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wood on man on wood

Just thought I’d share this:

It’s a piece of lumber that someone drew a person on.  A person wearing pants, apparently, with a little something hanging out.

drunk at the lodge

This photo slipped out of a folder I was carrying, and I just had to post it here.

binder setup teaser

It was one of those cookie-cutter condo complexes in strip-mall-land near Anytown where no one there plans on staying forever. No one finishes a walkthrough or even a driveby with the thought, “This looks like a place where I could settle down and grow old.” The kind of place where people move on after a year or two having never learned the names of their neighbors. It looked like the man had just moved in.

His kids wandered around as if they weren’t familiar with their surroundings. As his three young children hovered nervously near the door of the garage, the client explained to me that most of the pile he wanted us to remove was empty space – “boxes and stuff from moving” he said. As Flores and I worked, the three kids seemed more bewildered by our activities than kids usually are. Almost as if they were scared of what we might be taking away among the pile of cardboard and styrofoam in the garage. At one point the man’s daughter came up and grabbed his leg and said, “Daddy, what are they doing?” “They’re taking all this garbage away,” he answered.

When we got back in the truck and started to drive off, Flores surprised me with something that had fallen out of a box he picked up. The two binders confirmed what we’d sensed about the man’s new living situation. They were from one of those couples therapy group seminars designed to save failing marriages, full of embarrassingly gendered lists of relationship pitfalls and references to things like “Dialogue Wheels”. One binder was his, and the other was hers. We could tell immediately from the handwriting, since some of the exercise worksheets had been filled out. As Flores read aloud on our way home at the end of the day, I was utterly amazed. I hope you will be too, when his full writeup is posted here soon.

NOTE: I wrote this two years ago. Flores moved away and lost these binders in the move, apparently. He promised to find them and send them to me, and if he ever does, I’ll post it here.

jigga gets leid

So we were clearing out the house of a man who had collected vinyl.  Instead of using shelves, the guy had stacked records on top of each other in six-foot-high piles along every wall in just about every room. There must have been a few thousand records.  The collection gravitated heavily towards folk, bluegrass, and, somewhat unusually, Hawaiian.  Think of every novelty “Hawaiian” record you’ve ever seen in the dollar bin at the record store – this guy had them all.  I noticed in some of the pictures on the walls a woman – probably his wife – who looked Hawaiian. All of the Hawaiian records were well-worn, like they’d been played many times.  All except for one, which was in pristine condition:


The guy must have seen “Hawaiian” in the title, bought it on a whim, listened to it once, realized it was rap, thrown it into a pile and never looked at it again.  Here’s a detail of the record’s back cover:


Had he looked at it again, he might have noticed that the figure crouching in back there is none other than a young (about 19 years old) Shawn Carter, aka Jay-Z.  The guy in front is Jay-Z’s “mentor” Jaz.  Sound confusing?  It is.  Sound like the perfect setup for a saucy hip-hop feud?  Yes, it’s that too.

I haven’t been able to confirm this, but someone told me that this record is actually Jay-Z’s first time ever on wax. Wikipedia has the rest, much of which is merely “reported” or “claimed” or “known” or simply “stated” to be true: Jaz (also known as Big Jaz and Jaz-O) discovered young Shawn Carter, brought him in as a sidekick, let him do background stuff and then some verses on some of his songs, and then faded into obscurity.  His young protege went on to become what even some people besides Jay-Z himself call the “greatest MC alive”.

And somewhere in there, the relationship soured, to the point that each rapper has made a point to “diss” the other on many of their recordings.  Apparently it has sweetened enough that the two have joined each other on a few recordings, but as of November 18th, 2008, it’s back to sour.  The relationship has even helped fuel another more well-known hip-hop fued by being an important subject in Nas’s diss track “Ether“.

Yet look how comfortable they are with each other as Jay-Z mysteriously parachutes into the background of the set in the video for “Hawaiian Sophie”, which has elicited many vituperative comments, one of my favorites being: “A black man should never wear a Hawaiin shirt.  Period.”


