The Wood Butcher’s Trade

There are several ways to learn the skill of Carpentry. One might involve having a father who swings a hammer for a living. You start by sweeping up and carrying boards around the job site after school.  Eventually, if you don’t run off to join a punk band, you’ll learn the rudiments of the trade.  Or you can join the Carpenters Union (you’ll need a Sponsor) and be an apprentice for a number of years. If you have the cash or are willing to go into debt, you can find a Trade School that’ll teach you the basics.

Or you can do what I did. I read a couple of books on building, got myself a used tool belt and filled it up with various hand tools, and then bought a power saw and taught myself to use it. I finally walked onto a construction site in Denver with a fictitious resume and applied for a job. It took them a few days to figure out I was lying and to fire me. But in the meantime, I had been keeping my eyes open and learning all I could. By the second or third try, the Foreman decided, however reluctantly, to let me stay and I spent the next forty years cutting up chunks of wood and nailing them back together.

Over the years I worked as an employee for a few small outfits and for a few big commercial companies, but most of the time I worked by myself as a freelance contractor. I’ve partnered a few times, the most notable being in Iowa where Kelly, Glenn, and I formed our own construction company and called it “Pigs in Space Construction.” Kelly and I came up with the name a few years earlier when we were working together building balconies on an apartment complex in Denver.  One day we had just been laughing about a segment on The Muppet Show called Pigs in Space. I climbed up on a temporary handrail to grab an electric cord when the rail broke underneath me and I dropped about fifteen feet into a mudhole. Kelly leaned out over the edge of the deck and intoned, “Pigggs inn Spaaace!”  Three days later, he was climbing a homemade ladder when his foot slipped between the rungs and he dropped head first into a similar mudhole. This time I had the honor – “Pigggs inn Spaaace!”  By the time we got together in Iowa and added Glenn, the name was a foregone conclusion.

Construction partnerships have about the same shelf-life as rock ‘n’ roll bands, and a few years later when Pigs in Space had faded into legend, I moved to Chicago. I got a job doing finish work for what was probably the only gay-owned construction company in the city. Tad had gotten his degree in veterinary science, but decided to give up his practice when a milk cow took a couple of casual sideways steps and crushed his assistant up against a barn wall, breaking two ribs. Since Tad was allergic to cats, he decided to go into upscale remodeling and he quickly found his services were in high demand in the gay community. I think his customers were relieved not to have to take down their favorite artworks and “butch” up the place because the carpenters were coming over.

I was comfortable working in that environment because I already had several gay friends who seemed to take special pleasure in telling me the most perverse stories and then laughing at my reaction.* Over the course of my career, I worked for many different types and varieties of people, but my favorites were gay couples and black people.

Gay couples were appreciative, didn’t care so much about price as long as it looked good, and –  I’ll take the risk of stumbling over the line into stereotypes here –  they invariably had great taste. The only problems I ever had were when each one of a couple thought that they had a better eye than their partner. One would say, “You know those little medallion things on the mantelpiece that Kevin sketched up? Do you mind kind of forgetting to put them on?” Then Kevin would take me aside and say, “Don’t forget the medallions on the mantelpiece, okay?” I had to ask Tad to make them sit down and talk to each other.

I spent fifteen of the twenty years I was in Los Angeles installing kitchen cabinets. There was, and still is, a business in Culver City called The Kitchen Store. They will take your kitchen measurements and design an entire kitchen for you and order the cabinets. They do not have in-store installers, instead they hand you a business card for an independent installer and say, “We recommend you call this guy to install your new cabinets. He’s bonded, insured, licensed, and has done a lot of work with us.” For those fifteen years, I was one of the six or seven guys whose card was handed out.

Unlike some of the other installers, I was always pleased to be referred to a black family. I did have a few bad experiences with customers (we’ll get to some of those in a bit), but never with a person of color. The first day or two on one of these jobs was always a little stiff and formal but once the ice was broken, I became family.  “Would you like something to drink? Some sweet tea or something?” and “My mama and I are going to watch Judge Judy. Let us know if the volume is too high. Or take a break and come and watch. This girl took care of her boyfriend’s dog for a week, shaved it like it was a poodle or something,  and now she won’t give it back.”

