If I had a hammer (transcript)

Published October 7th, 2017

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Blip blip blip, blop blop blop, here it is, here we are, here it be, here ye, hear ye, hear what me a say. This here is Michael Phillips and THIS here IS NOT A TEST, ya hear? Winging its way to you via the international world wide Internet of things and places and horrors we could never have imagined. Live from Los Angeles, where the skies are blue, the traffic lights are green, and all the corn is knee high by the fourth of July. You can have your New York City and your San Francisco and your East St. Louis, I’ll take L.A. because L.A. is my lady. Me and Frank Sinatra, baby. The hat pack. That’s what they called me and Frank, because we’d sport those crazy brims all over this swingin’ town. At Cicero’s and Don The Beachcomber, Chasen’s and Art Laboe’s, The Mocambo, Café Trocadero, Coconut Grove, Nicky Blair’s, Romanoffs, Sardis’…

Those are all old, long gone Los Angeles nightclubs or what we called supper clubs when I was a wee Minnesota lad. Remember supper clubs? Probably not, unless you’re from that great lakes area. That’s where the supper club craze mostly happened in the 30s and 40s and 50s. Before television. The parents would hire a babysitter and hit the supper club around 6 or 7 and stay there until 2 in the morning. Eating, then drinking, then maybe there would be a swingin’ combo playing for dancing. Out here in Los Angeles – and everywhere else in the world, I guess – they were called nightclubs, but the vibe was the same. A place to plant yourself for the entire night and watch the world go by. A lot of celebrities hit those clubs I mentioned and they were pretty famous joints around these parts. Back when me and Frank were roaming the streets in a drunken haze, flinging fistfuls of hundred dollar bills at passing cars and laughing, laughing at the futility of it all.

Oh, speaking of futility, get this, the house that Carol and I rent is coming apart at the seams. The living room has a high, vaulted ceiling with wooden beams on the ceiling, going up to the peak, and two big 12 x 12 inch beams that cross the room horizontally. Well everything’s moving, this being California. And this being a hundred year old house, it’s cracking up a bit as it moves, and those two big horizontal beams I told you about are pulling away from the walls. What I mean by that is if I sneeze – on one of them in particular – it will probably fall down on our heads. We debated how to tell the landlord about the problem, because, well she’s one of the sweetest women you’d ever meet, seriously, but she is a tremendous pain in the ass to deal with. If we tell her we need a new key for the door she’ll have 12 people come over to give her estimates, and not one of the 12 will be a professional locksmith. You know what I mean? It’s bad. And it’s incredibly inconvenient and, also, I have to say, a little bit nuts.

Now this beam movement, or wall separation or whatever the hell it is, has been happening the whole 10 years we’ve been living in the house, just slowly creeping over time. But the landlord makes a point of telling us to always let her know as soon as we notice something wrong. Don’t let it wait, she says. Well, I get that, and if she wasn’t so hard to deal with I would tell her everything that’s wrong and make her fix it, but she is hard to deal with, so I end up fixing a lot of things myself and just letting the rest go. I know that’s not cool, and it’s not fair to her, but dealing with her isn’t fair to me, so I’m going to call it a wash. Anyway, the problems with the beams and the walls are getting to the point where we can’t ignore them anymore, so Carol and I were talking about how the hell to tell the landlord about it without her having a nervous breakdown. I hit on the genius idea of saying that it happened real suddenly. Like the house made a dramatic settling move or the foundation slipped – you know: what a surprise it was!

So yeah, since I don’t want a 400 pound wooden beam to fall on us while we’re watching TV, I bit the bullet and told the landlord what was going on, knowing that it would unleash what would probably be a very long nightmare onto us. And the nightmare started right away, when she sent over a “contractor” who was about 90 years old. I say “contractor” in air quotes because he seemed sincerely confused by things like walls and foundations. This guy who claimed to be a contractor, when I said, you should get your ladder and look at that beam up close, he said, “I didn’t bring a ladder.” Not only didn’t he bring a ladder the first time he came, but when he came back he had to borrow a tape measure from us. That I never got back, by the way. And at some point while he was wandering around the house he picked up a big Maglite flashlight of ours and took it up into the attic. What I mean is he just picked it up from where it was without saying, “Can I use this for a minute?”

