categories: Cocktail Hour / Our Best American Essays
Gardening one day in the spring of 1992, first year in Maine, I looked at my dirty and freshly blistered hands, and thought of my days in construction. Idea for an essay. I wrote the words “my hands” on a seed packet and the packet went into the ideas folder. Another idea I’d had was to devote Saturday mornings not to the novel I was working on (eventually to be The Smallest Color) but to shorter work. I went into the ideas file–a bunch of paper scraps and napkins and coasters and pulled out that seed packet. The piece didn’t start out being about my father and me, but.
(The photo at left is from Dave’s recent reading at the Carter Center in Atlanta. And my dad, 85, got in the car and drove over to see what was what. “I can see why you two are friends,” he said on the phone. You can see more of Poppy in Chapter 5 of “I Used to Play in Bands.” He’s a pretty funny old bird.)
“Into Woods” was first published in April of 1993 by Harper’s Magazine, where I’d go on to publish a number of other pieces. My editor there was Colin Harrison, a smart guy, now a friend (and a senior editor at Scribner), who had to that time rejected a long parade of my stories and essays, sometimes with encouraging notes, but not always. He read the original draft I’d submitted of “Into Woods” (the working title was “Woods II”) and made up his mind to argue for it to his colleagues. Fortunately for me, he prevailed. He phoned, then, and said, “We’re going to publish your piece.”
I tried to sound cool: “Wow.”
“One thing,” said Colin. “You have to finish it.” He gave me nothing more than that to go on, only this: a deadline, one month hence.
And I sat down with the piece I’d thought quite finished and puzzled and groaned and read and tore my hair and re-read till in the middle of a deep, tossing night, one week to go, I had an idea: My dad had just visited my new house in Maine, and we’d just rebuilt the garage. Though the material was fresh—only a couple of months past—it turned out to be what I needed to bring the story full circle.
Thanks, Colin. Thanks, Pop.
In a dive near Stockbridge in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, I nearly got clobbered by a big drunk who thought he’d detected an office fairy in the midst of the wild workingman’s bar. He’d heard me talking to Mary Ann, the bartender, and I didn’t talk right, so by way of a joke he said loudly to himself and to a pal and to the bar in general, “Who’s this little fox? From Tanglewood or something?”
I, too, was drunk and said, “I am a plumber, more or less.” I was thirty years old, was neither little nor a fox, had just come to work on the restoration of an inn, and was the foreman of the crew. But that seemed like the wrong answer, and too long in any case.
He snorted and said to everyone, “A more or less plumber,” then appraised me further: “I say a hairdresser.”
“I say a bank teller,” his pal said.
I didn’t mind being called a hairdresser, but a bank teller! Oh, I was drunk and so continued the conversation, smiling just enough to take the edge off: “Ah, fuck off.”
“Cursing!” my tormentor cried, making fun of me. “Do they let you say swears at the girls’ school?”
“Headmaster,” someone said, nodding.
“French teacher,” someone else.
“Guys . . . ,” Mary Ann said, smelling a rumble.
“Plumber,” I said.
“More or less,” someone added.
“How’d you get your hands so clean?” my tormentor said.
“Lily water,” someone said, coining a phrase.
My hands? They hadn’t looked at my hands! I was very drunk, come to think of it, and so took it all good-naturedly, just riding the wave of conversation, knowing I wouldn’t get punched out if I played it right, friendly and sardonic and nasty all at once. “My hands?”
My chief interlocutor showed me his palms, right in my face. “Work,” he said, meaning that’s where all the calluses and blackened creases and bent fingers and scars and scabs and cracks and general blackness and grime had come from.
I flipped my palms up too. He took my hands like a palm reader might, like your date in seventh grade might, almost tenderly, and looked closely: calluses and scabs and scars and darkened creases and an uncleanable blackness and grime. Nothing to rival his, but real.
“Hey,” he said. “Buy you a beer?”
