Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Flashback

The six consecutive days of rain finally came to an end last night, so I took the dogs for an extended walk just after sunrise this morning.

One thing I've noticed about Minnesota is the plethora of building "contractors" and "handymen" that seem to comprise nearly 30% of the states population. As I was crossing a side street, a pickup truck slammed on it's brakes and screeched to a halt. I was a bit taken aback by the attitude of the driver, especially since it was a four-way stop, and the dogs and I were in the crosswalk.

The driver was wearing a RealTree camo baseball cap, (because you never know when the opportunity to hunt will present itself near downtown Minneapolis) and looked like he only had a passing flirtation with a razor every other week or so. As I blistered his ears with a good old-fashioned New York-style cussing out, I looked at his truck. It was your standard pickup, with a diamond-plate tool compartment across the bed under the rear window of the cab. A crudely applied set of decals on the driver's side door announced that it was the property of Frank's Home Improvements.

I had to deal with another Frank once, while I was on summer break from classes many years ago...


I found Frank drinking a beer on the second floor of an unfinished house. The house was mostly plywood and concrete, at least a month from completion. He sat on top of a cooler covered with peeling bumper stickers from local classic rock stations. A tattoo of a naked woman brandishing a sword on his left arm sat above a large Harley Davidson tattoo on his forearm. He greeted me the way a football coach might meet a new recruit.

"So you decided to show up." I thought I was on time but I realized that by Frank's watch I was late by five minutes. "What the fuck is your name?"

"Jonathan," I said.

"So you’re some kind of college boy aren't you. Well, my brother Larry went to college for eight fucking years. He owns this place and he hired me to put this house together so he can make some money from it. Larry’s a real smart guy and he has done well for himself. He needed a foreman so he hired me to turn this piece of shit into something nice. What do you think of that?"

"I think that Larry made a good choice,” I said politely. I thought that anything else might incite him, and I didn't know how to respond to the question anyway. I already had a bad feeling about Frank’s drill instructor management style. I was going to need more than eight dollars an hour to work for him.

"Damn right he did, college boy, ‘cause I know something about the real world. I don't take shit from no one. Now grab that shovel and pickaxe."

We walked around to the side of the house. Frank took the shovel and dug a small hole at the base of the house. He wanted me to expand the hole and continue it around the sides. It had to continue sloping downward to a depth of six feet at the far end of the house. The hole would contain the piping for a drainage system when I completed it. He threw the shovel at me and commanded, "Get to it." I started digging while Frank sipped from a can of Milwaukee's Best and muttered under his breath. After about thirty seconds, he grabbed the shovel from me.

"What's wrong? Does your pussy hurt?” he barked. Frank threw the shovel back at me. Frank got tired of pushing me around a half hour later. He went back to his cooler to pop open another can of Milwaukee's Best. About once an hour he would stick his head out of an upstairs window to yell instructions at me. I didn’t have much respect for Frank, but I found myself struggling angrily to prove myself to him. Digging under the hot July sun was uncomfortable and exhausting, but little did I know that it was about to get a lot worse. The shovel stuck something that felt like a granite boulder. I dug down to find solid concrete.

"Hey what is this?" I yelled to Frank.

"When we poured this foundation, a little concrete ended up around the edges. It’s no big deal what the fuck did you think the pickaxe was for?" responded Frank.

It turns out that there were several feet of concrete around the entire perimeter of the house. When I would hit the concrete with the axe, painful vibrations would shoot into my hands and arms. I fantasized about splitting Frank’s head with that pickaxe each time he shouted down new instructions. I wanted to quit this bullshit, but I was so angry with Frank that I attacked the ground like a maniac. I certainly could not understand it but I was obsessed with proving Frank wrong. I was not just a college kid on my summer vacation, but a proud American unafraid of sweat and hard work, the salt of the earth that kept this country running. I was starring in my own beer commercial. “This Bud’s for you.” I figured Frank and I would throw back a few at the end of the day, with Bruce Springsteen on the jukebox for ambiance. Frank would lean over and grudgingly give me his respect, “You know, kid you did all right today.”

I worked fanatically at the concrete for the next six hours, taking only a five-minute lunch break. My girlfriend at the time, Karen showed up with my car to tell me that she was going to be an hour late. I felt a sense of relief. I was struggling to finish the job by the end of the day. I needed that hour to finish the drainage system. I knew that Frank would be all too happy to point out my failure to complete the job. I pictured his smirking face and worked even harder.

Frank sat on the roof staring at my girlfriend. As Karen left, he walked down and started talking, a beer still in one hand.

"Who was that?"

"My girlfriend."

Frank stared at the ground for a second. He looked over the partially finished drainage ditch. He grabbed the pickaxe out of my hand and slammed it violently into a piece of concrete. He pulled a large piece from the ground.

"That’s how you do it college boy. I’m forty-one years old and I can still outwork you. I don't know what you’re planning to do, but you better learn a little something about hard work. The world is not going to kiss your fagotty ass. I’ve been working since the age of eighteen ‘cept for the last couple of years. You should watch how I work and maybe you can learn something."

I was about to say that I was planning on copying his style as soon as I found a cooler, two cases of Milwaukee’s Best, and quit brushing my teeth. The drainage ditch would be completed in another hour, and unfortunately Frank would be the one writing my check. Necessity dictated that I keep my mouth shut. I wanted my day’s wages. I owed it to myself for all the shit I had been through. Somehow I think that my silence allowed Frank to assume that I was trying to grasp the wisdom of my new mentor. His attitude toward me began to soften. He helped me lift a few of the bigger pieces of concrete. I had to give Frank credit, He was strong for a forty-one year old. He looked like he must have spent some time exercising in order to maintain his larger chest and biceps.

