Lord of the Slums-The Real Estate Reality Show of Residential Real Estate Management (Jobs Saga)

 

I worked in real estate management for a few years. I managed some high class buildings like the Iowa Lottery Building and 4300 Grand  but my daughter still  called me a slum lord because of one property at 4815/4817 University just west of Polk Blvd. The property was not a slum but  indeed that property did have some slum like properties.  Enough qualities to easily fill a short book therefore I will  attempt to summarize.
The building was a two story white brick  that was built attached to and  across the front of two old existing residences. The old houses at the rear were each divided up into two apartments up and down and the front was two stories and consisted of 4 office spaces.

Here is a partial list of the tenants that occupied the front offices when I was the owner/manager.

Feng Shui
A Feng shui consultant who lost her living arrangement at an  apartment/house probably due to it facing the wrong direction and was found to be  living in the office illegally with her daughter. Of course this was  discovered by the housing inspector rather than myself. I must admit that if  ever there was a building that needed a whole bunch of life balancing crystals she was in the right place but I have to question her effectiveness. She often complained because the electric meters for the whole building were in a closet in  her office and the meter reader moved things around in the closet to get to the meters which caused an imbalance in her space.

Coffins For Rent
A coffin rental store, Yup, You rented the coffin for the funeral and then they put you in a fiberglass case for the burial. There are still several coffin rental places and you can still “ get er done” for around $1000 while impressing everyone with a fancy coffin at the funeral. This organization was replaced in the same office space in a perfect reverse segue by a hospice organization.

The Hospice
A hospice society that played music constantly to soothe the clients and  mute the sounds coming from the “massage parlor Therapist” upstairs. The hospice place also constantly  burned scented candles which cause unending problems with staining on the ceiling tiles and a thin film of an oily feeling substance on almost every surface in the office. I will admit that the scented  candle burning did start after an unfortunate plumbing incident which will be detailed later.

Massage ” Therapist”
A massage parlor whose owner regularly complained about the hospice lady playing her music too loudly in the office below because it was a “downer” for his clients and  it was ruining the atmosphere required for a proper massage.

Tatoos
A tattoo parlor that was the only class act in the whole building

Lousianna Pacific University
A mail order university called Louisianna-Pacific University. A very private bunch. When  I finally entered the space because of non-payment of rent I found that the University  actually consisted of a mail slot, a fax machine and a telephone answering machine. LPU apparently embraced  the idea of, ”  no more tests, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks.” Based on the mail and brochures left behind, LPU gave college credit hours for life experiences  and  catered almost entirely to prison inmates.

The Artiste
An artiste who literally forfeited his deposit on day one of his tenancy. Apparently working on large projects like  his wall and floor painting techniques to save money on canvas. His office was a net loss as the rents he paid did not cover the damages.

Something Fishy
An aquarium and tropical fish sales place that had an owner who when he forgot his key or got a little bit drunk rather than calling the landlord to get in, just kicked his door open and then put a bigger security plate on the lock side.

The Gay Dentist
An eccentric dentist who had an auto-dialer that called people 24 hours a day promoting a gay agenda with a message that included the address of the building. For some reason some people were not pleased about a message at 3:00 AM praising the gay life style and occasionally took  it out on the building itself.

Aspiring Locksmiths
Tenants who regularly changed the lock sets on their doors without my permission or telling me. To the point that I almost put Midwest Lock on a retainer. You usually found out the locks had been changed when the building inspector showed up. Even with the required warning that I was going to enter the apartments the tenants either forgot or didn’t care that I no longer had a key. The building when I bought it came with around a hundred keys for 8 spaces. Apparently the lock changing thing was not a new trend. I was amazed to watch the lock guys generally easily open up locks usually with a set of picks but sometimes with a 5 lb hammer.

A partial list of the residential residents would include:

The Drunken Gambler
A drunk who worked at a liquor store. He still managed to pay his rent until Prairie Meadows opened at which point he stopped paying rent and I eventually had to evict him. He was served notice but refused to move out. The sheriff and I both told him what was coming and he did not move anything out. I called him at work before we started putting his stuff on the curb  to ask him to at least come home and get his electronics, which he did not do.   So we started moving stuff to the curb while the vultures in pickup trucks started circling in the parking lot across the street. In my defense he was 6 months behind in his rent I was actually a lousy landlord in this way. This was the first eviction I had to do and I learned two things about evictions. First as soon as the deputy left the scene the material on the curb was legally anyone’s and Second , the one thing that didn’t go to the curb was money. Any money found during an eviction is logged by the deputy and returned to the evictee.

A Friendly Woman
A Woman who had many visitors and no visible means of support, she also smoked a lot of something, to the extent that one night while working on the unit’s furnace in the basement, both I and the furnace guy felt a little woozy and were amazed that fixing a furnace could work up such and appetite in you.

The ADA Avoided
A physically handicapped guy on two crutches that lived on the second floor. When he left, he left with 4 months of  rent in arears and a leaking water bed in his apartment. Today he would probably sue me for access and win.

A Drug Saleswoman
A drug saleswoman, at least that’s what the police said when they threatened me via registered mail, with labeling the building a disorderly house.  When labeled a disorderly house your property can be seized and sold if you do not evict the identified drug dealers.

Dogs and Cats
Several dogs, more than one of which was capable of biting and cats that I neversaw but had olfactory evidence of their presence.  The dogs were a problem but the cats were free pest control

Sibling Rivalry
A Woman and her sister who between them had half a brain. And I believe that  if they ran a foot race on a track  would somehow collide head on.

Ghosts
A woman who was afraid of ghosts and still rented a place next to a Grave Monument company, only to call  me two days later and ask to get out of the rental. She told me that she couldn’t stand to look out the windows and see head stones. I told her to close the blinds but she left anyway.

The Traveler
A guy who lived in a van out in the parking lot for several months before I discovered him. I thought the van was from a neighboring building until the police called me about him. Even after moving the van he continued to use the building as his address.

The Hallway to Nowhere

Not a tenant you say! But wait the building had a hallway straight through the center that went from the back parking lot to the front of the building and that is all it did.
A Hallway that seemed to exist primarily  to supply people with 9 volt batteries out of the smoke detectors and  free  light  bulbs  out of the sockets. As to tenancy,  because it was a fire exit and therefore unlocked 24/7, and a warm place at night  it served as a gathering point for the homeless and with the batteries out of the smoke detectors gone and the lights gone it was dark and quiet except when people walked in the trash they left behind.  I am grateful that no one that I know of used it as their own private warm bathroom.