And I couldn’t resist sharing another one with you, which harkens back to those days in the late 80s-early 90s when dignified Afrocentrism was the cool thing to do in hip-hop, when everyone was “Nubian” and Salt-N-Pepa could still utter “No we ain’t tryin to be sexy!” and be taken somewhat seriously.


But I digress.  The point here is, well, the point is…sometimes it’s nice to be distracted from the point.  Normal experience and human traffic patterns have a way of censoring what kinds of objects (not to mention people, perspectives, ideas, etc.) we come into contact with. Haulers have constant access to a steady stream – steady waste stream – of objects from all eras of history and strata of society.  And if you have any curiosity, some of these objects require explanation.  Which is dangerous if you have a point to make, or more ‘important’ work to do, because these objects can suck you in and make you spend an evening researching obscure hip-hop feuds.  I could be writing something more useful or relevant right now.  But sometimes some hip-hop needle in a haystack of folk and bluegrass just begs to be examined, and I get to remind myself that the world is full of little digressions, objects with rich backstories just waiting to be discovered.

the sweetest send-off

[This post is an update to demolishing a dying woman’s piano. If you haven’t already read that, I suggest you follow the link and do so first.]

When I parked the truck at the end of the day we demolished the dying woman’s piano, I just couldn’t get the cute little lady out of my head. How sad she was to see her piano go to waste. So I took another look in the back of the truck to see if maybe there were some salvageable pieces. There were. So I carried them home, got out some screws and wood glue, and fashioned this little table:

dying woman's piano table

A hectic schedule made me wait almost exactly two weeks, so when I finally drove back to the lady’s apartment, with the table I made from her piano in the back of my pickup, I wasn’t sure if she’d still be there. The first thing I noticed was that her balcony was still full of potted plants. A good sign. But her name was no longer on the mail slot. I buzzed up, hoping she was still alive.

After a long minute I saw a figure peeping out at me from the balcony. It was her. I called up, awkwardly, “Remember, I hauled away your piano a couple weeks ago…Well I found a way to recycle some of it….” She said of course she remembered, that she’d be down in a minute.

As soon as she saw the table, before I could lift it down, she scrambled up into the bed of my truck to inspect the workmanship and generally fondle it. I remember thinking how limber she seemed, for someone who’s supposed to be so near death.

It turned out, I soon discovered, that she actually had up to a few months to live, and that she had only recently been told this by the doctors when we removed the piano. And by then, when I returned with the table, she had told her family. “Wait till I tell my family about this,” she said. She kept looking at me and saying “Oh…” the way a grandparent does right before they grab a baby’s cheek. Until finally she broke down and started crying. We had one more overlong hug. I didn’t know what to say, but she pretty much summed it up:

“This is the sweetest send-off,” she said.

I wasn’t really trying to do something “sweet” per se. I didn’t know what I was doing there, but I felt compelled to do it. Maybe I felt guilty about wasting the thing. Or demolishing it right on the other side of her apartment door. I know it’s sick, but maybe part of me wanted proof, two weeks later, that she was actually dying. I don’t know.

When she was done thanking me, I said goodbye pretty quickly and pulled away in my truck. It was awkward for both of us. I felt like I already overstepped some boundary, and I didn’t want to linger.

The other day we did a job in a woman’s basement. She was clearing it out in order to make room for the stuff from the rest of the house, which she planned to rent. Only thing is, the piles of stuff in the rest of the house were pretty much indistinguishable from the piles in the basement. All junk, broken and dusty. And even in the basement, she had some things tagged with stickers to go, right next to identically worthless things she wanted to stay.

This kind of thing happens all the time. A person’s selectivity seems arbitrary to us, since we cannot know what meanings they give to certain objects. Sometimes we come back later and end up taking everything in stages that are more comfortable for the person to deal with. But usually we just come and go wondering why the hell we took some things and not others.

