driver would react. I was half expecting his eyes to bug-out like Ricky Ricardo and he’d start flinging around those rude epithets which, in Spanish, so often end in “-on”. (Coincidentally, the words for “bald-headed”, “homosexual”, “bastard” and “good-for-nothing-useless-person-who-has-sex-with-himself” all rhyme in Spanish.) Unexpectedly he agreed. He was here this morning, all smiles, to get his last “ trescientos dolares en efectivo”.
That’s another odd irony; in Spanish “dollars” dolares, sounds a lot like dolores which are pains or sorrows.

Most recently I had another huge heap, mostly wooden 2 x 4s, some stucco, a few lengths of pipe, old iron sewer shards, one 50 gallon water heater and random bits of trash. Juan has his guys complete this installation on Friday with the understanding that when he returned on Monday it would be gone. I tried calling Alfredo on Friday and again on Saturday morning but got no answer. He did not respond to my messages. This is not too unusual in this trade. He might have taken the day off to go skiing at Aspen, he might have taken in a matinee concert at Disney Hall, he might have had a long meeting with his accountant over drinks at some hotel piano bar. Far more likely is that he was forced to return to his home in Pincecachetes, Mexico voluntarily or in- and far out of cell phone range for an indeterminable time.
In any event, Alfredo was unavailable and I needed a replacement. I went to my card file and dug out one of the many that had been stuck under my windshield wipers while I was inside Home Depot. (Their parking lot is more or less the local gathering place for “basureros” and all-around handy-men.) I called Alfredo Avilar – and no, all basureros are not named Alfredo. There is at least one Mario, a Jesus and a Leopoldo in my file. Alfredo answered his cell phone promptly and after a brief explanation on my part said he’d be at my house in fifteen or twenty minutes…roughly the time it takes to get from Home Depot to Santa Monica.

Alfredo arrived, did the customary appraisal and gave me a price of, you guessed it, six-hundred dollars. But in has case, since his truck was smaller than that of the other Alfredo, it would have to be taken in two loads. I explained to him the serious importance of my obtaining receipts for the dumping fees, he agreed and said he needed to go get a guy to help him load up, which means he’d stop off at any one of a dozen or more day-laborer hang-outs within a five mile radius of our house.

When he returned I saw him readying his loading ramp and noted that he didn’t have a wheelbarrow. Imagine, no wheelbarrow! Was this guy planning to transport all of that stuff by the shovelful? I showed him my wheelbarrow and told him he was welcome to use it. Then he asked me if I had a pair of gloves. His “assistant” came with gloves, but he had none. Now that’s just wrong. I couldn’t have the guy loading all that sharp and hazardous material with no gloves, so I have him a pair I found laying around.

Rubbish is rubbish in any country, but in some parts of the world one can make a living of sorts just by moving it from one place to another.