Thursday, November 28, 2019

Happy Thanksgiving: Courtesy of Pabst Blue Ribbon

by: Daniel Cano                                                                        
Too little gratitude for a lifetime of labor
I was in my twenties the first time my dad told me this story. Of course, I heard it many times over the years, and it’s always stayed with me. In some ways, it’s helped me understand a lot about people and culture, about looking forward instead of looking backwards, about being too conservative or too liberal.

So the story goes. My dad, his cousin Aurelio (AKA Ted), and some other relatives were doing some construction work in the Hollywood Hills, remodeling a home for a well-known movie director. They often did side jobs on weekends to earn extra money. My dad and his relatives were union men, Plasters and Hod Carriers Local 300. Mostly, they worked on commercial buildings throughout L.A. the San Fernando Valley, and the South Bay.

On this particular job, my dad and Ted took care of the interior plastering while the others worked on the exterior. The director’s home was modern, flat-multi-level roofs and many large plate glass windows, eccentric, more Frank Gehry than Frank Lloyd Wright. The movie man had a fine view of the L.A. skyline.

He was still living upstairs while the work was being completed downstairs. One morning, he descended the stairs in his robe, his eyes bloodshot, and his hair a mess, a rough night. My dad and Ted were finishing the den. The cement on the walls had already dried. The director made it clear that these walls were important, focal points, since he did most of his socializing in this room.

They had applied the final coat of stucco, the smooth surface over the cement. The director told them he’d been thinking. He'd decided he didn’t want a smooth surface on the den walls, maybe something more stylish, but he wasn’t quite sure what. My dad and Ted looked at each other. Most walls they completed had smooth surfaces, ready for the painters’ rollers.

The director said he wanted something modern, more textured but not traditional Mexican texture he’d seen in other homes. He asked if they could show him some samples. This stumped my dad and Ted. “What samples? It was either smooth or a little texture.”

The job had been moving along, and they were nearly finished with their part. The last thing they wanted was a client to start making last minute changes. A lot of other workers would have finished, cleaned up and left. Time was money, but the two started tossing around ideas.

The stucco on the wall was sill soft, so Ted began experimenting. He took a trowel called a float, used on rough, exterior walls. He started making different designs. “That’s nice, but no, that’s not it,” the director would say after each attempt. Like teachers with erasers, Ted and my dad would take his trowel, wipe away the markings, and smoothen the wall again. They were in new territory here.

Ted would go outside to the pickup truck and return with a different trowel, ones used for sidewalks and patios, not interior walls, ones with beveled or serrated edges, but whatever he tried, the director would say, “Yeah, better, but that’s still not it."

My dad told me traditional plasterers would have gotten frustrated with the guy, asked for their pay, and left. But the director’s house wasn’t traditional, not a Craftsman, colonial, ranch, or English Tudor. It was more, well--American, L.A. chic, on stilts and built into the mountainside.

For some reason, my uncle had some straw (as in hay) in the back of the truck. He brought in a handful and tossed it up on the wall and troweled it into the stucco. “Oh, now that’s getting closer. I like that,” said the director, “but no, not quite it.”

The thing about my uncle Ted was he approached his work like an artist. He liked the challenge of creating something new instead of the same old thing, especially in a house like this, that begged for imaginative, progressive thinking. If he found the right texture, there wouldn't be another wall like this in all of L.A., maybe the world. It would be a signature piece, weird or not.

My dad could, well, let’s say “take it or leave it.” But one thing he always wanted was to please the client, especially Hollywood types, deep pockets and recommendations to other moguls.

By this time, Ted and my dad were “into it,” but they were just about out of ideas, when Ted said, “Ray, wait, let me see what else I got.”

Ted went out to his pickup truck, looked around the bed, pushing aside tools, loose supplies, and trash. When he returned, he was holding a broken beer bottle by the neck. This confused both the director and my dad. “Let me try this,” Ted said.

Gently, and carefully, with slow, deliberate strokes, he raked the sharp, irregular edges across the soft stucco, creating circles, ovals, squares, and lines. Softer and grittier than sculptor’s clay, stucco takes skill and patience to manipulate. Too much pressure cuts too deeply.

As the design emerged from the material, the director’s face brightened. He leaped up and down, “That’s it! That’s it! Marvelous, genius, wonderful!”

My dad said he went outside and emptied a beer from their handy-six. He broke the bottle on rock and went back inside where he and Ted continued etching designs into the walls, curtesy of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

My dad and I would always laugh when he told the story. It was meant to be funny, a commentary on weird rich people. Yet, as we both grew older, we became more thoughtful. The story had transformed from humor into something insightful, about not giving up, about trying something new, even if you failed, about looking more towards the future and less to the past.

It was the attempt that counted, and like I said, it's still with me to this very day. I wish I would have had the wherewithal to tell my dad "thanks" for the lesson instead of just laughing, but even that gave us a special bond. Happy Thanksgiving, Pop. RIP. You deserve it.


Al Manito said...

Great story, well told.

Antonio SolisGomez said...

my stepdad was a carpenter and he too worked side jobs and would haul me off with him. Unlike your dad he was not meticulous nor a perfectionist often referring to himself as a wood butcher or blurting out "acabo no es piano". this story is very well crafted so maybe you learned something valuable form him.