 

Some Events at the slum
I call it a slum but I was a good landlord and did keep the place up in the face of numerous difficulties. In no particular order here are some events that occurred at that property.

 

A League of Her Own
One night a female tenant mad at her boyfriend took a baseball bat out in the parking lot and smashed the windows of all the cars because she was drunk or otherwise under the influence and could not remember which one was her boyfriend’s

Fire Extinguisher lotto or what’s the going pawnrate for a nice new  fire extinguisher

I was required to have 4 large fire extinguishers in the commercial end of the building Those fire extinguishers were apparently made of gold as they never lasted as long as the batteries in the smoke detectors and always seemed to amazingly disappear the night before the fire inspector showed up.

Friday Night Fights
Two tenants who did not like each other and had actually gotten in physical fights over really stupid problems were a continuing problem. Tired of the ongoing phone calls, I in my infinite wisdom declared that they should each stay on their side of the sidewalk and that the first one to cross the sidewalk that ran between their two apartments would be evicted.  This policy failed in two ways. First it did not ban swearing at each other across the sidewalk and then shortly after it’s implementation a dog owned by one of them crossed the sidewalk and bit the other one. Now the question was posed to me via numerous phone calls, did that constitute crossing the sidewalk? And if it did when was I going to evict the bitch with the bitch.

Drug House
Drugs were found under the siding in the back one of the houses.. Now after my disorderly house summons  I wondered, do I call the police or just dispose of them? I called, the officer arrived and suggested that perhaps it would be better for all of us if I just flushed them as we had no idea what the pills were and who had placed them where I found them. I’ve often wondered if the officer was being nice or it was close to the end of his shift.

Plumbing

Plumbing is often featured in land lords nightmares.  The in inability of tenants to use a plunger, water that was too hot or cold and getting constant calls in the middle of the night complaining of running toilets could, and some might say did,  drive me nuts.   For God’s sake people all of you’ve been using a toilet for 20 or more years has no one ever told you to “jiggle the handle.”

A Relaxing Bath
A call from a lady complaining that while she was taking her bath the tub full of water with her in it had fallen through the floor into the crawl space. She was right as  when I got there the tub was now a walk in tub with  the rim located just below floor level.  Luckily she took it well and  the water from the broken pipes ran into the crawl space and in to the basement drain. Slow leaks do funny things in old buildings and the results often appear not were you might expect them.   Bullet dodged you say on the water damage, well sort of, but when the crawl space foundation collapses two months later you have to wonder if all that water actually went down the drain.   Another ongoing problem here and in other building s was that if you shut of the water to one tenant you shut if off to all and that does not lead to happy tenants.

Drugs Redux

The marijuana growing around the dumpster was so large that one year we had to cut it down with a chain saw. Somebody was smoking some strong  stuff.

Creepy Crawlies
Roaches are almost a given in old rental properties. but a wasp invasion from a  nest in the walls was new. An invasion  that had wasps crawling out of the light fixtures and switch plates all over the building. It was of such a large size that Billy The Exterminator would have been envious. This leads to a decision about whether to tear out a wall where you think the nest is or to drill holes every 16 inches all over the building and inject insecticide between all the studs. We went with the holes and it worked. The wasp nest was actually in the attic of one of the old houses so tearing out walls would have been in vain. The nest was only found when the HVAC failed in the old house.  Luckily the nest was dead when we had to move the HVAC.  And why the Hell is it called HVAC anyway.
Strangely the pest control people never shied away from discussing roaches but  would never say the word “Rat” aloud, often times glancing around nervously before referring to rats as Mr. R. From my pest control adventures I also learned to identify which restaurants in town had rat traps on the perimeter.

Not Grease The Movie.
Tenants who poured copious amounts of grease down the drains in their apartments such that you had to have the sewer to the street roto rooted every couple of months or so.
Speaking of Roto-Rooter another learning experience and growth opportunity occurs when the sewer from the second floor  becomes blocked in the lower level of the building. When this happens and people continue to use water and flush upstairs this causes the water and ” other things”  to erupt forcefully from the toilet bowls downstairs, Usually at night or on a Sunday morning.

Check off the box, Managing Residential Real Estate,  that is not in my future ever again.

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WOW or How I learned That Dirty Ain’t So Bad (The Job Saga)

WOW stood for Wash On Wheels. but it could have stood for “Why oh Why.”  In the 70s Lynn and I started a power mobile washing  business.   I had trucks and trailers  with self-contained high presure hot water washing equipment on them.  . The trucks allowed me to go anywhere and wash anything at any time and I know that’s true because it said so on the side of my trucks. A phrase that looks and sounds good but will haunt your life at the weirdest times.  Most of the business consisted of washing commercial trucks when they weren’t being used which meant that I often worked early in the morning before I taught school and in the evening after I taught school . I also worked  one 12 hour day  or sometimes both days most weekends. It was a dirty, messy job but as a positive I never had to worry about dehydration. WOW worked year around down to about 20 degrees and even lower  in some  emergency situations.  Working year round meant that you had to keep the washing trucks plumbing warm or it would freeze up.  Keeping the machinery warm inside  while the other side of the thin metal in the truck was outside lead to some wonderfully beautiful but problematic ice palace effects on the inside of the truck.  I soon found that rust will always  find a way.

Perhaps the most interesting sociological  part of the job was the lack of respect for people who wash trucks for a living. It was pretty obvious that being a truck washer was a sure fire indicator of either drug use or low intelligence.   I often listened patiently to someone explain to me exactly what was to be done over and over and over again.

My biggest clients were the US Post Office, Frito-Lay, Pulley Freight, Hudson Foods,  Ruan Leasing, the west side McDonalds, Northwestern Bell Telephone/ Bell Labs. and Budweiser.  I did work for most of  them nearly every week.

 

 

The Post Office:I washed most of those little jeep like delivery trucks that were in Polk County for the Post Office. I washed them 12 months a year and they were stored outside but the most interesting part of washing trucks for the USPS was the contract you had to sign.  Imagine a 70 page document to be able to wash a truck.  I didn’t need to see one  because I had signed one.

