Odd Jobs

Doug Wallace Issue: Section:

There was a brief period in the mid 1980s when the socio-economy of Inverness, CA could support a kid on a bike doing odd jobs for the elderly inhabitants of the town. My little jobs usually included stacking wood, weeding and wheel-barrowing loads of mulch. Mom had great contacts at the Inverness Garden Club and she would act as my agent, scoring jobs for me with retirees and old ladies sprinkled throughout First Valley, Second Valley, Sea Haven and beyond.
I worked often on weekends during the school year and almost five days a week during summer. From the age of 12 to 17, my hourly wage ranged from a low of $4 and peaked out around $12. My determination and pursuit of these jobs still impresses and confounds me today. I often ask, “Who was that kid?” My dogged pedaling down Sir Francis Drake Blvd., one hand on the handle bars, the other cradling a bent scythe or other yard-related instrument, drove me onwards to the homes of my various employers.
Upon arriving, old men and women would answer the door, wearing Pendleton shirts and gloves if they intended to pitch in, bath robes if it was all going to be up to me. It turned out that many of my elderly employers of Inverness were often very accomplished in their earlier days. Mr. Rothwell, with the large earlobes and gentle demeanor, was a co-author of the United Nations Charter. Mr. Mitchell was an internationally-renown psychologist. Another was an analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency. Despite their diverse paths, they all had very common denominators at this late stage in their lives: keeping their wild gardens under control and maintaining a decent wood pile to feed the stove during the cold Pacific evenings.
Some practical lessons revealed themselves to me amongst the ferns of foggy Inverness during these days:
1) Old people like young people to show up on time.
2) Newspaper is superior to paper towels when washing windows, something about the graphite.
3) Pulling weeds out by the root calls for persuasion more than force.
4) Balancing an overloaded wheelbarrow down a narrow garden path requires bent knees, confidence and arm strength.
5) Dr. Whitt’s garden is 100% weed.
6) Effective whacking of tall weeds calls for a surprisingly slow stroke of the scythe.
7) And most importantly, certain forms of “weed” in northern Californian gardens are to be nurtured and watered, not whacked.
One day, a retired physician asked me to rake up the leaves of his lower garden. Upon raking, I glanced at the lower room of the house that led onto the garden and noticed that dozens of flies were crawling on the inside of the room’s sliding glass window, frantically crawling and dying to get out. A white curtain prevented me from seeing the contents of the room. Did his murdered wife lie within? My imagination, inspired at the time by ‘The Shining’, went into overdrive and this developing plot helped me get through the mundane raking.
That evening the doctor called me up at home to say in a grumpy way that he did not want me to show up for work anymore at his house. Apparently he was convinced that he had asked me to saw up his kindling in addition to the raking, when in fact he never did. For awhile my conspiratorial mind wondered if instead I had seen something that I shouldn’t have in that lower room, and that’s why he didn’t want me back. Later, though, it was revealed that he was in the early stages of the Alzheimer’s disease that would eventually consume him.
No problem, Mom had many more contacts. Mr. Mitchell asked me to water his sprawling garden for several weeks while he was away with his wife Ruth, who was also my piano teacher. Two times per week late in the afternoon, I would work around 1 ½ hours there. Through the rhododendrons and madrones of his beautiful garden, one could see blue Tomales Bay. Watering the Mitchell’s garden required using several different hoses from different nozzles throughout the property due to the sheer expanse of the garden.
Upon approaching the nozzle of the lower garden one day, I peered into Mr. Mitchell’s lower study and saw a body under a sheet. Déjà vu? A shot gun leaned against the wall. A sudden fear for Ruth gripped me and dampened my brow. I quietly retreated back up the wood chip path (an earlier job of mine that summer) and rode home. My brother came with me the following week and using a rock we scrawled “WHAT DID YOU DO WITH HER, MITCHELL?” on the side of the house.
The Mitchells returned from vacation without incident. Mr. Mitchell, obviously employing his profession, played off the psychology of the trespasser’s inherent fear and guilt by leaning his old shotgun against the wall of the study. He put pillows underneath the bed sheets to make a sort of sleeping trespasser scare crow during their trips out of town. A cloud of strange disappointment temporarily descended upon me and my brother.
