My posts will be short essays from now on, or short scenes from my life that are complete short stories without me, and always with a point or lesson. I Know I'll offend some, especially women and the ignorant, but that happens when one tells the naked truth. I doubt there are many women or idiots on this site. Either way I don't care. I leave it up to you, my reader, to decide the value of what I say and will never consider your estimation of me in saying what I believe are the cogent forces manipulating our lives today and what common prejudices hurt or help us. My stories will end with something like a moral, cautionary tales, not idle, personal tales. You never comment anyways. But now I have a purpose, to pass on some lessons learned, some fundamental truths in human nature. Agree or disagree. Here they come. The title will be the theme and the essay brief with little background and few or no pictures, except the thumbnail this site requires for no obvious reason.
The following happened in Puerto Rico in 1997. The company Mickey and I worked for as foremen for two years , which I helped build from the start, declared bankruptcy, not by lack of talent on our part but by our thieving manager, swindled out of millions in profits. He fired us to get rid of witnesses and we were unemployed and headed back to the other side of the island, Rincon, three hours away from his office in San Juan. We were neither surprised at this sudden change, knowing his character, nor dejected because we both had outstanding talent in our fields and many important people who knew it. Mickey might easily have been the best finish carpenter on the island and his tile work was immaculate, for the kitchens and bathrooms of mansions. He learned that art in New Jersey and now resides in Hawaii. His company doesn't consider a project under two hundred million. He only builds for the very elite.
We were best friends and often drove together to San Juan for a week of work, sharing a luxurious condo in Isla Verde right on the beach. When the company folded, after one last meeting in Victor's office and a meagre payoff, though rich in lies, we drove home together discussing our future. We would both call our contacts and line up work as a team. I had dinner at his house every Sunday, bringing my eight year old son to play with his daughter, same age. He had a great, intelligent wife and two older boys. Over dinner we'd discuss prospects. We had money in the bank and weren't worried.
Mickey had met a few of the rich Americans living on the West coast and did a few small jobs for them, proving his skills. Word spread, and as all the rich people seemed to know each other, so did his reputation. There was a large, white mansion in plain sight on the highway to Mayaguez, about fifteen minutes past Rincon, right on the beach. It was unfinished and unoccupied. It belonged to some relative of the Heinz family so we called it the ‘Heinz’ mansion as we saw it slowly rise from the ground. But something was amiss. It was ninety-five percent complete and then all construction stopped and it just sat there, deserted, for half a year.
Mickey somehow contacted the owner by phone. The house was at a standstill and the owner wanted it completed, saying he was glad to be finally talking to an American builder in Puerto Rico. He must have heard from someone of Mickey’s reputation. He said he’d fly down in a few days to meet him. Mickey had a long walk-through of the house and fully convinced him he could finish it to the last detail.
The Puerto Rican contractor had walked away and wasn’t coming back. Puerto Ricans have a very simple, foolproof, (certainly ‘final’) solution to any problem they can’t solve, which allows them to go on with their lives in undisturbed serenity. They walk away. If they see something they can’t fix they turn and leave. If it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind. Life is simple on a beautiful island where bananas and fruit trees grow everywhere, easy to pluck. Fish abound in the sea, easy to catch, and everything else is ridiculously cheap. Life is as beautiful as the weather, constant sunshine.
The contractor built the house from extensive, exact, professional prints by an American architect. He’d done all he could, then disappeared before finishing the last complicated details, the double-mitre cuts needed on fancy molding, the marble counter tops, glass cabinetry, the whole security system, and hardwired modem lines between the computers in various rooms, (this was before WiFi). The house was almost ready to be furnished, the carpets installed, walls painted, fixtures up. They just didn’t turn on. Most of the electrical circuits didn’t work because of wiring errors, shorts and crossed phases.
Mickey was handed the prints and told to finish the job at a lucrative hourly wage, I think twenty an hour. He knew he needed me and offered fifteen an hour. We went and looked at it. The open panels were a tangle of wires, most unlabelled and unterminated, some wires obviously pulled out and laying on the floor, the telltale signs of some frustrated electrician trying to figure out the crossed circuits. I laughed at this and told Mickey I had three solid weeks of work. As Mickey took a closer look at the woodwork to be done and a whole kitchen of counter tops, glass cabinet doors and one missing island in the middle, he realized he had an even greater amount of work. He tentatively promised the owner it could all be done in a month. The owner was overjoyed at such news. It was summer and he had a stream of guests lined to fly in, starting in the Fall, tourist season.
