Journey Man VI
A Carpenter’s Story
By Daniel Foster
IF NOTHING ELSE
The first job I ran in Virginia after going out on my own was a large house in Great Falls. It had already been started and was a completed shell when I first saw it. I had looked at it initially for Joseph Klockner, who had me investigate it as a possible trim job for the company. It didn’t make sense for Klockner & Company to take on the trim work, but later the owners contacted me personally to ask if I would be willing to manage the entire job to completion and I agreed to do that and to also do the decks, trim, stairs and other work in the process. I left Joseph Klockner and Company at that point and was out on my own. It was July 1987.
Construction projects have a life of their own. They have a rhythm and a pace and an atmosphere about them. When it’s good the job has an air of action and excitement about it. Sometimes, though, the air is sour. The guys working on the job are resentful. Things go wrong on a regular basis. Everything seems difficult. It is still somewhat of a mystery what creates the atmosphere on a job. Sometimes it comes from the client. Clients who relish the act of building and who are willing to let go and watch it happen allow the project to blossom. Clients who second-guess everything that is being done and who are constantly judging or critiquing the work can keep the job from taking off. Sometimes the tone is set by the owners or the management of the construction company. Again, if they allow the project to run, sometimes it will just go. Sometime the company owners hold the reins too tightly and there is no room for movement. The job superintendent or project manager can be the key to the tone as well. But these players are all just parts of it. It boils down to the job having a life of its own that comes about from all of the actions and attitudes of everyone involved.
The Gursky job was dead in the water. Completely lifeless. When I started all I knew was that the former construction manager was gone and they needed a new one. After I was on the job a while I learned that the former manager had a drinking problem that finally got out of control and he left to go deal with it. I learned this and more from the job electrician, Meyer Friedman.
The former manager had been a friend of Meyer’s and Meyer was very sympathetic to his friend’s situation. “Bob’s a very good guy, a good builder,” Meyer would say, “but he had some problems.”
The Gursky job was not so different from many I would be involved in over the years. The clients have a picture of the house they want. They find a lot they like and then they find an architect and they get some plans drawn up. Then they go about the process of finding a builder. They really don’t know how to do this and they are also shocked at how much the established builders are charging. They think they can find a deal. Sometimes the client will find a builder who will give a great price and then make all his money by overcharging for any additions or changes that arise. Sometimes they hire a young guy who is new to the business or just starting out and they get a good deal from him. Sometimes that’s because the guy doesn’t know what he’s doing. Sometimes it’s because the guy is hungry for business and also maybe because he has little overhead. In this case the Gurskys were definitely looking for a deal. I seemed trustworthy and competent and I was pretty cheap, so I was hired.
On jobs like this, one often ends up with a colorful cast of players. Every one of them has a story. Sometimes you never get the whole story, but you know one is there. Sometimes you do get the story. Sometimes you get people with special hearts. Sometimes – not often – you get genuine bad guys.
Most of the subs were already in place on the Gursky job. I would still have to select a few, including the insulators, the painter, and the flooring guy, but most of the subs had already done the majority of their work or were already chosen.
Meyer had two guys working for him. One was a West Virginia redneck and the other was a DuPont. The redneck was often engaged in attempting to find the line of vulgarity over which you would be personally offended and he would then reside there. This was accompanied by tantrums over how lousy this was or that was. One day I saw a wooden stepladder sail out an upstairs window because “it was lousy”. He wasn’t dull. The DuPont was actually not a DuPont, but his mother had been, and he would occasionally attend family functions where the still well-to-do sides of the family mixed with those from whom the wealth had long departed. He wanted you to know, though, that he was a DuPont. He was also an upstanding guy and a responsible worker.
Meyer Friedman was one of the most steady and self-confident people I have ever known. Not self-confident in the sense of overly confident, which is how we sometimes mean that phrase. He was simply completely comfortable in who he was. In all the many years I would know him, he never changed at all. Neither his appearance, his demeanor, nor his truck ever changed.
His truck was a very beat up and worn full-size Ford van. It was silver grey with the company logo on each side proclaiming Star Electric as the “The Star of Electrical Contracting!” Meyer always wore real work clothes – either grey or khaki work pants and shirt. Every once in a while I saw him in a new one. You could tell because it had creases, but usually his clothes looked old. He always wore a ragged jacket. He wasn’t much of one for appearances.
Meyer was not tall. He had a somewhat full, but hardly huge gut, and was older than the rest of us. He had been in the Korean War and I eventually learned somehow that he had taken a bullet there, a .45 I heard, which must have hurt, but he would never talk about the war or his experience there.
Meyer would be my mentor on the Gursky job and he would be a big supporter on many others as well. He had seen them come and seen them go and had a patience and perspective that was calming. I also learned a lot of what I know about electrical from Meyer, but the truth is that I have never learned a lot. I just don’t have the electrical gene.
