I woke at first light on Monday morning, eager to follow up on the ad I had read in the local newspaper the day before Large Apartment Complex - Carpenters Needed. There was no number to call - you just show up at the job site. The location of the project was only about five miles from my house. After a 6am breakfast of Lucky Charms and toast, I loaded up my tools in my 1971 Volkswagon van and headed to the job site. Most construction crews start early. I thought my best chance of getting the job was to get there before everyone else and be ready for work.
The job site was much larger than the small single-family home sites I was used to. The project consisted of 17 large multi-unit buildings and an office/clubhouse building located near a future pool and playground. The carpentry phase of the project was just getting started. Five of the buildings were under construction and the rest were freshly poured concrete slabs.
Activity was everywhere; carpenters stretching extension cords and hooking up air compressors; plumbers were loading pipe into the framed buildings; electricians were pulling wire and installing receptical boxes; food trucks were selling homemade breakfast tacos to hungry workers, and a young blond-haired fellow was using a Sky Trak to deliver construction materials to subcontractors around the job site. Another man in his mid-twenties, was leaning against a blue Ford pickup truck talking to a small group of workers. He must be the guy I need to talk to. I parked my van and walked towards him.
"Are you the foreman?" I asked.
"Yes, I am Steve."
"My name is Matt. I am responding to your ad in the Sunday paper about carpenters."
"It is good to meet you, Matt. Do you have a crew?" He Asked.
"No." I said.
"All of our work is subcontract. We have large framing crews that are building the structures, and we have smaller crews that do the cornice work. Are you interested in doing that?"
"Sure." I said. "What does cornice entail?"
"Follow me. I'll show you what you'll have to do."
We made our way across the job site to one of the buildings that was almost completely framed. Steve seemed like a nice fellow. He was about my age, but it was obvious that he had much more carpentry and construction experience than me. I was certain that he knew that too, but nevertheless, he was willing to give me a chance. We arrived at the building where I would be working and he began telling me about the scope of the work.
"Most of these buildings have brick exteriors, but there are parts that have wood siding. You will be responsible for constructing all of the wooden exterior siding and trim. That also includes the roof overhang, soffit and fascia. The patios and balconies have the most wooden elements, and are the easiest, but you will also have to build scaffolding to reach the second floor roof. The job pays 2200 dollars. What do you think?"
I wasn't excited about the height of the roof, but there was lots of work to do at the lower elevations until I figured out how I was going to do the scary stuff.
"It sounds good." I said.
"Great!" He said. "You get weekly draws based on the percentage of work you have completed. I also recommend that you find a helper so that you can keep up with the pace of construction."
"That's a good idea." I said. "I brought my tools with me and I am ready to get started today if that is okay."
"That's perfect! Let me know if you need anything."
That was it. We shook hands and deal was settled. No papers were signed or social security number required.
After Steve left, I lit a cigarette and walked around the building to try and get an idea of how much work I would have to get done every day in order to make a decent wage. It looked like quite a bit of work, especially since I didn't own any pneumatic nail guns to help speed things up. I hope I didn't get in over my head. I walked back to where I had parked my VW van and drove it over to my work site and began unloading my tools. I found some discarded saw horses lying near by and decided they needed new ownership. One of them had a broken leg. That will be my first task as a carpenter subcontractor - I'll fix the busted leg and be ready for business. I spent the rest of the day putting up siding and trim on one of the first-floor patios. That was a lot of work and there are several more patios to do, not counting all of the soffit and fascia work that needed to be done. I worked that day until I ran out of siding and trim material, then packed up my tools as the sun was going down and went home.
This job felt uniquely different than working for Tim. I had become the carpenter/subcontractor that Tim had been on the single-family home projects. I was no longer the greenhorn helper I had been just a few months prior. I was now in charge of my schedule and productivity. When I watched the clock, I was more concerned about how late it was and what I had accomplished that day, rather than just wishing the time away until beer-thirty as a carpenter's helper.
The next morning I felt refreshed and ready for work. Before I left home, I made a sack lunch so that I wouldn't have to leave the job site in the middle of the day for food (or have to eat at the taco trucks). My tools were still loaded into my VW van from the day before, so all I had to do was hit the road. I stopped at a convenience store for smokes and a Dr. Pepper for breakfast and headed to the job site. I parked my van close to my work area and walked to the road to flag down the blonde-haired Sky Trak driver.
"Do you deliver materials for subcontractors?" I asked.
"Yes. What do you need?" He said.
"Just some siding and 1x4 trim."
"You got it!" he said with a smile. "My name is Jack, by the way."
"It is good to meet you, Jack. My name is Matt. I just started working here yesterday."
"Yeah, I saw you. Are you going to do the cornice on that whole building by yourself?"
"I'm going to try." I said.
"Good luck. Let me know anytime you need supplies brought to you. That's my job."
"Thanks! That's good to know. I'll need all of the help I can get!"
Jack rode a Kawasaki 1100 to work every day, rain or shine. He wore cuttoffs and tennis shoes most of the time - no helmet or any other protective gear. One day he showed me scars from a motorcycle accident that had broken both of his legs. In spite of all of that, he was very fit and health conscious and even worked out at a gym in the evenings after a hard day at the construction site.
