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.