Woodworking is and needs to be a huge dollop of focus and seriousness, at least whenever the machines are on. But there have been a few light moments along the way. You might think we are a pretty droll lot, but you would have another think coming.
For me, the shenanigans started pretty much from the beginning. A few days after I turned twenty, I started apprenticing at a Seattle cabinetmaker’s shop. I hopped on my bicycle one morning and peddled into work. My boss was a…..well, …..let’s just say he is going to get more ink in the next few paragraphs than he’d probably like. (I should say, probably would have liked, he has passed on to the great tool shed in the sky.) I‘ll call him Al here because that was his name. He was kind of a fussy, nervous guy. And he was also kind of a, I believe the word is parsimonious, fellow. He was always scurrying around the shop complaining about not making enough money. I know it was not because of me and my three fellow shopmates because he paid us $2.45 an hour. Yes, you read that right. The minimum wage at the time was actually an astronomical $2.75 an hour, but that did not appear to keep him up at night.
On this one particular morning, I was squeezing in sideways through the ever-present boondoggle of unfinished projects that choked off the shop. Al, it turns out, really liked getting paid by his customers, but it seemed he felt no real compunction to actually deliver any of the work. As I was trying to avoid crashing into any of the pieces in the shop, one of my co-workers, I will call him Reed, (yes, that is his real name- what did you think, this is the FBI?), scurried up and bumped me off balance and I fell against an expensive teak veneering job. He started laughing and saying, “you broke it, you broke it”. I, simpleton that I am, started worrying that I would never be able to repay the boss for my mistake, not on what I was earning. The panic must have shown on my face, but my new best friend, Reed, gathered me into a conspiratorial conference and offered to set the piece gently back in place and to trick Al into knocking into it. It worked far too easily. Reed called the Boss out into the shop, ran up to him and Al was knocked off balance, and became much chagrined when he saw that he had busted that expensive piece. He stalked off back to his office muttering about how much money it was going to cost him and I hugged Reed and felt like he was my new best friend. Later that afternoon he confessed that he had come in the night before to pick something up and broken the teak. I was feeling less chummy after that.
Another lighthearted maneuver that the boys like to inflict on any newcomer involved glue. We used a lot of a glue back then which, if my memory serves me, was called Urac 185. It was a two-part glue that when mixed properly had the consistency of a milkshake and the color of caramel. One morning when I came into work, I headed over to my workbench, eager to review my progress from the night before on a nice little mahogany coffee table. And there, sitting right in the middle of it, was a nice 6 or 7-inch puddle of caramel-colored Urac 185 hardened to its usual indestructible best. I just stared at it in horror for what seemed like an eternity, until I noticed the guys were all snickering. Then one of them silently walked over and simply picked the glue patch off of the table, as if it were one of those rubbery fake vomit gags, and said, “Welcome to the monkey house”. I couldn’t wait until Al hired a new guy so that I would not have to be the reigning cretin.
To add to Al’s list of redeeming qualities, while he was frittering around the shop and getting worked up, he often got tangled in a web of his words. I don’t mean lying, which he also did plenty. I mean just confusing them. (If it seems like I am being disloyal and unfair to him, read a future blog called He Taught Me Everything I Don’t Know- and you will see how lightly I am actually treading here. Really).
One day Al came back from delivering a job, and whenever he got paid he was in a capital mood. For some reason, he wandered over to my bench in a talkative mood and seemed determined to detail his exploits at dinner the night before. I did whatever any chattel does when his boss speaks, I stared back absolutely rapt with attention. It seems the night before he and his wife, Barbara, had gone out to a pretty nice French restaurant in Seattle called the Brasserie Pittsbourg. Al was really getting into his story, and he said to me, “ Gawrsh. (Al always said gawrsh when he got excited). Gawrsh, Jonathan we went to the Pittsburgh brassiere last night”. I looked up to see if he was in earnest, having just mixed up a kind of French restaurant with a woman’s supportive garment, but he was just motoring on. He got more excited and told me that he was really happy because their friend had offered to pay for the wine and they had chosen a nice “Zindafel.” (that’s not a typo- that’s what he called it). But the real piece de resistance, (that’s not a typo either, and while it may seem a bit presumptuous to use a French term- you can clearly see the suitability of it here), was when he marveled at the news from the night before.
“Gawrsh, Jonathan, you wouldn’t believe what happened later. Barbara ran into some of her old sorority sisters, and gawrsh if it didn’t seem like they were all having maserectomies”.
My lemonade came squirting out my nose and I choked on the sandwich I was eating. He looked at me suspiciously and I knew I was heading for a place I might regret. But when he asked me what was so gawrsh darn funny, a cooler head was not mine for the asking, and I replied, “I am sorry, Al. it’s just you are the only guy I know who can make a breast operation sound like an Italian sports car.”
To this day I do not know why he didn’t fire me on the spot. Later it turned out the whole shop had been listening in and I became a little folk hero for a day or two.