Tuesday, November 23, 2010


It’s very cold (twenty below) and will continue to be until Thanksgiving when it will still be cold but not so bitterly. The bad news is that I can’t get the front room warmer than fifty degrees. The good news is that I can get it that warm. My computer room is sixty. I can no longer see the house with the new addition because I hung an antique crazy quilt over the window. I pinned up a sort of tent-door with a hatpin for Squibbie to look out of but she’s there for the warm lamp, not the scenery. The town looks like a sheet of paper with houses printed on it, except it’s more quiet and stiff with cold than paper would be -- more like cardstock. The computer road report is marked with the red dots that indicate low visibility because of blowing snow; the prediction for more snow is ninety per cent, which is unusual when it’s this cold.

And yet last night I had a lively social event -- in the crawl space under the house. You remember that it’s actually “stoop space,” dug out to accommodate the hot water heater and the floor furnace that hangs down from above. I was hostess to two men, handsome, strong and competent. They came to install the water meter we have all had to accept in order to get grants and loans to dig a second town well, replace the key water main, and put up a second water tank. Resistance has been bitter and the two plumbers were relieved that I was cheerful. They are also happy to have work.

Dagwood’s rule is that one never pesters skilled workmen by asking them questions. I didn’t ask them about what they were doing but I was very curious about their lives and what it was like to be a plumber. I hold plumbers and electricians in very high esteem, not least because in the years with Bob Scriver so many of them helped us figure out how to build the foundry just for the sheer pleasure of making it work. The older of these men is from a small town along the High Line that has shrunk so much that it has had to consolidate and re-consolidate its schools with other small towns in order to achieve critical mass. (I am very glad not to be driving a school bus in weather like this.) He told me his cardiologist made remarks about him being a plumber (as if a cardiologist weren’t working with piping and pumps) and he told the doc that good sanitation and clean water probably saved more lives than cardiologists. Haiti would agree. But the cardiologist did a good job of installing stents in five blocked arteries in this man. Recovered, he was happy to be under the house rather than out in the cold.

There are two kinds of meters being installed: “vault” curbside meters which are sunk into the ground (for buildings on concrete slabs) and under-house meters like mine. The weather closed in on the outside meters with about ten left to dig, so they are hurrying to get the meters under the houses done, but not the meters that I saw the salesmen present to the city council. Nothing seems to happen quite the way it is explained by the mayor and city council and anyway the entire council has quit between the original agreement and the present status. While it was still good weather, I took photos of the little Bobcat front-end loader and the cute mini-excavator -- a “steam shovel” only a couple of feet taller than myself. I was so tempted to get into them and pretend I was digging. The neighbors already think I’m a nut case. If Blogspot ever allows the posting of photos again, I’ll put them on.

In Valier since I’ve been here it’s been hard to get the attention of a plumber, much less afford their rates. I assumed that plumbers had job security and a nice income, but these men filled me in on the real picture. Now that new home construction has stopped, the younger man has not had work for more than a year. “But how do you eat?” I asked. Unemployment. Which is about to end. This is the reality behind the political fancy dancing. They do not blame Republican obstructionism and extortion. They say it is because Montana doesn’t want growth and blocks it by over-regulating. (Plumbing is highly regulated, though I haven’t been told an inspector will come to check the meter installation. In Portland that would happen.) These are local men, family men, who try very hard to stay close to roots, even if they have to drive eighty miles from Great Falls to do this work. (Remember the weather.)

So we joked, which is how working class men meet hardships, and the younger man, who was the helper, ran back out to the truck for parts or tools, trying to remember “two female and one male” or “one male, one female” because both electricians and plumbers work with insertions between two things. It was easy to imagine them in bars on Saturday night “hooking up,” and we joked about a former mayor of Great Falls, “Gayle” Morris who owned and ran “Really Windy’s” bar where the exotic dancers were frankly doing business in the back room. The men had nothing but contempt for him. The law finally caught up with him, but not until he was out of office. How did he get in?

The younger man had lived in Valier for a year when he was in the sixth grade. That was about the time I left in an earlier recession and was out of work for months until I scored that job as an animal control officer. Then there was the time Heart Butte fired me in 1991 (another recession) and it was eight months before I began doing temp work for an industrial transformer rebuilding company that exploited Vietnamese and had an unqualified Ukrainian supervising engineer. When I finally got a clerical specialist job with the City of Portland, the constant complaint was that there were no good people to hire. They say the same thing now. No one around here thinks my degrees are worth anything. But a plumber now . . . we thought a plumber could always find work.

Apocalyptic tales often picture a few people huddled underground to escape nuclear winter, desperately rigging some way to survive. There we were in the dirt, chatting to get a grip on what was happening. Thanksgiving coming.

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