North County flower fields were rapidly yielding to hordes of “New Professionals.” “Custom” became the buzz word. Battleship-grey Masonite clapboard with white trim, or Navy Hospital pink stucco with teal trim — take your pick.
A lift of baseboard is a volume of material that measures 4x4x16 feet, two cords. It’s what a forklift can handle, hence a lift. The size of the baseboard determines the number of linear feet in a lift. For instance, 2 1/2-inch Streamline has 35,000 linear feet per lift, enough baseboard for 100 condos. Four lifts is a semi-load, what a semi-truck can handle. Two semi-loads is a carload, the capacity of a railroad car. A carload of 2 1/2-inch Streamline is 280,000 linear feet of baseboard, about 50 miles. That’s enough material for 2000 apartments — say, Mollison Avenue in El Cajon. I based half of those units, a righteous semi-load. I am the baseman. This is my story.
I had run into a young surfer named Dave. He would surf and I’d drink beer and bullshit him with Amazing Baseboard Stories. In no time we were eclipsing the required 10,000 feet and taking on even more monster jobs. One day we pounded out 32 apartments in Linda Vista.
Baseboard, also known as base, is that thin strip of wood at the foot of the wall where it meets the floor. It’s there to stop the vacuum cleaner and generally give the place a finished look. Base can be simple and made of pine or detailed and made of hardwood. Some is made of rubber, particle board, or even high-density foam. It can be as narrow as one-half inch or as wide as a foot, look like a fine piece of furniture or, as in most cases, like a chunk of dry-wall mud that someone forgot to scrape off.
Most people don’t notice it and don’t care. Although the building codes do not require it, in most cases it is installed as part of the finished product. In most cases it’s installed by a baseman. And in more than 10,000 homes in San Diego, it was installed by me.
Base is such an innocuous thing, it must have sprung from some unconscious need, like a simple line below the deer in a cave painting, which became a picture frame, which became a window, and then a wall again. Man’s desire for the embellishment of cubic order, or something like that. Base has been around since buildings have been around, from Roman temples to the mop-stop at the corner bar. Like auto trim, the only time base gets noticed is when it’s nice, loose, or poorly installed.
An apartment, townhome, or condo can receive anywhere from 100 to 400 linear feet; a house might require 1000 feet or more. The price of material can run anywhere from a dime to a buck a foot, which is generally the same for installation.
The independent baseboard installer is the highest-paid carpenter in San Diego County. A skilled baseman can easily install 1000 feet a day. At 20 cents a foot, that’s 200 bucks. On a hot day a baseman can make twice that.
Say you live in an apartment complex that has 150 units. Figuring on an average of 225 feet per unit, total footage would equal 33,750 feet, roughly 6 1/3 miles. That’s just one lift of base. I’ve installed over 150 lifts in the past 20-odd years, about 18 train-car loads.
In 1969 I was going to San Diego State, and that summer I got a job with Christiana Community Builders as a laborer at Tierrasanta. It was a pretty laid-back job, and I spread my time among six superintendents, mostly hiding and hanging out with the various trades, deciding what I was going to do with my life.
I was going to school to dodge the draft. I hate school. In the first draft lottery that year, I received a high number and it seemed that my chances of getting drafted were pretty slim. The Vietnam War was still raging on, along with the economy here in San Diego. There was a major lack of manpower in the trades, and most of the trades were union. Pay and benefits were at an all-time high. It was a great time to get in, and I could pick any trade I wanted.
In my wanderings around the job site, I ran across this finish carpenter who was making far more money than the rest. He showed up when he wanted, split when he wanted, no boss, no union card, no time card, no worries. He would work six hours and make $150. He wore thongs to work. He would flip-flop into a unit carrying nothing more than a coping saw, a nail gun, and a CO2 bottle to power it and flip-flop out 45 minutes later, 20 bucks richer. His name was Mike Mercer, a.k.a. Easy Money, and in my mind, a True Working-Class Hero.
Mike was a gunslinger, that mythical-magical Western hotshot who would roll into town, take the easy money, shoot the place up, and split. He came in from Orange County every week. When I asked him why so far, he replied, “’Cause I already based O.C.” Basemen are braggarts, of course, but Easy Money had a touch of class. He could back up his bullshit rap with cold hard footage.
I dropped out of State. Back then it was considered ultra-cool to be a dropout and, with almost no chance of getting drafted, ultra-safe. Being a baseman also seemed ultra-cool. I didn’t realize how much work it was, at least in the beginning. Then it became a dance.