My dad worked for Mobil Oil, took the train into New York every day early-early, before we five kids were up, got home at six-thirty every evening. We had dinner with him, then maybe some roughhousing before he went to bed at eight-thirty. Most Saturdays, and most Sundays after church, he worked around the house, and I mean he worked.
And the way to be with him if you wanted to be with him at all was to work beside him. He would put on a flannel shirt and old pants, and we’d paint the house or clean the gutters or mow the lawn or build a new walk or cut trees or turn the garden under or rake the leaves or construct a cold frame or make shelves or shovel snow or wash the driveway (we washed the fucking driveway!) or make a new bedroom or build a stone wall or install dimmers for the den lights or move the oil tank for no good reason or wire a 220 plug for the new dryer or put a sink in the basement for Mom or make picture frames or . . . Jesus, you name it.
And my playtime was an imitation of that work. I loved tree forts, had about six around our two acres in Connecticut, one of them a major one, a two-story eyesore on the hill behind the house, built in three trees, triangular in all aspects. (When all her kids were long gone, spread all over the country, my mother had a chainsaw guy cut the whole mess down, trees and all.) I built cities in the sandbox, beautiful cities with sewers and churches and schools and houses and citizens and soldiers and war! And floods! And attacks by giants! I had a toolbox, too, a little red thing with kid-sized tools.
And in one of the eight or nine toolboxes I now affect there is a stubby green screwdriver that I remember clearly as being from that first red toolbox. And a miniature hacksaw (extremely handy) with “Billy” scratched on the handle, something I’d forgotten until one of my helpers on the Berkshires restoration pointed it out one day, having borrowed the little thing to reach into an impossible space in one of the eaves. Billy. Lily.
My father called me Willy when we worked, and at no other time. His hands were big and rough and wide, blue with bulgy veins. He could have been a workman easy if he wanted, and I knew it and told my friends so.
In my rich suburban high school in Connecticut we were nearly all of us college track, which meant you could take only two shop classes in your career there. First half of freshman year you could elect Industrial Arts, which was an overview: a month of Woods, a month of Metals, a month of Technical Drawing. Second semester, if you still wanted more, you went into Woods I, Metals I, etc.
I loved Woods. I loved hanging out with some of the rougher Italian kids, Tony DiCrescenzo and Bobby LaMotta and Tony Famigliani, all of them proud and pleased to be tracked away from college. I wanted to hang out with Tommy Lincoln and Vernon Porter and Roland Fish, the three black kids in my class, all of them quietly (maybe even secretly) tracked away from college. Wood shop was first period, and it was a wild class. Mr. Schtenck, our little alcoholic teacher, made no effort to control us and often left the shop for the entire period to sit in his car.
The rough kids used the finishing room to smoke pot, the storage room to snort coke. We all made bookshelves and workbenches and record racks and knickknack shelves and lamps and tables and guitar stands and frames for photos of our girls. The year was 1968, so we also made elaborate bongs and stash boxes and chillums and hollowed-out canes and chests with secret drawers. Wood shop (and along with it the very act of working with my hands) took on a countercultural glow, the warm aura of sedition, rebellion, independence, grace.
Sophomore year I signed up for Woods II, which was the advanced course. My guidance counselor, Miss Sanderson (a nice enough lady, very well-meaning, very empathetic—you could make her cry over your troubles every time if you played your cards right), thought I’d made an error on the electives form. “Only one elective a semester, William. Surely you’d like a writing course! Journalism! Or how about Occult Literature?”
“Woods II,” I said, flipping my hair. I had to get parental permission to take Woods again and thought a little note with my mother’s neat signature would be easy to snag, but it was not. “Why do you have to reinvent the wheel?” Mom said, one of her phrases, something of a non sequitur in this case, her meaning being someone else will build the furniture. Her next question was, “What kind of kids are in that class?”
Dumb kids, Mom. Mostly Italian kids and blacks and, of course, Alvin Dubronski (the class moron) and Jack Johnsen (the plumber’s kid!) and me.
