At the beginning, in my innocence, I bought a whole truckload of lumber because of the discount. But soon I learned to buy only enough for the day: any leftover was a gift to my homeless tenants, who would have ripped out and sold even the lumber cut and nailed down in place, except it was too much work. But equally or even more larcenous was the community at large, homeowners remodeling, contractors looking for bargains, a dime on the dollar or better, who came around as soon as I left. Likewise, after losing four or five drills and grinders, I gathered up all my tools into my van at the end of the day. Still I kept losing them.
Marvin Bell and Hal Hunt were for a while my chief resident help. Marvin, about 50, the older of the two, tall with a great white beard that came down to his chest, looked like an Old Testament prophet but was in fact a sneaky thief and a brazen malingerer. Blaming some degenerative bone condition, he excused himself from lifting anything heavy and moved about with great deliberation, except when he stole something and skipped with it. One night I was a little slow in putting away my new drill, just unpacked, and noticed it was missing. I saw Marvin leaving the building by the back door. Calling his name, I ran after him. By the time I got to the back door he had already hopped around the building. I followed and saw him flit across the street and vanish into the dark alley. He could have been an Olympic sprinter.
“Hand over the drill you took last night,” I demanded, waking him up the next morning.
“I don’t know what you are talking about?” he said, sleepily, faking surprise.
“Don’t give me that. You ran across the street with my drill, though I kept shouting to you to stop.”
“You shouted to me? I never heard you.”
“Then why did you skedaddle out of here as if your tail had been on fire?”
“Because I had to meet someone and I was already late.”
I knew it was a lost cause. Even with these provocations I didn’t get rid of Marvin because of his unique role in Hal’s well-being: the least funny thing Marvin might utter caused Hal to crack up. Forty years old, Hal had tremendous biceps he attributed to his career as a body builder. When Hal was in a good mood, he did two men’s work. Without him I wouldn’t have been able to hoist and install the 75 trusses, no matter how many others I might have helping.
It was paranoia about constant, unstoppable theft that threw me off a ladder, nearly killing me. That day the sky had darkened in the afternoon and began sprinkling. Hal and Marvin wanted to quit instead of finishing nailing the twenty or so two-by-fours still remaining of the daily quota I had bought in the morning. To begin with they had a late start for one excuse or another and, if they quit now, they wouldn’t have worked even half a day, though they would still expect a full day’s pay in addition to the free housing they were getting.
When I was gone a minute to put the tools out of the rain, they had walked across the street for coffee and tacos. To discourage them from selling the lumber left over I decided to store it on top of the trusses in such a way as to escape ready detection from below. Providentially a 20-foot ladder was leaning against the wall right at the spot I had picked out as ideal for the purpose. Normally I made sure of a ladder’s footing before climbing but, boiling with anger at the duo’s desertion, I became careless and failed to notice the puddle of rainwater on the concrete floor where the ladder stood planted. Picking up a stack of four eight-foot two-by-fours, I climbed rung by rung, balancing the load. Eyes level with the bottom cord, I swung the lumber around to clear the adjacent webs for alignment with the top cord, when the ladder slid and crashed down to the floor. I remember maneuvering to avoid hitting my head and landing hard on my buttocks and left side, followed by blackness. I came to, pain in the left foot stopping my breath.
At this moment the two rogues sauntered back in and found me sprawled in the puddle, unable to move. Expressing surprise and concern, perhaps genuine, they picked me up and helped me to my vehicle, as if I were a baby. Though submitting to their ministrations out of necessity, I ground my teeth with hatred at them, whose thieving had brought on the mishap. The pain in the foot didn’t lessen overnight and I went to my internist brother’s office for X-ray examination, which revealed a hairline fracture in the heel bone. I was in a cast for two months and hobbled around on crutches, the pace of work slowing down accordingly.
Sensing his value, Hal had his pay jacked up to $60 a day, which he wanted paid everyday, then in two installments, $30 just before lunch and $30 at the end of the day. I had to have the exact amounts of cash ready in my pocket. He wanted to break this down even further to accommodate mid-morning and mid-afternoon, but I had to put my foot down. As soon as he got paid, he dashed off to a pay phone, talked long and earnestly, then disappeared across the street. I often asked him whether it wouldn’t be better to receive a bigger weekly pay, so he could save and budget. Of course a check was out of the question, because like all his other homeless brethren he couldn’t cash it. No, he had to be paid twice a day. Only later was I to learn that the twice daily pay schedule was to enable his dope purchase every few hours, that his impressive biceps were compliments of the gym exercises he did daily at his previous prisons where one had fewer options.
Installation of toilets and sinks became top priority, which in turn meant excavation of the floor for proper drainage. Prior to busting the concrete, the floor tile had to be removed, one foot square ceramic in the front and six inch terra-cotta in the back. Hal was still around and willing to help with this phase of construction, though his friend Marvin was not, remanded to a state penitentiary upstate on a charge more serious than sprinting off with my drill, not to a farm owned by his brother near San Diego as Hal said.
The work didn’t go fast enough even with the 90 pound electrical jack hammer I rented. Hal refused to work on the old terms and I had to give the whole job to him for $200. With the help of Jeff the weasel and others and using sledge hammers, he knocked all the tiles off the floor overnight. Understandably he was still sleeping when I got there next morning. When he woke up, he demanded pay. I told him to take the debris outside, but he claimed that had not been part of the deal. After some shouting back and forth, he pleaded for the money because he had promised it to someone. It was a matter of life and death to him. The tile pieces could be swept up and put in the dumpster in no time. He would take care of it later, in a few minutes. There was some fevered desperation in his eyes and I gave in. He was gone the whole day and returned as I was leaving, long past supper time. I accused him of breaking his word. He smiled beatifically. Nothing could spoil his good humor.
“Go home to your wife and sleep well,” he said indulgently. “I’ll go to work right away. The rubbish will be gone when you get here tomorrow morning.”
Believing him I engaged John Yoon, a Korean all-purpose landscapist, to break the exposed concrete and lay the main drain. At 6:30 next morning I met John at US Rental to rent the compressor trailer and pneumatic jack hammer for the day. The trailer hitched to John’s truck, we arrived at the job site, to find his Mexican crew waiting outside. I went inside to open the doors and found the tile fragments still littering the floor. Hal and another man I had not seen before were sleeping under the tent rigged up in the building. I shouted at Hal until he awoke and told him I would never trust him.
“I am sick and tired of breaking my back for peanuts,” he muttered, slowly opening his eyes.
By then his companion was up and getting ready to leave.
“How could you let me down like this?” I cried. “We had a deal…”
“Shove your deals up your ass,” Hal screamed out of the blue, jumping up and swinging his clenched fists to strike me.
His buddy grabbed his arm and whispered something in his ear, which was persuasive enough to make him leave without murdering me. Hal didn’t return that night, nor the next. I heard that he and his new friend got caught walking out of the much abused Anaheim K-Mart with some leather bags.