Anyway, the whole time we were doing this job, a painted portrait was staring at us down in the cobwebby basement:


I can’t say who this person was, but I know for certain that the painting is a genuine attempt by an artist to paint a portrait of an actual person. Not a joke, or a playful rendering. An actual portrait. (I know because I saw other representations of this girl as an adult.)

We were a little bit afraid to ask too forcibly about which things stayed and went. The girl’s eyes followed us around the room to make sure we didn’t take anything we weren’t supposed to. And luckily for the sanity of guests in my living room, the painting itself stayed.

The other day Django and I did a job where the landlord had thrown all of a previous tenant’s possessions into the backyard. When we arrived, the new tenant came out to greet us and asked if we were there to get rid of the trash in the back. We were.

Only it wasn’t all trash. (Though you wouldn’t know it from the way it was all heaped in a pile.) There in a pile of old frames was a typewritten letter from the Air Force Headquarters of the U.S. Army, dated September 22, 1945. The main body of the letter read thusly:

In accordance with Par. 1d, letter Hq USAF CBI, file 200.6 dated 3 June 1944, subject: “War Department Awards Policy”, the following is the citation for the Bronze Star Medal awarded to 1st Lt., Roger McGregor, Signal Corp by Par. 2, General Order 355, this headquarters, dated 13 September 1945:

“For meritorious service from 1 April 1944 to 1 February 1945. This officer established and maintained a series of ground observation posts in forward areas, which were instrumental in preventing enemy aircraft from penetrating allied territory without being detected and reported to intercepting forces. To establish some of these advance air warning stations he frequently pushed deep into uncharted, enemy-held territory, and often narrowly escaped contact with Japanese patrols. His daring, stamina, and superior qualities of leadership enabled this officer to guide and direct his men in their hazardous undertakings. His accomplishments were substantial contributions to the success achieved by his organization.”

In the frame next to the letter was the actual bronze star, hanging by its little ribbon.

Then, in another frame, a handwritten letter:

Dear Mr. & Mrs. McGregor,

This is a belated reply to your reply to your letter concerning your son James. I would have liked to have writted sooner but being hospitalized, I found it difficult to do so.

I know that any poor words of mind can never lighten the burden of your sorrow. Only our Blessed Lord can do that. But in your grief you can be so very proud of James – pround to have been privileged to be the father and mother of one so close to God and his Blessed Mother.

God gave him to you knowing well that in your loving care he would grow and flower into that great Christian gentleman that he was. Now your work is over and God has reclaimed the great gift he gave you. If there is anything that will ease the ache in your hearts it will be the knowledge that God must love you both so very much to have entrusted such a one to you. May God bless you both.

I knew James for more than two years, lived in the same tent with him, slept and ate with him. As a priest I could never have asked for a better companion. He is loved not only be my but also by his men. They will never forget him.

I jumped from James’ plane often. Always immediately after him. It was a rare privilege. Many a laugh we had whether it was he who pulled me out or I who pushed him out. Now it is all over. But my fondest recollection of James is he and his battalion commander, Major Kellem, serving the last Mass we had for taking off for France. (James often served my Mass). The men often talked of it afterwards. The sight of them serving the mass, receiving Holy Communion, the last Blessing, was a sight that filled the men with a calmness and a fearlessness that comes from knowing we are in the presence of God.

James saved my life that night. I was injured on the Jump. He dragged me to safety. A few hours later he was dead. I shall always remember hi at Mass. It is the best way I know how to express my gratitude. I did not bury him, but two days later I blessed his grave.

I know you both are heartbroked at your loss. You always will be. If there is one who can and will ease the ache in your heart, it is the Mother of Sorrows. She also lost her son. May she comfort you in your grief. I shall remember you and yours in my Masses.

Sincerely in Christ,
Chaplain Mark O’Connor

I held on to these two letters for a few days, intending to post them here. Then, on my day off, I got an unexpected call from Bossman telling me he’s got someone on the phone claiming to have lost some valuable family heirlooms in a cleanout his landlord did. At first I didn’t think anything of it, but then Bossman said, passing along the pleas of the person in front of him at the office, “Something about a bronze star?” Apparently this guy was the nephew of the war hero from the letters. I knew that I had to return them.