Carol told me about the tape measure and the flashlight, I was at work when that part happened. But I was kind of beside myself. You know, at the audacity of walking in to someone’s home and just picking up whatever you want to pick up. Taking their tools and never retuning them. Being a contractor who doesn’t have a ladder, you know, that kind of thing. But like I said: 12 people to come give estimates on a new house key, and not one of the 12 a professional locksmith. This guy was a perfect example of that. And to make it worse, I eventually found the flashlight in our bedroom. Our bedroom which had a closed door, and which Carol told him not to go in to. So not only did he casually jack my shit, he “returned” some of it in a room he wasn’t supposed to be in. If that was all I could tell you about that guy it should be enough, right? Oh, but it’s not.

He came by yet again the next morning, and I made sure to be home for that. As soon as he walked in I said, you know, hey, what the fuck are you doing picking things up and carrying them off without asking us if it’s okay? And by the way, where’s my god damned tape measure, motherfucker? And he was very apologetic and said, “I know, I shouldn’t have done that, I’m very sorry,” and then he says, “What did your tape measure look like?” What did my tape measure look like? Oh my god. It looked like a fucking tape measure. And he says, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to make a sweep through the house and see if I can find it,” and I said, oh no sir, you are not going to look around my house for my tape measure that you stole.

So he changes the subject to something else and every few minutes I’d say, “…like my fucking tape measure…” and he’d kind of look at me and keep talking. After the fourth or fifth time I said something about “my fucking tape measure,” he said, “You know what? I’m going to buy you a new tape measure,” and I said, well I’ll think of you every time I use it, David. Because, you know, his name was David, and we were on a first name basis. I’m not holding my breath, waiting for him to drop off that tape measure. And between you and me, I honestly don’t give a fuck about a tape measure, we must have 3 or 4 of them laying around here. It’s the principle of the thing, the idea that he was so casual about taking our shit without asking. I just wanted to make him squirm for a while.

So next he goes up into the attic for 20 minutes or so – oh, he brought a ladder with him this time, it was brand new, I think he bought it on the way over to the house, this “contractor” – so he is up in the attic for a really, really long time, and I’m thinking maybe he fell asleep up there and I should go wake him up, but eventually he comes down all covered in hundred year old dust and dirt and insulation and says, “Well, this is doing this and that is doing that, and I think to fix it I will dig a trench outside, parallel to the wall, a two foot trench and fill it with concrete and build two pilings up against the house, right where these beams are, but on the outside wall, like 18 inch concrete pilings, to stop the walls from moving…” and he’s making these drawings on a notepad and they’re just like four shaky lines, these drawings, but it takes him five minutes to draw each one and he keeps flipping over pages of the notepad and starting over and repeating himself, and after the 7th or 8th sheet of paper I say, “Stop drawing! I don’t care about any of that. If you can convince the landlord to go for that, then great, but if it was my house I would have thrown you out the door fifteen minutes ago, because your idea is fucking insane.

You didn’t even go under the house to look at the foundation and you want to build god damn flying buttresses on the outside of the house like this is a medieval cathedral or something? Jesus Christ. I mean, come on, tell me where you’ve ever, in your life, seen a house with big columns built up outside of it to hold the fucking walls together. On what planet does that happen? Appalachia, maybe. Out in the high desert. But not in a Los Angeles neighborhood. What the fuck? Anyway, I went on for a while because, I tell ya, I just couldn’t take the guy anymore, and I just couldn’t believe how inept and stupid he was. And I’m pretty sure he hated my guts the whole time he was standing there listening to me insult him, but I don’t care. What a load of bullshit. Think of me what you will, but don’t tell me I’m just supposed to stand there and listen to some band-aid-on-a-bullet-wound idiocy coming from a guy who stole my tape measure. Fuck that.

