I still wonder if my adult working career for many years progressed like a tortoise in sand because of apathy or a reflexive hatred of manual labor that began too soon, at age nine, when my mother remarried and her new husband, a drill sergeant masquerading as an electrical engineer and contractor, drafted my stepbrother and me for a series of oppressive jobs.
The first task began in the summer of 1962, shortly after our new and not entirely functional family moved from two modest houses in a lower middle class neighborhood in south Sacramento to a large suburban home with a pool in Sierra Oaks, an enclave studded with oak trees along the levee of the beautiful brown American River bordered by green nature east of Sacramento. About six-thirty the first morning of summer vacation, when privileged children expect to sleep late and arise to a couple hours of television reruns and game shows, which at the time seemed less insipid than those of today, my stepfather – for the first of hundreds of times – cranked the doorknob, barged into my bedroom, and in a theatrically-deepened voice announced, “Get up, Tom, time to go to work.” My stepbrother, let us call him C, received a similar summons, but he was and is a sturdier soul and probably didn’t so dread these barracks-style awakenings.
On this blistering valley morning, C and I were told to weed every one of the many large flowerbeds on the quarter-acre property. We violently swung shovels and hoes at crabgrass growing under the fence from adjacent lots, and felt like we’d lost even after we eventually destroyed it. Most of the day we crawled on our knees, yanking at an army of green and brown weeds that covered the soil and wound around bases of shrubs and clung to the house’s foundation, and toiled till five that afternoon when my stepfather, we’ll call him SF, returned to his kingdom and vigorously smooched my mother, henceforth designated as M. Once unentangled, he said, “Did you boys weed all the flowerbeds?”
“Yes,” we replied.
Picture General Patton slipping on a white glove to run under barracks beds, looking for a few particles of dust, and that was SF marching from flowerbed to flowerbed, first examining each while he stood erect and then squatting like a catcher – his knees didn’t pop since he was twenty years younger then than I am now – so he could visually scour every square inch. The inspection proceeded famously until he spotted three tiny weeds behind a bush in a front-yard flowerbed I could show you today.
“What the hell are these?”
“They’re the only three,” I said.
“If I’d wanted you to leave three weeds, I’d have said, ‘Leave three weeds.’”
Positive reinforcement must not have been in vogue. SF preferred other psychological strategies. The following summer C and I were drafted to move stacks of bricks, delivered to the front of the driveway, to each end of the property. We did not have to lay the bricks, a task that would’ve required considerable skill and experience. SF had that, and in a few weekends he crafted two large and impressive L-shaped brick structures about a foot and a half high bordering the sides of the property and extending to the driveway in the middle. Those who haven’t performed manual labor may conclude the mission was accomplished. That assessment would be premature.
Indeed, the new fortress was bereft of dirt above ground level. SF called the appropriate people with a truck that dumped a mountain of rich, dark soil onto the driveway. Then he either made a rare tactical error or concluded that C and I were still not strong enough to fill a large wheelbarrow with dirt and move it along the wall. We therefore had to shovel dirt into a small rusty wheelbarrow and then take it along the walls and dump dirt into flowerbeds that consumed scores of loads, the entire mountain, which no more than two-thirds filled the walls. Rather than again summon and pay the dirt vendors, SF ordered C and me to go into nearby fields in this still-new section of the neighborhood and dig up hard, unwatered dirt.
There are countless adult farmworkers in California and around the world who spend years stooping to pick crops, breaking their bodies, so I appreciate that my comparable experiences were relatively brief. C and I spent two days hacking out the resistant dirt, loading it into the wheelbarrow, and returning to dump it into the slowly-filling flowerbeds. Blessedly, the level of dirt finally rose to a few inches from the top of the bricks and it looked like time to celebrate with ice cream.
“One more load,” said SF.
C and I complied. One more, we heard repeatedly until nightfall.
“I think that’s finally got it,” he said.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” I asked.
“If I had, you’d have been discouraged.”
He was right about that. Incidentally, I am not intentionally leaving out quotes by C, who was generally more talkative than I, but he did not complain often or memorably, a winning trait I have only begun to practice in middle age.
