A Well-Ventilated Place

I visited my old friend Mike in Charlotte this weekend. When I met him in 1984 (I was teaching at UNC-Charlotte), he was a scruffy, angry carpenter and an anti-nuclear activist, always scrambling for work or headed to another strategy meeting. He was also a devout Catholic who thought abortion was abominable.

In 1988, his entrepreneurial and organizing skills made him Jesse Jackson’s primary campaign manager in Mecklenburg County: don’t laugh, Jackson won. The next morning, the front page of The Charlotte Observer had a huge photo of Mike, me, and our friend Ray drinking Schaefer Light, apparently celebrating the victory. Mike had called at 3:00 AM and ordered us down to campaign headquarters so he could stage the picture for the paper. We were so giddy we just kept drinking until noon.

Today he’s a successful contractor who owns Southern Door Supply (get it, SDS) with his wife Kathy. They got more work than they know what to do with, so they just bought a huge new shop (7,000 square feet) on West Boulevard that bristles with strange machinery—to make doors, to paint them, to laminate them—and bustles with the guys who’ll install them.

Mike is now a pillar of the Charlotte business community, with season tickets to the opera and the new minor league baseball team. He’s also a fallen Catholic who thinks that a woman’s right to choose an abortion is sacrosanct, because it means she can control her own body and, consequently, can claim equality with any man without calling on her brother or her father or the law to enforce the claim.

We went downtown yesterday morning, where he’s been hanging doors and “upfitting” woodwork for ten years. Law firms decide they need a better look, so they hire General Contractors like Mike to furnish and install it. “Upfitting” the hardware on eight doors will cost them roughly $16,000—no new doors, mind you, the brass hinges and handles get replaced by polished chrome ones, that’s it. The partners don’t care, that cost will be rolled into “overhead” and billable hours.

He brought Ron the fixer with us—the old guy who can make blemishes disappear, no matter how bad the scratch or the stain. When the sun goes down and floods the conference room with orange light, you can see where the subcontractor changed the position of the pulls on the cabinets (vertical to horizontal) but didn’t bother to match the color of the resulting filled-in holes with the mahogany doors. Could Ron fix that? He tried every color in his palate, but no, it turned out that he couldn’t erase the mismatch, so new mahogany cabinet doors are on their way.

Then we went to the shop on West Boulevard, where Mike and Kathy had to interview two guys for jobs on the Southern Door crew. I wandered around while they conducted this serious business.

It feels like an old-fashioned factory. Fans as big as your bathroom blow air filled with sawdust and plastic particulates out three garage-size doors. There’s a Streibig Optisaw 2 that would cover a wall of my apartment, a laminate saw bigger than my kitchen. There are drill presses, jigs and saws, painting stations, belt sanders, and a lot of devices I couldn’t begin to explain. Dozens of doors and hundreds of hardware sets are stacked on shelves, all carefully marked for a specific destination. A Toyota fork lift waits in a dark corner to load the doors and the hardware on the delivery trucks. There’s a real men’s room with a urinal, and a lunch room with a refrigerator. Also, a fancy conference room.

I felt at home, for all the wrong reasons—here I was wandering around a place where real work gets done.

Later we went “boating” on Lake Norman, where Mike keeps his 35-foot cruiser, the one we motored down the Intra-Coastal Waterway in 2009 to Beaufort, SC, across from Parris Island, where Marine Corps recruits take basic training (back then, in 2009, my son had completed his training there, and was already in Iraq). It’s a beautiful old craft, built in 1930, now “upfitted” with a green hybrid engine constructed in London. We roamed around the lake for three hours, dodging the wakes of a thousand jet skis and the over-powered motorboats that gouge the water at a 30 degree angle.

Mike and Ray and I used to sail this lake on a 22-foot boat, just noodling around, looking for a breeze and drinking beer, talking shit. Mike and I sailed this same frail craft from Havana to Key West on December 30th, 2003, across the Florida Straights in six to seven foot seas conjured by a 20 mph wind that, by cancelling the eastward effects of the Gulf Stream, blew us 20 miles off course, until we ran aground at 4:00 AM.

The engine was swamped at 45 miles out from Havana, so somebody had to raise the jib if we were going to make any headway thereafter (the main was already up). Mike did it without hesitation and without a harness or a line, and meanwhile I was thinking, “I’m a dead man if he goes overboard because I can do a figure 8, but he can’t swim.”

I felt like a dead man, anyway. I was throwing up for the last, oh, seventy miles of the trip, until we were being towed against that headwind into Key West by a guy who was very curious about where we’d come from. “Just sailing around,” I kept saying cheerfully. No Coast Guard, no customs, no nothing, we brought the boat into the harbor, gassed up the engine, hoisted it out of the water, and put it on the trailer without a question from any official. So much for Homeland Security.

When we were out there on Lake Norman, I asked Mike if he’d take this cruiser across those Straights. “Hell yes,” he said, “This boat was made for that trip.” He and I have often discussed retiring to Cuba, opening a dive shop and a bar (I would of course run the latter): these are the raw materials of middle-aged dreams, what will remove you from the pathetic pace of your real life.

In this case, though, we share not a utopian glimpse of the future, but a distinct memory of a dangerous past—a place we could retreat to if we had to, if we wanted to.   You could call it nostalgia for the times to come.  Julian Jaynes, a bona fide lunatic, once defined the uniquely human capacity of and for consciousness as the ability to narrate the future. His exemplar was Odysseus, more a mariner than a warrior, a man who straddled the worlds of Mycenae and Attica, when the times were first out of joint—a man who was always at sea, always trying to get back to where he started, the place we call home.

I said, “Well, let’s do it!”

He said, “You know, all we need is time. Get out of this business . . . But that takes time, too, you gotta square it all away.”

“Fuck that!” I said, which is what I always say when my interlocutor disagrees. It’s a bad habit because it typically happens when that interlocutor has said something reasonable, even wise. Who am I to tell anyone to leave a life or a vocation behind? I might as well be leafleting outside a BMW plant in Greenville, South Carolina, calling for underpaid workers to strike.

But Mike surprised me, he said, “Yeah, you’re right, we don’t have any more time.”

Once again, for all the wrong reasons and in just one day, I felt at home.

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