Northwestern Bell Telephone:  I believe I washed all of Bell Telephone’s equipment in Polk County at one time or another. The problem with Bell was that you had to verify and invoice  each  vehicle by  number each time you washed it. As I remember the post office didn’t check but Bell Telephone checked every number against their list and If you had a wrong number you didn’t get paid. Sometimes you would have 70 or 80 numbers invoiced at a location from a single scheduled wash. . The best part of washing Bell equipment was that it was all kept in inside storage. All of the storage was in secure facilities which lead to the discovery that if you fail to notify the security company when you go in that you will sometimes, particularly at Bell Labs, end up in a discussion with a policeman and a drawn gun. You cant hear em coming when you are washing and the sight of a gun barrel when your armed with a water hose  is always  a calming  influence for me.

Hudson Foods:  Hudson Foods was a raw chicken processing and delivery company. I cleaned their trucks inside and out and to this day the tangy smell of too old raw chicken still bothers me. It was one of those early morning jobs located in Highland Park by North High School.  One morning I had a policeman follow me to  the job.  At that time I was pulling a big trailer with washing equipment on it.  and when I stopped he came around the back of the trailer and told me that he had been watching me for weeks and that he thought it was time I got the trailer lights fixed. The trailer was of course carrying a 500 gallon water tank was  thousands of pounds overweight with expired plates so I smiled and got em fixed.

Ruan Leasing:  I don’t think that even Ruan in their hay day knew how many trucks they had but I got to wash a lot of them. Mostly over in the SE bottoms.  Generally someone would pull every other tractor or  trailer out of the line to make them washable.  One winter day I watched a guy cracking ether capsules into diesel tanks with a lit cigarette in his mouth. I waited in the truck and as there was no explosion I began washing.

Frito Lay  washed their trucks every week. My job was to wash the trucks without getting in the way of the drivers loading them.  It always seemed that they brought back us much product as they delivered box after box of out-dated chips.  They actually had a guy that spent hours opening bags and dumping their contents into a dumpster then flattening the bags and putting them in a box.. I had to assume it was some kind of inventory control. I never got a free bag of chips. Not one. And I washed lots of those trucks.

Baldinger Bakery in Minneapolis used to produce all the buns used by  McDonalds in Des Moines.  They were shipped down her daily to a warehouse in Grimes. and then distributed to the McDonalds.   I got lots of free day old bread from that job as they didn’t do any day old retail  sales they just put it in the dumpster.  Required some dumpster diving but I’ll admit I was in it for the bread.

Pulley Freight  used to be a fairly large freight company and I got to wash their trucks or at least their truck’s back doors.  Strangely they didn’t care about the sides or front of the trailers because their clients didn’t see that part. They did however want those polished Stainless back doors nice and clean when they backed up to a dock. .  $9 a unit for washing the back doors and you could do it anytime.  It was the perfect washing opportunity until they went bankrupt.

McDonalds: I  spent a lot of time of the roofs of McDonalds restaurants as the early building designs had the air conditioning and the grill vents located in such a way that all the greasy smoke expelled from the grill was sucked directly into the condenser coils of the AC unit quickly greasing them up so that the air conditioning efficiency deteriorated rapidly in the summer time. Of course  the only roof access was in the drive thru lane so that had to be done with lights  when the store was not open. Now they are open 24 hours so I would have probably had to get longer hoses.

Anywhere-Anytime-Any Place

Sometimes you got emergency calls, Anywhere, Anytime , Anyplace…. that haunting phrase.  well it haunted me.  I learned to hate the telephone and can still sit and watch it ring without picking it up.  When we were walking out the door at home to go somewhere and the phone would ring I would beg my wife not to answer it but she did anyway and it almost always lead to a trip across town to flip a switch or follow instructions, instead of our planned activity.  I still dislike talking on telephones. Back then before cell phones you could hide from phone calls, that is no longer the case.

Here are some of the minor results of that phrase.  One of the biggest mistakes I ever made with WOW occurred at Firestone tire and Rubber when they called me to come and immediately  clean up a carbon black spill in a semi trailer. Unfortunately no one told me that you needed to use cold water to wash off carbon black as hot water turns it into a thick sticky syrup like substance that just doesn’t clean up too well. My mistake of using hot water turned a ½ hour job into a ½ day job, not a good way to turn a profit.

The most common emergency was restaurant grease vents. The health inspector would cite a grease build up which was a fire hazard and give the restaurant 24 hours to clean it up or shut down until it was cleaned. Strangely these all seemed to occur in the winter time and there is hardly anything more fun than standing up on the windy  roof of a restaurant in sub zero weather spraying detergent and hot water and by doing so splattering grease everywhere including all over yourself. Grease that freezes on you, your clothes and equipment.  That was just a prelude to the best part of the grease duct cleaning because after cleaning the outside you got to go inside and clean the area directly above the grill area. This was accomplished by hanging plastic and then stepping inside of it and spraying hot water and detergent up into the greasy and smelly vent hood directly over your head all of which of course then drained right back down on your head. The grease in grease vents is not fresh grease it is often rancid grease and the smell was horrific.  Then you would get to clean the floor where it all landed. Soapy grease is a wonderfully lasting experience. The soap seems to help it penetrate your clothes and your skin and no matter how much you scrubbed either, you would smell like an old  French fry for at least a week. You could tell the smell was a problem when students started hanging around you at school asking what that smell was and if you had any extra fries.

Ice Buildups We would get calls in the spring to clean out gutters and downspouts that had melted and then refrozen resulting in water not going where it was supposed to and backing up into buildings. Climbing ladders and then standing on 2nd story roofs some of them steeply pitched and covered with ice only got better when you spray more water on it. OSHA would not have approved.

Strangest Emergency:  I got a call was from Barsol Solvents one day asking me if I could heat the valves on a tanker using hot water. The solvent in the tanker had mistakenly been left out overnight instead of being unloaded and the material had thickened to the point that it would not flow through the cold outlet valve. They wanted me to use hot water to warm it because they pointed out that the solvent was highly explosive and sensitive to heat and applying any other type of heat just did not seem to be a wise thing to do. I dutifully sprayed hot water on valve for ½ a day as the cold thick solvent slowly drained. Later they had me following other trucks around in extremely cold weather spraying valves to speed up deliveries to commercial repositories.

