Friday, December 21, 2012

The Carpenter

 All of this is a dream, I think. The Sun goes down and the Moon rises and the dream begins. But also are there the stars and they too must be a dream, a sparkling symphony of hope and wonder and if there is truth to be found, I think it must lie out there among the stars.

This morning mist is a cloud of mystery and I wonder why I am here. I am a child of the Sun, my home is a place of warmth and sunshine and these California mists are a mystery to me, a little, but I remember them well enough. I have been here before. When I was about twenty-five here was I:  hacking away at a room addition right around here somewhere in Laurel Canyon...

And now here am I again, thirty years later, hacking away at this whacky deck perched precariously on a steep canyon hillside. I am alone in the mist, fog bound and wondering why and for what reason I have been brought here to this place from my past. I am a one who seeks economy of motion, on both the physical and spiritual planes. Life is indeed short and at my age life is getting shorter. Wasted motion is life-time wasted, something that I am loathe to do.

This is Laurel Canyon, a fabled place and the scene of much youthful drama and joy.

I understand the reverence people have for this place. For all of this California. So many of them are ensconced in dreary lives in dreary places around the planet. This must be a vision of heaven to them. Not to me, though. I live in a beautiful little fishing village by the sea. I have a bicycle, a beach, and a river. The sun shines most of the time and it is okay to be poor there, to not chase fame and fortune and it is okay to just ride your bike and look back on the dream that was life.

I have been cutting and fitting new boards for the upper level of the deck. It is about nine A.M and I have carefully spliced in six new boards in a little over an hour. That is more than were installed all day yesterday while my Son and I were out bothering Buddhists and climbing mountains. But that is beside the point; I have been cutting up boards and nailing them back together for a lot  longer than any of these guys have been alive and it is easy for me.  It would be nice if I had my own tool kit here with me, though.  My tools and I are old friends and we know each other well and the work would sing a happier song.

 It is cool and wet here in the early morning fog. I'm thinking about something Beau had said back before I ever left Florida about how I could show those guys a thing or two. He had told them his Dad woulda finished this deck by himself a week ago. And now, here his Dad is: working by himself, doing just that. But why? Beau has left me here with a bottle of water and his rusty tools. The blade in the saw is so dull that I could chew through these low-grade pieces of redwood faster than the saw is cutting them. I don't get it. That boy never even laid eyes on a rusty tool in all his years with me. Hell, our Sunday Father-Son ritual was to drive down to the car wash in Satellite Beach with my work truck and wash it and vacuum out the inside. Then we would go home and he would sit on my work bench with a clean rag just like mine, his rag  impregnated with baby oil and mine with WD40 as we cleaned and wiped and oiled my tools and put them back into the truck. He was three years old.

My knees are feeling the cold and damp as I crawl around on the wood surface. I'm shimming and backcutting and using a bag of tricks as old as Noah as I make sure these new boards that I am fitting look good. Not every joint is a tight one, I am matching each existing joint by compromising between snug and proper and the weathered joint next to it. This is what I do and for many, many years I have started early in the morning: oiled, sharpened tools in hand, a pile of fresh lumber stacked and ready for whatever we were building. I would watch that pile as the day went by; my practice was to only put out as much lumber as the day's work required. I could tell how things were going by the rate that our lumber stack diminished. On good days late in the week I would watch that pile and after lunch tell the boys that when that pile was gone so were we and call it eight hours. After a while the crew learned to expect that early day and I would quietly make the Thursday pile a little larger than other days. But it was usually gone by two in the afternoon anyway. I was a pretty good carpenter, but I was a great crew boss.

But listen: I'm tired. I'm tired and cold and damp and working with tools that need work themselves. I'm disoriented and alone and far from home and there was work to be done at home, too. Maybe. With those screwy bastards I work for at the trailer park, you never know.

I don't know why I am here. This ain't my style. I am always somewhere because I want to be there or because I have to be there. This is...

These morning mists are taking forever to clear. I will have the last new deck board finished in a few minutes, then I will clear and sweep the deck. I will walk all around, bent double, looking for any missed nails or uneven joints or anything else that needs to be fine-tuned before we call it finished.

Then? I don't know.

Raising children is tough, I guess. It was for me, and I don't mean just in choices and tribulations. Beau got kicked out of every school he ever went to, starting in second grade. When I went to Texas on a big job that led to another big job that kept me gone for ninety days that became one hundred and twenty days away from home, his step mom packed up his little brother and the dogs and the cats and him and moved back to her parent's big old house outside Chicago. I came home to the Beach and the house was empty. I drove up to Chicago but no dice. It was over.  Off and on over the next few years he would find himself banished to Florida as a kind of punishment, I suppose.  Life with me meant work and reading.  There were books to read but that was no problem, they were good books. There was no television, but there were a lot of books.  Luckily, he liked to read.  And the work? It is not always work.  Sometimes it is craft.  Sometimes it  And being part of a hard-working, skilled crew building something is a special thing not everyone gets to experience.  It means something, I think.

I nail in the last board. I spend thirty minutes clearing and sweeping and putting the sad tools into a pile near where the next work will be, down by the hot tub. I go sit down for a minute.  This really isn't my style.  The sun may be coming out. That would be good.

Whispering Pines Trailer Park on location:  Back to LA!


  1. Tim Joe, while it is plain as day that you have had enough of LA, I catch myself hoping (just a bit) your flights get fouled up just to prompt more of these lovely narratives.

    thanks for sharing.

  2. Velo Brother I sit here sipping Bushmills and reading your excellent prose and it hits me that Christmas has well and truly come early. Each of these vignettes from LA is like unwrapping a gift. Frankly I wasn't expecting a whole lot from this season other than spending the 25th with my darling daughter but these stories man... they are a gift. Merry Christmas Bro

    1. Getting compliments like these is Cristmas enough for me, Ryan.

      Congratulations on your new Blog.


  3. I have to agree with RoadieRyan. This series has been a gift that has brightened an annual December wrestling match for me.


    I know you don't need a rube like me telling you that you are a lucky/unlucky man in life. But in my job I see the ass-hats that call themselves carpenters and just screw the public out there. And then there are the guys that are craftsmen and do everything they can to make sure the customer gets real value for the work performed on their homes. I'm pretty sure I would like to have you as a lumber customer and could be confident in recommending you for work.

    1. Jim, at the tail end of the Hippie movement there had developed a branch of the hippie-craftsman, and the back-to-the land-movement...guys like Lloyd Khan and Sun Ray Kelley were exploring alternative building techniques and everything had a sense of new and hopeful. I wasn't in it, but I knew about it and wanted to be a part. But I was an apprentice union carpenter in Ft Lauderdale, building form and pour twenty story buildings and the cool stuff passed me by.

      But it was always there and then, as a carpenter sub for many years I learned that the best job I could do wasn't good had to be RIGHT. And once I got that figured out it was easy and anytime I wrote an invoice I knew that I had earned the money that I was asking for.

      I always loved building decks because they are always in a cool space and by definition are a place of fun. Plus, the bones are exposed and all the work is there to see. I always said "Decks are furniture" and built them accordingly. tj

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