My dad thought it was fine, especially with the alternative being literature courses where who knew what kind of left-wing occult hippie doubletalk Mrs. Morrisey would tell you!
So into the wood shop again, every day first period (if I wasn’t late for school; by that time I was hitchhiking to avoid the uncool school bus). I was the only college-track kid taking Woods II, maybe the only college-track kid who had ever taken Woods II, though the other kids got to take it semester after semester. And I got peer-pressured into smoking pot in the finishing room and occasionally even into blowing coke in the storage room, always a sweet, nerve-jangling prelude to another round of boring college-track classes.
One day when I was in the storage room with my high-pressure peers (and the two smartest kids in Woods II, maybe in school, both destined by their blackness for bad times in Vietnam) Roland and Tommy, fat Tony Famigliani stuck his head in the door: “The Stench is coming!” But Schtenck was already there, standing in the door. I saw my college-track life pass before my eyes.
“What are you little fuckers doing?”
“We’re tasting coke, sir,” Tommy said, the idiot, total honesty, as we’d all learned in Boy Scouts.
Florid Schtenck raised his eyebrows clear off his face and said, “Jesus Christ, boys, put it away—you want to get me canned?”
He never looked in the storage room again.
And later that year he stumbled and cut his finger off on the band saw. For two weeks then we had a substitute who made us file all our plans and actually checked them, stood beside us as we drilled holes in our wood or turned bowls on the lathes. It seemed an eternity before Schtenck came back and we could finally fill all the bong and hash-pipe and stash-box orders we’d been sitting on. Sedition.
The next year I took Woods II again, having secured special permission from the principal to go along with my parents’ special permission and the special permission from Miss Sanderson. Senior year I signed up for the class once more—what the hell—but I don’t think I ever got to school in time to attend.
Somewhere in there I stopped being a willing volunteer for my father’s list of chores. Now he had to command me to help with his corny weekend projects. I had better things to do, things in the woods with Lauren Bee or cruising-in-the-car things with some of the guys in my various garage bands—minor-league dope runs into the Village or actual gigs in actual bars in Port Chester, where the drinking age was eighteen and we could get away with it.
At home things were quiet. Except for my long hair, you wouldn’t have noticed that a teen was testing his folks. I was good at talking to my elders, and good at hooking grades without working too hard—college track—and very, very good at staying out of trouble. I was on the student council. I helped with the student newspaper. I went to the homecoming rallies and proms and parades. I memorized the headlight patterns of the town police cars (I still get nervous around those big old Plymouth Furys), could smell a cop from miles away, leagues away, light-years. I had a plan for every eventuality and an escape route from every party.
Weeknights I’d turn in early, out to my room over the garage, wait for the main house to quiet down, then slip out into the night. I was caught only once, coming home about five in the morning with a friend named Melanie. Someone had called me after I’d left, and Dad couldn’t find me. He was asleep in my bed when Melanie and I walked in. I was grounded, and here was the punishment: I had to spend the next four Saturdays and Sundays helping him build a playroom in the basement—drilling holes in the concrete for hours to anchor the sills for a Sheetrock wall, running cable for a hanging light over the bumper-pool table, slamming up paneling, churlishly working side by side with my dad and his distinctive smell, Aqua Velva mixed with cigarettes and Head & Shoulders and sweat.
The college track barely got me to college. As part of my desultory rebellion I put off applying until well past all the deadlines, never lying to my folks, never lying to my guidance counselor, but showing all of them the forms ready to go, then just plain old not mailing them. My plan was to play rock and roll and maybe—if necessary—make money working as a carpenter, or maybe drilling holes in concrete, or maybe making furniture or bongs. Then Miss Sanderson got a list of our school’s applicants from one of my supposed top choices, and I wasn’t on it. Crisis April already, when most kids were hearing from Colby and Yale and Michigan and the U. of Hawaii.