As a restless and creative engineer, a man who designed electrical systems for office buildings and apartment complexes, SF constantly needed new projects. He decided the driveway was in the wrong place, that it left open the center of his property and failed to afford the privacy he needed. The task, therefore, was to remove the driveway and build a brick flowerbed in front of it, and fill it with dirt from nearby fields, then tear down the bricks that fronted the garage wall that had to yield space for a new door. Once that was installed, the two family cars could be driven up the new driveway and through the new garage entrance.
The difficulties of moving bricks and shoveling hard dirt from nearby fields have already been chronicled. Those tasks, C and I would soon learn, were relatively congenial compared to making a driveway disappear. Few citizens ever have that opportunity, and perhaps they should, in order to learn the essence of unskilled labor. Ever the considerate taskmaster, SF told us we were much too weak to control a jackhammer, and for that job he brought in his top foreman, a husky man named J. As the valley sun seared above a hundred degrees, J gripped the jackhammer and drove its sharp point into the cement, breaking up jagged chunks of concrete almost a foot deep and shaking the neighborhood with motorized pounding. C and I followed him and, individually or together, hoisted the heavy chunks and tossed them into the bed of a pickup truck. In addition to the drudgery of the job, I remember two highlights: Big J was pumping out more facial and body sweat than anyone I’ve seen, and C, presumably by accident, threw a cement block that hit me in the side of the head. Bleeding was minimal, the pain not intolerable, and C explained he’d aimed the cement at the rear of the truck. On we worked, fearing what SF might do if the damned driveway was there when he got home. After the project was completed, and the new lawn sowed and growing, the place did look great, and I can confirm it still does as I recently drove by during a sojourn to Sacramento.
I was neither clever nor foolish enough to ask SF why a man of his eminence didn’t have a gardener. Years later I realized he deployed those funds for a few extra pops in his country club cocktail lounge. Hence, C mowed the back yard and I the front. We began our gardening careers with an old mower that shot cut grass, and anything else it hit, out of a grapefruit size hole in the side. One morning while waiting for C to finish mowing, I raised a hand to scratch my neck and was hit by a rock that bloodied the hand, a sturdier target than my jugular.
SF, displeased with the uneven cut from the old mower, and our less than thorough raking of scattered grass, purchased a professional model that churned the grass back into a basket and is the same style mower most gardeners use today. After turning the engine on, the mower’s blades were unleashed by pushing forward on a lever just below the grips. One morning I rapidly mowed the front lawn and told SF I’d done so, but during his inspection he said, “You haven’t mowed at all.”
Though the grass did look a tad high, I pointed to wheel tracks as evidence of due diligence.
“Did you activate the blades?” he asked.
Thenceforth, I always ensured the blades were whirling, and after a typically quick cut summoned SF, who said, “Did you just give it the once-over-lightly?”
“I expect you to go over it two or three times.”
In the mid Sixties SF decided to start his own electrical contracting firm, abandoning his two partners, one whom had a missing leg, a blind eye, was twice as militaristic as SF and approaching senility, and the other who generally ended work days at noon with long martini lunches. SF needed cheap labor and presumptively hired C and me for a miserly forty cents an hour. “You’re lucky I’m paying you at all,” he told us.
SF also needed an inexpensive office and found an abandoned ramshackle old house, in southeast Sacramento, whose previous tenant had been an electrical contractor, too, and quite a swinger. In foot-high trash that C and I waded through and loaded into bags, we found condoms, feminine hygiene products, and Playboy pinups. I owned plenty of the latter but had never seen and only vaguely understood the former. The highlight of this period came on a Saturday morning as SF and M, the dutiful and also-underpaid office manager, were working inside as C and I hoed dry weeds in front. C and I must have numbed our minds, for when we finally looked up a fire was raging across the front and side yards and threatening the house. After alerting our parents, thus completing our most sacred duty, we perhaps should have let the shack burn. Instead, in a burst of righteous energy, I grabbed the garden house and sprayed the fire while C bombed it with dirt. The fire department soon arrived, the new headquarters were saved, and thus began the firm.