And when I did, I recieved a third letter:

Thanks for your kindness and consideration! I am (was) the family historian. The barn was loaded with historical family things. My family is devastated by our loss. Your thoughtfulness will be well received by our family.
John McGregor

If I ever feel sketchy about looking through people’s discards and posting about their treasures here, I can think about this and remind myself that a little curiosity mixed with obsessive hoarding/archiving can be a good thing.

Civil War correspondence

One of my favorite finds was 13 pages of letters written by a Union soldier during the Civil War. I spent a few days squinting at the thin, brown paper to transcribe them all.

Some of the papers are actual letters addressed to the soldier’s wife or his “companion”; others seem to be personal records with dates & places and short notes of what happened when & where. Some sheets of paper have both letter and record combined. (I can imagine paper being somewhat scarce then.)

Below are some excerpts of my transcriptions. I’ve added punctuation and corrected some misspellings and grammatical errors to aid in understanding the content of the text. Other “errors” I’ve left intact to preserve some of the idiosyncratic charm of the writing. I put “errors” in quotes because you have to remember that spelling was not nearly so standard back then as it is now. The handwriting of the originals is hard to read at parts. Words or phrases that I’m not sure about are enclosed in brackets or followed by a question mark. I’ve tried my best to put all the following passages in chronological order, from Jan 24 1862 to July 2 1864, after which time we can only assume this soldier finished his service to his country – or died in it.

There are so many little treasures in this text, but I’ve tried to keep the commentary to a minimum, so you can enjoy it the way I have.

“Jan 24-30 of 1862, Boling Green”:

I have not forgotten you nor thy children, this is from your husband in the Company D 39th Reg Ind of the US Army of the Ohio commanded by Genl Rosecrans[?]. Our old Genl Willick is back and commanding our Brigade

Later on the page he says he “got my likeness taken” and “sent my likeness to my wife”.

Then, “in camp 6 Mil SE of Nash Tenn, Nov the 21st 1862”

…in the evening of the 23 a contraband woman of 18 years came and told us how that her master had given information to a Rebel soldier about our lines and number. She came with us to camp and of course is free, and her master a prisoner.

“Contraband woman” was a common term for a woman slave who fled North across battle lines during the Civil War. You can hear the naivety of the young soldier in his brief “of course she is free”. Of course it was never that simple. (more…)

mysterious little purse

The other day I found, in a box of old US and foreign coins and personal memorabilia, this little fur clasp purse:


Its only contents were a pair of tweezers, a medal keyring-type clasp with some sort of seal stamped on what appears to be gold, and an old crumbling note that looks like it had been folded in someone’s pocket for years. The note reads, in faded pencil:

Staying alone for the first time 1944.

This is a mystery I want to solve.  But I need your help.  Can anyone identify the seal?  It has a front and a back:
P5180012    P5180011

Or can anyone hazard a guess about this mysterious little purse?

This is a story about an object I found at a job a few years ago. The object ended up being discovered by police officers in my car – which wouldn’t be noteworthy if it wasn’t for the nature of the object, which you’ll discover if you exercise a little patience and keep reading. It’ll be more fun that way.

I apologize for making you read all the buildup before the climax of this story. I know I’m not a good storyteller. I try hard to get every little detail right, where a good storyteller would stick to the important stuff and even invent details that make the story better. But because I felt I was somewhat wronged by the police officers during this incident, I scribbled furiously as soon as I got home so I could remember exactly how it happened. And so you know that every bit of what you’re reading now is the truth.

So I’m driving down this stretch of local highway that goes abruptly from 50mph to 35mph speed limit. To get down to 35mph as soon as the new limit is posted, most vehicles would have to brake a little bit. None ever do. So it’s 8 o’clock at night, no other cars nearby, and I’m at about 40mph coasting down from 50 to 35, when the light in front of me changes to yellow.