Bartering
I have had numerous strange barter situations with truck drivers and others. I have washed trucks in trade for 5 gallon boxes of ketchup, boxes of candy bars, but most commonly bad checks.

When I was washing Budweiser delivery trucks I found that if you acidentally washed the Saturday employee’s private cars you got free access to the broken carton room for as much beer as you could carry out. Other managers figured that washing their car was just part of the deal.

For a while WOW was a member of a Bartering Club that functioned not unlike what bit coins do on the internet today. The only problem was I was always the one earning the bartering credits but could never find anywhere that would let me spend them.

Things I learned:
1.      Don’t agree to wash any trucks for companies using polished stainless steel tankers. You will never get them clean other than hand washing and when they are not clean you don’t get paid. There is one trucking company on the east side of Des Moines that still owes me hundreds of dollars. It’s name starts with a J and it has really shiny tankers.
2.     Do not spray hydrofluoric acid on Stainless steel by accident as it will discolor it and cost you lots of money that the insurance company won’t cover because you intentionally sprayed the chemical. You should also avoid storing hydrofluoric acid above floor level because when the shelf breaks it tends to be just a tad irritating to your skin. We used it to  brighten the aluminum on old aluminum trailers. It is a totally incapacitating sensation when you get a strong whiff of Hydrofluoric and your body refuses to let you breath for a while. Very panic inducing.
3.     Do not blow holes in old masonite siding attempting to clean a house for re-painting
4.     Do not drive through a hail storm with a freshly painted truck. It is an excellent paint stripper.
5.     Do not try to save money by buying 1000 gallon water tanks without baffles in them because when the truck stops the water doesn’t. It is a weird feeling to rapidly brake to stop at a stop light and then even with the brakes on jerk about a foot forward four or five times  every time the wave in the tank hits the front of the tank.
5.      Do send your wife to buy trucks after 8 hours or so the salesmen will eventually give up and give her your price.
6.      Do not agree to wash trailers at the USPS Bulk Mail facility in Urbandale. It is absolutely the coldest place on the face of the  Earth in the winter time.
7.      Do forgive the companies who never paid you for your work but never forget their names(30 years later I can still remember every company and person who did not pay!)

Most disgusting jobs
Stock or rendering trailers in the summer, no matter how good the money sounds don’t do it. Actually the winter isn’t that good either. Standing in Manure or rotted animal parts up to your knees is not therapeutic.
Do not agree to clean out a hanging meat trailer that has been sitting in the summer sun for several days with meat in it and no refrigeration. You may never have seen maggot drifts but I have. From a distance they look like fresh driven snow… but they are not!

Bidding Jobs
When I was washing truck trailers the average price per trailer was probably around $10. Some were higher others lower depending on the number of trailers and the accessibility. The one thing I did learn is that when you orally state a price and the manager jumps over the desk to shake your hand, you have just made a mistake. On the up side you could  could gross $500 on a good day which was good money in the 70s on the down side when you mix water, electricity, gas motors, high pressure pumps and hig presure lines  together in the same truck something is either always broken or just about to break.

All Washed Up
I got out of the business just in time because shortly after I sold it the EPA started making mobile power washing units responsible for the gray water. Gray water is water that has been used for washing and the detergent used to wash trucks used to be strong enough that it was uncomfortable to even  put your hand in the dry powder without gloves before it was mixed with water so not allowing in the environment did certainly make sense. Theoretically every job now has to be booted ( contained by a boom) and the waste water has to be recovered rather than just flowing into the drain. I say theoretically because it’s an almost impossible task and I don’t know if anyone actually does it.

We get mail
I still get advertising  and advertising samples addressed to Wash on Wheels, 30 years after we sold the company.  Lynn who did all the accounting and billing once  got a letter addressed to Mrs. W.O. Wheels. The body of the  letter itself started with, “Dear Wash” and that about sums up the whole thing.

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The Short Cut (The Job Saga)

 

I spent one summer mowing lawns before mowing lawns was big business and we learned that Americans won’t do that job.  In retrospect I was in on the ground floor of what would become a big business but failed to note the trend. It seems hard to imagine that 50 years ago nobody except the extremely wealthy would have dreamed of hiring someone to mow their lawn unless it was some neighbor mowerkid who charged $2 and needed the money to buy a new YoYo.  After all wasn’t that what your own children were for?  Children, who were later replaced by dishwashers, remote controls, and clothes dryers, used to have a purpose in life other than frustrating their parents.

Which came first, fertilizer or power mowers?  They tended to enable each other.  Generally in the 50s you did nothing to make your grass grow more quickly, as then you had to mow it and mowing did not involve siting down and steering.   I can clearly remember our first power mower. We had a big yard and pushing an old reel type mower was a life lesson in the cost of sloth.   If it was your job to mow and you waited too long and the grass got too long, getting it done with a human powered push mower caused your whole life to became a seemingly endless repetition of three steps forward and two steps back.  Everybody wants to be closer to nature but not that close.

We got our first power mower which consisted of a reel mower with a motor on top to drive the reels and the wheels.  I’m not even sure if rotary mowers existed at the time.  I Power mowerbegged my dad to let me use it instead of the push mower and finally he relented, sternly admonishing me to be careful with that new expensive piece of equipment.  Nearly my very  first act was too let it get away from me and it climbed up the sides of an old metal hammock cradle. Grinding dad’s fresh, sharp, blades against the metal of the frame while he frantically ran across the yard to, “gently, kindly,  and in a positive manner remind me of my error. “ He often pointed out that the mower didn’t have a true cut after that incident often with a pointed glance in my direction.

In the 60’s the only people who paid you to mow their lawns were landlords, businesses and widows.  The landlords tended to mow their lawns too infrequently often leaving those “unsightly” clumps, as the rent didn’t go up or down based on the beauty of the grass. Unsightly clumps when I was a kid were proof that you had waited too long to mow but you didn’t worry about them either.    Commercial lawns were usually very small as businesses were surrounded by useful concrete not greenery and finally the lawns of widows.