So I’m pushing him out the door, you know? Okay bye, okay, see you later, and finally he’s gone and I go back into the office where the attic entrance is, and he’s left his fucking ladder there. So I fold up the nice new ladder and drag it through the house and just as I get to the front door, he knocks. I say, did you forget something, and push the ladder out the door and he says, “Do you want to keep it? Since I lost your tape measure? It’s a good ladder…” I laughed because I thought he was kidding, but he said it again and I was like, no, I don’t want your fucking ladder, man. I’m not interested in trading a tape measure for a ladder today, and I closed the door on him. Like I said, I think he bought that fucking ladder just to crawl up into the attic, and once he had done that, once he’d gotten over that hurdle, he didn’t have any use for it. I’m not kidding.

Well, maybe not surprisingly, David never came back after that, and the landlord sent over a different guy to assess the situation, and he didn’t know what the fuck to do either, so of course she hired him to make a temporary repair. Now, the problem – have I even adequately described the problem in all of this? A huge beam dangling from the wall, suspended by a little lag bolt? The other end of the beam pushing in to the other wall, and same situation with the other cross beam? Did I describe that in a way that gives you an idea that it’s, you know, a serious problem? To my mind it’s something that needs an engineer to look at and tell you exactly what’s failing where, but she sends over a guy who is essentially a handyman. because everyone who works on the house, in whatever capacity, is the cheapest most unapologetically unqualified person she can find. No joke, her father and a 12 year old nephew came over to paint the outside window trim once. It took them something like three days and it looked like a family of apes had painted it with their snot in about 15 minutes.

So anyway, the new guy, the latest handyman, he leaves and about an hour later the landlord sends me an email with the subject, “Work needs to be done today.” Today. Sure. Well, okay, that was my fault for cooking up the lie that the movement happened suddenly, but still. The beams are in the living room, and right under the beams are the TV and all the video shit, the stereo, the speakers, all the records. You know, it’s a living room. And I was at work, so “Work needs to be done today” was not an option. You’ve moved an audio/video set up. You know what a nightmare it is, all those cables back there in all that dust that you’ve been ignoring for the past five years. Where do all those fucking cables go anyway? There are maybe 7 or 8 pieces of equipment, but there are 45 cables. You know what I mean. You’ve done it. One of the times my pal David was there, before I threw him out, I made a comment about what a drag it was going to be to move all of those things and he said, “Oh, you don’t have to do anything. Guys like me will move all that stuff.” I said, “No, guys like you won’t touch that stuff.”

I’ll tell you all little something about myself that may or may not surprise you. I used to be incredibly anal about every little piece of everything I owned. Things had to be perfect, no one could touch them, let alone move them. I was a mental case, I tell you. Can you say “mental case” now? I know you can’t call someone a retard, even yourself, so I’ll have to check. Anyway, whatever mental glitch that was, I’ve gotten over it, you can handle my shit all you want – pun intended – but I think you’d have to be out of your mind to let a bunch of fucking construction site dudes take apart and move your expensive electronic equipment. Here, move my guitars too while you’re at it. This stuff, this stereo and video stuff I own, it isn’t all top-of-the-line audiophile shit, most of it. More like middle-of-the-line. But it sure as hell ain’t bottom-of-the-line, and if I do a little quick addition in my head, there are many thousands of dollars worth of shit under those beams, and none of it should really be dragged around like a washing machine or a refrigerator or a truckload of 2x4s.

Hmm, I guess the whole story I just told about the tape measure and flashlight might be some sort of scientific indication that I am still a mental case when it comes to my things, and I’m open to that possibility. But in the past I was much worse, let’s just say that. Much worse. In my defense. So I replied to the landlord’s email and said, “No ma’am, ain’t nothing happening in there until I can move that stuff myself, and that won’t be until tonight, so call off your goons until tomorrow,” or words to that effect. Anyway, Carol and I moved everything from one side of the room to the other, because I assumed they were going to come in and prop up or reinforce only the one end of the one beam that was separating from the wall. The place where you could see daylight between the end of the beam and the wall it was supposed to be attached to. But that’s not what they did. They propped up each end of both beams, on both sides of the room. So they were working for a couple of hours right above everything that we’d moved to one side. All of that sensitive, expensive stuff. I wasn’t there, but Carol was on top of them the whole time: “Don’t touch that! You can’t move that!” Ha. Those guys must have thought we were insane. Well, fuck em.

