Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Accidental Contractor

I know a number of people who boldly chose second careers and made a success out of it. My father-in-law walked away from a lucrative job in advertising, put the contents of his Connecticut house up for sale as his first inventory and launched himself into the antiques business on Nantucket, founding the beloved Island Attic Industries. One of my best friends quit his father’s cleaning business to start studying and teaching Aikido. An older man I know retired from his consulting firm to take up the theater. He lives in Canada and works steadily there, doing commercial work and acting on stage.

I admire them all. I wish I could be like them.

I didn’t choose my second career. It was thrust upon me against my will, and I only took it up because my first career had been a complete failure. My wife and I were living in Los Angeles in 1979, and she hated it there. “No matter how far you go you’re always in the middle of nowhere,” she complained. “People here think white wine is health food.”

We agreed to give my Hollywood writing career five years to take off; if it didn’t, we’d move to somewhere she wanted to live, which turned out to be Nantucket Massachusetts. By the time my career ticket expired she was expecting our first child, which upped the stakes drastically: she was determined not to raise a kid among the smog and the drive-by shootings.

I will never forget the sense of loss and despair I felt as we organized for the move. Driving from Logan airport to the south coast we passed through the dreary town of Westwood, Ma. … I had been living in Westwood California for five years and the contrast couldn’t have been more bleak if we were moving from Paris to Paris, Texas.

On Nantucket the only jobs available were in real estate, retail and the building trades. There was something soul-suckingly awful about the real estate business, all the greedy people and the boring parties and the half-lies (“You can barely see the dump from here and they never burn trash in the summer.”). Retail just didn’t pay a living wage. So I was hauling roof shingles up thirty foot ladders in February when the man who painted my in-laws’ house offered me a job. ‘It’s indoors, there’s bathroom and it pays two dollars more an hour,” he told me.

I took it.

It soon turned out that I had no aptitude for it at all. I couldn’t set a nail without ruining the board it was driven into, I hammered ‘like a cobbler’ – a dire insult, take my word for it. I couldn't push a roller without tracking little raised lines of paint, or brush a surface without missing parts, usually near the edge. I couldn’t sand a surface smooth or spread joint compound on it without making a lumpy mess. I earned the amused nickname “human dropcloth” and for a while it seemed I could get paint anywhere but on the surface I was aiming for. I knocked over buckets of paint, and broke windows with ladders. I couldn’t cut straight line with a brush. If I tried to reglaze a window I broke the glass; if I tried to paint a window I painted the glass. My one virtue was that I showed up. And I was willing to admit that I knew nothing.

And I did show up, for ten hour days, six and seven days a week, literally hating every minute of it. If you had told me this was going to be my career, I would have laughed at you. If I believed it I would probably have start swigging the paint thinner.

While I toiled away breathing paint fumes and fuming about the injustice of life, my best friend was living in Los Angeles, rising through the ranks of a high-powered internet company. He drove a stylish used Mercedes coupe; I drove the company paint van. I went out there and stayed with him when I managed to finagle a writing gig, and saw his glamorous life at first hand. I kept thinking that one of my little screenwriting jobs would get me back out west permanently. Once I got a ‘development deal’ with a major TV producer – it secured my membership in the Writer’s Guild and it looked like I might finally hit escape velocity. But the producer fired me … failed to ‘pick up’ my option, and few months later I was back sanding a floor, feeling like the poor sap in the Coast Guard brig who found he couldn’t swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco after all. Disgruntled workers even referred to Nantucket as “The Rock.” It seemed grimly appropriate.

One day in particular comes to mind. I was running the big ‘floor walker’ machines over an old floor, trying to strip many layers of paint. There were so many layers in fact that the nail heads in the floor boards were buried and invisible. I had to use 16-grit paper, which was almost impossible to wrap tightly around the sanding drum, and since it looked like sharp pebbles on fly-paper my fingers were soon scraped raw. So that was the routine: ten minutes to tighten the paper on the drum, start the machine then BA RAP-RAP-RAP-RAP-RAP as the drum hit one of those hidden nails and the paper shredded. Start again, rinse and repeat, all day long. I began to think I was being punished but I didn’t know for what. Hubris, perhaps. I had been pretty cocky in L.A. taking my meetings and making my phone calls, in the balmy days when ‘coverage’ meant a script report not the amount of paint you could roll on a wall.

But things changed. I started to get good at the job. I learned new skills. I learned them slowly, haltingly, through some trial but mostly just error … but I learned. I figured out how to brush those first strokes across the board and follow up with the grain so that the edges got painted; I learned how to load my brush enough to let the paint draw the straight line between the wall and the ceiling. And after working on a giant old house on the harbor with sixty windows – 120 sash, twelve-over-twelves, more than 1,300 panes of glass altogether, most of them cracked or broken – I figured out how to glaze windows. Anyone could learn how to do it after doing it 1300 times – even me.

Eventually I went out on my own into the scary world of finding customers and bidding jobs and paying crews while trying to keep my self from going broke. Bid too much nd you don’t get the job; bid too little and it ruins you. One kindly contractor refused my first bid, saying ‘This is way low. You’ll get halfway through the job, realize you’re losing money and either bail or start fucking up. Go home and figure out what it’s really going to cost.” So I did After a while I found I was working less and making more money, tackling interesting renovation jobs surrounded by friends I’d known for years. Knowing how to glaze windows came in handy.

