For almost 30 years Mike has helped build casinos and hotels in San Diego, Las Vegas, and even Honolulu. For several Gucci stores, he has handcrafted shell-shaped archways surrounded by exotic veneers. His work is exquisite.
We always chat about what’s new in the world of woodworking. New hand tools, like the $375 Iron Shooting Miter Plane, and the Original Yankee Style Screwdriver. We also talk about current projects, like the custom router-accessory box I’m building and a trellis he’s designing for his garden. It’s nice to talk shop, since I’m cooped up in a classroom most of the time.
As I make my way out the door, I notice his limp has gotten worse.
“How’s the ol’ leg holding up?” I ask.
“Not so good, bud. It’s tough getting old, you know.” But it’s not just age that’s slowing him down. Mike’s fought polio since he was a kid. It was first diagnosed in his right leg then spread all the way across to his left arm and down his left leg. With much practice over the years, Mike has trained himself to be ambidextrous. I feel embarrassed to complain about intermediate algebra when I’m around him.
Mike and I have been through a lot. We made money in construction until it collapsed in the subprime earthquake. Now we’re trying to piece our lives back together. I’m a lot younger, by 33 years, so I’ve got more time. But my career choices so far have basically sucked. Like the time in Kensington when I got sprayed in the face with fermented shit.
It’s a hot summer day in July 2002. I am stripped down to my boxer briefs and hosing off in my client’s front yard.
“Dude, what the fuck,” I yell at my partner.
He stares at me in silence, a ghostly expression on his face.
“Did that go in your mouth?” he asks.
“What do you think? Of course it did.” I am so pissed, I almost punch him out. “What the hell were you thinking, man?” I shout. “Why are you jamming that digging bar into the ground so damn hard?”
“The dirt’s rock hard, bro. What was I supposed to do?”
My partner is not the sharpest tool in the shed. On the job, he always takes the easy route, and this time I’m paying the price. The neighbors are looking at me funny. The client opens his front door to a wet-plumber contest. Not a good look.
I decide that I want to get as far away from sewer pipes as I possibly can. So I start installing rain gutters instead, clinging to the edges of three-story buildings.
In November 2003, I’m at an older apartment complex in La Mesa, standing halfway up a three-story extension ladder that looks like a palm tree blowing in the wind. I’m swaying back and forth, and my legs are shaking. Slipping my arms through the rungs, I seek reassurance from my partners below.
“You sure you got a good grip?”
“Yeah, no worries, D,” they say. “We got you.”
With the top of the ladder resting against the existing rain gutters, I slowly climb. I feel the wind pick up as the temperature drops. There’s a chimney to my right. To my left, a 30-foot drop to the sidewalk. I’m irritated that there’s no roof access from inside the building.
A gust of wind comes through the alley. The ladder begins to slide against the slippery gutter. I reach out for the chimney.
“Oh, shit,” my partner says with panic in his voice. “You okay, man?”
“Yeah, I’m good.” My heart feels as if it’s beating out of my chest. “That’s it, we’re done. I’m calling the boss and telling him we’re pulling off the job.”
At our next stop, as I stand next to the tailgate of my work truck, an older gentleman approaches me. “How’s it goin’?” He introduces himself with a firm handshake. “The name’s Mike.” I can tell he is a working man.
He has a scruffy white beard, and his outfit is stained with dried glue and paint splatter. I sense he’s a genuinely nice guy, real down to earth. He asks me if I could give him an estimate on some rain gutters for his shop. As we approach his property, the scent of freshly cut wood lures me in. Man, it smells good.
When we round the building, I peek inside the front door. Before me is the most incredible woodworking shop I have ever seen. I look around in amazement. Mike has a 12-inch Powermatic table saw, two band saws, a stationary power sander, a thickness planer, a 16-inch jointer, a 4x10 assembly table, a mortising machine, two power feeders, a drill press, a couple of chop saws, a scroll saw, a lathe, an elaborate dust collection system, a rack of various-sized clamps, and every hand tool you could imagine, some dating back to the early 1920s. Not to mention the endless amount of power tools he has lined against the wall of his shop: nail guns, staple guns, cordless drills, Skil saws, a reciprocating saw, jig saws, a right-angle drill, orbital sanders, tool sharpeners, and a variety of routers.
The shop is a mess; everything’s covered in dust from the 16-foot rift White Oak bar top he’s been sanding. I admire the wood. The straight lines of the grain are subtle at first, but up close, the richness and warmth come to life.
His shop is insane. I forget that I’m supposed to be working on his neighbor’s house when my phone rings.
“Where you at, D?” my partner asks.
“I’m next door.” I tell him to finish that job and start on Mike’s place next.
I get lost in his shop because I’m a furniture-maker as well. Back in 2002, I moved into my own apartment with only a bed and a TV. I didn’t have much money to furnish the place, so I decided to build my own. I got the idea from a home-makeover reality show and a guy that was building an entertainment center. So I bought just enough tools to get the job done, while my dad let me open up shop in his garage. Three months later, I completed my first project. It’s funny how reality TV, something I never took seriously, opened up a door to a passion I never knew I had.