* * *
We now rejoin the narrative in the late Sixties when I turned sixteen, the magical age of driving eligibility and, for C and me, a time to step into the company pickup trucks, which lacked radios and air conditioners but were now parked in a large, fenced asphalt area outside the warehouse my parents had since built along with a fancy office in another bad part of town. Our position was officially called material handler, and people still ask what is that. It’s an unskilled job that requires a strong back and weak mind immune to the drudgery of loading electrical materials from the warehouse and then driving to one, two, or three wholesale warehouses to fill the rest of the orders from foremen on the construction sites, and driving to the sites and unloading material, and cleaning up everything as directed, and then loading up excess materials and bringing them back to the warehouse, quaintly called the shop, and unloading the truck.
C and I went to American River College in the eastern suburbs, but in a few weeks I dropped out and toured the country three months until I ran out of money and had to return home and resume material handling. C, meanwhile, matriculated to Fresno State for a year and then moved to Seattle where he played guitar in a rock band a couple of years, concluded the group would never tour with the Rolling Stones, and got married and worked as a laborer the short time he needed to learn the rudiments of the electrical business prior to starting his own firm and soon dwarfing the not inconsiderable earnings of SF.
For years I entered college about half the time and almost always quit within weeks, engulfed by classroom boredom. My independent studies were more important than a degree, I believed, and would soon lead to wealth wrought by a creative mind. Until that happened, I humbled myself selling paint at a department store, sold quite a few memberships for a quack consumer service club that sank, sold perhaps three life and health insurance policies in two months I worked on commission for a major firm, wrote several hundred articles during four years as a newspaper correspondent, and during all that time and beyond – 1969 to 1983 – I meekly returned to the parental warehouse whenever financial urgency dictated.
As the least skilled and lowest paid employee in the company, I always got the toughest jobs. One of the worst was loading rigid conduit, heavy metal pipes ten-feet long, into the company’s new half-ton flatbed truck on winter mornings. I evidently did not understand that wearing gloves would prevent my hands from becoming red and numb as I lifted four-inch rigid conduit, cold as a freezer and reputed to weigh a hundred and eight pounds each, and periodically got my fingers mashed purple and black between rolling pipes that caused me to curse whatever deficiencies left me in position for the company superintendent to say, “Don’t you wish you’d learned to do something?”
SF and M were as humiliated as I by my humble position, and we all quarreled with stomach-twisting regularity. At least, by participating in shop improvement projects, I was helping my parents build wealth. The task I least liked was getting on the scissor-lift, which was topped by a platform, a few feet by several and bordered by protective railing, that could be mechanically raised about twenty feet to a ceiling awaiting insulation. As ordered I put on protective glasses and a filtered mask, and, swinging an industrial-strength stapler like a hammer – where was the battery-powered model? – I battered the sides of long sheets of insulation into the rafters. The mask dug a ditch in each cheek and the glasses were irritating, so I took them off and began inhaling sharp material and squinting as crumbling insulation fell into my eyes.
Most days, fortunately, my superiors deployed me outside the shop, and I drove in all directions from Sacramento in the center of the Golden State. To the east I often rolled about twenty miles to Rocklin, a parched expanse then housing primarily gophers and snakes, before it mushroomed into a crowded suburb, and delivered heavy material – there’s rarely anything light in construction – to a warehouse vast as a pro football stadium. On my way back, without a seat belt, staring at a vacant road one lane each way, gripping the steering wheel with two stupid hands, I often floored the accelerator and kept it there until an old pickup truck rattled and roared as it reached about a hundred and five miles per hour, and I’d ask myself: what would happen if I had a wreck at this speed. One afternoon, the same superintendent who’d implied I was a mule, told me to tie down some large but light aluminum covers for ceiling lamps. “Or they’ll blow out,” he warned.
“I’ve got them wedged in good,” I said. SF had just entered the warehouse and heard the exchange.
About seven miles from the shop, speeding east on Interstate 80 toward Rocklin, the aluminum covers flew out the rear of the truck. I pulled over, followed by a California Highway Patrolman.
