As I leave Mike’s shop and return to my truck, I wonder why I hadn’t thought of this before. I may have found a potential career that I’m passionate about. After work, I head home and immediately prepare a portfolio with pictures of all the pieces of furniture I’ve designed. My favorite piece is a 40˝x60˝ picture frame that houses a photograph my brother took at a monastery in Ayutthaya, Thailand. It’s a cement Buddha head entangled in massive tree roots.
My brother’s artistic side first came out when he enrolled in the art program at Coronado High School. He spent his time painting canvases in Dad’s garage as I did my woodwork. We share a similar passion in that way. He’s still an artist at heart, but he now expresses himself through photographs.
School was never for either of us, but self-expression has been our passion. When my brother’s not traveling the world, capturing the visions of life through his lens, he makes a living pounding out dents at a body shop in Long Beach. It’s not his dream job, but it pays well, and it allows flexibility in his schedule to pursue his dream of visiting every country in the world. So far he’s at eight percent. I’m envious of his travels, but he thinks I’m the lucky one when Mike hires me to do woodworking full-time.
“Congratulations, D, that’s awesome,” my brother says.
I know he’s sincere, but it’s coming from my older brother who once tried to knock me out during a water-balloon fight. I had come up from behind and smacked one over his head. The rules were neck-and-below so he turned around and hit me in the jaw with a right hook.
I want to ask him when he’s going to get serious about his photography. But he’s still taller than I am.
So I say, “When’s your next adventure?”
“I don’t know, I’m still trying to pay off the last one.”
I, on the other hand, know where I’m headed.
I am quickly immersed in Mike’s current project at George’s at the Cove in La Jolla. I feel like a kid in a candy store to find myself covered from head to toe in sawdust. Some of it even gets in my mouth.
I’ve finally found a career.
Every day I stay late, working on personal projects. I am hooked; woodworking is like crack to me. Spending countless hours designing new pieces, experimenting with joinery techniques, and finally sanding with the finest of grits.
I experiment with exotic hardwoods such as Santos mahogany. It’s a beautiful mix of reddish-purple tones, and when freshly cut, the scent of licorice emerges. Then there’s Zebrano, or zebra wood. It is visually pleasing with its eye-catching striped grain, but it smells like urine. I had enough of that as a plumber.
Project after project, I grow in my knowledge of furniture-making. I soak up as much information as I can from Mike. He refers to me as his protégé.
“You want to firmly apply even pressure against the fence, as well as downward on the table, when you guide the board through the blade.” Mike demonstrates with a piece of scrap material. “Mastering this technique is key. It will prevent the blade from kicking back, which is extremely dangerous.”
“Okay,” I reply, eager to take a turn. Mike stops me and says, “First things first. Put on your safety glasses, ear muffs, and your dust mask. Just take your time, there’s no rush. But most importantly, remember to keep your fingers away from the blade, and whatever you do, DO NOT let go of the material until you have pushed it all the way through the blade.”
“Got it.” I anxiously approach the table saw.
The workload in the shop is not too bad. But installing the stuff is just the opposite. One time Mike had to spend the night at George’s, pulling a 72-hour shift just to make sure we made the deadline.
Installing interior woodwork consists of throbbing knees, an aching back, sore wrists, loud machines, pounding hammers, guys in your way, and worst of all, the dust causing you to sneeze every five seconds.
I look over at Mike. He’s on all fours, installing a wall panel as the owner of another restaurant in Del Mar breathes down his neck, to make sure we finish on time.
The owner says, “I got the electrician coming at 2:30, and my tile guy will be here at 4:00. Are you going to have these panels finished before they get here?”
“Well, that depends,” says Mike. “Is the plumber going to have the water lines in place soon so I can make my cut-outs?” I can tell the owner is frustrated by Mike’s tone.
“Hopefully, he’ll be here within the hour.”
Situations like this often occur on the job site, especially when it comes down to the final deadline. Scheduling conflicts, permit issues, code violations, time constraints, and my least favorite, trying to work around six different trades in a tiny little area simultaneously.
With an irritated expression, Mike looks over at me and says, “It’s a part of the job.”
Later in the day, we’re back at the shop. Mike comes shuffling in.
I’m at the assembly table gluing up panels for the siding of a new bar we’re building for the Wolfgang Puck restaurant located next to the La Jolla Playhouse. I can feel something is wrong. We discuss how the job’s going so far, but things aren’t looking good.
With a long face, Mike says, “Dave, we held on for as long as we could, but there’s just no work out there for us right now.” I nod my head.
“It kills me to have to do this to ya, bud, but we’re gonna have to let you go.”
This is the first time I’ve ever been laid off. It completely catches me off guard. As my heart pounds, I feel my face get hot, especially the tips of my ears. I then realize Mike’s situation is more severe. How’s he going to support his family? He’s got two kids in college, a mortgage, and debt from the company.