So yeah, I was at work that day, and when they finished, Carol sent me some pictures of the work that the highly qualified carpenters did to shore up the beams and it looks like — you know how some people will break a tail light on their car and then just duct tape some kind of red plastic shopping bag over the hole? It looks like that. Only if that was made out of 2 x 4s. Anyway, now we’ve moved everything in the living room back to where it was, because even though the landlord said, “People will be coming over, insurance people, construction people…” as I write this it’s been five weeks since the 2×4 beam hack fix and no one else has set foot in the house. The red plastic shopping bag is still taped over the tail light, and it probably will be for a year.

So I don’t know. This is the way it goes. And this is why I rent. Even though the story kind of makes a case for not renting and dealing with landlords, but there you are. The story has been told, I can’t change it now. I’m sure the landlord is experiencing some kind of existential terror shock over how much it’s going to cost her to fix the house. Personally, I think the whole fucking living room section of the house needs to be taken down to the studs and fixed properly, and if a contractor is telling her that, or something like that, I can only imagine what kind of checks she’s going to have to write. But I have no sympathy for that. I pay her every month for the privilege of not worrying about her problems or the house’s problems.

And I’ll tell you what, I’ve already paid for the repairs anyway. I’ve paid enough to completely renovate this house from the ground up three times over. Ever do the math on how much rent you pay over several years? Don’t do it. It will make you mad. I’ll just say here for the purposes of this confidential conversation that you and I are having, that this landlord has put more than a quarter million of my dollars into her bank account in the 10 years we’ve lived in this house. Yes, a quarter of a million dollars. More than 275 thousand, actually. But who’s counting. What’s 25 grand between friends, anyway.

“Ha ha ha mjp,” I hear some of you saying, out loud or silently to yourselves, “You fucking idiot, you could have bought your own house by now with that money!” Well au contraire, Pierre. Not in Los Angles, my smug friend. If you could find a $250,000 house here it would be a moldy, rotting 500 square foot one bedroom shack next to a hazardous waste plant or something, over in Vernon or Montebello. And every time something broke in that shit hole, which would happen every few weeks, you’d be paying to fix it. No thanks. Life is short, brothers and sisters, too short to worry about some old pile of sticks that the earth’s gravity is constantly trying to reclaim. I am a renter. Always have been, and unless I find a satchel with a couple million dollars in it in the frozen food aisle of the grocery store, I always will be. If you’re a home owner, good for you, god bless you, as the religious types say. It’s just not my bag, you dig?

So here I am, in the shadow of the rustic, romantic 2×4 indoor buttresses. Which, incidentally, were made from lumber that wasn’t dried, so it leaks little drops of ultra sticky clear pine sap onto everything underneath the cut ends of the studs. But here I am, waiting for the other shoe to drop. My fear is that other shoe is going to force us out of here so they can tear the place down. And the only thing worse than a house falling down around you is trying to find a new falling down house and moving all of your shit to it. I think even in the best case scenario, the other shoe will force us out of our living room for three weeks of noise and dust and chaos. Though I’d take the 3 or 4 weeks of chaos over a move. But it’s not up to me, because I’m only the renter. Ha.

This isn’t even a shitty house, it’s a good house. Or it was a good house before it started leaning to the west. Still it seems that we’re always dealing with something that’s broken or barely working, or who knows what. Doors that don’t close, water heaters that fail, heating and air conditioning that fails, a basement full of water. You name it. It makes me want to move into a loft in an old brick building somewhere. But I suppose there’s a whole different kind of hell that comes along with that. But at least it would be a new hell that I haven’t experienced before. It would be a novel, interesting hell. Did I say basement? In Los Angeles? Yes, we have a kind of sort of basement. It’s maybe 10 feet by 8 feet. Just large enough for the aforementioned water heater and heating and cooling units. The rest of the under part of the house is just typical California crawlspace.

