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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Unsettled chapter 31: Counting Needful Things

I knew full well that paper routes could be a pain in the neck. It had only been a year since Paul and Dave got rid of their Detroit News route, the one I delivered on Saturdays during the digging of the well, but this was different. It was the Macomb Daily. And by “daily” this publication meant: no weekend editions. That was the best part.

Another benefit of the Macomb Daily was that it was dropped off in bundles at my house. No riding my bike all the way to the 11 Mile Road paper station with cigar-smoking Joe. No having to stuff the inside sections and special ads myself. All that was done before the papers were tossed on my lawn from a passing pick-up truck.

The customers in our neighborhood had been so badly neglected by the previous paperboy that only 15 houses still subscribed. What was left of the route was mine for the asking—no purchase involved—and better yet the Daily had just launched a contest for the top 25 "salesmen" giving cash bonuses for new customers and a trip to Cedar Pointe [about two hours south in Sandusky, Ohio]. I was a winsome kid, not afraid to knock on doors, and in two-week’s time I had 52 customers, a huge bonus and a trip to Cedar Pointe. It seemed I chose the right time to get back into the paper route business.

Mom and Dad were so pleased with my gumption they supported the cause and subscribed the Daily. (They showed similar support years later during my one-month stint as a Kirby vacuum cleaner salesman, but that is another story.)

Sometimes my paper route got in the way of other things, but Mom and the Pam (the girl-next-door--more about her later) would deliver my papers for me in a pinch or during the weeks of wrestling practice. [The school had dropped the official wrestling program, but Dave had gotten permission from the school to organize a wrestling club that ran about six weeks. It wasn’t the same.]

Christmas came and went. Both Paul and Kathy went back down south for second semester of college. The house was quiet. Life was slow. Wrestling Club had ended. Church basketball League season was over. It was March, and Dad was sitting on the couch in the living room behind that night's Macomb Daily. And that's where our story picks up after this brief aside:

It may seem odd that I included this rabbit trail about the Macomb Daily. It's true that my writing is prone to wander toward tangential details, but there is usually a purpose behind my associative divergence. In this case, it is simply to demonstrate that life itself seems at times to be pleasantly serendipitous when actually I believe it is divinely orchestrated in ways we may never fully understand--like Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” Daily decisions and actions--sometimes seemingly insignificant--help determine our path as “way leads onto way” and ages and ages hence we are telling it with a sigh.

In this case, had I not taken that Macomb Daily route, my father would not have subscribed to it. He would have been sitting on the couch after supper on a cold night in March behind that open paper when he suddenly said:

“Salvage Building Open Bid”

He read aloud a short classified ad that told of a wood-frame building on Dickinson Road in Mt. Clemens. Dad was interested and called the number. A few minutes later he told us of a man named Mr. Solomon who was going to build apartments on the site. Most of the lot was an open field, but along the sidewalk on Dickinson, across from the little Miller Brother's Dairy store, was a long white clapboard building that was originally a two-room school house. It was later purchased by the YMCA but had been vacant for several years. The owner needed it razed by mid-spring. Rather than pay to have it demolished, he put an ad in the paper to see if someone would pay him to clear the lot in exchange for the building's salvageable materials.
“So we’re going raise the building? How high?” I asked.

“Not raise as in lift. RAZE as in razor,” Dad explained. “We need to get it below ground level the way a razor shaves off whiskers.”
I had never heard that word before, but I’ve never forgotten it since.

We met Mr. Solomon at the building the next night. A dark woolen overcoat draped over his tall frame. A reticent smile made up for his lack of conversation during our brief introductions, and his handshake felt as if he'd never done the kind of work he was soliciting.

We stepped up three cement steps of a small stoop porch. Mr. Solomon unlocked the double door, and we stepped into a small vestibule. Straight ahead, were two doors, one marked “Girls” and the other “Boys.” There were small white porcelain drinking fountains on the wall beside them, and I immediately imagined how cool it would be to have a drinking fountain in our house.

To the left was an open door through which the dull warn varnished floorboards stretched to the far end of the building. A wall of windows faced the street. The opposite wall was covered by a twenty-foot chalkboard made of true slate. Through the door to the right was an identical empty classroom. The only light in either room came through the dirty windows, but that was enough to see that the floor was worn in the pattern left by decades of foot traffic between rows of desks but the desks themselves were gone.

Near the door-jamb of the second room, I saw a two-button light switch like the one in the stairway at my Grandma Spencer’s house (not a modern toggle that flips up and down). I pushed top button “on” and the “off” button below pop out with a snap, but nothing else happened.

“The power’s been shut off since before I bought the land,” said Mr. Solomon.

I nodded slightly, embarrassed that the popping noise of the button had made him look and caused my dad to shake his head so slightly only Dave and I noticed. It was the same subtle cue Dad gave when we were kids in a store and not to touch things. I was nearly sixteen and still Dad’s “don’t touch” twitch came instinctively to him, and still my nod in response came with only the slightest sense of being scolded.

It did seem ironic, though, to have gotten Dad’s subtle look for touching the switch when in a few days, if Dad got the bid, we would be tearing the whole place down.