As Frank’s disposition improved, he decided that he was just the mentor that I needed in the construction trade. Though still abrasive, Frank treated me to much of his hard-earned wisdom. He would tell me to move my hands further down the axe or to hit the concrete at a certain angle. I think that Frank was beginning to enjoy my company or at least appreciate that he had a captive audience. He shared numerous insights into his uncanny ability to get the hottest pussy. “I’ll tell you, you should have see this girl, she was straight outta Penthouse, no shit. Let me tell you, I really gave her what she wanted if you know what I mean.” Frank slapped me on the back and sort of winked. He wanted to make sure that the sexual implication of giving her what she wanted was not lost on me.

Half an hour later he was attempting a few small jokes. He leaned back on the shovel and looked at the nearly completed drainage system.

"Well, I have to admit. you did better than I thought you would from looking at you.”

Anything aside from aggressive abuse from Frank could be considered exuberant praise. I was proud of myself even though my hands were cut and blistered and I could hardly clench my fist around the handle of the axe.

"You know, I took some detours along way, but I got real skills. Construction is great, but let me show you something.”

Frank carried a large drawing notebook from inside the partially constructed house. He leafed through the pages. It was filled with drawings of naked woman riding dragons, fighting dragons, or beheading dragons. All of Frank's heroines were either partially clad or completely naked, save a few armbands or a sheath for a sword. I think that any psychology student worth his salt could have completed a few volumes about the underlying themes running rampant through Frank's work. Freud would have made a career on Frank's drawings. I asked Frank a few questions about some of the drawing and he even bothered to smile a little as he answered. I think he enjoyed my interest in his work.

"Yeah, I know that I should be doing this. I got caught up with a few of the wrong people out in Batavia. It cost me my third wife and two years in Auburn.” This explained a lot. If I had spent the last two years lifting weights in the yard outside cell block D instead of reading text books and writing term papers, I might have done better with the concrete in front of me.

Frank seemed a little more human to me after that. I worked through the rest of the evening and gave Frank's brother Larry a tour of my finished drainage system when he arrived. Larry was built like a linebacker but he was soft-spoken and even a little shy. His polite comments and articulate speech contrasted sharply with Frank's abuse and profanity. Frank wanted me to haul off cans of paint and trash to the Cecos landfill as I left. I told him how much they charged and that I wanted another thirty bucks for the job. My request for payment was greeted with a new round of hostility. Frank’s antagonism seemed pathetic and transparent. I felt sorry for Frank but I was not going to waste my time unless I saw some money for it.

I finished up the job and asked for my day’s wages. "I'll give it to you tomorrow. What the fuck, you don't trust me?”

I assured Frank I had nothing but the highest confidence in his honesty while insisting that I needed my money in order to pay a bill immediately. My whole body ached, and I was prepared to split Frank's head with the shovel in my hand if I did not see my money. I wanted my meager wages for all the shit I had been put through. I refused to back down.

"All right. Jesus Christ, OK. What are you, Jewish? Happy Hanukkah ya little prick.”

Frank pulled out a wad of cash. He paid me while subtracting an hour for lunch and various breaks. I spent five minutes at lunch and my breaks were only long enough to catch my breath. I was tired of arguing so I just took my money, happy to be going home. I didn't dislike Frank anymore but I also didn’t want to lose money to him.

I sat down on the front porch of the house and waited for Karen to show up with my car. Frank had other plans for the trash after he found out that I wanted to be paid to haul it away. I watched him climb into the driver’s seat of a small backhoe. I wondered idly to myself why Frank hadn't just used it to dig the trench himself. He dug a hole in the middle of the front yard. He was shoveling half filled cans of paint and left over insulation into the hole as my girlfriend pulled up. Just as I was getting into the car Frank ran over to introduce himself. His whole demeanor had changed as he introduced himself to Karen.

"How are you? My name is Frank. Real nice to meet you."

Frank was falling all over himself with smiles and compliments. He told me to show up for work at 8:00 the next morning. He even asked me if I had a few friends that might be interested in helping out. I told Frank that I would make some calls to line up a few people. A mixer would be delivering a fresh load of wet concrete the next morning.

I knew that I had no intention of showing up for work the next day. I could not close my hand into a fist because of the vibrations from the concrete. I was angry about the four or five dollars that should have been added to my check. I smoked a joint just to get rid of the pain in my upper body so I could sleep.

Frank called at 8:15 the next morning. I picked up the phone and heard what sounded like some kind of Tourette’s syndrome. Frank was so angry he couldn’t manage to complete an entire piece of profanity. I was only able to catch pieces of the conversation.

"Cocksucker…in prison…when I get...cocksucker. I should… ”

Frank ended his tirade with something about knowing where I live. I assured Frank that I would be there in another fifteen minutes, pulled a bottle of Labatt's Blue from the fridge and sat on my front porch enjoying a beautiful Western New York summer morning. I thought of Frank and a mixer full of wet cement. Frank was right. I knew nothing about construction, but I did have a few ideas. Cement is very heavy, and you might need a few people to move it before it sets. The phone rang half an hour later. I told Frank to fuck himself and finished the last of my beer.


I gave the Frank in the pickup truck my best "Get out of the truck and I'll beat you to death with your own tools and then feed you to my dogs" look, and took my sweet time crossing the street.

You're no better than me or anyone else Frank.

You'd better learn to live with that.

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