Across the street from Tierrasanta the Navy was building a couple hundred units. I quit my job with Christiana, walked over and said, “I’m here, five cents a foot.” They said “Start,” and the next day I began my new career.
With the help of a friend and some makeshift miter boxes, we completed three units in one long day. The worst mess ever; 900 miserable feet of hand-nailed lumber that looked like it was bulldogged in by some drunk lumberjack with a dull chainsaw. It paid $45. We split that, and we were rich. We didn’t know what the hell we were doing, but with hitting it long and hard, plus some hot tips from Mercer and the aid of a nail gun (the wrong type), we moved along, getting better by the unit.
One day my partner said, “This work sucks. I got a better job, and I’ll sell you my half of the nail gun.” After that I fell hopelessly behind production and also found an easier job laying base closer to home in El Cajon. Getting work back then was no problem.
In 1970 homes and apartments were popping up on every parcel of undeveloped land from Bonita to Santee, and every one of those units received base. At the time there were about a dozen basemen in the county who handled the load, all of them legends bigger than life. Stories of these men were swapped over baloney sandwiches by old timers on their union lunch breaks. “I remember back when we were doin’ Fletcher Hills and this Indian — lost both legs in Korea — useta scoot around on a skateboard and cut the base with a goddamned tomahawk!” The stories were wild but not really too far from the truth. They were all stars. Each had his own costume, props, and acting style. Their bullshit rap was so polished that they could actually talk the base against the wall.
Mercer, Daugherty, Laudenslager, McGee, Morales, Moore, Blass, and a handful more went through carloads of base with the ease of a tree shredder. Basemen are extremely competitive. When one would meet another, it was a scene right out of Gunsmoke. First the boasting, then the face-off, then the shoot-out. I never lost.
Installing base isn’t easy, but if you memorize the steps and do the same production every day, you can pull it off with your eyes closed. That’s the trick with production base, learning the steps. In any development there are only a few floor plans and their reverses. Once you know what’s around the corner, the job’s half done. With conservation of movements and cuts and knowledge of about 300 tricks, a good baseman can do a standard bedroom in the amount of time it takes “Louie, Louie” to play on the radio. With a nailgun, a baseman can nail off a house in 12 minutes or less. All this adds up to easy money. Basemen are very greedy. That’s one of the reasons why there aren’t too many left.
It took me about six months to get the basic skills down. By that time I had learned to hand-cut the 45s and cope the inside corners. I had a style that became more compact all the time. In six months I could install 2000 feet and make the magical figure of $100 a day. Six months later I could do that in five hours. I had hair down to my butt, and I was making more money than my dad. I also liked the lifestyle, show when you want, split when you want, have a beer when you want, turn up the radio as loud as you want, and if they didn’t like it, shove it. That’s another reason why there’s not many left.
By the end of 1970 I had to get into the carpenters’ union. I felt it was a racket, but I really had no choice. I was working for a large company in El Cajon, running all their base — about 1300 apartments that year. The business agent wanted my ass. I spent more time running from him than I did working. One afternoon I was hustled off to Las Vegas in the back seat of a ’59 Coupe DeVille. The guy behind the wheel was no less than one of Howard Hughes’s former building contractors. He took me to the union hall, where with a wink and $200 I was interned into the brotherhood as an instant journeyman carpenter. My card was transferred to San Diego, and for the annoying amount of $6 a month, I was allowed to work. What a racket.
The early ’70s were one big baseboard feeding frenzy. The union card opened some doors and made my enterprise “legal.” I worked for a host of companies in El Cajon, and by 1974 condos had been invented. La Costa was discovered, and work shifted to the North County.
So I decided to locate there. I already based El Cajon.
The open spaces got filled with condos, the price of real estate went through the roof. Then came the recession. People standing in unemployment lines, people standing in gas lines. Everybody changed jobs. All the carpenters moved down a notch, and the baseman, the last carpenter on the job, was (and will be again) the first to go. The door installer now installed the base, and he was replaced by the framer, who was replaced by the builder.
In 1978 work was winding down. I took a union job laying base five days a week, eight hours a day, for half my usual pay. I was back at Tierrasanta installing three large houses a day, about 1800 feet.
I didn’t like that job and it showed. The quality went down and I moped around. I paced out the days. They knew I was capable of more, but at the price they were paying there was no incentive to produce. That was, until they brought another baseman on the job because I had fallen behind. How dare they bring in this brash kid I’d never heard of talkin’ up all this base?