What I didn’t know was that Dad wasn’t thinking when Mr. Solomon said “There’s no power” was that all of work would need to be done without his power tools. Dad had a half-dozen heavy silver die-cast Black & Decker and Craftsman electric tools that through the years had become extensions of his arms. None of them would be used on this project.

His thoughts, however, quickly turned to taking inventory of the materials hidden all around us. A hole in the ceiling revealed that the rafters were 2-by-8s, and a craw-space showed him that the floor joists were 2-by-12s. Both the rafters and joists were standard 16”-on-center apart, and he quickly calculated how many there were in the building. Using the same formula he estimated the number of 2-by-4’s in the walls. All of these calculations were written down in a little pad of paper from the shirt pocket under his coat.

Mr. Solomon watched dad’s eyes thinking in every direction of the building and then the two of them stepped outside. For the first time, Dave and I felt free to walk around and talk. Our whispered tones echoed in the emptiness.

“So we’re going to tear this whole thing down?” I asked. “Seems like a waste.”

“Seems like a lot of work if you asked me,” Dave sighed.

“But it will be kind of fun, too—smashing everything and knockin’ it down.”

“Fun? Are you kidding? We’re not smashing it. We’re salvaging it. Just think. Everything you see—piece by piece, brick by brick—we’ve gotta take it apart and haul it to the property.

“Even these windows?” I asked. “We can’t use these windows in a house. I’ll bet we get to smash ‘em.”

For just a moment, we drifted off in thoughts of being able to smash windows without getting in trouble. I’m not sure what it is that makes boys take pleasure in the thought of breaking things made of glass. Perhaps it’s because glass is the forbidden fruit of modernity. All our lives we’re told to be careful of it. Don’t touch it. Don’t drop it. Careful! Careful! It’s delicate you know! The goblet in our grip; the pane beyond the chair. Fragile stuff glass. I remembered the night Dad got fed up with an old television he could not repair. He put it in the middle of our back yard and called his three sons out to watch as from twenty feet away he hurled his three-pound mallet in the air to see it smash through the gray-green tube of the TV screen. I thought it would be like a bomb, but being a vacuum tube, it simply imploded in a brief muted shatter with the mallet handle poking through a hole. We boys were disappointed, but Dad found it exhilarating. “You know how many times I’ve wanted to do that?” he laughed. “It felt good.”

So even Dad would understand the thrill of breaking windows, and just as I was about to remind Dave of the night he smashed the TV, Dad’s silhouette walked past the pane I was looking through, and I jumped.

“What’s he doing?” I asked.

“Looks like he’s pacing out how big the building is. Each step is three feet give or take.”

Dad walked back the other way, writing on his little pad. He counted how many rows of cement block were between the ground and the floor, then added the three rows buried down to the frost line, multiplied that total by the perimeter dimensions, and wrote down how many cement blocks would be his for the hauling.

Mr. Solomon had given Dad space during this hasty appraisal, but he looked at his watch and said something to Dad that made him laugh. They came together and talked for a minute or two. Dad ran his hand backward across his crew cut--a gesture he did not so much when he was thinking but negotiating. He looked at the building. His head tilted and his face and mouth skewed into a sort of wink. Then he nodded, and they shook hands. A few minutes later, we were in the car, pulling slowly away.

“Take a good look at ‘er, boys. She’s all ours.”

“You mean we bought it?” I said.


“Do you mean it’s ours to keep or to tear down?” I asked.

“To tear down, of course. What else would we do with it?"
I could think of all sorts of cool things to do with the building, and there was something in the way he said 'she's all ours' that made me think our plans had changed, but I shared none of these boyish thoughts.
"I knew that," I said, and looked at the building as we drove away.
"The paper said 'Open to bids'. Were there other bids?" Dave asked.
"He tried to act like it at first, but he wouldn't close the bidding if I didn't offer something. So I looked at the building and told him we could have it down in six weeks for fifty bucks and he said 'She's all yours' so I'm thinking there weren't any other bids. So what do you think, Fellas. Can we get it done in six weekends? I may need to take some vacation days, too."
A brief silence was followed by some mumbled, unenthused agreement, and just like that our next six weeks were spoken for. Dad was hoping we'd take the bait... get excited...accept the challenge of getting some unpleasant task done "against the odds" the same way we used to do to our three-year-old brother:
"Here, Jimmy, take this box out to the trash can. I'll time you. On your mark; get set' go." And Jimmy would run the item out behind the garage and run back beaming. "Wow! You set a new record, Jimmy!"
That works on little kids, but I was almost sixteen and Dave was almost eighteen. We had no idea how much work was involved in salvaging a building. We'd soon find out.


Anonymous quilly said...

I'm with Dave, too much work! But one heck of a sweet deal on the materials. I know why your dad thought it was worth it.

27/9/09 9:37 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Dave was older and stronger and much closer to Dad's equal in work. He tended to see the true labor of a task and I tended to see the potential fun. But there's no doubt about it, this was a lot of work.

28/9/09 5:37 PM  
Blogger the walking man said...

The building went, with a bit of work from life to death to life. I wonder if your father would think that he was being "green" in being wise.

29/9/09 6:08 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

A future chapter makes mention of how "green" this house was without even trying to be green. There is yet another building involved in the house, and old brick building in Downtown Detroit, but that is a few chapters away.

29/9/09 8:34 PM  

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