We worked Southlawn, low-income housing for vets. We’d never installed aluminum wells before, but Pop said, “They’re easy. Just excavate the old rotted out concrete wells, drill into the block wall, attach new galvanized to the wall with Ackermans.” First day excavating, we broke two windows. We made plywood cutouts, wedged them into the window frames before we dug. The units, Fifties construction, were quick builds. Basement windows didn’t vary by more than an inch heighth- or width-wise across the whole sub-division. We went house to house with a bucket each of thin and thick wedges and a half dozen cutouts. Before we dug, we took ten minutes boarding up. Didn’t break any more windows, not a one.
No problem with the sidewalks. We’d R&R (remove and replace) sidewalks, patios, driveways, retaining walls; all that shit for fifteen years. We poured footings and subbed masonry for new construction. Methodology I’d developed over time, efficient. As a crew we did quality work. We didn’t overcharge.
One day I pulled forms off some sidewalk at Southlawn we’d poured the night before. A man I’d never seen came up and asked me to map out what I did. I explained: Well, I pull the forms, take the sledgehammer, knock back the stakes. They’re wooden stakes, so a good rap on the front side, you know, knock them away from the form. Not into the form, you likely crack the edge otherwise of the walk. This soil is pretty loose, so just one or two raps. Usually you can hook the head of the nail with the claws of your hammer, just pull the stake right out.
The man asked, “After that, what do you do with the stake?”
I said, “Always pull the nail first. It’s a hazard to leave the nail in.” I demonstrated. Pulled the nail and dropped it into the stake hole.
“What did you do there?” the man asked. “Don’t you throw out used nails in the trash?”
I said, “Stake hole’s about a foot deep. We backfill after we pull forms. And if you noticed, I dropped the nail sharp end down. I figure four five years, the nail, it just corrodes to nothing. Gone.”
The man said, “Stop doing that. From now on, pick up all the nails and throw them into the dumpster.”
“Listen,” he said, “I’m your insurance company’s claims adjuster. I was sent here to observe and find out what you’re doing.”
I asked, “What’s wrong with what I’m doing?”
“Nothing,” he said, “but from now on, throw out the nails.”
“OK,” I said.
A week later, Pop got a letter from his insurance company. Fifty-six residents at Southlawn stepped on nails and filed claims. They filled the emergency room, requesting tetanus shots. They wanted compensation, pain and suffering. Pop said, “What did you do me? You just put us out of business!”
I tried to think how a guy might step on a nail buried a foot deep. Who could answer Pop? What sized shoe would you have to wear to fit your foot inside a 2×4 stake hole?
The insurance company wrote each claimant to show up at a particular time in some bowling alley’s basement. Fifty-six men and women sat around some fold out tables and set up chairs. Facing them at the end of the meeting hall, three insurance reps wore suits, sat down behind a table. A display case shining brightly with just been polished bowling trophies recessed into the wall behind the reps. Light streamed through an East basement window, and inside its diagonal beam, dust particles sparkled and danced in a breeze from outside, or so I’d seen in many rooms just like that. It was morning.
One insurance rep introduced his accomplice next to him, who grabbed a stack of sheets out his briefcase and read from the top: Braunreicher. Apparently claims had been arranged alphabetically. A middle aged woman in a tee shirt and plaid shorts stood up.
The first insurance rep pointed at their table’s far end to their third man. With a stethoscope looping his shoulders, this man crossed his legs, rocked back on his chair. “We’re going to process your claims now individually. Please step to the front of the room, remove your shoes and socks and show Dr. Schlesinger your injuries?”
Everyone looked at the middle aged woman who remained standing in place.
The second rep asked, “Mrs. Braunreicher?”
She shook her head no, walked to the opposite end of the basement hall and up the steps.
No one answered anymore as the second insurance rep called out names until more or less in unison almost everyone stood up. They murmured, herding at the steps, then climbed out, lining the handrails. Now, except for one man and the reps, the room was empty.
“Sir,” said the first rep, “What is your name?” The man said his name. It began with M. “Was this your first or last name?” the second rep asked, thumbing forms. The man said his last name began with R, then said it. Then he repeated his last name, and then he spelled it.