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Saturday, Sept. 22, 2001
Time for a little shameless horn blowing, and what could be more topical than what I do for a living?

I've been involved in construction forever. Realistically, since I was 17 and working summers on a framing crew. Other than the low pay (remember, these were the days when $2.10 an hour was the jump in point), it was fabulous. Out in the sun all day, walking the ridge beam with a 20 ounce hammer banging nails, shirtless and full of myself.

Thankfully, I got wise to the life expectancy of the average outside carpenter. Which is short. After a college stint, I moved indoors to a cabinet and millwork shop.

I don't think it's inaccurate to say I've done pretty much every routine thing that can be done with wood. And it started with a few oldtimers who I was fortunate enough to learn under. They taught me in the old way, which is to say I swept a heck of a lot of floors and sharpened their saws and fetched lunch for them. And after they saw I wasn't losing interest they really taught me a lot.

This is a profession where showing intellect is like showing your ass - nobody really wants to see it. It's a rough, physically demanding job. If you're smart enough to use your head while at the same time proving to the crew that you can install raised panels while 30 feet in the air on a scissor lift then, well they'll pretty much leave you be.

But don't think a mob of disheveled hardhats will cut you much slack if you decide to go quoting Chaucer at lunchtime.

And I suppose that personality compromise lead, eventually, to working in an office, drafting up and managing commercial millwork projects. I did it for 15 years, with a couple of different companies. Had one boss who was, and is, a saint. Taught me well. Another one was perfectly worthless, a turtle of a man who used his community influence to disguise an incredible lack of knowledge about building things.

And that is, of course, the point of construction. We build stuff. You are living and working, right now, in something that me or one like me built. With varying degrees of skill. If I built it, I'd like to think it's a damn sight better than what a lot of the others have done.

Stu and I started our own thing to take back some of the old ways that I see fading into the twilight of this industry. Between the two of us, there isn't much we don't know. And we'll admit that to ourselves, but keep it cloaked around customers. We go onto a jobsite, hunt down the superintendant, and know within 10 seconds if his job is running the way it should. Because we've both not only been in his shoes, we've bossed people just like him.

I've seen young guys on building sites kinda snicker when they see us show up. Ally calls us the two 'grumpy old men' and it probably shows in our body language (if not our spoken language).


Stu will stand in front of a reluctant and non-functional wood door, which no one on the job and figure out how to fix. A group will gather. The young kids, who've exhausted themselves trying to coax a door into behaving, surreptitiously keep an eye on Stu, seeing if the old man can do something.

The old wizard will pull a wand of of his toolbag.

He waves if around for effect, gently places his palm on the door, gives a little shake of the hip.

And the door swings free, and closes tight with a little whisper of air behind it, happy to have been touched by the master. The kids always get that look, like they've seen something which they can't believe. The smarter ones will realize that they've got a ways to go in their learning process.

We were once called out to a building to install a cabinet. Bear in mind that we install, literally, thousand of cabinets in a years time. It puts shoes on the feet and is the bland occupier of time between the more creative stuff we do. We met a hand wringing architect, a miserable project manager and about 10 beefy construction workers in a nearly finished suite which would next house the president of a Fortune 500 company. They had a beautiful solid cherry credenza to fit between two walls and, lo and behold, couldn't get it to fit. And the pres' was coming in for a look-see in about two hours. Heh. No pressure. The architect was sweatin' bullets.

They produced drawings. Sketched solutions. Pointed out the manpower they had. Reasoned and howled and anguished. Suggested tearing out the wall with its' fine fabric wallcovering. Stu and I stood there and listened, quite politely. I think that I took the time to give my old chisel a quick sharpening.

To quiet the poor architect, who was glancing rather obviously at his watch, I coughed a little and pushed through the crowd and ran my hand along the side of the credenza. Gave a nod to Stu. No words.

We both dived into the tool bags. Simultaneously produced small hand planes, sharp as shaving razors. Stroked a hair thin ribbon of cherry from the edges of the front frame. Eyeballed the opening, scribed a bit from the rear edge. With a grunt, communicated the next move. A flick of the eye, the hand position. No words.

With a coordinated rush, we picked it up, drove our shoulders into opposing sides of the wall opening and shoved. And the credenza slid home, the wall cavity accepted it. We released the shoulder pressure and the walls just kind of settled around it, nary a crack or flaw.

We put a couple of screws through the inside, but it really wasn't necessary. The object d'art was home. And we knew it.

You could have heard a pin drop in the room. Stu cracked his knuckles and said, "You boys got any other wants or needs?" He fished a Portofino out of his shirt pocket and set it afire.

The little architect began to babble. I swear I thought he was going to kiss my hand, or something. We hung around until just before he was getting to the part about 'how you young guys should take a lesson from these two' before we ambled on out.

Lo and behold, saw the pres' coming the other way, too. A thousand dollar suit and an entourage of blondes. I gave Stu a poke and said, "Wait a minute, this oughtta be good."

The architect had regained his air of authority. The project manager had shooed the work gang away and was straightening his tie. The pres' strode in, his Gucci's compressing the carpet which cost more per yard than I make in a day. Stooped and squinted at the credenza.

"Well, Mr. Architect. What a beautiful piece. You did a magnificent job."

To his credit, the architect did glance at us. He'd never so much as laid a finger on the damn thing so far as I know.

But, of course, the inevitable.

"Why thank you Mr. President. I'm glad you share my vision. Quite the finishing touch to the room, isn't it?"

I think I snorted, or gagged. Pretending it was Stu's cigar smoke.

Sometimes it's enough to just know. Know that you're older, that you've become the old timer, that the knowledge was earned, and the skill is what they can't have, and that, perhaps, they envy.

I'm content with that. It gets me through the day.

Next week: How Stu opened the locked sliding doors with an irrigation flag.

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