“I wedged them in.”
“If you had, they wouldn’t be all over the road,” he yelled, kicking and throwing the boxes into the center divider. No wrecks resulted, so I got off with a ticket, a tongue lashing by SF back at the shop, and a bill for the materials, which approximated a week of part-time work. The ticket also cost about that much.
Surprisingly, I never had difficulties when I drove thirty-five miles east through the foothills, crowned by oaks, and into the lower Sierra Nevada mountains of Auburn, heralded by towering pines, and then turned north onto Highway 49 and cruised twenty minutes to the pristine community of Grass Valley where I headed east and drove far back into the mountains and delivered material to those working on a sleek building whose lines hummed like Frank Lloyd Wright.
My most challenging day driving west occurred in Campbell, a suburb of San Jose. A high rise building, where I’d made many deliveries, had just been completed, and the dour foreman – most electricians are not swashbucklers – pulled a soiled paper from his overalls pocket and wrote the floors I had to visit to retrieve various machines and tools.
“The elevator works, doesn’t it,” I said.
“Not yet. Take the stairs.”
There was a pipe bender, or similar contraption, that had three hard legs all kicking my two or walls in the stairwell as I staggered down several stories, wishing I were either stronger or brighter.
“You don’t have to act like a goddamn bull in a China shop,” said the foreman.
Regrettably, the righteous fellow had departed by late that afternoon when I ultimately cleared the building of valuables. All that remained to be put on the flatbed truck, which is quite capacious, was a gang box, a very long and rather wide metal box, about the size and weight of two coffins, serving as a safe for small tools and materials that even weak thieves would otherwise abscond with. Generally, gang boxes are loaded onto trucks by two or more men. Today, I alone would have to hoist this one. If you’ve never had this assignment, here’s how to succeed. First, empty the gang box. You don’t want any extra weight. Then push or drag the unwieldy thing as close as possible to the rear of the truck. Relax about a minute and let some of your ebbing strength return. Then grab the bar at the end of the gang box, scream like an Olympic weightlifter during a steroid rage, and lift and drag the end onto the rear edge of the truck, and rush to the other end of the box and push so its opposite end, the front, goes a little further onto the truck and won’t slip off, and then grab the bar at the back end, scream less loudly since you’ve just injured your vocal chords, and lift and use your chest and belly to push the box onto the truck. You can do it but you won’t be happy because you’ll know someone should’ve been there to help.
During these years of glory I delivered to several places near Monterey which reminded me of Carmel which suggested Clint Eastwood who represented glamor and success I envied, particularly the day I drove to Fort Ord, a vast military base along a dreary stretch of the Pacific Ocean, in a large rented U-Haul truck filled with heavy metal light fixtures each about four feet by two. I don’t know what the first fixture weighed, but the last one felt like a linebacker, and I was sweating and dust had swarmed onto my face and muddied it, and I thought, “God, please don’t let Clint Eastwood see me like this.”
Trips south of Sacramento featured deliveries to the California Youth Authority below Stockton, and to Burbank, that bastion of show business warehouses I envisioned full of Hollywood ghosts who even then were long departed. Nearby, the family company had won a competitive bid to wire a high rise. I drove onto the construction site, opened the truck door and, wearing slippers, stepped out and directly onto a nail, poised vertically in a board, that penetrated half way through my foot and sent me howling to the hardpan. I didn’t know why I was wearing slippers then and certainly don’t now. Perhaps I’d wanted to be comfortable during the four hundred mile drive from Sacramento through the dreary Central Valley. With my foot aching and swelling rapidly, I needed to find the foreman and electricians and give them their checks and material before rushing to an emergency room. But I didn’t see anyone this early afternoon. They wouldn’t have quit already; their cars were still there. Into the tall building I walked, scowled at the incomplete elevator, and began hobbling up the stairs. Each new floor I reached I shouted, “Hello, electricians.” No one ever answered. On the eighth floor I found them sitting in a circle and, in blue-collar style, talking tough and complaining they didn’t like working for an out of town contractor and, by God, they weren’t going to work much, they were just going to sit and complain. Incidentally, these members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers were making more than twenty bucks an hour in the mid 1970s. That was a lot of green for oral flatulence. There were many reasons for America’s economic tumble. Some related to protected workers demanding big paychecks for doing as little as possible. Now, in the high tech era, the lazy bastards generally wear white collars and either milk or rob the system while pushing buttons and moving paper but creating nothing.
