The following tales are from a book I wrote called "Building Stories."  They chronicle my experiences building low income housing in Portland some years ago.

Lowpoint Chili


Temp work is the worst job in the trades.  We only call when there's a job too nasty for ourselves or anybody we know. Digging trench in the freezing rain, jackhammering out hills of cement, insulating dark wet crawlspaces---all that for less than six bucks and hour.  Even the drywall loader, whose job takes the harshest toll on the body has it better--- at least he has work tomorrow.  At least he enjoys the possibility of a raise.

A temp, in the main, is the same guy over and over. Pretty haggard. White. Red-faced and skinny. Between 40 and 55. Most of all of them talk about a glut of skills picked up while working as longshoremen, dam builders, concrete formers, loggers, welders, framers --and yet for one reason or another they're just barely in the game. Most of all of them work characteristically hard and then disappear.

I met Robert in December of 1998, at a job we were doing out on 125th and Ivon Ct. We were just finishing up a six-plex for low income single women with children. The company was a little short-handed right about then and it had been my job to order up the temps when needed.

It was just before 7:00 AM I walked into one of the units looking around for my guy--whose name I didn't know yet.

"You the Foreman?" hollered down from the stick frame of an upper bedroom.

"Yeah." I said, waiting for him to corne down.

As he descended the stairs the first thing that I saw of Robert were his  shoes. Remarkably different. I'd seen everything from duct-taped Nikes to sole flapping steel toes and these were not shoes that just walked in off the margin. These were ordinary shoes. Another step down and I saw his neat jeans and then his belt gave him away. A man's presentation, his uniform, down to his belt or even the quality of his skin always tells a story. This Robert was going to be different; temporary guys don't wear belts that make you envious.

I got to know Robert over the next week. He and a few other guys were digging out rain drains that were all screwed up and bringing water towards the house instead of away from it. In December trenching is a truly punishing assignment. The general rule is that if you dig a hole in Oregon, you'd better be prepared to swim in it.

Robert and I talked while we worked and at lunch. His conversation was fresh, like biting into a new kind of apple. Though Robert told the familiar ramshackle stories about hot-rods, hard rock and the inside of the Maverick lounge-he was a rarity in the trades, making the connection between himself and the weight or lightness of the world.

Now 43, he came from a normal screwed up family in Worester, Massachusetts. He ended up in P-town back when the '80' s depression hit the East Coast real bad. He said he had to jump when he found himself with a suspended license, unemployed and at a loss in love.

I guess he had a friend out here who worked for Ryder Moving. That's what he's been trying to get into. Moving. But Robert couldn't get it going full-time over at Ryder. He said it was a hundred bucks a day solid, but it was hard to get in because people don't just leave jobs like that. So he was still a part-timer. In the winters he got laid off.

By December he had run out of money and was forced back into being a temp. He was sick with the flu when I met him. He worked for me for the better part of a week, and then came back on the next Monday with walking pneumonia.  I didn't need any more help, but he said he had to work. Needed the money. He said he was living in a weekly hotel and that he couldn't go under the bridge again. Not now. Not in December.




Lunch time.

The only real time to get out of the cold,

to talk, rest.

Leftover spaghetti for me. Mo' was having a few candy bars, a Pepsi and an inch-thick candy cane jammed into the top of a lemon. (Once a year he sucks the juice out of the lemon this way and says,

"You can only get the real thick canes at Christmas time!")  

Henry, as usual, was having a peanut butter sandwich and an apple.

Ben was out of money.


Robert, who we had decided to keep on for a few more days, was having a cold can of Chili that he hacked open with a pocketknife.

AlC D/C was coming in raw and familiar on the radio.

"Back in Black." It sent Robert into a reverie. He spoke half to me and half to himself.

"Man that was it! Foxboro stadium. AlC D/C.  I had a girlfriend, that street rod we fixed up... had a job working in a stereo shop and I had money all the time...We went to concerts and partied every damn weekend.

Every damn weekend!

Those were the days man.

Those were the days."

He repeated, "those were the days" with noticeably less energy

and then trailing off, "I never really got back on track since then..."


He said these words as if "then" was last April

or at most, that last bad winter.

But the summer that NC D/C toured "Back in Black"

was in 1982.


The guys ate on, like roadside cows.

Slow and ambivalent.


The reality of Robert's admission didn't strike him until after the words fell out.


Only seconds later did he remember that a train

"off track" for nearly twenty years

is a heap of scrap.


I waited.



His chin dropped some.  

And then to no one,

and with all of that summer's excitement drained out of his voice

he whispered...


"I never really got back on track since then."


Robert's next words made me afraid for him.

He was going too far,

and in the wrong tone for construction workers at lunch.

Guys will bitch and moan and regret all day long, but we know enough to cloak it in sarcasm or humor.

Never be afraid.

Never show the fear that you have.

That's the rule. It raises an uneasiness

that can be broken only

by humiliation,

or worse,



But Robert kept on spilling,

like oil obligated to its lowpoint.


"Now look at me.

'm sick. I'm making six bucks an hour shoveling frozen dirt.

I'm damn near homeless again, and..."

His gaze dropped into his hands.

"I'm eating cold chili out of a can...

with my comb."


That was it.

He'd emptied out.

I froze.


But Mo' was sitting next to him.

Patted one hand on Robert's knee,

rocked back, and exhaled,


"Don't worry about it man,

comb's just like a sideways fork."