That could be a Halloween special on TV, I can hear the spooky voice announcing, “and now, The Widow’s Lawn.”    It seemed that widows didn’t really want their lawns mowed they just wanted someone to talk to. On the positive side the talk was often accompanied by an apparently endless supply of sugar cookies and iced tea often served with a pitcher, ice filled glass and silver tray.  On the down side if it was the widow’s anniversary, one of her chldren’s birthdays, or the day her husband died you might finish mowing after dark.  A typical widow’s yard took 45 minutes to complete.   15 minutes of mowing and 30 minutes of listening.  $15 a trip and all you could eat and drink… not a bad deal.

There were always exceptions that proved the widow rules.  Mrs. Schwartz was an exception. She was no nonsense a non-talker and lived alone in a large nice house  near 63rd street.  The house had an unusual, at that time,  Zoysia grass lawn.  Zoysia is an incredibly dense slow growing but fast spreading grass that feels literally like you are walking on a padded carpet when you mow it.  It is usually planted using plugs placed about a foot apart which then spread to to crowd out weeds and blue grass eventually covering  the whole lawn. Weeds do not stand a chance against Zoysia but when first planted it makes a lawn appear as though a severely OCD dog lives there with contrasting green spots in a checkerboard fashion all across the lawn.  Zoysia thankfully required less frequent mowing but tended to be not that much fun to push a mower through because the wheels sank into the grass and made pushing more difficult. Zoysia  browns up early in the fall and stays brown well into the spring but during the growing season will most certainly invade your neighbor’s lawns. Ths is quite irritating, as I have been told by some next door neighbor Blue Grass fanciers, as the green hue and texture of Zoysia and Blue Grass are not even close to the same.  It became apparent that because I was the one mowing the lawn that the Zoysia’s spread into the neighbor’s yard was my fault or they were realistically afraid to confront Mrs. Schwartz directly about it.       Mrs. Schwartz didn’t want her lawn mowed as much for the grass but because she was distracted by the messiness of twigs and leaves that sat on top of the tightly knit dense Zoysia.  She also one day, completely out of the blue, asked me to mow all of her flowers in the back yard down to the ground including a big patch of ferns because they were “messy looking.’  She once asked me to rake all the leaves into the street and then set them on fire.  I told her that was not legal but she demurred with my opinion and we compromised.  I got the leaves to the street and she set them on fire.

Another widow I mowed for, always wanted her lawn mowed on Sunday morning before 9:00 AM.  People 50 years ago who mowed lawns early on Sunday mornings were often not on good terms with their neighbors.  When asked why the lawn had to be mowed on Sunday morning her logic was perfectly clear. She pointed out that she didn’t want anyone, “out on a Sunday drive after church seeing her lawn looking unkempt.”  The whole concept of a Sunday drive is another tradition that has fallen by the wayside.

Mowing lawns for widows 50 years ago  is also when you learned that some people still actually said,” Oh Pshaw.”

The main value of my lawn mowing experience is that I learned a lot about the frailty and repair of cheap two cycle engines, how to use a wheel puller and sharpen blades properly.   I still actually  feel good about the fact that I always did give the little old ladies time to talk. Good, because they often spent most of those times smiling and telling me life stories that for me were bits of history. Add this to the fact that often they would be standing inside the house looking out the window anticipating the arrival of some scruffy lawn mower guy to brighten their lonely day was a motivating factor.

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The Day Cares of Our Lives (The Jobs Saga)

Two summers I worked daycare. One year at a for profit daycare filled with beautiful people on the edge of the city surrounded by material and natural riches. The other for a non profit also filled with beautiful people but buried deep inside the poverty of the inner city. Both were learning experiences. I can’t really explain why I chose to work daycare, it certainly wasn’t the exorbitant salary they were paying. I guess that I was a teacher and it seemed to be the thing to do during my “summer vacation.” The idea of a summer vacation spent laying around and enjoying life that is for most teachers an excellent example of an urban legend.

There was this one kid on the edge of the city who was just perfect, she was a dream child walking . She was caring, careful, smart, involved but daring when she needed or wanted to be. She was a well rounded adult at age 6. After 6 weeks of enjoying her presence and praising her abilities one day after I had praised her again for how she handled another child, she walked up to me and said carefully, “ I think I should tell you my name is actually Stewart and my nickname is Stew not Sue and I’m a boy. And so early evidence of my need for hearing aids and total cluelessness was confirmed. In my defense she/he was only 6 so there was no visible evidence of gender and everyone was wearing shorts and a T shirt.

In the rougher edged  day care at the center one of the counselors was Mr. Brown. Floyd Brown and he was an old time teacher who resisted the idea that the kids should call the day care counselors by their first names. I am sure he felt it to be disrespectful. Calling adults by their first names was in vogue at that time, I’m not sure why, but it was probably based on some child psychologists fashionable socio-babble. Here is an actual conversation as I remember it between Mr. Brown and a child.
Child : “Mister Brown what’s your first name?”
Mr. Brown: “My first name is Mister.”
Child Quizically: “ Don’t  you have a nickname?”
Mr. Brown: “Yes I do, my nickname is sir, you may call me sir.”
Later in his career Mr Brown was fired from his teaching job after being found in the hallway before school naked except for his Bible and apparently suffering from some sort of hallucinations. In some cases kids can literally drive you crazy.

The inner city center went on field trips nearly every week. They were for the most part an earnest effort to break kids out of the belief that where they were was where they had  to stay. Legal or not, I was assigned to drive the school bus. They told me it was legal because it was incidental and  it was not the job I was hired for.  I was the only male, and I could drive a stick, so I got to drive the somewhat dilapidated school bus on all field trips and when it was older kids sometimes I was the only adult on the bus. Businesses used to run tours for school kids out of either pride or civic duty so we went to the Highland Potato Chip and learned of the different lines for different chips. Seems hard to believe that your choices then were BBQ chips or plain. Other flavors did not exist. We each got a bag of chips at the end of that one so it was a success. We got to see hot dogs being made, and manhole covers produced but not at the same place.  I was sad that we  did not get any free man hole covers but we did hear a nice story about why they were round. Round ones, it seems,  can’t fall through the hole like square ones could.