At the California Youth Authority, as those who had committed felonies before turning eighteen and were still under age twenty-five filed by, I’d glance at unsmiling young men and wonder whether they were murderers or rapists or armed robbers. They generated a lot of bad energy held in and heated up by the walls around them, and I was always glad to leave and thankful I didn’t deliver to San Quentin.
My most alluring and unfortunate journeys occurred in the north. The foreman on the job at Yuba College in Marysville, about forty minutes over a high-speed two-lane road from Sacramento, administered horrific orders every time I came. Slender, taut, weather-beaten, and grim, he looked like a career sergeant with plenty of combat experience, and, lacking a battle, settled for sending me to the building’s remotest places to retrieve startling excesses of supplies. I lifted and carried down dusty stairs dozens of heavy light fixtures, countless boxes of unused wire, and innumerable pipes. These tasks are not unreasonable in construction, but this insensitive warrior didn’t understand I yearned to return to my independent studies and the basketball court. During my time as a newspaper correspondent, when I didn’t have to do much material handling, this foreman’s son served as one of my successors and often stole supplies. When my parents notified the frowning father, he replied, “I’m sure you know I can’t do anything about that.”
By the early 1980s, not having understood the nuances of bureaucratic survival, I was back in the warehouse and also, at night, cleaning the offices and bathrooms. A few employees told me there was too much dust on their desks and the bathrooms didn’t sparkle. I wasn’t striving to be Mr. Spic ‘N Span. There was a more distressing and perhaps permanent storm, the one SF had begun forecasting a decade earlier: “You’re going to be thirty, Tom, and you’re still not going to be able to do a damn thing.” He was only pragmatically correct. I could write, but I wasn’t being paid for it anymore. And The Tide, a monthly tabloid of features and columns that I’d begun a year earlier, despite a free readership of fifteen thousand and repeat advertisements purchased by several businesses as well as the august United States Army and Air Force, was costing more to publish than ad revenue could replace.
So I was a thirty-year old material handler who didn’t feel well and used alcohol and pot as self-medication. And after loading the flatbed truck, my now regular two-hour drives up and down Interstate 5 seemed to last all day as thoughts obsessively raced through a brain unable to stop them. Think about something once or twice, briefly, and you’re okay. Think about it hundreds of times, while your brain cranks out rebuttals, and you’re not going to be chipper arriving at the construction site in Corning, a backwater off Interstate 5 about a hundred fifteen miles north of Sacramento. One sizzling summer day in 1983, after unloading too late in the afternoon to make it back to the shop before it closed, I decided to defer my return a few hours and head twenty miles east to Chico, a lovely community, close to the Sierra foothills, featuring Bidwell Park endowed with enough trees and water to have been used as Sherwood Forest in the 1938 film classic The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone.
I’d always thought about those stars during my many visits to Chico – a favored destination for many Sacramentans – and I also usually visited my good friend Z, whom I had known since age five and played basketball with throughout childhood and on the high school team. He now owned a used bookstore and was selling lots of merchandise. Bearing a case of beer, I showed up at his home uninvited since he eschewed both business and residential phones. We started drinking beers in his living room, which appeared to have been used as a stable. I didn’t mind. It was more charming than my pigeonhole in North Sacramento. As ever, I guzzled my beers. Z sipped his. After I gave him my life progress report, Z drily remarked, “It must be tough being your parents’ gofer.” That was a gut bunch I countered with more beers and deep hits of powerful green marijuana he’d retrieved from his freezer.