My trusty guidance counselor got on the phone and found some schools that would look at a late application. She was crushed for me, so crushed she spared my parents the full brunt of my dereliction. At hastily arranged late interviews, admissions counselors never failed to ask why I’d taken Woods II six semesters straight. Finally I was accepted by one famously lame school, to which I resigned myself; then, at the last possible minute and by great good fortune, I was put on the waiting list at Ithaca College, where, on August 21, one week before school started, I was admitted into the freshman class.
I never saw my father at work, and he never talked about his work, which I vaguely knew was Executive and had to do with Mobil Oil and was desky and involved meetings and much world travel and made us pretty rich. And because I’d never seen him at work, my natural adolescent impulse toward emulation had little to go on. What to imitate? How to surpass, destroy? What I saw of my valiant dad was his work around the house, and so, emulation gone awry, I set out to be a better home handyman than he’d ever be, the real thing, even, a tradesman.
Two dollars and fifty cents an hour was well known as great money, nearly double what I’d made stocking frozen foods at the A&P during high school. Two-fifty an hour was what truck drivers got, longshoremen, a full hundred rasbuckniks (my father’s word) a week. I dropped out of Ithaca College in my junior year (just when most of my buddies were heading off for a year abroad), went back to Connecticut (not my hometown, God forbid, but one nearby), and went to work for an electrician.
Lawrence Berner was a former electrical engineer who’d thrown it all over at age sixty, a theory ace but a fairly clumsy worker, a guy who had actually tossed away everything and left the college track for good. Larry was British and Jewish and unconventional and very charming, all qualities that impressed me. Best of all, he was divorced, the first divorced person I’d ever seen up close. He was filthy of habit—decadent, disgusting (maybe not as bad as my friends at school, but Larry was old). He lived in his marital house, wife long gone, and had trashed the place—filled the garage with electrician junk, filled the kitchen with dirty pots and jars and cans and dishes, filled the refrigerator with his important papers (fireproof, he said), filled the bedroom with the most slathery skin magazines imaginable, filled the whole house with take-out cartons, TV-dinner tins, and his own filthy underwear. His living room seemed buried in death.
He paid me $2.50 an hour.
Working beside him (tradesmen often touch—four hands to pull the cable, four arms reaching into a small space, heads together to look into a service panel . . . hey, hold my legs while I lean out over this here abyss), I’d feel sometimes like I was with my dad. It was Larry’s thin hair, maybe, or the Aqua Velva and cigarettes, or just regular old transference. I spent every day beside this parallel-universe effigy of my father, and I was mad at Larry almost always and desperate to impress him.
One day he said I had good hands, and that little compliment was everything—I glowed, I crowed, I told my friends, my folks. I stared at my hands late at night in bars, stared at them for hours, entranced. And my hands got callused, grotesquely calloused, were always covered in cuts and scratches and dings and scabs that I hardly felt. Your knuckles never healed. And Larry mostly worked hot, meaning with the power on, because it saved time. I got shocks and blew holes in screwdrivers. I hit my head on rafters and and slammed my thumb with hammers and fell off ladders and sliced my fingers (daily) and once even poked a screwdriver hard into my eye (the blade didn’t penetrate the eyeball but rolled past it and into the socket so that old Larry had to pull it out . . . and we kept on working). I drove the truck sometimes, sweet-talked the customers, ate in diners, worked squinting with a Lucky Strike in my mouth. I put in panel boxes and wired 200-amp services and installed a thousand outlets and a million switches. I drilled holes for cable, sawed rafters, snaked wire through walls. I wriggled into crawl spaces, sweated in attics, dug trenches.
I got tired of it. All that body work. Like every college-track kid in America, I’d been taught that someone else would do the rough stuff if I’d just use my mind. I went back to Ithaca, pleasing my parents enormously. Suddenly I was a good student—all A’s, excellent attendance, papers handed in on time—fully engaged in a tough fight against the possibility of being a tradesman, the possibility of taking Woods II for life.