One field trip was to Pioneer Park in SE Des Moines for the older kids. The idea being that the older kids would get some exercise and sunshine. Instead, several of them found a tree with ripe mulberries and apparently exercised their hunger muscle by eating way too many of them. Mulberries and rickety old school bus with bad shock absorbers apparently is not  a good combination for some kids. Luckily the bus had a few holes in the floor which made cleanup with a hose a little easier.

The inner city center  was run by United Way and was located on what was then called Harding Road , since changed to  Martin Luther King Parkway. Located in the basement of a local church, nearly all of the children in attendance were African American. One day I was sent on a field trip to a local wading pool which was in the middle of an African American area of the city. My duty  was to take some of the older kids (ages 8-11) to the wading pool at Good Park for two hours of fun and cooling off and then bring them back to the center. When we got to the park we discussed how things were going to be done but as soon as I opened the door of the bus I swear every kid on the bus just disappeared into the crowd ignoring all of my earlier instructions and my frantic, attention grabbing, yelling at them  to come back.

It was during a troubled time in Des Moines, to a certain extent a precursor of the racial tensions of the modern day as the Black Panther Party was starting to organize itself. There had been several racially motivated incidents that summer  including charges of police brutality, a late night riot and some bombings. One bombing was at the police station and another in fact blew all of the windows out of my lab classroom in Harvey Ingham Hall at Drake University. As an oxymoron I was teaching at Drake to pay for my teaching degree. Much of the unrest in the city had centered around Good Park at Keo and University and now there I was, the only white guy in the area wandering around Good Park dressed in a shorts and probably a T shirt yelling at and hunting for black children in a tense situation.  It turns out that my fears were unfounded as  I eventually just went back to the bus and sat down on the steps and waited. Not an acceptable modern solution but that was then and this is now. The street overlooked the wading pool and I could see most of my kids occasionally. Cell phones didn’t exist and I can remember wondering should I leave and get some help to find them or stay in position. I stayed and to my great relief they all came back close to the appointed time mostly all wet and smiling.

This reminds me of a later experience when I was working for the Science Bound program and a University professor let my 8th grade charges free on the ISU campus during the since abandoned  Veishea Celebration.  8th grade student loosed on a college campus with only the simple admonishment to come back at 4. All but two did and they were later found skulking around the Cherry Pie sales . Science Bound was/is a program from ISU that allows  minority students to earn  free 4 year tuition to the school by simply maintaining an entirely attainable grade point in their middle school and high school years and attending a few meetings yearly.

One day United Way rented a case full of strap on roller skates. The kind you wore over your shoes with 4 metal wheels, that came in two pieces and tightened together over your shoe using a key. Later made famous by Janis Joplin.. It was a day of mayhem and  Mercurochrome  . Mercurochrome was an  anti-septic made with Mercury.So we were intentionally putting a toxic heavy metal on open wounds  to kill  dangerous bacteria!.  It should also be noted that it stung when applied but applied liberally it was as  the kids gleefully rubbed nearly all the skin off of their hands, elbows and knees attempting to roller skate on the rough and cracked asphalt parking lot. Having enough fun in the process that the pain was secondary and the tears were few.

 

Although light years apart the two experiences helped me to understand that the racial and financial divide was real but bridgeable. I doubt if any of those kids remember me but I most certainly remember them and the lessons they taught me.
It may be that the essence of teaching is learning how to be taught.

 

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Gas Pains (Part of the Job Saga)

One summer I was jobless and needed money so I became a member of Laborers International Union.I was the son of managment and my only real contact with unions previous to this adventure was sweeping up nails out of our driveway during strikes.  Initially as a new  union member I went to the union hall each morning and waited for someone to come in looking for day laborers. You know, those jobs that we now learn Americans won’t do. In reality the day work jobs were often simply auditions for full time jobs.   The nickname of the union at that time was rather  sarcastically stated “ Shovel Leaners International.” I unloaded trucks, put up ceiling tiles in the New Iowa City K-mart which is where I learned that fiberglass insulation can work itself into almost everything and spent my time mostly bending and carrying.  After several weeks of various day labor personal growth opportunities I eventually got a full time job with Donaldson Corp., a gas pipeline company that was replacing the gas mains in Iowa City. Iowa. It was a 50 hour a week job ( 10 hour days) and it did pay overtime. As I remember the base was around $6 an hour.   Amazingly some of the gas lines we were replacing in the 1960s were originally made of wood. The wood was drilled and hooped like an old wooden barrel. The old timers told me that you could tell when you were getting close to an old wooden line because the color of the clay would start to change from yellow to blue caused by the gas leaking from the wooden lines.

I was initially hired by Donaldson as a pipe doper, a job description that described both the job and the person hired to do it. Pipe dopers were the bottom of the barrel and existed only because the friction caused by the flowing of natural gas through a pipeline sets up a static charge that causes welds to rust out and deteriorate. Every weld had to be cleaned and then wrapped with an insulating wrap to insure that the weld would stay strong. The wrap consisted of a creosote type material with a paper backing. You heated the creosote side with a torch while holding it in your hand and then hand -wrapped it around the weld on the pipe. You had two style choices for your clothing when doing this job. You could wear a long sleeved shirt and long pants that would be permanently tarred but not feathered and swelter in the summer heat or you could wear a short sleeved shirt and shorts and get chemical burns all over your arms and legs. Once the stuff hardened it was almost impossible to get off either you or your clothing. Gasoline was the cleaner of choice. And was applied by many workers while smoking or a lit torch was nearby.
After a few weeks of this wonderfully stimulating job I received a promotion or actually a demotion. Not coincidentally I’m sure  immediately after a federal inspector, much to my immediate supervisor’s dismay, took issue with some of my wraps on about a mile of pipeline. It became clear that I was not a good pipe doper so I was demoted to a job that  the bottom of the barrel was sitting on.  It required absolutely no brains what so ever. I became a water auger mule. You have actually seen a water auger, it is a machine that is used to drill through the earth under roads for pipes or transmission wires without disturbing the road surface. In the present day the operator of the modern machine sits majestically in a nice seat on top of the machine pushing buttons. While the machine hydraulically and almost automatically pushes the water bit and drill shaft through the ground while its progress is traced electronically. In the the 60s there was no sitting involved. The water bit and pipe was pushed through the ground by two men pushing on a constantly vibrating and jumping around T-bar at the non cuttting  end of the pipe. When you weren’t pushing on that God foresaken pipe, you were digging holes trying to find where exactly the bit was. It was hard, relentless, and brainless work. Little shovel leaning was accomplished.