Henry worked the swing shift at a salt mine out of Los Cruces, New Mexico, in the 50's.  Driving home one morning, about 3 AM on one of those long barren highways, he rolled through the hot night air, sped over a rise and then ran straight into a herd of free range livestock  ambling across the road. The long front end of his old Mercury would have done a lot to absorb the blow, but this was a low car and it knocked the legs out from under the steer and sent the beast into the windshield. Henry's uncle, who was also on his way home from the mine, was the first one there. He found Henry thrown from his car and lying in the ditch. His mangled arms and legs were twisted all around him and his skull was split open from his cheekbone to the back of his head. His left eye lay dislodged like an egg that's been cracked wrong.

At that time in New Mexico there weren't many places to go if you're a wrecked Mexican with no money. The government claimed that it had a system that took care of all Americans, and perhaps it sincerely thought it did. Even though Henry was born in the United States he had Mexican skin. He was an outsider. Outsiders know where they stand. They know to care for themselves.The uncle wrapped Henry's head in a T-shirt and duct tape, dragged him back to his truck, and took him home. When daylight broke he wasn't dead. His mother and his grandmother and his grandmother's sister tended to him night and day. On the third day he still hadn't died, but to live he needed to improve. The three women packed up a few bags and they loaded Henry's broken body back into the pickup and began driving. They drove along the Iron Creek until they got deep into the Black Range. They drove until they reached a mining shack where they had family.

Then they set into the healing. Night and day a hand was always touching him. In the nearby fields and forest they picked yarrow to dress his wounds. They made poultices out of comfry, arnica and canyon dubleya. They made healing salves out of rock rose, chestnut bud and Indian hornbeam. There was a lot of prayer that he could hear and many songs sung quiet and low by candlelight and in the dark. After two weeks they laid him in the creek until the sharp cold that seized him subsided. Then, right there on the sandy bank they covered him with blankets.

And they did this again and again. After a month they got the healing done.


*     *     *



When it rains in Oregon in January nobody complains much. It's like mentioning to somebody that your blood's flowing. But when the wind shifts out of the west and blows cold air down from the arctic to mingle with our rain---working in that seems somehow cruel. We had one of those cold snaps in January of '97 when we were working on the Ivon Ct. project. When you're moving it's not that bad, but the breaks can get nasty.

At lunch the guys would go get burgers and leave me and Henry to look for shelter in the half-built houses. Henry was the tallest, biggest Mexican man I'd ever seen. He had a big gray beard, a huge round face and practical metal glasses. He was supposed to be retired from hard labor. He'd already put in over forty years. But his wife had had a stroke and her medical bills forced Henry to look for work again. Now he was making twelve dollars an hour working under me for "Longshot Construction." That may sound like a complaint. But it's not one that came from Henry. I've never heard him complain. I have to do that for him. Henry and I had a routine that we followed at lunch. We'd find a dry dining room or bedroom, and then set up one of those tripods that had two 500-watt halogen lights that burned before us like hot campfires. With stream rising off of our wool sweaters we'd eat lunch like that. Henry with his peanut butter sandwich and apple and me with leftover something. Usually it was the same every day. Us eating and talking. Sometimes I'd look over at Henry sitting next to me. All lit up. Old. Funny. Simple. Living. Sometimes I'd look at that eye. It was unlike anything else about him. Fixed forward and paralyzed. It carried the gaze of a dead animal.


*     *     *


It took me awhile to finally learn the trick of having lunch with Henry. He's a great storyteller, but he lacks the need to tell a good story. He'd just as well talk for an hour about the difference between the 32-oz. waffle head framing hammer and the 26 oz. California framer. While we sat there defrosting under those lights I learned to direct his stories. I'd throw out topics on all kinds of things. I'd ask him what he'd put on his tombstone as his last words. I'd ask him what he thought of the illegal immigrants. I remember one time I asked him what was the hardest job he'd ever had. He was another one of these guys who's had every job in the world and I'd heard a lot of crazy stories. About how he was logging on Mt. St. Helens two days before it blew. About when he worked at a cannery and some guy got locked in the pressure cooker and they only figured it out when his jeans dyed the steam blue. About when he was working as a chipper on a crabbing ship up along the Arctic. It was his job to chip the ice off the rigging faster than it grew so the ship wouldn't capsize.

After I asked the question, "What's the hardest job you've ever had? Henry didn't say anything. He just looked straight ahead for a while. I guessed he remembered something that had long since blown over. I was quiet too. But in that time the guys came jostling and fussing into the room. Back from lunch still holding half-filled paper cups of Pepsi. Henry didn't pay them any mind.  And he finally spoke. Quiet and without visible emotion.

 "When I was younger I worked at my uncle's crematorium.

That was the hardest job I ever had.

I tried to help people to see better

when they couldn't see at all.

Because of the hurting.

I just tried to be their friend.

To be someone.

But that's kind of hard.

It's hard to know them

because you have to know all that hurting."


Kirk had heard Henry's soliloquy, but not the tone.


"So how does it go in the crematorium, Henry? The normal people fit in a little

soup can and you have to get out the five gallon buckets for the fat ones?"


Henry had heard Kirk's question, but not the sarcasm. He just sat there glowing

like an angel in the white light and he answered straight.


"No. Once you burn the flesh away, they're all about the same."