“Just stop! Don’t move!”
I was on a ladder and Wayne was on the roof in front of me. He was holding the cord to the saw. The cord I had just carelessly severed with the saw while doing a plunge cut into a board. I could see the copper of the wires that had been violently vivisected from their insulation by the whirling 40-tooth carbide tipped blade. Wayne, thinking he was helping, dragged the wires out of the way of the saw. Unfortunately, he was dragging the wires over my arm--a very sweaty arm. The kind of sweaty arm that would conduct electricity perfectly into my Central Nervous System, causing some very important muscles to spasm. The muscles I was using to stay standing high on the ladder.
Wayne stopped when I barked louder. I lifted the rubber snake off my skin--careful to keep the exposed wires at bay. Even though he was one of the blackest black men I’d ever worked with, he turned a little white when I showed him why I was a wee bit excited. When he learned the circuit breaker hadn’t tripped and the wires were still very live, I thought he would cut off his dreadlocks and start selling insurance.
Wayne was also on a quest to make ends meet, thus he ended up as part of the crew to whom I taught Roofing 101: the fine art of making the top of a house watertight, classes held at the college of Real Life. Wayne came to me as a laborer. He was half a head over six-feet tall, weighed in about the same as my old Mercedes, and sported a full grill (His front teeth were all covered with gold caps) and he could climb a ladder with a hundred-pound roll of tar paper on his shoulder and a half dozen bottles of water in his hand. His voice was so bassy I sounded like a velociraptor in comparison. Though he was college educated, he spoke with an urban black parlance that was so pervasive, in a couple days I was using some of it, too.
After the first day of work, we were sitting around a fire in the homeowner’s backyard eating too much and drinking enough that the next day those shingles were a little bit heavier. Music was being played and Wayne and I seemed intent on setting race relations back at the rate of about a decade an hour--to the amusement of the others. Wayne finally asked the guitarist the lay down a beat then improvised a rap that reprised the whole day. He seemed particularly intent on making fun of me, OSU, and my general skills as a roofer. It was perhaps the funniest thing I had ever heard. Knowing I’m pretty much un-offendable left him free to riff on all aspects of my persona and physique. Frankly, it was kind of an honor.
It is a rare person who can oscillate between comments so inappropriate I cannot even allude to them in this essay, to the respectful tone needed to get a job done safely and quickly. Wayne was raised well and even if he never let one of my “observations” pass, when it was time to work he never balked and was usually doing more than expected of him. All the other members of the crew seemed to take their lead from him if I wasn’t there being managerial. Mostly because he was very smart and learned so quickly that he would be teaching the others before I got a chance to. While I was rehydrating and checking my email on my phone, he’d be showing someone else the best shingle offset to make things look just right. I’ve done roofing for decades and can run a roofing nailer like a machinegun. The hardest part about working with a non-professional crew is EVERYBODY wants to run the nailer like a machinegun. These are the times when people put nails through their feet. When the nailer was in Wayne’s hands, I never had to worry about nails going anywhere except where they were supposed to.
In perhaps the most profoundly caucasian moment of my life, Wayne found it necessary to teach me how to shake hands. I was hopeless, though he kept trying. At first it seemed the intent of this exercise was to humiliate me as possible, but he sincerely thought this was a skill I should have. Despite his best efforts, let’s just say my level of shaking hands like a black person is perfectly suited for the Corvallis demographic.
The climate where this job needed to be done was very unlike the kindly Corvallis summers. It was hot. Damned hot. The trick for me is to keep water flowing and get onto the ground when the roof seemed to start rocking and rolling. In the hottest part of one afternoon I stepped off the ladder into the backyard and removed my hearing protection when I heard a loud Thwaaack! I looked over at the concrete and a bullet was rolling to a stop about 20 feet from me. I picked it up and it was still hot. I vacillated between feeling lucky it missed me and pissed off that some assclown popped a round into the sky probably over a mile away with no regard to where it would land. I could feel the heat from the lead and copper lump in my pocket
Hot lead falling from the sky indicated that this area we worked was pretty depressed. Daily, people came up to the house looking for work. Some would offer to work for food. I’d offer to dig them up something to eat and they would wander off with thanks, once they figured out no cash would be trading hands. Many would claim to be experienced roofers. One young man went so far as to describe how to install flashing on a chimney in the hope I would recognise his genius and give him work. Unfortunately, my “genius” radar was overridden by my “meth user” detection app and I wanted him nowhere near my tools, let alone on a roof where he would probably get hurt or hurt someone else. There was a simpering sadness that he knew roofing quite well at one time. But that skill had been sold out to a white powder that made him unhireable.
Meanwhile, I had a theater to get back to before my employees fired me. With the roof 95% completed I packed up my old car and sped north to Oregon. When I said goodbye to Wayne, I thought I had the handshake down pretty well, then he laughed at me. I ignored that and told him he was too smart to be shucking shingles onto a roof and needed to get his ass back to school because he was a born teacher. Anyone could see it. He respectfully nodded and I realized he will do what most young people do: exactly as they damn well please. That’s okay, it’s what young people do, no matter from whence they hail.
Today there is no gunfire to be heard from my open Corvallis apartment window. The only thing coming down from the sky is occasional rain showers and goose poo from the flocks on their way to the Finley refuge. I’m still trying to relearn to drive like an Oregonian. After asking loudly and with excessive profanity if the driver in front of me would kindly hang up her cellphone and drive, it was suggested by my passenger I had nowhere to be in such a hurry that I needed to be that angry. I wasn’t angry. I was just...driving...like one drives in Stockton.
There are places in the middle of the Willamette Valley where you can close your eyes and hear only the sound of the wind pushing across the grassy plain and roughing up the leaves on the trees. The air was warm for this time of year even if it was picking up speed. It carries with it the scent of the rain in the hills and the last bit of smoke from the final field burning fires. It smells like home. It slows things down because you are sensing the hand of winter moving into our valley, which shames the hands of a clock for being too fast to measure the things that really matter. Two weeks ago I was dizzy with heat. Today, I’m zipping up my motorcycle jacket against the rain mixing with the wind and wondering how my fair weather friends are faring.
Now, if only I could stop honking back at the geese....