While Jack was fetching my materials, I rolled out my extension cords and hooked up my saw and jambox. 'We Build this City on Rock and Roll' (by Starship) was playing on the radio. For some reason, lots of people I know don't like that song, but if you were a carpenter working in the boom town of Austin, Texas in the early 80's, it meant something - to me anyway.
By the end of the week, I managed to finish four of the sixteen patios, but none of the soffit and fascia. Steve calculated that I was about 20% done with the whole project, but I think he was being quite generous. I suppose he wanted to see me get paid for my hard work. When you do contract work, no employer is taking taxes out of your check, and on top of that, you also have to pay Self Employment tax. So, when you got your check, you needed to put aside about 30% of it for taxes at the end of the year. That's a pretty good slice out of your paycheck!
Steve was from Wisconsin - 'Cheese Land' he frequently called it. He had been working in the Austin area for a few years, due to lack of work in Wisconsin, but he longed to return to his home state some day. He and Jack both worked for the general contractor. Sometimes is was Steve that was driving the Sky Trak forklift. Steve was the foreman, but they both worked hard to ensure that the subcontractors didn't get held up by lack of material or support from the general contractor. Every day, Steve would make his rounds to check on subcontractors. When he got to me, we often had a lengthy conversation about carpentry and life and just about everything. The conversations always flowed well and we rarely finished talking because we ran out of things to say. I told him about my history of working in a hospital, while he shared his experiences doing factory work in Cheese Land.
From the last traffic light, on the road to the job site, I could see my building about 200 yards away. The building was located on the back corner of the job site and closest to the intersection. Each morning, while stuck at the long light, I could easily see my building and the progress I had made.
The buildings were often surrounded with construction debris. Sometimes you had walk over piles of scrap 2x4s and plywood to get your work done. One day, while working at ground level, I heard some workers trying to get the attention of a carpenter that was trimming off the edges of second-story roof decking with a circular saw - he was standing on the piece that he was cutting off. Too late. The circular saw broke through the critical point, and the plywood, saw, and worker plunged to the ground. Fortunately the worker landed on a pile of scrap moisture barrier that broke his fall. The barrier was highly flamable, but soft, like cork. I think if I had survived a fall from a two-story roof, I might have spent the rest of the day with a six-pack. But he was back at work as if the incident had never happened. I bet he always made sure he was on the right side of the cut-line after that.
The surviving carpenter worked for the largest framing subcontractor on the site - OP Construction, named after the owner's, Mark O'Brian and Jay Platt. They wore OP Polo shirts as though it was their company logo. Mark and Jay had a crew of about 15 carpenters and had framed most of the project's buildings.
After about a month on the job, I had completed the siding and trim on all of the patios and balconies. All I had left to do was the cornice and trim at the second floor roof level - the scary stuff. Before the end of the day on Friday, I had built a 10-foot length of scaffolding in preparation for Monday morning's trim work. I left a little early, after getting my weekly draw, to spend the weekend at the Texas State Fair. I was nominated by my friends to be the driver, since my VW van was the only vehicle with seating capacity for the five of us. When I got home from work, I unloaded my tools, picked up my friends, and headed north to Dallas. It was a nice relaxing weekend - it was the get-away I needed before getting on with the next phase of my project.
On Monday morning, I loaded my tools back into my van and returned to the job site. I caught the last traffic light RED (as I did most days) and gazed over at my building. Something was wrong. The scaffolding I had built was gone. Had someone taken it down for some reason? Something else was wrong. The arrangement of patios and balconies was different than I had remembered. I began to get a sinking feeling in my stomach and my heart thumped hard. What had happened? Am I losing my mind? The traffic light turned green and I proceeded forward, continuously analyzing the buildings at the job site for clues. I pulled into the job site and proceeded slowly towards the location of my building. As I passed by OP's latest framing project, my fears were confirmed. The building I had worked on for the past four weeks had burned to the ground, along with the building next to it.
Steve and Jack were standing near the burned rubble talking to Mark and Jay and a plumber named Mike. I parked my van and walked towards them. Everyone was in shock.
"What happened?!" I asked.
Mike looked over at me and said, "The sonofabitch caught fire sometime after you left last Friday. When I first saw the blaze, it was so small you could have put it out by pissing on it. Before anyone could do anything, the fire was out of control."
Mike managed to take a picture of the burning buildings. The flames towered twice the height of the three-story structure and had gotten so hot that they melted the glazing on the windows of the adjacent unburned buildings and sap from the pine siding had oozed past the painted surfaces.
"I guess this puts me out of work." I said.
"No problem, Matt." Steve said. "We'll keep you busy doing piecework if you are interested."
"That would be great." I replied.
"I have to meet with the general contractor about the work we had done on these buildings so that we can get paid for it." Steve said. "Why don't you take the day off and come back tomorrow. I'll have work for you to do."
"Thanks Steve. I'll see you guys tomorrow."
I had become good friends with the guys at the apartment project and was happy to be able to continue working with them.
I drove headed home wondering if I had somehow caused the fire. No one was blaming me for it, but I couldn't help but to think that maybe I had flicked a cigarette too close to one of the piles of highly flamable moisture barier. I had been careful, but maybe the wind caught a spark. Other workers were in the building that Friday. It could have been any of us that caused the fire. We would never know.