Meyer was also Jewish, or as he would put it, “a Hebe”. From Meyer I learned the difference between a putz and a schmekel and, in general, learned that Yiddish is one of the most profoundly human languages to ever come down the pike. There’s not much fear of using body parts to describe people in Yiddish. Humor around religion was ever present. Meyer once helped me install cabinetry late on a Christmas Eve. He didn’t have to be there at all. He just did it to help me and keep me company. When we discovered we both had the same screwdriver, the same orange color with interchangeable bits, he drew a cross on mine the Star of David on his. He said he was okay with working on Christmas Eve, though he would be getting together with his brother the liquor-store-owner on Christmas. He would help him count money and then they would hold hands and sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”.
I had two of my sons help me on the Gursky job, which was a great pleasure. They were both in high school, though off for the summer. One of them was all about earning money and was never actually attracted much to the work. The other still keeps his hand in, renovating houses as a side business.
The boys and I, along with one of their friends on occasion, completed the decks surrounding most of the house and the boys did a lot of shovel wielding and moving of dirt. Meyer and his crew recommenced their wiring, which had stopped. There were also several items that needed to be completed on the interior, including some simple framing in the basement, and the installation of a large beam that spanned a second floor overlook to the living room.
Before long the electricians had finished their rough-in work. This completed the interior rough-in work and after a building inspection I arranged for the insulators to come and do their job. I moved on to exterior fixes, including several issues involving siding and weatherproofing. The design was large and complex and there were many places where the siding and the roofing people had done less than sterling work.
The drywall subcontractor had already been chosen before I came on board, selected by the former construction manager. I had been in touch with him by phone to make sure he would be able to start when the insulation was done. He said he would be. He was coming up from Tennessee with a team.
Don and his drywall crew arrived with a whole new energy, but it wasn’t all good. Don was a huge swarthy guy. His crew was comprised of six or seven kids, one of them his son, who was probably the best in the bunch. None of the kids was over twenty, but they were cocksure. Each of them seemed to worship Don, who knew everything there was to know about drywall. Both Don and the kids would tell you so.
I have known some honorable people who were drywallers, guys who cared about their work and did a fine job, but I have to say that such guys are not standard in the trade. I have sometimes said that a drywaller is a guy who would be a roofer, but he doesn’t have the moral character. This is a little joke based on the fact that roofers are also not always of the best sort, though again, I have known some who were fine tradesmen.
Don and I walked through the building and discussed how the drywall would run and where additional wood blocking would be needed at several spots in the framing for the drywall to attach to.
Don and I began to have issues at day one. He informed me that his guys wouldn’t do any stocking of drywall into the building, though I had expected they would be part of this. We worked out an agreement on a per sheet basis whereby they would take responsibility for getting the drywall to the second floor. When I set forth my standards on quality and where I wanted the joints, he responded with demands for more sheets to which I submitted. Drywall material is not expensive. If it would make a better product it would be worth it.
Once the crew began work there should have been a sign in front that declared the entire premises a danger zone. The kids had been taught to maintain a rampant energy at all times with a general disregard to safety. One day I looked up to see the most obnoxious of all the kids working on the ceiling of the living room, a very tall cathedral ceiling rising at a steep pitch across a very wide space. The kid was standing on a bench on top of two rises of scaffolding, wearing stilts. Drywall stilts are a part of the trade in many areas, though they are very dangerous. They strap onto a workman’s legs, raising one up an additional 24 to 42 inches in height. They allow a drywaller to comfortably walk and work while applying finish to ceilings or to the upper parts of walls without ladders or scaffolding. They are very dangerous and outlawed in some states. When you fall, nothing breaks your fall until your knees hit. And here was this kid wearing these things on a bench on top of scaffolding. And he put up a fight when I forbid him from such behavior.
A lot of different kinds of people come to construction. Many of us come to it and find it something we are good at after having failed at many other efforts. For some it is a place where our energies and attitude are accepted after living a life where we didn’t fit in, in school or in other kinds of work. You can say anything you want on many building sites. Sometimes there is hilarious wit and humor, taking the form of friendly insults and sometimes there is an ugly humor: taunts and challenges in the pecking order of ‘manliness’.
These kids wouldn’t have fit in anywhere else. They really didn’t fit here. Don was to these kids the father figure they always wanted, or so it seemed to me. He approved of their behavior and encouraged it. There are places where this would work, but not on a quality-oriented custom homebuilding site.
If I had been more experienced in running a job of this caliber I would have fired them on day one or two or never let them on the job, but I wasn’t very experienced. I had never run a job as big. I knew drywallers to be a rough bunch. I just wanted to get through this phase and get on with things. Keeping these guys going seemed to be the right thing to do.
They were so bad that I looked up one day during the hanging phase to see a completed ceiling with a piece of drywall wrong side out. Don actually put up a fight when I told him to fix it. “We can fix that in the finishing”, he said, but I wasn’t buying.
The amount of waste was phenomenal. There is always a lot of waste in drywall, but the amount here was more than I had seen before or have seen since. When I complained to Don he said that if I wanted him to run the breaks where I did, it was impossible do it without this kind of waste. Drywall sheet material is not terribly expensive. Although we were supplying the material I let it go.
