Odd jobs in The Emerald City
Looking back on my first year in Seattle, it's the work I remember most.
This fall marked the completion of my 15th year in Seattle. In that time the city has changed dramatically. Today it would be much harder to move here as my partner and I did, having neither family nor friends in Seattle, with little money and no jobs lined up. Jobs. When I think back to that first year, what I remember most are the jobs. Working is how I started to get to know the city and its people. My experience was admittedly idiosyncratic, but still I think it opens some kind of window on Seattle as it was then.
It was 2004. We traveled by Amtrak from upstate New York, our belongings stowed in a few large boxes. We had visited Seattle only once before, in the summer of that same year, staying in the Green Tortoise Hostel. We stopped for a few days during a two-month Greyhound-powered road trip around the country. Part of the point of that trip was to find a city to move to, and we chose Seattle. Through Craigslist we found a woman in Greenwood willing to rent us a half-finished room in her basement for $500 per month. We took a yellow taxi from the train station, arrived at the house, unpacked our belongings, rolled our sleeping bags out on the floor. During our summer visit, the weather had been perfect. Now it was mid-October and raining hard; the rain hammered on steadily for the next month and a half.
The next step was to look for work.
Just around the corner from the house was a small commercial laboratory specializing in environmental analysis. A sign in the window said it was seeking a part-time employee, so I walked in and asked for a job. The starting wage was $10 an hour. It was a small lab, maybe a dozen people. The receptionist was a friendly but nervous woman who chain-drank cans of Diet Coke. She was afraid of bugs, so she kept a plastic sandwich bag draped over the top of the can. I never saw any bugs.
My superior was an elderly professorial fellow named Bob, the odd man out among the three principals. Everyone else in the lab sat at their stations, screening sample after sample for asbestos fibers. They peered through microscopes, heads tilted forward at an unnatural angle — from what I could gather all the longtimers either had had neck surgery or needed it. Meanwhile, Bob and I were like a pair of amateur detectives. People sent us things and we tried to figure out what they were, or how they had gotten that way. Once a man delivered a 5 gallon bucket full of a black liquid he said was pouring out of his bathtub faucet. It turned out he had done his own plumbing and made a rookie mistake, joining copper and galvanized steel; his pipes were all corroding at the joints. I got to use a spectrometer and an electron microscope. Sometimes we coated the objects of our study in fine layers of gold.
I quickly got the vibe that our labor was not what was making money for the firm, and even that Bob — his wife was another of the principals — might be a merely tolerated third wheel rather than an integral member of the team. Bob wasn’t good at saying no to potential clients, and he was also a little absent-minded, so we didn’t always stay on track with our investigations. Whenever we went on a wild goose chase, Bob called it “spinning our wheels.” I remember we spent some time tinkering with a dead mouse stuck inside a wine bottle. A customer had sued the wine seller, who now wanted us to determine exactly when that mouse had died, and whether it was dead or alive when it entered that bottle. We could have been expert witnesses. But that was a case we never cracked.
After six months I was going a little stir crazy. It was spring and I’d grown tired of office life, so I biked down along Lake Union and the Ship Canal, and through Ballard’s light industrial district, walking into any open door I could find and asking if they were hiring. My first callback was from a boat repair shop operating out of the boatyard near the Fred Meyer. I accepted the job, and they put me to work sanding down and repainting the bottoms of rich people’s yachts. After a couple weeks probation I received a pair of green coveralls with my name embroidered on a patch. I had made the team. It was so cool.
The operation was small enough that the two owners, John and Paul, were usually at the yard, talking with customers and overseeing the work. About half the crew worked there year-round. When one of them had a birthday, there was cake. On Fridays there were doughnuts. Spring was the busy season, and often we worked mandatory overtime. They didn’t pay us time-and-a-half; instead, any hours over 40 were stored in the ether, to be plucked down later to fill out a slow week or make up for a sick day. They called it “comp time.” Everyone knew we were getting short-changed, but no one wanted to rock the boat. I liked my co-workers. Where I grew up, working class white men listened to right-wing talk radio. In Seattle, apparently, they listened to KEXP and NPR.
After bottom-painting, interior work and repairs came the final polish. A yacht is tall when hauled out of the water, so we set up scaffolding on either side. Standing up on the platform, you went to work with polishing compound and a large rotary buffer, until the sides were gleaming white, with no streaks or smudges.