Being my own boss was scary (“I have no work for winter!” and then three days and four phone calls later, “I have too much work for the winter!”) but there was something satisfying about taking a job from start to finish, beginning with a peeling old ruin and ending up with something beautiful. Last year, an acquaintance walked past exterior I had just finished on Main Street, and said “It’s a jewel box!’

Meanwhile my friend was struggling as the internet bubble burst and he had to admit, as he watched people getting laid off and fired all around him, that he really didn’t know what his job consisted of. Selling band width, modifying phone plan contracts, meeting with people to discuss modification of previously existing protocols … or something. He sat in a cubicle and pushed paper and crunched numbers and never saw the beginning or the end of any project or plan. My job was starting to look pretty good, by comparison. I gradually developed an amazing group of fascinating customers who loved their houses and were willing to spend a lot of money to make them nicer. Quite a few of them became my friends. All the people I worked with – the crazy plasterers and PhD candidate tile guys and poetry writing carpenters – had one thing in common. I would never had met them, never even crossed paths with them, if I had become the Hollywood hot-shot I had dreamed about. And that would have been a pity.

None of this meant I stopped writing. I got an MFA working at home with two ten day residencies every year, I wrote a memoir and five novels (I’m working the sixth right now) as well as hundreds of blog posts, all between the hours of five and seven in the morning. I also managed to raise two kids and start surfing again. One summer I surfed too much and almost lost some customers, but it was my choice, and I still smile when I think of the day I’d called the General Contractor to tell him I’d be staying home “catching up on my paperwork.” He saw me ten minutes later, driving to the beach in my wetsuit.

The writing comes in handy on the job, too. We have many foreign painters on the island now, from Eastern Europe and South America and most places in between. It’s the most diverse crowd of workers Nantucket has attracted since the whaling days. They work hard but often their English is rusty and their writing skills nonexistent. I wonder how some of them would have handled the customer whose roofs I power-washed this fall. It was tricky because I couldn’t work on the front roof that faces the street. It was just too dangerous. I broke the news to her when I gave her the bill. Here’s our e-mail exchange:

Subject: Re: Roofs
Were you able to clean the front roof at all? I don't quite understand why this was more challenging than the back side of the roof, which has the same pitch. Obviously, the front side is the most visible part of the entire roof, so the fact that this was the only surface not cleaned is quite disappointing. I understand that you took great pains to figure out how to get to it, but why is this different from any other house whose roof you've cleaned?

To which I replied, honestly feeling like the final payment might be at stake:

I wasn't going to go into the details but ...

Actually the front side is only really visible when you’re driving down the street .... but anyway ---

The roof's pitch was no the problem. Access and stability were the problem The roof is too long for the longest hook ladder to attach over the peak and extend down past the lower roof line. This means that access from below -- from the street, up another ladder -- requires actually climbing on the roof at an angle to get from one ladder to the other. This doesn't seem like such a circus feat until you're actually up there, dragging a power washer. I made the determination that it was too risky and looked to other tactics. Approaching the front from the back seemed good, there's a sort of 'staging area' up there, but there's this little hidden dormer, which makes setting ladder securely on that side of the roof impossible for about half of the length. You have to be able to get up that back-end rise with good footing in order to go over the peak and onto the hook ladder ... not ideal at the best best of times, but very treacherous when an obstacle prevents you from setting up the 'approach' ladder at the back of the roof. You have to remember, within minutes both sides of the roof are soaking wet and slick as glass.

Onto the next idea. A rope -- secured around the chimney. I bought the rope and the harness it would attach to. Ever try to get a leash-harness on your dog? This was like a Chinese puzzle by comparison, all random dangling straps. Still, I figured it out. What I had failed to figure out was that the rope, extending diagonally along the roof to either side, would drop me somewhere between the gutter and and bottom of the second story windows, if indeed the worst happened and it had to catch me at all. That leaves me dangling above the street trying to climb back and secure the power washer. I would leave that to a man with a healthier rotator cuff. I checked with several men younger and more daring than myself. The general consensus was "Get a cherry picker" People use them a lot now, I see them everywhere. Maybe in the Spring we could investigate the cost of that option.

I know you're disappointed. I am, too -- as well as frustrated, stymied and chagrined. Believe me, I was determined to do this -- and spent probably too much time trying to solve the problem. But I finally had to accept defeat -- this round, at least. When I had a question for Bruce Killen's carpenters in the old days, they used to shrug off my worries and say "We have the technology!" We have the technology here, too, to complete this part of this project safely and efficiently.

The pictures re attached.

In response I got the following, which made my day.

Thanks for the detailed explanation, and for your many attempts to make it work.

The photos look great. I'll have the balance mailed to you shortly.


I honestly think I’ll be paid on this job not just for doing the work, but for being able to tell the story of the work I didn’t do.

So here I am, twenty six years later, kids all grown, still painting, still writing, still climbing around on roofs, renovating old houses and actually enjoying myself. I’m independent, even if I do have to grovel and tap-dance from time to time. And I find that I enjoy improving things, even if it’s only old houses. They have personalities for me, above and beyond whatever I may think of their owners. I love them the way you might love a pet; I sometimes feel like I’m grooming an immense placid animal when I’m working on those gorgeous exteriors. I like melting away layer after layer of old coatings (lead, calcimite, oil and latex) to show some lovely detail that’s been smothered under all that paint for a generation. I like the camaraderie of sharing a late night bottle of wine as we finish the trim work ahead of the floor guys or the furniture movers.

As for my friend? The internet company he worked for folded and he’s scrambling now, looking for his own second career. Just as well.

I hope he finds something as unexpected and rewarding as I did.

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