When the sheets had all been hung we discovered there were 12 receptacle outlets missing. Drywallers need to make cutouts in each sheet to fit around all the receptacles and other electrical rough-in boxes. 12 of these had simply been covered right over. Meyer and I located them and made sure nothing else was still covered. I instructed Don to make the cutouts.
We moved into the finishing stage, and here Don and his boys were better than they were at hanging. Still there were problems and I had to correct the lads frequently. There was real animosity between the kids and me. How dare I challenge them or their adored Don? This animosity was especially strong from one of the kids, who I described to Meyer as “19 years old with 20 years experience”.
When they were done I heaved sigh of relief, though I knew it wasn’t really over yet. There would be touch up required and we wouldn’t be able to see all the spots needing attention until the painters had primed the walls. I told Don he wouldn’t get paid in full until the priming was complete and he and his crew had completed the final touching up, though I approved a partial payment.
I received a phone call late one evening. It was one of two surprise calls I would receive related to these kids. The caller didn’t identify himself, but it was clear it was one of the kids. Others could be heard in the background. “We’re gonna come beat the living shit out of you, asshole,” he began, and then continued with more of the same. I repeatedly asked him to identify himself. He didn’t. I hung up.
I called the police and told them I had been threatened. They said there was nothing they could do if there had been no bodily harm. A verbal threat like this was not an offense that could be prosecuted. It was an ugly feeling. I told myself that it was probably nothing to be concerned about. It was just the kids, jammed into some crummy motel somewhere, drinking, and it wouldn’t amount to much. But it did make me very uncomfortable.
I received a second call a few days later. It was even later at night, after midnight. It was a hospital calling. A young man had been brought in. He had been in a motorcycle accident. He had not been wearing a helmet. It was Don’s son. They had found my card and number in his pocket. It was the only number they had to call, so they called me. They didn’t elaborate on his condition, but I could tell it was serious. After all, the boy was unconscious. I called Don and passed on the news and the number for him to call.
I would learn later that the boys had been playing with a motor scooter, doing tricks, trying to outdo one another in speed and obstacle challenges in front of the place they had been staying. Don’s son took a spill and hit his head.
He stayed in a coma for some time and then died.
A number of weeks passed. I brought another drywall finisher in to complete touching up the drywall. There was a lot of work needed to bring it to an acceptable level.
Flora Gursky had been in touch with Don in an attempt to settle up, but Don had been unreasonable. He had insisted that his work had been of acceptable quality, that any touch-up would have been minimal. Eventually we had a meeting with Don at the house. Quite some time had passed since we had seen Don and since his son had died, though we had all been in touch after the accident and death to express our sympathies, which were real. Herb and Flora Gursky, Don, Meyer and I were present. Meyer had no patience with Don. It was too bad about Don’s son, he said, but that didn’t give him the right to put the squeeze on the Gurskys.
We stood in the dining area, beneath the sloping ceiling where Don’s boy’s had hung a sheet of drywall wrong side out. Flora, who was an administrator for a government contractor, or in her terms, a beltway bandit, ran most of the meeting. Don put forth his demands. Included in his demands was an overall increase in his labor charge due to the number of boards that were used. This number wasn’t based on an increase in the amount of work, but only on the number of boards used to keep the joints away from windows and doors, wherever possible. Allowing him to use more sheets had made his work easier and we had eaten the cost of these extra sheets to make it so. It was entirely unreasonable. It was basically a hold-up, coming from a big, dangerous guy.
Reason from our side was met with threats from his: threats to bring a suit and put a stop-work order on the job. Things heated up.
The high point was when Meyer, at least a foot shorter and significantly older than Don, challenged him: “Come on, you son of a bitch, let’s go! You and me. Outside. Right now!” Meyer was utterly fearless. It was a fine moment.
Herb Gursky stepped in. He took out his checkbook. He wrote a check. He held it out to Don. He said, “Here’s a check. If you take this, it’s over. If you don’t, you won’t get anything from us. If you decide to proceed to some kind of suit, we can do that. I’m pretty confident that you will wind up the loser. Take it or leave it.”
We didn’t know what the amount was, but Don took it.
After a few moments, I followed him out to the driveway.
Later I would work with another drywaller who had been a partner of Don’s at one time. When I recounted my tale he was surprised Don hadn’t knifed me for my final words.
“I don’t know how you can look at yourself in the mirror in the morning”, I said. I know it’s something they say in the movies, but those were the words I used.
He sat there, resigned and dispirited. He was not the same blusterer he had been inside, shortly before.
“Daniel”, he said, “after a while it’s just another job, one after the other. After a while you don’t even remember them anymore.”
That was it. He drove away.
My friend Robert once told me his father had counseled him: “Don’t worry about being useless in life. If nothing else, you can always serve as a bad example.”
And so it was. I never saw or heard of Don again.