Periodically, Z stepped to shelves of his vast record collection and retrieved the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Billie Holiday, a poster of whom, sad and dissipated and near the end, riveted one wall. When he put on the Dylan album, Z told me he’d once raised the record player arm and left it up, so the album played all evening every evening for two months. At times when I was younger, friends had rebuked me for too often playing Stephen Stills, the Rolling Stones, and the Doors. But that meant I was only cranking their stuff up once or twice a day. Z had established a new standard for musical obsession. I thought that was intriguing, along with his impromptu comments about the artistry of Charles Dickens, the greatness of Abraham Lincoln, the dominance of Babe Ruth, the new all-sports offerings of ESPN, which, he explained, randomly hired announcers out of local bars, and the difficulties of driving three hours to San Francisco every Friday afternoon and then getting up before dawn Saturday and Sunday to start cruising the streets of The City, looking for garage sales and flea markets offering used books he could sell for profit in Chico, where he returned, exhausted, late Sunday nights.
Z and I moved outside to his driveway basketball court. He’d always shot well for a guy six-foot-five in the late Sixties, but the coach, without adequate experimentation in games, decided his hundred-fifty-pound frame was ill-suited for rebounding and interior defense, and Z did not receive the playing time he deserved. I think that relieved him since he really preferred to avoid performing before judgmental crowds stuffed into prep gymnasiums. I should’ve remembered his sensitivity but continued slurping beers, talking louder, even yelling during certain musical moments still being pumped from inside, and offering unsolicited advice about athletic training, housekeeping, lifestyle, and romance, despite being unqualified to comment on any but the first. My boorishness intensified during our return to his living room, and I still wish I’d understood the implications of his grimaces, and finally his scalding remark, uttered twice in my final thirty minutes there, “Come back, Tom.”
Not quite a master of perception, I said that I had another delivery two days thereafter, a Thursday, and would stop by. This news jolted his body as if by electrical current. Z made sure he wasn’t around, heading to San Francisco a day early. As always, he left his front door open. I don’t mean unlocked. I mean wide open. That is not an excuse but an explanation that offers a sliver of mitigation for the following: I entered Z’s castle, headed for the freezer, left five dollars for enough weed to roll two joints, began smoking, and listened to some of his prize records.
Early the following week, still obtuse, I returned to Z’s home and was stunned by his angry lecture not only about my intrusion and consumption of part of his favorite stash but, unknown to me, the severe scratching of a few of his albums. I apologized for my behavior and vowed to replace the records. He forbade that and urged me to drive carefully. A week later, I tried to soothe and regain this comrade of a quarter century, sending him the complete symphonies of Franz Schubert. I then mailed him ten bucks and two joints of brain-busting weed. But I never heard from him again and was, and remain, afraid to return. This summer, twenty-seven years after the indiscretions, I left a message for him at his brother’s house in San Francisco, notifying both that I’d soon be in town for the annual Jewish Film Festival. Thunderous silence.
I had to select a new activity after delivering supplies to the job site in Corning. An inveterate map reader, I’d spotted some intriguing roads heading west into the Coast Ranges, and I have the same maps and marked routes on my desk now. At the Northern California latitudes indicated, I didn’t settle for little foothills like those dividing most of the Central Valley floor from the Pacific Ocean. I sought real mountains, and a time or two a week for about a month I filled up both tanks of a pickup truck and headed west from Corning on country road 49 and slowly climbed into a paradise opening up over vast, pristine valleys of pine trees and leading into mountains as thrilling as the Sierra and surrounded by peaks extending more than six-thousand feet into vivid blue sky.
Every trip I was at once enthused but worried when the paved road ended, and I randomly steered onto dirt paths leading through territory few ever see. Just thirty direct miles from the valley oven, creamy cool snow still lingered in some parts of this new universe, and I stopped and walked over to pick some up and push it into my mouth. Returning to the truck, I chose a road I thought headed south and drove for an hour before becoming alarmed by the isolation and ultimately realizing I’d been driving in circles. I looked for a decidedly different road and turned the truck down a narrow one marred by ruts probably made by running water, and despite driving slowly almost lost control when the edge of a wheel went into a rut and at that moment my stomach seized as two deer dashed a few feet in front of the bumper and across the road and out of sight.