Probably my favorite kitchen installation for a black family was in a large house in Carson, California. Mrs. Conrad’s husband had passed away five years before and left her enough money to buy the house. She needed a large one because she had a large family. There were adult children, teenagers, friends of the teenagers and grandchildren going constantly in and out. My assistant Jon and I were there for two weeks and we were never sure how many people actually lived there. But it was a jolly crew that would wander into the kitchen to swap jokes, make fun of the music we listened to (jazz), or tell on a little brother who’d done something heinous. Mrs. Conrad was my favorite. She’d bring in her friends in to watch us work and they’d tut-tut, and nod their heads, and tell us how nice it looked.

One day we came to work and Mrs. Conrad was angry and yelling at the kids. Evidently, there had been some kind of rebellion earlier and choice words and punishments were being handed out.  Afterward, she came into the kitchen to apologize for the uproar.

“I blame my husband,” she said with some heat. “He just up and died on me, leaving me all these mouthy kids to deal with. Sometimes it makes me so mad I just want to dig him up and kill him again!”

Most of my customers were middle-aged, white, housewives whose husbands had said, “Go ahead and do whatever you like, just don’t spend too much.” There were a few outliers like the college roommates  whose dog had chewed the corners off every reachable cabinet in the kitchen and asked me “Can you fix it so we can get our deposit back?” My answer: “No.”

But the banes of my existence were young, A-type, businessmen on the rise. When I went to a job and met one of these, I knew it was going to be trouble. Guys like this are very status-aware. They want to make sure I knew whose territory it was by metaphorically peeing on every post and rock around the perimeter. I could accept this if the fellow knew anything about carpentry or construction, but he usually did not. One guy, for instance, called me up after the job was complete and demanded that I drop everything and come over to correct some mistakes. After making me wait for nearly an hour while he talked on the phone, he finally told me what the problem was – he had discovered, behind a roll-out drawer in the back of a cabinet, a pile of sawdust.  It took me all of three minutes to vacuum it up.

And then there was Ralph. Ralph was a “Licensed” Contractor. I use the quotes because of the California system of granting licenses to building contractors. To get a license one must take an extensive test to, ostensibly, weed out those people who don’t know which end of the nail to hit with a hammer. In response, there arose a cottage industry of “Construction License Schools.” For several hundred dollars you go to a two-day class. They pass out sheets of paper that list all the questions that will appear on the tests along with the correct answers. The “student” spends the next two days memorizing. Hence, we have General Contractors like Ralph. He was not only clueless but had a tender ego that wouldn’t allow him to admit he was clueless.

So it was Ralph who got concerned that during an earthquake the island cabinets might tear loose from the screws I was using to anchor them and hop around the room. He insisted that I put eight-inch lag bolts through the bottoms of the cabinets and into the floor joist below. I told him that if there was ever an earthquake with that much force, the customers were going to have a much bigger problems than their island cabinets hopping around the floor. But he insisted and I put in the lag bolts. On other points, I just couldn’t let him have his way. He was disturbed that when he opened the drawers and looked at the inside of the drawer face, there were two different colors of screws – the screws that held on the outer face were brass-colored and the screws that held on the handles were chrome. He was also sure that the system I used to attach the wall cabinets to the wall was not strong enough and the cabinets would someday fall.

A couple of months after finishing the job, I got a phone call from Ralph. “Just as I predicted,” he said, “the cabinets are falling off the wall. You have to go and fix them.”

The next day I dropped by the house and asked to look at the kitchen. I was proud to see how nice it looked with all the finishing details. All the wall cabinets were tight to the wall in exactly the places I had installed them. The only problem was that when I had installed the crown molding, I had snugged it up against the ceiling. Now there was nearly a ½” gap that ran all the way around the room. I swiped a couple of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, drove home, and that evening called Ralph.

“Tell me, Raph,” I said. “You bought the two by twelves  that your guys used to frame the kitchen ceiling from Home Depot, right?”

He said he had.

“The big framing lumber they sell is still green – heavy with moisture. Once installed, the joists dry out and as they do, they shrink. My cabinets are exactly where I put them, the shrinking joists just pulled the sheetrock up and away from them. That kitchen ceiling is now about half an inch higher than it was.”

After recommending that he wait for a few more months for the framing to finish drying out, then hire a plasterer to fill the gap, I hung up and then grinned at my phone feeling just as smug as smug could be.


*Look at the right-hand column and click “Boscamp.”

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