I start to brake, but it’s February and I’ve become accustomed to winter driving conditions, so instead of slamming on the breaks and possibly fishtailing or stopping a little bit past the line, I decide to coast through the light. I see it cycle to red a split second before it goes out of view past my windshield. The next thing I notice is the flashing lights of a police car behind me.

When the officer approaches my window, I immediately hand him all the required paperwork. Politely addressing him as ‘Sir’, I tell him that I tried to stop. He accuses me of accelerating through the light, which is simply untrue. I’m a little puzzled. Either the officer is lying, or he hadn’t seen the incident very well, in which case he should not be making that kind of accusation. I reply politely something to the effect that if he’d been looking he would clearly have seen my brake lights.

He then accuses me of speeding, which is also untrue. I deny this also. Then he asks me if I’ve had any drugs. I say “No sir”. He asks again, slowly. Again I say no. He then asks if I have anything I shouldn’t have in my car. I say firmly, “No sir.” He asks again. Perplexed, I quickly scan the empty seats of my car, look back at the officer, and say, “No, sir. I don’t have anything I shouldn’t have in my car.” He asks, “Are you sure?” I say, “Yes, sir, I’m sure.”

Then comes the kicker. The officer shines his flashlight in my face and says, “You’re saying one thing, but your eyes are telling me another.” Thinking that it must have been my quick scan of the empty car seats that seemed suspicious, I explain to him, “Sir, I’m nervous.” (After all, there I am giving a man with a gun an answer he clearly does not want to hear.)

He then asks, “Would you mind if I searched your vehicle?” I think about it for a second and reply, calmly, “In fact I would mind. I would rather you not search my vehicle.” I realize now that this is not the textbook phrase to use to refuse a search from a police officer, but at the time it seemed a reasonable enough way of asserting what I assumed to be my rights. But the officer responds by immediately asking me to step out of my vehicle. I do so with no argument or hesitation.

He pats me down, makes me lift up my jacket and shirt, and asks me several more times if I’ve been using or possess drugs. I reiterate my denial. He seems to be annoyed that I’m giving him a hard time, instead of the other way around. In a tone that conveys that annoyance, he asks if I’m going to make him have to call for the drug-sniffing dogs. (His choice of words here, and in general the subtleties of police language, is important: if *I*am going to make him have to call….) When I question whether or not he’s allowed to do that, to make me wait there, he says in a commanding tone “You WILL wait here!” and heads back to his car with my paperwork.

At this point it seems I have no choice but to submit to whatever it is the police have in mind for me, despite any protest I offer.

As he goes back to his car, another, younger officer walks up to me. This is the first time I realize that another car has pulled up behind the first officer’s car. The younger officer studies my appearance and says, in a condescending way, “Didn’t get much sleep last night, did you?” Baffled, I ask him what he means. “Your eyes,” he answers. Only then do I realize that he might be referring to what remained of a black eye I’d recieved from a soccer game the week before. I explain this to the officer and try to show him that my right eye doesn’t have the same yellowish bag underneath, but he seems to care little about my explanation as he acknowledges it with a patronizing “whatever-you-say” kind of nod.

(I should mention that at this point I’ve failed to make the connection between my bruised eye and the first officer’s statement, “You’re saying one thing, but your eyes are telling me another.”)

So Cop #2 is standing there, apparently to make sure that I keep standing there while the Cop #1 calls for dogs. I appeal to the younger officer, who seems about my age, to call off what he will soon find out is a big waste of everyone’s time. When I plead with him to tell the first officer that I have a black eye if that was the only thing that was keeping me there, he suggests that I smell like marijuana. Again, I’m baffled. The first officer hadn’t mentioned smelling anything. I invite Cop #2 to come and smell me as close as he wants, since I don’t even smoke cigarettes. He declines my offer, indicating that his nose isn’t functioning properly and gesturing in the first officer’s direction to suggest that it was the first officer’s suspicions I had aroused, not his. I appeal to him, saying that it’s terribly cold outside and we both have better things to do, etc. He appears to level with me, agreeing that it was cold outside and saying that he didn’t want to be there either. Yet he remains there.

