Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Four-Thousand Dollar Roof

“We’ll just give it a try,” Unc said, with an eager look on his face. “We’ll see. We’ll see.”

In the summer of 1987, I was working my very first job. A friend had gotten me a position as an office clerk at a small, family-owned welding and machine shop in Chicago. It wasn’t the most interesting job for a 16-year old kid, but the work was steady, the office was air-conditioned and the pay was. . .okay.

It was there that I encountered one of the few genuine characters I’ve ever known. The woman who owned the business (its founder, her father, had died several years before) had a great-uncle, then in his early 70’s, who’d spend days puttering around the shop. Everyone called him “Unc”; I don’t remember anyone ever calling him by any other name. I do know that he had been retired for several years. The reason Unc came in, I think, was to keep himself from going stir-crazy. But in the process of saving his own sanity, Unc destroyed everyone else’s.

Unc would’ve stood out in any crowd. He looked like a pair of barrels, one stacked atop the other---a large one for his round burly frame, and a smaller one for his head, which was crowned by a shock of silver-white hair. To the untrained eye, Unc appeared to be a man of modest means. He drove a rusty blue 1969 AMC Rambler, with a long-deceased muffler that warned you of his approach three blocks early. His wardrobe consisted of two pairs of shabby gray workpants and two shirts, both of them plaid. I never once saw him buy his lunch; his mid-day meal, always a tuna fish sandwich on toast, was hauled from home in a plastic grocery sack. But according to the owner, this was a ruse. Unc, she claimed, had “enough money to choke a plow horse”. He was, she said, very careful with money. His money, that is.

Unc was always trying to help out. He was a hard worker, but his good intentions often worked against him. He would be sent out on short deliveries and pick-ups, and wouldn’t return for hours. He would be dispatched with a company credit card and a purchasing list for tools and material. Half a day later he’d return, with a hundred bucks’ worth of stuff he thought the shop needed. These vital supplies would then be pitched into the company supply closet, where they would rot, forgotten and unused. That famous road to hell, paved with good intentions, could have been renamed in honor of Unc.

The, there were his famous “repair jobs”. Unc once fixed a faulty electric time-buzzer. He fixed it so well, it never worked again. Then, there was the time he turned off a grinding machine one of the welders had left running. It took three days to get the machine started again. Unc tried to remove some rust from a sheet-metal plate using what he called a “weak acid solution”. I recall seeing that same plate days later, riddled with holes like a rifle-range target, lying in a trash-heap in the alley behind the shop. Yes, Unc was the Resident Pain in the Ass. Every workplace has at least one. But nobody dared mention it, because he was the boss’ flesh and blood.

Unc’s greatest repair job was the roof of the small, run-down garage located next-door to the shop. It was at least fifty years old and a paradise for rats and bugs. The garage’s only saving grace was that it was made out of cobblestone bricks. Back in the olden days, before they figured out quality was bad for business, they paved streets with those bricks. Cobblestone bricks, apparently, were considered valuable, even collectible in some circles. For this reason, nobody ever had the garage ripped down. Or maybe, they just didn’t care. The years can play tricks with your mind.

By the early summer, Unc had run out of odd jobs. He noticed that the garage roof was becoming ragged and shoddy. He told the boss about it and she phoned a roofing contractor. To fix the roof, it would cost an estimated $1,800.

“WHAAAATTT?!” said Unc, dollar-signs dancing in his eyes. “That’s highway robbery! Tell that shylock to go jump. I’ll fix it myself and keep us out of the county poor house.” Anything, according to Unc, that cost more than a dollar would surely bankrupt the business and send us all to debtors’ prison.

In mid-June, Unc started work on the roof. He went to Handy Andy’s and bought enough stuff to re-shingle ten roofs, plus an outhouse: shingles, tar paper, plywood, roofing nails and assorted tools. Like a man who’d found the work he was born to do, he gleefully stripped away the old shingles. “I’ll have this job knocked by the 4th of July!” he said. Everyone kept quiet, because the task would, if nothing, else, keep Unc occupied.

Every day, Unc climbed up on the roof and toiled from morning to night. The 4th of July came and went. He wasn’t finished yet. Two more weeks passed. Unc was still working.

In late July, temperatures shot up into the middle nineties and stayed there deep into August. Unc complained of fatigue and dizzy spells. He took some time off and went to his doctor. The diagnosis was heat exhaustion.

By this time, everyone hoped that Unc would, well, say “uncle” and call in a pro to finish the job. Not only was he endangering his own health, but the financial health of the business was in jeopardy as well. Fifty bucks here, seventy-five bucks there---it was really beginning to add up.

But Unc was cursed with a work ethic. Soon, he was back at it. Only now, he had two of the welders up on the roof helping him. I noticed a change in the boss’ behavior. When I first met her, she was a one-pack a day smoker. By August, she was up to two packs. Perhaps Unc’s pulling paid workers off jobs from paying customers to putter on the roof did it? Either way, bills started to appear out of nowhere.

One bright and steamy Friday, a tired and haggard-looking Unc trudged into the office. “Give me the number of that roofing contractor,” he said. I half-expected the heavens to open and angels to float down, singing. The roofing contractor was called and he promised to have the roof fixed by Monday.

Monday came. The boss and the entire staff gathered outside to see the finished roof. One half of it was beautifully, seamlessly shingled. The other half was still torn up. Wordlessly, the boss turned to Unc.

“Oh, I’m going to finish that half,” he said. “I saved us some money. It only cost $750.”

The days grew shorter and cooler. I remember sitting in the office one lunchtime, eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwich and leafing through “Back to School” ads in the paper. Unc strode in like Alexander the Great after he conquered Persia.

“I. . .” he announced with a flourish, “. . .am finished!”

After work, Unc took us out to see the completed roof. One half said “flawless”. The other half said “Moe, Larry and Curly were here. Blindfolded.” Unc had painted the edges of the roof gray, splattering most of the paint everywhere except where he intended it to go. The roof’s air-vents had been replaced by holes drilled directly into the wood. Shingles on his side were already curling up at the edges. “It looks great, doesn’t it?” Unc beamed.

“Sure,” I said, weakly.

“Just think, if you would’ve paid a professional to do it, it would’ve cost you at least two grand, possibly more,” said Unc. “With me, it---"

“Cost us $4,000,” said the boss. “All of your bills and little expenses totaled up to nearly four grand.”

“That’s because I used only the best materials,” countered Unc. “You’ll thank me in the long run.”

A few days later, it rained. Several shingles on Unc’s side fell off.

After that summer, I returned to the shop just once, to visit. I asked my former boss about Unc. He had, she said, gone to live with her cousin in Florida. The cousin was a mechanic who owned his own business. The mechanic’s business closed six months after Unc arrived.


Blogger Le chameau insatiable said...

Funny but sad as well...
My landlord is the same: an old man who needs to keep busy constantly. He washes his car every other day even though he hardly drives it, and does all sorts of odd jobs that are either not needed or that don't last long...

10:49 AM  
Blogger Mona said...

Oh my god, what an unbelievable story.

5:08 PM  
Blogger John Left said...

Thank you both for your comments.

2:53 PM  

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