Halfway through my first buffing job, I noticed people were standing around, watching and laughing. I had polished that yacht with all the ferocity of a 23-year-old woman anxious to show she can work as hard and as fast as anyone else. On the other side, Manuel, a young Latino man hired about the same time as me, was lagging far behind. The other guys were laughing at him. Suddenly I felt deeply ashamed. What did he have to prove? He knew he’d be one of the first let go whenever work slowed down; that’s how this business worked. The last thing he needed was someone turning his crappy job into a contest. I recalled descriptions of early 20th century factory life, the unwritten pact among workers to limit their pace — otherwise the boss would start demanding that everyone work more for less pay — and the special contempt reserved for the brownnoser who “broke rate.” That was me.
One day I rode with one of my co-workers out to a gated community on the Lake Washington shore. Kurt Cobain had lived right nearby, he told me; that was where he killed himself. When we arrived a man greeted us and we walked down to the water. He wanted to use his motorboat, but it was filled with cobwebs, and he thought something was wrong with the odometer. We cleaned it up and took it out for a spin. The odometer seemed to be working fine, but we figured we’d better make extra sure, so we spent a good long time turning circles around the lake. I had never driven a motor boat before, and now I was being paid $12 an hour to learn. It was a good day. We sped close to the far shore and tried to guess where Bill Gates’s house might be.
In late July the company moved to a different boatyard, near the Chittenden Locks. The owners had dreams of expansion. They planned to import enormous unfinished luxury yachts from China, fit them out and sell them on to Seattle’s nouveau riche. Everyone helped load and unload the moving trucks, and I was tasked with building us workbenches in the spacious new shop. For a while the labor of the move masked the summer slowdown. Then, one morning soon after we finished, rumors swirled that some of us were about to be laid off. It happened before the end of the day. Manuel and the other Latinos were out, and some of the white workers, too. No advance notice, no time to look for another job, just collect your tools and leave. They wanted me to stay on and offered me a raise. I felt sick and angry and decided to quit.
Building the workbenches had been fun, so that evening I searched Craigslist for a job that would let me swing a framing hammer. I made a few phone calls and lined up an appointment for the following afternoon. During lunch break at the boatyard I walked into the office, told John and Paul I was quitting, strapped my tool bag onto the rack of my bike and left. I rode along the Burke Gilman Trail, crossed the bridge to Eastlake, searched for the address I’d been given and ended up at an apartment building in the shadow of I-5.
The building was horseshoe-shaped, with external staircases and balconies surrounding a courtyard, one of many similar buildings constructed in anticipation of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and later converted from hotels into apartments. As I soon learned, it had just been purchased by a father-son team trying to get in on the property-flipping racket. I assume they jacked up the rents, though we never heard about that. As the tenants moved out, the plan was to renovate their apartments, all studios, and turn them into tiny one-bedrooms, which would rent at a higher price. Once the building was renovated and full of new tenants, they would sell it for a quick profit and move on.
When I arrived, everyone was hustling. I asked around and found Johann, the man I was supposed to see. He took me into an apartment, handed me a brush and told me to paint the kitchen cabinets until further notice. A few hours later he returned, inspected my work, and instructed me to come back the next morning. Pay was $15 an hour, under the table, no paperwork and no questions. Johann was in charge; he was the contractor, though a wholly unlicensed one. But he was well connected — something to do with being a reformed drug dealer, maybe — so when he needed electrical or other work that would normally require a city permit and a licensed tradesperson, he had people he could call.
My new co-workers seemed less stable and more desperate than the men at the boatyard. One had been an addict, but now he was clean, or rather he’d switched his allegiance to caffeine and nicotine. At that time Starbucks had free refills, so he got a venti on his way to work and returned with his empty cup periodically throughout the day. He took smoke breaks several times an hour. Another kid — he seemed young — told me how a few years back he’d killed a woman with his car when she leaned her head too far into the road from the sidewalk; it was gruesome, her head basically exploded, but he was cleared of any wrongdoing. He seemed scarred by that experience, or by something.
The foreman was a half-Mexican, half-Ecuadorian named Edgardo. When he first arrived in this country, he told me, he worked his way up doing yard work and odd jobs for homeowners, carting his equipment and tools around on the bus because he had no vehicle. Occasionally he would leave the worksite in the early afternoon, telling us all that he had to go act in a porn film. Soft-core porn, he assured us. “Latin lover” was definitely the persona he was trying to cultivate, and I was the only woman around to impress. Green Lake, he said, was the place to pick up women; you just had to borrow someone’s dog to walk. Every day midmorning he drove to Starbucks to buy himself coffee, and brought back a pastry for me. The differential treatment was unsettling but I got a lot of free calories.