Finally, frustrated at my apparent powerlessness over what I perceive to be the imminent unlawful search of my vehicle, I give the first bit of disrespect I have until now been only getting and say: “Spare me the good-cop/bad-cop bullshit.” Now I’m not trying to be all bad-ass because I swore at a cop. I realize that that was an extremely stupid thing to say, and I’m actually embarrassed about it, but if you’d have been there and seen the way they were treating me, you might understand. Anyway, after I say it, for the first time the officer becomes interested in what I have to say and assumes a more animated posture to bellow, “Don’t you get lippy with me!”

I see that I have aroused something in him and quickly apologize for my “lippiness” and explain that I’m frustrated about my rights and so on. He makes it clear to me that my options are to have the car searched by hand now, or to wait for the dogs to come later. Since I have an appointment to make, I give up and tell him to tell the first officer that I consent to being searched now.

By this time the first officer should have pulled up my information to find a clean driving record and no criminal history. Having been employed to drive trucks throughout greater Anytown for over three years, I can say without any exaggeration that I have logged more drive-time than anyone I know my age. And in my many years of driving experience, I’ve had only one previous infraction, a minor speeding ticket I got over four years ago.

Still, while the younger officer searches my car, the first officer comes back and asks me several more times if I smoke marijuana. He says, as a kind of baiting tactic I assume, that he doesn’t care if I have a small amount in my possession for personal use. I keep assuring him that I have none and that the other officer would find nothing in my car, when all of a sudden I realized that there was something to be found in my car. Nothing illegal, but something, well, interesting, considering the situation.

Here’s where my hauling job comes in. A few months before this, me and my old partner Legendary Bobby Gene are doing our last job of the day, a cleanout of a two-car garage filled with renovation debris. All scrap wood in a giant messy pile. It takes us a long time to get to the bottom of the pile, where we discover, inexplicably, sitting there on the concrete floor…a dildo! Nicely sized and lifelike, with veins running along its rubbery length. [Click here to see a picture of it.]

So naturally I pick the thing up with my workgloves and start taunting Legendary Bobby Gene with it. He pretends to be disgusted but becomes more and more playful. This little game continues as we finish the job and return our truck to its assigned parking spot, where my car is waiting to take us back to the office to turn in the day’s paperwork. So eventually the dildo ends up in my car, underneath the passenger seat where LBG had left it, completely forgotten until that moment in this story when, faced with the reality of a cop searching my car, I’m forced to think of what he might find mingled with the coins and dustbunnies underneath my seat.

So I tell the cop a lighter version of that little story, leaving out the part about us playing around with the dildo of course. I tell him I’m a hauler and we find some interesting things, and sometimes we keep those intersting things, and, well, the other day…. The cop gives me a stonefaced look and says, “You’re sure you haven’t been smoking anything?” I assure him I haven’t, and we talk there for about another minute until the younger cop jumps out of my car and shouts, “He’s got a dildo in there!” Those words, his exact words, so informational on paper, aren’t quite as memorable as the way he said them and the expression on his face at that moment. But somehow they have the effect of immediately defusing the situation. The tension leaves the air, and I feel relieved as the cop who’s been questioning me walks the cop who’s been doing the searching back to their cars.

While I wait for them to come back, all I can think about is that moment when the cop had to feel around under my seat, grasp that pink shaft with his hand and pull it out to see what he’s holding. Thinking about this, I am happy.

When they come back, after a few minutes, they’re more polite to me, although they still give me a ticket for running a red light, which is worth it in the end. I got a pretty good story out of it. So, no doubt, did the cops.

POSTCRIPT: I told this story at a Show and Tell party once, with the dildo all dramatically hidden in a paper bag until I whipped it out. Later at the party, I went out onto the porch to get a beer, and the lady who was sitting alone out there smoking a cigarette turned to me and said, matter-of-factly, “You know, young man, I have that very same model in a cupboard at home.”

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