So this is when I met Buddy, flown in from New Jersey a few days later and a real game changer in my life. He was our age, (we were all within a few years of each other, early forties), a complete contractor and carpentry whiz whom Mickey had worked with in New Jersey some eight years earlier. He knew his talents well, which people in the same trade always recognize in each other right away, like magnets attracting, just as when two intellectuals chance to meet and begin talking.
It takes five minutes with intellectuals, and a few days of working together in the construction trade, when it’s all clearly seen and settled, their estimation of each other, a mutual rating of each other’s skills which nothing can ever change. Talent is talent and even if chance events put the two of you at odds in personal arenas, make you fight and violently disagree, you can hate the person but you can never deny their talent.
I’ve found this to be a universal truth. The reason is simple. Any exceptional skill you have displays itself in the real world, if it’s in conversational excellence or in carpentry or even in surfing. And those that have a similar gift, or close to it, recognize it instantly, powerfully, like an exquisite, unexpected sight that overjoys them and echoes back to their own abilities, forcibly, which they can’t help but acknowledge and admire, it’s so rare and striking. This mutual esteem settles into the deepest parts of their minds, where their core values and self-respect reside, and it’s never negotiable.
Temporal disputes or squabbles can't touch it. It’s like the bottom of the sea which remains calm and unchanged no matter how many storms rage and stir up the surface. They may come to hate each other and fight face to face for awhile. But they admire their opponent, openly or secretly. Acknowledged talent is never touched or diminished. I saw this drama play out perfectly between Buddy and Mickey over several years, with me a spectator with changing affiliations right in the middle.
Here’s another example I saw play out in Rincon; in a skill I had never tried. It was surfing. I was lucky to be friends with the three, undisputed best surfers there, Richard, Casey and R.S., with Mickey a close fourth. They weren’t friends and very different in personalities and lives. Casey was married to Melaina, with three children, just down the street from me and worked in at a high class restaurant twenty miles away, catering to the very rich. He was a waiter there making a good living off tips, enough to support his family comfortably. He had every characteristic of a perfect waiter, tall, handsome, always polite, soft-spoken and intelligent, a great father and husband. I did some electrical work on their house when they had money for improvements and knew him well.
Richard was my close friend from the time we built my house together, but a pot smoking beach bum with no other ambitions. R.S. was an even closer friend, the carpet man in many of our stores. Over time he became the one I’d chose to spend my evenings with, at his kitchen table doing lines, drinking rum and talking away till dawn, sometimes just the two of us but more often with a few other friends. He’d lived in Rincon longer than anyone and knew everybody. He was a professional surfer in his youth and a contender in the 1968 world championships in Rincon. He reminded me of Steve S. in Berkeley, always eager to listen intently to my long, eloquent, effusions on history and great literature at three a.m., when I was high and carried away, hushing others at the table for interrupting me and begging me to continue on. He instantly saw how rare that was, appreciated it for its worth and we became tight friends.
It was at his table that I heard the hierarchy. He was the best surfer in town, Casey the second and Richard the third, with Mickey a close fourth. They had little in common and weren’t even friends. But he could describe and weigh each of their qualities in surfing like a judge. He had the best overall talent and skill, knowledge of the waves and how to ride them. Casey was a practiced surfer with near equal knowledge, true talent but less than his. Richard had balls, unafraid of any wave and good from practice, Mickey too, but both had less finesse, reading the waves and riding the board with splendid balance and control.
All these words might seem like idle boasts to one with no experience. But I witnessed it several times from the Calypso patio. Once or twice a winter, (not even every year) a strong north-eastern storm would blow in and stir up the waves against the peninsula of Rincon to twelve or fourteen foot heights. On these rare, stormy days there were only three or four surfers in the water, the ones mentioned above. There would be a horde of other surfers, board in hand, standing on the beach and watching, waiting for the waves to quell a little when they would dare go in, but also admiring R.S.’s and Casey’s and Richard’s bravery and skill. Their wipe-outs in such turbulence scared everyone. But they’d resurface and catch the next monster and ride it to perfection. In these rare trials I could see that everything R.S. had told me was true. Strange they weren’t friends. But they did acknowledge each other’s merits, silently or with a nod, beyond any dispute. Mickey once admitted to me that R.S. was the best surfer in town.