At the ten o’clock break, the guy was bragging about being on his second house until I informed him that I was cutting my fourth. I ended up nailing six houses that day, 3600 feet. The next day he didn’t show. But between us, in one day we had more than caught up, and the next day I was draggin’ and braggin’.
Work was drying up. We were all milking it. Between the army of high-paid loafers and the wrecked economy, the company went under. And then the union went under. Out of45,000 union carpenters, only 7000 were active. The lady at the union hall said that if I got another union job, all I had to do was pay my back dues to get reinstated. That was 15 years ago.
There was no more work for production carpenters. I changed my trade and became an auto body man. That should have been the end of the base story, one of those ancient trades, like a cooper or a typesetter, that have been found obsolete. As long as there are idiots on the road, there’s a need for auto body.
I had broken every record in base installation, and my only regrets were losing the easy money and being phased out of my profession. I also felt that San Diego would never again experience building like in the early ’70s. I was wrong.
Another boom began in 1980, even bigger than the last one. At the time I couldn’t have cared less. I had a small auto body shop that paid okay and kept me pretty busy. But after a divorce and a short gig as a bodyman in Kauai, I found myself pounding the streets of L.A. looking for a job.
Inquiring at a large commercial site for a position as a pick-up framer, I learned the builder needed a superintendent. I said, “I can do that!” and was promptly hired into a position I knew nothing about. At first it was tough bullshitting my way every day, but after a couple of years I had secured a high-paying position in the world of modern construction.
But I pined for the Bohemian life in North County. So I came back down and quickly got a job as a superintendent for a large local developer. Low rung on a team of eight, I was making half the salary I had received in L.A. A telephone call had me high-tailing it back for another crazy year building an apartment in Hollywood, of all God-awful places. When that job wound down I decided, money aside, I would return to San Diego.
North County was no longer the sleepy provincial outback. Flower fields were rapidly yielding to hordes of “New Professionals.” “Custom” became the buzz word, then “buzz word” became the buzz word. Battleship-grey Masonite clapboard with white trim, or Navy Hospital pink stucco with teal trim — take your pick. The first poor pilgrim would buy the standard model and the next would upgrade and so on.
It was 1986. I couldn’t find a job. The pay for superintendents had not increased, but the number of them had. Every homeowner had his own custom super, and every custom super had own customer service representative with a Mexican sidekick. Everybody was working except me. I was ready to start grinding Bondo.
The thought of installing base never entered my mind until I got a call one day. “Hey, man, I scored this base job, and Jimmy told me you know how to lay base.” I cut in, “DO I KNOW HOW TO LAY BASE! Call the guy back and tell him it’s finished. All we have to do is put it in. Twenty-three cents a foot? We’re gonna be rich!”
We weren’t rich but we were rolling up 1000 feet before one o’clock every day, which took care of beer at the beach those summer afternoons.
After the fat life of a superintendent and unemployment, getting the Ol’ Basemachine back into gear was not easy at the age of 36.I kinda felt like Joe Montana for a couple of days. By dividing the labor, my older partner and I did all right. He would clean the corners and spread the materials. I would cut in and tag it, and he would follow with the nail gun.
The price for installation had tripled within the past five years. Why? I didn’t know or care, I just said, “Let’s go for it.” But my partner came to work one day and said, “This work sucks, I’m collecting unemployment,” and I was left standing with nail gun in hand.
Evidently the volume of work had increased so rapidly that the finish contractors could not fill the void in the old-fashioned way, so they would sub-out the base to a base contractor — sort of a sub-sub deal. The base contractor would flood the job with Mexican labor.
This was a real pain in the ass for me, the old-time independent. The finish contractors wouldn’t hire me because they would have to pay my taxes, insurance, nails, etc. The baseboard contractor wouldn’t hire me, period. To him I was just bad news — sort of a sub-sub-sub deal. They didn’t believe me when I told them I could install 2000 feet a day. Shit, I was older than most of them.
I was even considering contractors’ school to the point of enrolling, but I dropped out when I figured it was just the government’s form of a trade union. I thought it was pretty stupid that I had to become a contractor just so I could go out and lay base. I hate V school anyway.
I was really pissed. All that easy money, and I’m standing at the window looking in. I figured if I undercut the going price by 25 percent, I could make money and so could the finish contractor. I convinced one, although he was fearful I couldn’t handle even one of his 27 monster jobs. I told him I had a laborer, I’d pay him myself, that I would supply the air and nails, and I’d guarantee 10,000 feet a week. He said go for it.