In another few weeks I was promoted to the position of welders helper which meant that when I wasn’t functioning as a gofer wrestling welding tanks in and out of trenches or running for supplies. I got to stand in the bottom of a ditch in two feet of water and hold the fire extinguisher while a welder cut into live gas lines. The lines had been pigged off so the amount of gas in the line was limited and the  gas was no longer flowing. A pig was an inflatable bladder that was used to isolate a piece of pipe or sometimes to clear obstructions from the pipe. The welder would cheerfully point out that the gas rarely ignited and never exploded but sometimes it did burn and with the pressure in the line was an impressive burn for a short time, hence the fire extinguisher. I would like to think I was a pretend fireman but in reality on that job I spent so much time climbing in and out of the ground that I could have been a gopher instead of a gofer. To this day when I sense  that bright light  my hand almost automatically comes up between me and anyone welding to shield my eyes. One learns quickly that acetylene torches have a way of blurring your vision the next day when you stare at them for too long.

One day while I was working down in the trench close to an intersection the welder and I were startled by the sound of a traffic accident which sent a car nearly directly over our heads into a pole. The trench was not shored up and probably about 10 feet deep. Shortly after the accident the boss came by, got us out of the ditch and told us to disappear. He also gave us instructions that we were not in the trench when the accident happened and we knew nothing about it. I’m not sure if he was more concerned about time lost to the police investigation or the un-shored trench we were working in but I do know that this was the same boss that mysteriously handed out and collected hard hats only on the days that the inspectors showed up. It was amazing how exactly he managed to guess when they were coming. OSHA did not yet exist but I now realize that it is not wise to work in a narrow trench with the top of the ground well over your head. The danger was recognized and sometimes the safety standard in loose dirt trenches was simply  keeping the scoop in the trench against the wall to hold it up.

One day we were working on the east side of Iowa City when the trencher started throwing up old glass bottles and other garbage. We had hit a buried dump apparently from an old glass bottle plant that was near the excavation. Today it would be an EPA nightmare, then it was a collector’s extravaganza as the word spread and scavengers were in and out of the trench searching for antique bottles.

I got the worst sunburn of my life on this job. It was Friday and I had spent the whole 10 hour day in a ditch in water up to my knees, hatless and short sleeves under a bright hot sun more concerned with the light of the torch than I was the light of the sun. My skin was sun hardened and I was already deeply tanned but burn I did! I assume the reflection off the water had something to do with it but unlike most really bad sunburns I didn’t blister from the sun. I went straight to scabs all over my face and arms. It was one of the most unpleasant and painful experiences of my life. For days after the burn just going out in the sun or even the warmth of a nearby light bulb felt painful. I never was a sun worshipper but since that day I have been a shade lover and rarely go out on a hot sunny day without a hat. I swear I can feel the warmth of light bulbs when I walk past them to this day. Hurray for LEDs.

That job was also the first one where even though I wasn’t doing piece work, I was advised to not work so fast by several of my co-workers. The inferred meaning was made quite clear. It was my first and last union job. It was purely a manual labor job and the men and the job tended to be more than a bit tough and rough.  I don’t think many of the workers  would pass any test of political correctness you might wish to evaluate them with and as to verbal sexual harrasment near a college campus it was by today’s standards clearly over the top.  I took quite a bit of hazing as a male egghead working in the dirt.  Laborers International Union is still around but I can’t find my union card so I guess I’ll not renew our affiliation.

You’ve probably noticed if you have been reading the installments of the job saga that most of my jobs so far have ended in some sort of painful or death defying fashion. But it all pales to the first day in front of a classroom full of 8th graders.

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Racism, Sexual Assault, The Police and Political Correctness.

Have you ever wanted to say something but are aware that no matter how well and carefully you say it or how true it is you aren’t going to change anyone’s mind and  it will most probably cause more  trouble than it is worth.

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Pie Faced or Pizza The Hutt ( Job Saga Series)

I worked in a Pizza Hut from my Freshman year until  graduation. The Pizza Hut was located just north of the Coralville strip on 1st Ave, in Coralville Iowa. I believe the building has been torn down and no longer exists. It was one of the first Pizza Huts in Iowa and featured only deep dish pizzas of a kind that they no longer make. I would love it if Pizza Hut would bring it back as a retro item.  The boss was named Delbert and he didn’t care what you did as long as he had his bottle of aspirin(which he took by the dozen),  and the customer was happy and was not talking to him. This allowed the staff which was entirely college students to take certain liberties. The pay was $1.13 an hour, no overtime added , and at that time nobody tipped in a pizza restaurant. The weekend shift was 4 to 4. The daytime shift was 10 to 8. The Pizza Hut buildings were all free standing and very identifiable as they had the red roofs and glass windows from floor to ceiling in the front corners of the restaurant. Generally even on a busy weekend night the restaurant was staffed by at most 5 people. Two servers, Two Cooks and one bar/cashier person. I wrote person but the staff was all male. In all the time I worked there, no female workers. Could have been Delbert’s bias or perhaps girls are smart enough to avoid any job that only pays $1.13. The restaurant was dark, no booths,  and each table had a Pizza Hut lantern with a candle in it. They were highly prized and often stolen by college students. I have gone to the parking lot more than once to ask if someone had accidentally picked one up on their way out. You would still lose at least one a weekend.
Pizza Leg
After a 12 hour shift, always moving , on tile floor and never sitting down, you developed  what Lynn and I called pizza leg which was a dull ache that didn’t go away even when you went to bed.
Carry Out Beer
The Pizza Hut sold carry out beer and at times some customers got a cheap pizza whose price just coincidentally was exactly the same as a 6 pack of carry out beer.  This cheap pizza was sometimes accidentally rung into the register as carry out beer. Speaking of beer. At that time Pizza Hut also sold dark beer on tap and occasionally friends of the staff were accidentally served a pitcher of Pepsi with no ice and few bubbles  that went un-noticed by others  in the Pizza Hut darkness.
The Perfect Pizza
As in all restaurants we had regular customers. We had one old guy that was friendly but always complained that the pizzas were not spicy enough. He usually ordered a medium with double pepperoni. One night we sprinkled a teaspoon of those dried red pepper flakes under each pepperoni as they were placed on the pizza before baking. We were highly disappointed in his reaction as when he ate it there was none and he complimented us on , “finally getting it right,” when he paid and left.
Saturday Night Live
We used to do $1000 dollar nights on Saturdays, and at $3.15 for a large pizza that was a lot of pizza. I would guess pizza huts do $10,000 nights now.   We had a college professor regular that showed up every Saturday night with his girl-friend at 1:45 AM ordered a large pizza and two pitchers of beer and then sat there while we cleaned up. At 4: 00 AM all the chairs were up, the floor was mopped, tools and the work space were cleaned and we ushered them out of the front door which locked behind us as none of us had a key.

