Twice each month, the cheerful, friendly woman in charge of doling out jobs would send out an email proclaiming “The Grass Cuts Are Here!!” Each guy on the crew received a list of 60–80 properties, mapped out with driving directions to ensure the shortest route between jobs. They tried to give us properties close to where we lived, but there were always a few places out in the boondocks, in Campo, or Valley Center; those were the least desirable destinations.
I went to Sears and spent several hundred dollars for a gas-powered weed wacker (more properly called a string trimmer) and a leaf blower. I got a long-handled toilet scrubber from Home Depot. I changed the oil in the truck, and set to work. When the list came in, it signified the start of an eight-to-ten-day ordeal, working 12 hours at a time without a break, striving to make the deadline. You got a week off before the next batch came in.
I tried to get them to cut my workload — I was a 45-year-old guy with a torn-up left knee and a drinking problem — but as the months progressed, people kept quitting, and the workload stayed at no fewer than 60 jobs per cycle, sometimes as many as 100. You might get lucky and pick up a bunch of properties in the same neighborhood and spend your day driving from one to the next, not even enough time to smoke a cigarette before it was time to jump out of the truck, take pictures, run the weed wacker, blow the sidewalks, dump some Lysol toilet-bowl cleaner in the toilets and scrub them until they shined — $40, ka-ching — then move on to the next. On the easy ones, it took about 30 minutes. But for every easy job, there were properties that were long distances apart, or places with a thick growth of weeds that needed to be hacked down and raked up and hauled off, or dirty toilets and 2000 square feet of wall-to-wall carpeting that needed to be vacuumed. That’s where it got exhausting.
Then it started to rain. The formerly easy grass cuts turned into swaths of six-inch-tall crabgrass and cockleburs. I got behind, sometimes able to complete only eight jobs a day, sometimes having to drive to Alpine or Escondido, 40 miles from my starting point. I purchased a new lawn mower. At first, I got along pretty well with my middleman boss, but after awhile he was constantly on my back. He was a manic, workaholic type. All he cared about was meeting the deadlines, getting the dough. He fired off disparaging emails. “Hey slowpoke, pick up the pace.” He took to calling me “sugarbritches,” a nickname I despised.
Completing ten grass cuts and ten maid-refresh jobs in one day was a lot of work. But I sucked it up. I told myself, $400 a day, buddy. There were ways to speed up the process. If the trash-out guys had done their job, and the house was spotless, you could just take the interior pictures and send them in without doing any cleaning whatsoever. But I couldn’t stand leaving a bunch of weeds in a side yard, or a dirty toilet, so I toiled on; I did the best job I could under the circumstances.
But…the banks had quality-control people. What they wanted to see in the photos was “stripes.” When you mow a lawn, or run a vacuum, it leaves behind a pattern on the grass or carpet. When they started getting pictures showing room after room of carpets covered with footprints from the last open house, not a stripe to be seen, I suspect they denied a few payments. This is when the too-good-to-be-true aspect of the job started to manifest. After the first round of work, I expected almost $3000. But then the next round of grass cuts came in, and the next, and after two months we still hadn’t been paid. Meanwhile, I was meeting all my expenses out of pocket: gas, vehicle maintenance, equipment, $200–$300 every couple of weeks, and all I had to show for it were calluses on my hands and about 1000 miles of wear and tear on my truck and a disintegrating relationship with my girlfriend. When the first check finally came in, it was a nice chunk of change. It was also $500 short. The bank was overwhelmed, I was told. They’d missed a few payments, but the money was coming. And so it went, month after month, the checks short, a few stragglers coming in for work done months previously, but never all of it.
As far as the work went, eventually I toughened up to the point I could run that weed wacker all day long, day after day; it almost became an extension of my arm. I weed wacked in Alpine in a heat wave, 105 degrees. The noise from the two-stroke was a distant buzz, muffled by the shimmering heat, and I was sweating, buckets of sweat, ten hours at a stretch. In that kind of weather, you take slower steps and more frequent pauses. Time slows down, until you are encapsulated in the heat, the weed wacker’s buzz like locusts whirring unseen. You drink a gallon of water a day, kept in a cooler of ice, then sweat it back out; the cold water reduces your core temperature, so you can carry on. I got to where I could reduce a yard full of weeds to a crop of stubble and mulch in no time flat. The tricky part was not destroying ornamental plants in the process or sending a rock through a window.
But the late payments, that sucked, waiting for the mail to arrive, finding the box empty, day after day. When a check finally came in, two months after you’d done the work, it was short.
More people quit. The workload increased. It became obvious that about 10 percent of the money was never going to materialize. It was lost in the shuffle, hung up in accounts payable at some bank office, or sitting in the coffers of someone further up the food chain. “I guarantee you will get paid” turned into “I didn’t get paid, you are not getting paid, tough luck, and furthermore, my attorney says you agreed to an imputed contract to that effect.” It was messed up. Everyone was pissed off. More people quit. Still, I stuck with it. It was decent money, a source of steady income at a time when jobs were hard to find, and I figured that, when the time came to pull the plug, I could file a lawsuit in small claims court to try and get the rest of the money. Meanwhile, there was grass to cut.