I Thought So - A Book of Epigrams

A Memorial to Bob (from Kitchen Sink Confidential)

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          “I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully.
           Most people never listen.”
                                                       Ernest Hemingway


(This is a chapter from my work in progress, "Kitchen Sink Confidential") 
 
I’ve known hundreds of plumbers, carpenters, electricians, contractors, salesmen, estimators, and developers, but in thirty years in the trades I made only one real friend. The kind of friend you check in with every day to talk about nothing, like what you had for breakfast. The kind of friend you could skip out with in the middle of the day to go to a ball game.

Boobs, baseball, art, antiques, philosophy, history, he could talk about anything. His house was filled with books and he often bought and sold rare books. You could go into a bar with him and in a few minutes he would have managed to find something in common with someone, like a mutual friend in New York, or some odd interest. And he knew, and we drank, in some very odd bars in a very odd city.

He was a competitor in the plumbing business, and now that he has been dead for over ten years I can honestly tell you something he would have told you himself: from a business point of view he was the worst plumbing contractor in the history of the world. I enjoyed going to look at jobs with him. Here is a verbatim example of Bob in action (first there was some chit-chat about the art the couple collected).

Customer, “We’re thinking of turning this small bedroom into another bathroom. What do you think?”

Bob, “Why do you need another bathroom?”

“Well, we have to share the one bathroom.”

“Only two of you and you can’t share a bathroom?”

“I didn’t call you for your opinion on whether we need another bathroom. Can we put another bathroom here?"
 
"I suppose, but it would be very difficult. Very, very difficult, almost impossible.” (it wasn’t, a garage full of plumbing was right below)

“Oh, it’s difficult. Then it would be very expensive?”

“Very, very difficult and extremely expensive.”

“How expensive?”

“Extremely expensive.”

To my surprise...no, my utter amazement, they immediately hired him to do the bathroom. Hard to get was not my sales technique. Bob had the timing and poker face to bring off this anti-sales approach. And to read little clues, as in this case, the kind of art the couple had in their home.

But often when he got a job, he would get so depressed at the thought of having to do it that he would sometimes lie in bed for a day, then get up and do the job. His work was reasonably good, actually he was a pretty good craftsman. When he had employees, and this was an on and off thing, he found odd ones. I always suspected his bookkeeping was non-existent.

How did he make a living? When he got his hands on a few bucks he would buy another run-down property and fix it up, minimally, to rent.  Quite a few trades people do this, because they are handy and have tools. They can either take care of the property themselves, or do swaps for the things they can’t do themselves. A plumber might plumb a bathroom for an electrician who would put a new panel box in an old house. Or they might charge each other a very minimal amount. The favor bank is always open.

There are some things everyone has to pay for. Like garage doors and garage door openers. No one is friends with people who specialize in garage doors. Locksmiths. Chimney cleaning and repair. Loose hillside grout-pumper stabilization. Those kinds of people.

Why did Bob operate a business in a trade? For the same reason I did, and quite a few others I knew, it gave us a lot of personal freedom. If you can plumb properly you don’t have to pretend to be someone you aren’t, the skill is valuable enough. A friend just told me she went through eight plumbers in one renovation project, trying to find one who was competent. Many people open small businesses because they do not like working for others, taking orders. But in a retail store, for example, you actually have to be there, perhaps becoming a kind of prisoner. I liked never having to account for my time to anyone. It was worth more than money to me.

On the other hand, I knew others who went into the trade just to make money. They didn’t mind working twelve hours a day, six days a week. Well, they minded, but they really wanted the things a lot of money can buy. Second homes, big RVs, his and her Harleys, world travel and cruises. A comfortable retirement, which most of them didn’t get to enjoy very long because they were mostly stressed-out heavy smokers with heart problems. But this is another matter, we are talking about Bob, who was more like me than even I was. I suppose that’s why he was my only real friend in all those years.

Bob died suddenly, at 54, of the same thing, and at almost the same age as his father. Happily married, he left a despondent widow, who was a talented sculptor and architect, but who felt for a long time that her life was over (it wasn’t). I spoke to him almost every day for the last two weeks of his life, while he was at home recovering from routine surgery. On the day he died I got two personal calls. The second was that my in-law’s beautiful old house on the Hudson River had burned to the ground. Bad wiring.  

Bob was a talented artist, but rarely mentioned it, or showed anyone his work. Very clever drawings containing verbal and visual puns. His mother had been a gossip columnist for a newspaper in New York, his grandfather an impressionist painter. He came from generations of Greenwich Village bohemians. Because he was irreverent, in every sense, not many knew that he was actually a devout Episcopalian, the Most Catholic high kind, with pomp and fancy gowns for the priests and their assistants (all gay, of course, this being San Francisco). At his memorial there was an incense-swinging procession to the door of the lovely old church, the doors were opened, and his spirit was freed to ascend. The doors were closed, and the living descended to the social hall to have a drink in his memory.