But after the college track had run its course, I needed to make money. I failed tests for newspaper jobs (twenty minutes: neatly type a 500-word story around the following facts . . .), gagged at the thought of ad agencies, moved around the country for a long time, worked with cattle, bartended (which left your hands clean, at least), then landed in New York, where I got the bright idea to put up posters around the Village and SoHo and be a handyman. Independence! I did every sort of odd job for every sort of odd person, moving over the months and years to larger home repairs, leaving town to restore that Berkshires inn, coming back to sub myself out to contractors. I graduated finally to a specialization in kitchen remodels and new bathrooms, getting more and more deeply into it, hiring helpers, wearing suits to estimates, taking ads in fancy magazines, cracking the codes for admittance to the wholesale supply houses, getting good at all of it, twelve years in all, Woods II, until one day I woke up and realized I was about to take out a bank loan to buy a truck and some very expensive tools, about to start looking for a storefront, about to start paying my employees on the books. I headed straight to graduate school.
My wife and I spent lots of our free time last summer looking for a house to buy up here in rural Maine (where I teach college), our first, an old farmhouse, we hoped. I kept telling myself that I had an advantage, which was my haphazard twenty-year fund of construction knowledge and restoration experience. I looked up at the beams and poked at the foundations and lifted the vinyl siding and pulled away carpets. I wiggled toilets and pulled on feeds and pushed on all the walls and ceilings. I got in crawl spaces and pried open hatch doors, inspected wiring, eyeballed plumbing, made the real-estate folks nervous.
And sometimes, in light of this commitment, this buying a house on a wee piece of our little planet, I thought about what would happen if the legislature shut down my branch of the University of Maine, or what would happen if I didn’t get tenure, or what would happen if I just couldn’t take the bureaucracy anymore and quit. Education presidents come and go, but people always need a plumber or someone to fix the roof, replace rotten sills, plaster the stairway wall. I could build furniture. Or renovate inns. I could take my clean college hands and plunge them into work, open all the old scars, stop being mincy and fastidious, once more revel in goo and slime, get into it: wrestle cable, kick at shovels, stand in the mud all day, hook my leg around ladders in the wind, lay tile, lift toilets and plunge my hand down that reeking fuzzy hole to pull the clog (poor Raggedy Andy one time, usually worse).
My wife and I found a house, bought it, moved in. And immediately my dad, now retired, came up to visit, tools in hand. The two of us got up early the first morning he was here and headed out to the garage, a forlorn little outbuilding about to fall down and stuffed to the rafters with the owner-before-last’s junk (mostly pieces of Volkswagens and cans of old bolts and misshapen gaskets and used spark plugs and odd shims and clips). My plan was to leave room to park a car, sure, but to build a wood shop, a work space from which to operate while my wife and I renovate the house (a neglected nineteenth-century quarter-cape with many additions, the newest of which is a porch built in 1953, my own year).
So for hours my dad and I worked. We cleared out and sorted all the junk, ripped down the cardboard that made the walls, stopped to stare, to think, came up with opposite plans, argued, convinced each other; then, having switched sides, we argued again. Finally we jacked up the north side of the garage, replaced the sill, dropped a corner post in cement, took the jack away, rebuilt the wall. Next we shored up the south side, then added wiring, finally installed a metal roof over the leaky old asphalt shingles. We hit our heads and cut our fingers and ripped our jackets. We peed in the woodpile. We argued, mostly about technique and a little about the Education President (who was about to go), but really, I guess, about who was in charge of the work in my garage. And even though Pop was helping me for free, even buying some of the materials, I fumed and fulminated, almost sulked: instant adolescence.
We rebuilt the barn-style sliding door and cut in a window. We ate companionably in the Farmington Diner with sawdust and plain dirt in our hair and new hammer holsters on our belts (the acerbic Down East waitress looked me over, said, “Hi, Professor,” and I introduced her to my dad); we went to the dump; we gabbed at the lumber yard; we swung hammers, climbed ladders, cut wood; we gazed at our work a long time in the dark when we were done.
Pop said, “You saved that building,” as if I’d done it on my own, and we went on in the house to wash up.
[signed and personalized hardcover copies of my essay collection Into Woods are available at billroorbach.com]