The hardest bicycle ride of all my jobs was up the steep road to Sea Haven to Mr. Bronson’s home. He was somewhat of an exception on the Inverness ridge. A blue collar worker all his life, he resided in his gently deteriorating abode with his old Irish setter. No leather-bound books, ornamenta, or artwork decorated his home. His home was bedecked with practical items – a can opener, a roll of paper towels, a can of baked beans, a large well-used candle, a crow bar, etc.
Mr. Bronson didn’t believe in paying for garbage pick-up, and instead had me bury it in small holes around his property. As the weeks passed, a little garbage cemetery emerged under his fruit tree grove. Mr. Bronson maintained enormous quantities of preserved fruit in his massive freezers. As he had no children or many friends, his quantity of fruit struck me as a sad symbol of his loneliness and futility in light of his deteriorating health. The optimistically-packed freezers of fruit were reminiscent of an Egyptian tomb filled with a pharaoh’s freshly-killed wives, dogs, and soldiers who were intended to accompany him into the Netherworld. After he died, his fruit remained humming away in his freezers, but not long afterwards his faithful setter followed his master into the Netherworld like Anubis or Argos of ancient times.
Mr. Wagstaff was my favorite employer. His jobs were always interlaced with Dagwood sandwiches, cold drinks, and a run around with his dogs. One specific job brought me certain notoriety on the Inverness ridge. Mr. Wagstaff’s upper field was overgrown with thriving bushes of poison oak. The oily red and green leaves glowed like stained glass as the afternoon sun shone lower on the ridge. One day, Mr. Wagstaff outlined the day’s instructions to me, handed me two machetes, gave me a manly look, and pointed in the direction of the upper field.
With both machetes spinning and thrashing, and poison oak leaves and detritus floating down upon earth (and upon me it would turn out), images of Sir William Wallace, Bruce Lee and Hernando Cortez the Conqueror drove me onwards up the hill. One bush in particular more closely resembled a tree, its major stem a full four inches in diameter. When hacked, a wicked, black tar poured forth - condensed poison oak oil, as sinister as a biological weapon. I deforested the entire field in an afternoon, and proceeded to spend the next three days in bed with a fever and poison oak so bad my pulse could be seen beating in my swollen rashes.
To this day, a thin, rather elegant one-inch slash decorates the web between my left index finger and thumb, and reminds me of a crisp autumnal day 25 years ago, when the job in question was sawing up fruit tree branches with a rusty bow saw. Half an hour or so into the job, I slipped into my groove, and my mind ascended above me in the same content way it does whenever I find myself performing rhythmic, physical work. This stroke is for last week’s Freddie Solomon 49er touchdown. That stroke is for not telling Meran Bauer that I liked her. This stroke is for winning the best jack o’ lantern design prize at school. And so on.
The pleasant ping-ponging from one thought to another crashed to earth suddenly. My mind slipped out of its pleasant groove at the same time the saw slipped out of its groove in the branch, and quickly sunk into my flesh. Removing one of my socks, I wrapped up my hand as well as possible. Later, I finished the job, went to collect my check, and brushed off the old lady’s “Oh gosh, I could have given you a bandage and hydrogen peroxide” with all the 15-year old “Ah, it’s ok” machisimo I could muster. I then hopped on my bike and – Rambo-style – looped the bow saw around my neck. It seemed in those days that one foot was in reality while the other foot was always in some shoot ‘em up movie.
Navigating back along Sir Francis Drake Blvd, I peddled especially fast around that one scary turn where the Toby’s Hay trucks can’t see kids on bikes, and arrived home just in time to see the 49ers game. Painful and bloody at the time, the slash on my hand now serves as my souvenir of all those odd jobs, which looking back, were very odd indeed.
1. A jackal-headed god associated with mummification and the afterlife in Egyptian mythology.
2. Argos was Odysseus' faithful dog. He waited for his master's return to Ithaca for over twenty years while most presumed Odysseus dead. He was the first (after those to whom Odysseus revealed his identity) to recognize the King returning from the Trojan War, even though Odysseus was disguised as a beggar to discover what had been going on in his palace during his absence. It was said that as soon as Argos recognized his master, he dropped his ears and did his best to wag his tail. Having fulfilled his destiny of faith by laying his eyes upon his master once more, he released a final whimper and died.

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