I loved the work: demolition, framing, drywall and mudding, installing trim, caulking, texturing and painting. But the shadiness of the operation was a little startling. In some of the bathrooms, the ceilings and walls had water damage; there were slow leaks in the pipes. Johann didn’t want to bring in a plumber. Just repair the plaster, he told us. Make it look nice. He didn’t buy us ladders. When we needed extra height, we stood on overturned buckets. If we wanted safety equipment, we had to provide it ourselves, and some people didn’t bother. PTSD kid walked out of an apartment one day, his hair, eyes and mouth thickly caked in a white dust. He’d been sanding a repair on the ceiling, his unprotected, upturned face directly in the line of fire. I felt happy for him when he quit after he found a job as a busboy in the restaurant at the top of the Columbia Tower. He needed to get out of there.
Morale was not high. Unscrupulous himself, Johann easily grew suspicious of others. He was always looking for the person he could trust to report what everyone else was doing and saying when he wasn’t around. Edgardo was losing patience with Johann, who he said was lying to us. Once when Johann claimed to be at Home Depot picking up supplies, Edgardo put him on speaker phone so I could listen in, and thought up a specific item to ask for. When Johann said he couldn’t find it, Edgardo responded with meticulously phony instructions: Go to Aisle 8, where the power tools are. Did he see the drills? Yes, there they were, he was standing right in front of them. Now keep going, around the corner, past the electrical outlet covers, just a little further. … Did he see it? Oh yes, there it was. But they were all out. Yeah, right. Edgardo glared at his phone, disgusted.
Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in late August, and by the end of September Johann had hatched a new plan. There was a lot of money to be made rebuilding New Orleans, and he wanted to go down there. He thought maybe he could bring some of us along. I decided that was a good time to jump ship.
Back on Craigslist, I found an ad for laborers on a landscaping project. Landscaping sounded like a pleasantly bucolic change of pace. The owner of the business, a man named Ron, called me back on a Saturday morning and asked if I could start right away. I biked over to the worksite, a house-turned-office north of Wallingford. Ron had been a hotel concierge for many years, diligently saving up his wages so that someday he could work for himself. Someday was now, and this was his first major job. He got it by bidding low, very low. We were to build a large cedar fence in the backyard and terraces into the steep front slope, buttressed by stone walls. Ron paid us in cash at the end of each day.
Building the fence was fun, but the best part of that job was the track-hoe excavator. I was put in charge of operating the machine: digging out the dirt, then grasping and lifting the large rocks onto the terraces while two large Latino men nudged them into place with their hands. Kids would walk by with their parents and gawk at the big machine. It was a little nerve-wracking, swinging that metal claw around near my co-workers’ heads, knowing Ron had no insurance and I had no experience. But we all survived, and the walls are still there.
I worked for Ron for only a couple of weeks. He wasn’t cut out to manage a crew. Our start times were unpredictable because they were based on Ron’s moods; he told us he had ADD. When we were planning out the terraces, he got fixated on calculating the slope, hunched over the ground with string and a level. The angles weren’t coming out right. He was at it all morning, forgetting that we were supposed to pick up a dump truck full of gravel and rock. I kept reminding him that we had to go. Ron always seemed ready to crack, and the client was getting impatient; we were supposed to have finished the job already, including filling the terraces with plants. Ron was hemorrhaging his savings. It was a little heartbreaking. I felt bad leaving him, but it also didn’t seem right to keep taking his money.
I felt by now I should be learning something about how to read Craigslist ads. This time I answered only the ones that seemed legit, that didn’t seem desperate for someone, anyone, to start work immediately. Soon I got a call back that seemed promising. The site was in View Ridge, a hilly 35 minute bike ride across North Seattle. I rolled up for the interview, tool bag and belt in tow, and got the job. The contractor’s name was Mike. He was turning a small house into a large house by building an addition and a second floor. The neighbors one step up the hill weren’t too pleased, and even considered paying for us to remove and rebuild the new roof 16 inches lower, to salvage a little of their view.
When I arrived, the main structure was already up, though still wide open to the elements. I was just the laborer, so I got to tear out the old floors, carry lumber around and drive nails by the hundreds into the steel straps that held the beams together. Mike was a reputable contractor, which was a relief, since I spent a lot of time up on tall ladders. It was October and then November, cold and usually rainy, but once we started moving we got warm. We began early in the morning. From the second floor you could see Lake Washington and the Cascades, and Mount Rainier to the southeast. The sunrises were beautiful.
That was my first year in Seattle.