Wednesday, May 01, 2013
I never set out to be a carpenter, which is probably why I’m not one today. And I never wanted to be a plumber. I’d once seen a plumber use a drain snake to unclog a toilet packed with poop, and even at $80/hour with a minimum one hour charge, it didn’t seem like a good fit for me. My father told me that I should be a plumber. “People will always need to flush toilets,” he said. “They can’t get over it.” If I didn’t want to be a plumber, he told me, I could be an electrician. “Cleaner work,” he said. He told me all this when I was working with him as a carpenter.
We performed structural carpentry, back in the heady days of the late 80s, before real estate markets (S&L scandal), or stock markets (Black Monday, 1987) ever crashed, when everything used to trickle down. The last dribbles made it to me in the form $1,000 per week, cash. My father used to pay me in hundred dollar bills. “You can always break a C-note in a bar room,” he told me. Then he added, “Don’t spend too much time in bar rooms.”
All that structural carpentry required a full quiver of building skills: demolition, repair, and rebuilding--the final part entailing the above-mentioned need for plumbing and electrical skills, not to mention painting, landscaping, finish carpentry, and customer service. I never dreamed these skills would become my calling card one day as an innkeeper. I was going to be a writer.
And I am. I think people still have funny notions about what writers do, just like we have funny notions about what everybody else does. I have a friend who is a police officer, and he tells me about the things he does during his shift, things that don’t include sleeping or eating donuts. As for writers, we do a variety of things. Some, like my friend Chris Millis, live a life close to what we think a writer’s life looks like. In other words, he earns all his money from writing. But if you look closer, you’ll see that he spends most of his time in motion. Turns out money doesn’t grow on trees for writers, so he’s busy scouring the landscape for opportunities to mine.
Many of my writer friends teach. Some, like my pal Danita Berg, are at the highest levels of academia. Others, like me, flourish in the local college scene. And there’s everything in between, before and after, that my writers are engaged in: community workshops, adult education, independent blogging, and innkeeping. Actually, I’m the only writer/innkeeper I know. Consider this a shout-out to any others like me reading this.
It’s probably the portion of my resume that deals with the practical arts of carpentry that will end up defining the products I leave behind. Although I’ve published a couple of books, scads of short stories and articles, this blog, and plenty of other assorted writings, the work I’ve done as a carpenter, painter, electrician, plumber, and landscaper endures--perhaps less noticed, perhaps, like all the new bathrooms I’ve installed, more appreciated when needed.
All this talk of carpentry is the result of this year’s offseason activities. Mud season usually finds me tackling something around the inn: a new bathroom in a guest room, window replacement, or some kind of project involving traffic control and unionized labor negotiations. This year, the twist is that we’re rehabbing one of the apartments in the two-family we own. It’s a full tear-down. The previous tenants abandoned the place after literally trashing the place: it took days just to empty the garbage out. After the rugs were ripped out, the scrubbing began. Then the painting. Appliances and windows will need to be replaced. Finally, a new floor will be laid down. Then we’ll rent it out.
But why? Why not just devote yourself to your writing, Shawn? Why not hustle for writing gigs? Why not pursue a full-time professor position? Why bang your head against all these dirty manual jobs?
It goes back to products. Making places livable for other people is a passion. Giving life to buildings that others have forgotten or forsaken is a passion. Busting my knuckles until they bleed, solving physical problems, filling the air with profanity is a passion. I love being exhausted. I love trying to scrub paint off my hands and blowing the dust out of my nose. But most of all, I love the end, because when it’s all over, I have something to write about.