While all of this was going on, I was earning money working for Dad in his home improvement business. We did it all: roofing, siding, windows, doors, kitchens, bathrooms, decks, remodels, extensions – you name it. I enjoyed the work, but I did not enjoy the work crew. Dad went out of his way to find the most useless miscreants possible. I guess he felt sorry for them and wanted to offer a helping hand, but that’s not a good idea when you’re getting paid to do quality work.
For starters he enlisted David and Rubin, a father-son duo of disaster. David was 80 years old and spoke in a Mexican accent so thick I needed subtitles to understand him. His son Rubin was about 40 and brain damaged from a botched abortion (he survived, his twin didn’t). All day Rubin giggled and threw tools around, saying, “hee hee… I like to play…hee hee…” Dude was definitely a few ships short of a star fleet. The only thing him and his dad could do was wallpaper. How ironic. They couldn’t hammer a nail straight but they could wallpaper like experts.
Next up we had another father-son duo, Lenny and Phil. Lenny was in his 60s and Phil was in his 40s. The two of them were blind as all get-out and both sported Mr. Magoo eyeglasses. Lenny went into a diabetic coma every day around 3:30, and he almost killed both of us on the Meadowbrook Parkway once. I didn’t know about his condition and it was like being in the car with a drunk driver. Jesus. I finally figured out what was going on and told him to stop, and he did – right in the middle of the parkway in the middle of rush hour. I muscled him into the passenger seat so I could get behind the wheel, all while drivers swore and swerved around us. Lenny was semi-conscious at that point, so I found a Dairy Barn and bought an orange juice and made him drink it. Ten minutes later his eyelids fluttered and opened and he asked me what happened. He had no memory of anything that had transpired on the road, apart from a vague recollection of car horns. Yeah, I snorted, there were a lot of car horns.
Meanwhile his son Phil was morbidly obese and had a habit of falling asleep on rooftops. Dad sent him to replace some shingles at someone’s house while we worked at another one in the neighborhood. Two hours later and Phil still hadn’t reappeared, so Dad and I got into the truck and went searching for him. We were about four houses away when we saw him lying up there on the roof like a beached whale with his legs dangling over the side.
Lenny and Phil thought they were such hot shit, too. They loved to tell us how they built an entire house in five days, but it took them a whole week to frame out the corner of the one we were working on. Dad was always bitching at them because they were screwing something up on the job, whether it was installing a plug socket upside down or nailing something in crooked. Lenny’s response each time was “Well, you can’t see it from Oceanside…” or some other town on the island. And he got on my nerves because he always encroached on whatever task I was doing, to the point where he was practically under my feet at times.
To round out the crew we had John the Forceps Baby. He had a funny face and ears and a big smooshed head like Beaker from the Muppets, and Dad said it was because he was a forceps delivery at birth. Forceps Baby was another genius. He told us he wrote two textbooks, but he couldn’t even pick up garbage. We ripped off a roof and threw the shingles down onto the driveway, and his job was to pick everything up and put it in the dumpster. But instead of picking it up and carrying it over, he tried to rake everything over to the dumpster with a garden rake and then pick it up and throw it in. Dad had to tell him five times what to do.
And if that wasn’t enough, sometimes Dad would pick up this guy Pete from the halfway house if we needed an extra pair of hands. Pete was a recovering alcoholic with sticky fingers, and during lunch he would go into everyone’s cars to steal money… except for mine, because I was smart and always kept it locked. I was the exact opposite of Dad, who not only left his doors unlocked but frequently failed to close them at all. His tools and equipment frequently tumbled out the back onto the highway.
Dad’s truck was a complete disaster. It looked like a bomb had gone off in there, and it took forever to sift through the wreckage to find anything. I started playing pranks like hiding pine cones in his truck, and it usually took him several days to two weeks before he would find all of them. It was like a microcosm of our house. And I don’t know why Dad persisted in taking on roofing jobs, because every time it rained afterwards we’d have to turn off the phone because customers would be calling complaining that their roof was leaking. Hell, our own roof leaked for over twenty years before he was finally able to fix it. Our den was constantly filled with pots and buckets to catch all the dripping water.
Not to mention that whenever Dad wasn’t bungling up a roof, he was either falling off it, into it, or through it. I’d seen him take a few nasty tumbles while on various jobs with him. One day he shot himself through the lip with the nail gun, but amazingly he didn’t fall off the roof. He just finished what he was doing and pulled the tarps over the roof before driving himself to the hospital with the nail hanging out of his face. But another time he was up on scaffolding when one of the supports broke loose, and he bounced off the house and fell backwards onto the driveway, cracking his head on the asphalt. The homeowner drove us to the hospital, and I sat in the backseat watching Dad holding a T-shirt to his head to try and stop the blood pumping out. Yet another head injury to add to the list.
Dad rarely let injuries get in the way of work. I stepped on a nail one day, and after taking me to the hospital to get a tetanus shot, X-rays and bandages we simply went back to the house we were working at. I was left to curl up on the utility carpet on the concrete floor in the back room while he picked up where we left off. For the next several hours I was continually jarred awake by the sounds of sawing and banging. By the end of the day I wasn’t sure which hurt more – my head or my foot.
I quickly learned to start taking my own car to work. He didn’t have a passenger seat in his truck, so I’d have to sit on an upturned bucket and hold on for dear life. I also learned to start bringing my own food for lunch, especially when I saw the stuff he’d bring. “Raisin cinnamon nut crunch swirl? Are you out of your fucking tree?” Lenny asked incredulously one day when he saw the bread that Dad brought for lunch? His son Phil was no better; all he brought for lunch for himself was a half a pound of salami and a half a pound of provolone cheese. He’d roll it all together and eat it like a hot dog – no bread or condiments or anything. Yuck.
I’d have to bring my own water too. Dad would half-assedly rinse out the old milk containers at home, fill them with water, and put them in the freezer. So unless you wanted to spend the next day drinking half-frozen milky water, you were better off bringing your own. Cleanliness was not one of Dad’s strong suits, especially when it came to washing dishes. I was eating a sandwich in the kitchen at home one day while watching Dad do the dishes – a term I use lightly. He loaded the dishes and pots into sink, filled the whole thing up with water, and put in a single drop of dish soap. After letting the whole confection marinate for ten minutes he’d pluck the dishes out one by one, give them a quick pssshhht of water from the faucet, shake it off and put it in the dish rack to dry.
I finally spoke up from the table: “Uh, Dad… are those really clean?” Ever sensitive to the least bit of criticism, he stomped over to me and practically mashed one of the pots into my face.
“Here, look at it. Do you see anything on it?” he snarled at me. No, I thought, because you just wiped everything off of it with the dish towel. But I just shook my head and went back to my sandwich. Dude really was serious about wasting water. No wonder he went berserk whenever Bill did them (because he actually washed them properly). Myself, I’d wait until Dad was gone before taking the dishes back out of the closet to wash them again. There’d be a light coat of film on the plates and green stuff stuck in the forks. You could still see mouth prints on the glasses.
But in the end, I was glad for the experience of working with Dad. I learned a lot about home construction, which would benefit me greatly when I owned my own someday, not to mention the knowledge would help me when I changed careers to become a real estate agent. Besides, it was high time I start working for someone else. I suspected the day would soon come when things between me and Dad would be too rocky to continue working together.