While I was hanging around the beach that summer, I had run into a young surfer named Dave. He would surf and I’d drink beer and bullshit him with Amazing Baseboard Stories of skill, glory, and fortune. When the job broke he was Dave was a fast learner and a real hustler — a natural. In no time we were eclipsing the required 10,000 feet and taking on even more monster jobs. One day we pounded out 32 apartments in Linda Vista — Boom!
One day Dave said, “This work sucks — I’m going back to school.” I heard he became an investment banker.
The more I worked, the less I made. From $1000 a week, I was realizing around $300, after expenses. That plus the fact that my bod couldn’t take the constant thrashing sent me packing to look for something better.
Rough times after that. No unemployment. Hopelessly behind on my rent. No beer money. Totally aced out of the picture. All attempts to get work installing were met with the same old story — “Our base is handled. Do you have a contractor’s license?” The doors were slamming in my face as fast as they could install them.
I broke out the Yellow Pages and let my mouth do the talking. I got a sympathetic ear from a local contractor. I started talking base so fast that by the time he said “Come on down,” I had completed three houses.
He was a small-time finish contractor who was in the process of going big — Real Big. He had been using the baseboard contractor but was upset with the high prices and the lack of communication with the field workers. He wanted an in-house baseman. We came to an agreement that was a lot sweeter than my former one.
The next day he sent me out to do a duplex townhome in Leucadia. I showed up in his office after lunch saying, “What’s next, Chief?” He liked that. Then I said, “Can you cut me a check?” He didn’t like that. It was the beginning of a five-year, on-again off-again “association” with the Big Guy. I installed some major footage for him. At one point he owed me $3800, but that’s another part of the base story.
Eventually the Big Guy wanted a large piece of the pie — that virgin slice from Temecula to Corona, converging into the ripened fields of East Oceanside. What the hell, I already based North County.
The monster jobs broke almost immediately. After brushing up on a few knockouts, it was off to Lawrence Welk’s for an 80-unit. Then a two-lift monster in Oceanside, then a three-lift monster in Corona, with hundreds of customs, condos, remodels, and tracts in between.
Hemet, 1987, 19-home tract, 4 days — 4-5-5-5. Spent more time driving than I did working.
Oceanside, 1987, 64 apartment units, shoe-base in the kitchens and baths, 7 hours. (Don’t attempt this.)
The record book was rewritten in 1988. A big year in the history of modern base — 820 big units, 45 miles.
That was also the year I turned 38.
There’s a rare affliction called the 38-Year-Old Burned-Out-Carpenter Disease. You wake up one morning and your body is crippled, your wife has left you, you’re broke, and your dog got run over. All I had to show for it was about 700 miles of base. At this point, the carpenter has several options: cocaine (stupid), contractors’ school (did you say school?), change within the trade (possible), or get out of the trades completely (good idea). I chose door number three and got a job as a regular production finish carpenter, an hourly job.
I said I never lost. This is not exactly true. On my hourly job, I had run into a young baseman named Pat Mahalona. He was fast and he was 20 years old, a real easygoing Samoan on the outside, but a true base Mau-Mau on the inside. He would drive in from Temecula and install an easy 2000-plus, hand-cut, hand-nailed 7-Eleven. That was scary, especially the hand-nailing part.
This particular weekend, 3500 feet had to be done. I could have handled it myself in two long days, but I asked Pat if he would help, partly out of curiosity. The Big Guy was paying a premium 19 cents a foot, while Pat was piecing from the base contractor at 11 cents, so naturally he jumped at the chance. Boy, did he jump! He nailed me to the wall. He did four houses and I did three. Cold.
I was devastated. And I was bound to even the score the following weekend. No cigar, old-timer. Although we got four houses each, he helped me with my fourth, hand-nailing my base. Real cold.
We finished the 22-unit tract neck-in-neck, four to four — a virtual tie, yet in reality he had cut me off at the knees. He hand-nailed while I used a gun. The writing was on the wall for the old baseman. No matter how hot you are (or were), someone will come along and take your place.
By 1991 it was really over. I had one last Glory Job in Palm Desert. Desert Storm, 114 apartments, 14 days. The company I was working for went belly-up, the Big Guy also, and the base-man was the first to go again.
I’m still a carpenter, dividing my time between unemployment and short-term jobs here and there. But I hear Dell Webb is building 6000 units in Palm Desert. What the hell, I already based this place.