Car Crazies
I had an old 61 Dodge Polara that was a terrible nauseous purple color, was riding on retreads made with rubber like cold rolled steel providing no traction and had a battery that was good for almost exactly 6 turns of the engine before you got out the jumper cables. It did however have a push button transmission and a heater. One cold winter morning I was the last one out of the Hut and the car didn’t start so I was stuck. If I could have I would have just gone back in and slept in the Hut but I didn’t have a key. I also didn’t have a cell phone as they didn’t exist. I had worked a 12 hour shift and made exactly $13.56 and the gas station I walked to would send someone to jump my car for only $20. When you’re really cold and tired everything seems like a good deal.

One night a somewhat under the influence individual announced he was there to pick up his carry out pizza by hitting the glass windows in the front of the restaurant with his car and shattering the window. He walked in, ordered a beer and waited while we called the police. The police let him finish his pizza and may have had a slice themselves.  while they talked to him at a table and then took him away for his free night’s lodging. Delbert’s rules were that the police never paid for anything when in uniform.

After I had worked there for a while, part of my job was to take the till to the drop off deposit slot at the bank after work. One night I got to the bank and realized that I had left the deposit bag sitting on the roof of my car when I left the Hut. You very slowly open the door and feel a flood of relief when you realize there were enough quarters in it to keep it in place. Nobody, least of all Delbert ,was going to believe that story so I was incredibly lucky.
Day to Day
Working the day shift was mostly recording some numbers from inventory and sales, doing prep work, chopping stuff, slicing mozzarella,  making dough and sauce. I chopped some pretty soft onions, made lots of dough  which was normally kept in  un-refrigerated 30 gallon plastic garbage cans and never stole a goody bag containing the secret spices for the sauce mix. Each bag had a number that had to be recorded when you used it. The meats did come pre-cooked but were not really all meat.     The scariest thing about working days by yourself at the Hut  was the sight of a school bus pulling into the parking lot. That was usually handled by letting kids serve the drinks while you made the Pizza.

Biggest Order
One Friday night the University of Iowa School of Law ordered 100 take out pizzas for midnight pickup. Some of those pizzas were a tad dated when picked up. They did not order any humble pie

Red Quarters
We had some red quarters that were to be used to play the juke box for free while we were cleaning up.   Somebody, not me this time, got the idea of painting a bunch more quarters red and giving them out in change to the customers who then used them in the juke box providing us with more music. It was the heyday of the Beatles and I will have to admit that every time I hear Hey Jude it is mentally attached to mopping floors at the Pizza Hut

Clothing issues
We all had to wear red checked shirts, and a little red apron at all times. We did not wear hair nets or rubber gloves while preparing food and I’m not sure hand washing was a priority.

The worst
Breaking a glass in the ice chest and then deciding if you had found all the pieces
Making an anchovy pizza – Your hand smelled for days
Someone having a heart attack or liquor attack in the restaurant
Drunks you helped to their car and sent on their way. (It was a different world)
People who snuck out without paying and Delbert telling you to , ” Go get em.”

Free Pizza
Delbert didn’t care if you had free pizza. He didn’t care if you came in during the day and made your own. He didn’t care what you put on it. My sophomore year I ran out of money to the point that I had sold my last saleable possession, my bed, and was sleeping on the floor in the trailer. Sleeping on the floor isn’t too bad but getting up in the morning takes on a whole new meaning when you actually have to get up. This is all pointing to the fact that when I was out of money I ate free pizza at least twice a day for several months. For many years after that pizza was just red and white goo on cardboard…. It just didn’t matter what was on it.

Getting a Facial/ Spa Treatment
The ovens were right next to the door and when you had just opened the oven and someone rapidly pulled the front door open you often would lose a good portion of your eyebrows any facial hair and the hair on your arms as the opening door sucked air out of the restaurant and the 600 degree oven.
You would get your beer and Pepsi spa treatment when you were holding a tray full of drinks on your fingers using your thumb hooked over the rim  to balance them and someone took a drink off of the far side of the tray causing you to flip the rest of the drinks in your own face.

Pizza Rank and File
You could tell how long a person had worked at the Pizza Hut by the scar stripes from burns on their arms caused by the open edge when you were  reaching into the back of the oven. I think I made it to Master Sargent.

Bad and Good News
We never actually washed the pans the pizza was cooked in, part of nightly  cleanup was to put any crusty pans back in the oven to let them burn off and  then the ash was simply wiped off with a ” clean” cloth and then the pan was  put back in service. The pans were coated with Pam spray every once in a while and then put in the oven to set it on the pan.
The Markup

Working as a day manager, during  my last year I worked some of the books and soon realized that the markup from ingredient cost to sales price on the pizzas was about 1000% The average pizza in 1969 had around 32 cents worth of ingredients and was sold for around $3. I would guess that although the prices of pizza have gone up the margin has decreased significantly.

The Buffet Bet

Pizza Hut  used to run an all you can eat pizza buffet on Monday nights.  Mondays were always very slow in the pizza business and I am sure this was an attempt to speed that up.  One night a large group of people came in ordered beer and began eating.  One of them had a white dress shirt and was a quite large person.  We noticed that the others  were keeping track of his pizza consumption by making hash marks on the back of his shirt with a marker.  Over the two hour buffet period the guy actually ate 51 slices of pizza.  He was still smiling when the group left but I’m not sure at that point  I’d let him get in my car even the old purple Polaris.

Actually this was one of the more fun jobs I have ever had  not because of the job itself but because of the teamwork and friendships of the people I worked with in the Hut.

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