I was amazed when I moved to California from Minnesota, lo those, what? thirty…or I guess almost 33 years ago now. I was amazed at what passes for a building around here. I visited my friend Jeff at a restaurant he was working at one day soon after I’d arrived on these shores, and it was raining that day, and back in the kitchen of the restaurant, rain water was dripping from a bare light bulb in the ceiling. It wasn’t pouring rain. It wasn’t a hurricane, because we don’t have those. It was just raining. Just raining, and rain was leaking down through the roof of this commercial building and dripping off a light bulb. I take things like that for granted now, but I was really shocked by it back then.

Up in the Midwest and the upper east coast of this country, buildings have to withstand actual weather. Constant cycles of rain, sun, humidity, the earth freezing around them. They are built to withstand those kinds of things, which is why you see 150, 200, year old houses in those parts of the country. Even older than that. I can tell you though, with a great degree of certainty, that there is not a 200 year old structure anywhere in California. The only thing that old around here are the big redwoods and Giant sequoia trees up in northern California. I mean, shit, there’s a five thousand year old bristlecone pine tree somehwere in California for Christ’s sake, but they can’t put up a house that will last 100 years. They don’t have that technology.

Well, the old trees are the work of nature, not man. And we all know who wins that fight, don’t we. Not man. Not you, not me. Nature whips us all in the end, and the earth absorbs our old skin and bones and we grow into a bristlecone pine or become pavement for the 10 freeway. Or whatever replaces the 10 freeway in a few hundred years, after nature has reclaimed us all. Speaking of nature always winning, shout out to mi idren Free Joseph who lives in Dominica, a little Caribbean island of about 70,000 people that was all but wiped off the map by hurricane Maria. You might not have heard much about Dominica on the news because no one seems to care about the people who live there. A lot of news about the same hurricane hitting Puerto Rico though. A whole heap of news about that, but not any more than a peep about Dominica and all the people there who really need a lot of help. A mountain of help. I guess we hear about Puerto Rico becasue it’s a U.S. territory. What does that even mean, U.S. territory? I thought we did away with colonialism.

Anyway, you may recall my “Remembering Trevy Felix” episode, where I talked about my friend being murdered down there in Dominica, and about the fact that no serious investigation into that murder was ever really made, so you might naturally think that maybe I don’t give a shit about Dominica either. And in a way, the part of me that is still angry about Trevy’s murder – and that’s a big part of me – doesn’t give a shit about Dominica. But I know that everyone on the island isn’t a murderous fuck or a corrupt or inept official covering up for a murderous fuck, so I don’t wish the non-murderous fuck inhabitants of the island any ill will, let alone the horror of being screwed by one of the worst things nature can throw at you. But that’s what happened to them, whether I wish it so or not.

I’m worried about a friend who lives there, Free Joseph. Free used to be known as Tex Joseph, and he and I spent a lot of time together when we lived in Noel and Jenny Rhodes’ house up in Topanga Canyon. Back in the early Boom Shaka days. We recorded music together, did house painting jobs together – we called ourselves “Dread on the Brush” – and many nights Tex would cook us up some Ital stew in his clay pot over a fire in a little fire pit outside the rehearsal studio. So, you understand – Tex a mi bredren. But as I write this, there’s no communication, no phones, no Internet, and no way to get word to him or from him. And even when he is finally able to make contact, I don’t know how the hell I’ll be able to send him any money, or whether there will be anything to spend money on, as far as that goes. It’s always something, man. Always something. Well, Jah will never give us more than we can bear, right? Sure. But hey, other than that, how are things? Come back next time, maybe I’ll have some good news from Dominica and Free Joseph and the other 69,999 people down there who are having a very, very hard time right now. Arrivederci, bristlecones.