If you hadn’t heard, I’m sure you could guess that living in Hawai’i is expensive. Many people have two jobs, some more.
Technically speaking, I have two jobs, but I do the same thing Monday through Friday that I do on Saturday and Sunday. I build rock walls from scratch, and I repair them.
The difference is that I work for Kama‘aina Walls on weekdays, and I work for myself on weekends. I prefer my weekend job; I get along better with my boss. I also like working for cash only. I’m terrible with taxes.
What I’m about to tell you may seem farfetched, but I assure you it happened just as I tell it to you. It’s the reason why I have this scar running down my left forearm.
The way I do it on weekends, I simply knock on doors and ask if there’s any wall work that needs to be done. Especially in older neighborhoods, perhaps obviously, there is quite a demand for repair work. Surprisingly, if you don’t look like a homicidal maniac, most people are very trusting. They believe you’re qualified to do whatever it is that needs doing without any references or Yelp reviews.
So this particular weekend, it was a Saturday, I was going door to door in Pauoa Valley. It’s a very old neighborhood, one of the oldest established neighborhoods on O‘ahu.
The house was a simple plantation-style one-story, maybe built in the 1930s or 40s. The wood structure stood off the ground; there were maybe eight stairs up to the covered lānai and front door. The foundation was all rock work, maybe three feet high all the way around.
The little old Japanese woman who owned the house said she needed work on the foundation, that some of the stones had come loose, and the wall was crumbling in that area.
“Let’s take a look,” I said, ready to go back down the front stairs and around the side somewhere.
“Come,” she said, gesturing me into the front room. “This way.”
I thought this was odd, but I followed her in. Now the only single-story plantation-style homes I’ve ever seen are only single-story. Here, as I soon discovered, was an exception.
The old woman led me down the central hallway, rooms on either side, which is typical, to a door near the back.
“Come,” she said, pushing the door open, and gesturing me to follow.
She switched on a light, and I could see we were at the top of a flight of stairs that led to a basement. I walked down the stairs into the dimly lit space. I could see a washer and dryer and various shelving units. There were no windows. The only light came from a single overhead bulb.
“Wow,” I said, “I’ve never seen a basement in this kind of a house.”
“Here,” she said, again beckoning me to follow.
My eyes were accustomed to the low light now, and I could see that all the walls were stone and mortar ones. The area she led me to was as far away from the light source as it could be. If I were going to be doing any kind of work down here, I’d have to bring in more light.
“Here,” she said, pointing to a part of the wall where stones littered the floor.
“That’s quite a collapse,” I said. “You’re lucky the floor above hasn’t started sagging.
“Can you fix it?” she asked.
I went up close to the wall and took a good look at the damage. As far as I could tell, the mortar had simply failed with age, broken down over time.
“Yes, sure, I can do this. I might not be able to finish today, though. Is it okay if I finish it tomorrow?”
The woman said. “Please try your hardest to finish as soon as you can.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll definitely give it everything I’ve got, finish it as fast as I possibly can.”
I gave her my price, explained that I needed to be paid in cash.
“Of course,” was all she said.
I went back up and out to my truck to begin bringing in the material and equipment I’d need. Unfortunately, I only had a flashlight with me, but I figured I could make do and bring in more light if I did have to come back.
After I’d cleaned up the wall around the damaged area, and knocked the old mortar off the rocks that had fallen, I mixed up a first batch of mortar, then began placing the stones. Working in the low light proved more challenging. Between all of the set-up and prep, I didn’t get as far as I’d hoped, but I was still optimistic I could finish the next day.
Leaving, as I came to the top of the stairs, the old woman met me.
“Did you finish?” she asked.
“Oh, no, sorry, as I guessed, it’s a two-day job.”
The way she looked at me, I thought she would cry. I almost started to cry reflexively.
I said, “Remember, I told you it was probably a two-day job.”
“Yes, yes,” she said, nodding sadly, a faraway look in her eyes. “I know. I still hoped you could finish today.”
“Well,” I said, “I guess if I go home and get some more light, I could come back. If I had more light down there, the work would go faster.”
“Really?” the old woman said. “Could you do that? Come back later?”
“Well, yes,” I said. “If it means that much to you, ma’am, to finish tonight, let me go home and pick up more light. I’ll come right back.”
“Oh, thank you so much,” said the old woman. “I really appreciate your help to finish this.”
I drove home and looked around for more light. I had two lanterns and a couple more flashlights. I figured that would do. I made myself a salami sandwich, downed it, then carried everything out to my truck. As I was loading up, it dawned on me that I had another lantern in my basement workshop.
When I got to the top of the stairs, I flipped the switch, but the light didn’t go on. Great, I thought, that’s two basements today with lighting problems.
I knew where the lantern was sitting on my workbench, so I made my way down the stairs. Inching along the floor, I was feeling for the table with my left hand. All of sudden, as though the overhead light had come on, I saw the face of the old woman clear as day. Her expression was one of pure terror.
I freaked out, tried to step backward, but she grabbed ahold of my left arm. It felt like she’d crush it.
“Hurry!” she screamed, the sound so piercing I thought I would go deaf.
I remember falling. I remember the horrible pain in my left arm.
The next thing I knew, I came awake on my back. My left arm throbbed like a heavy metal drummer was beating on it. I stood up and tried to feel where I was with my right hand. I was at my bench. I reached for the lantern and turned it on. The table vice was a bloody mess. So was my arm. Somehow I must have gotten it twisted in the vice. Of course. And I was tired. That vision of the old Japanese lady was something that popped out of a fatigued brain.
All I could think was to get to the Queen’s Hospital ER. It took 12 stitches. They prescribed meds with codeine for the pain, but I surprised myself by not needing any of it. When I got home, I fell asleep and didn’t stir until the sun was well up.
I tested my arm, getting out of bed, and although it was stiff and a little sore, I knew I could at least drive over to apologize to the old woman.
When I arrived at the house in the back of Pauoa Valley, I was pretty surprised at what I found. I got out of my truck and stepped back, looked at the houses on both sides, then up and down the street. No, this was the right place. It had to be. But the house.
I walked through what was left of the front gate. The yard, what there was of it, was all tall weeds. In the middle of the lot sat a huge pile of rubble. The house that had been there had obviously collapsed. There was yellow tape stretched across the heap of wood and stone.
My arm began to throb. My head too. I couldn’t be in the wrong place, could I?
I turned around.
A middle-aged Japanese man ssaid, “Can I help you with something?”
“I . . . I was here yesterday, in this house. I’m sure it was this house. I was working on repairing part of the foundation in the basement. This older Japanese woman, she hired me. All my stuff, my equipment, the mortar, everything, is in the basement.”
The man gave me a hard look. “I live next door. You could not have been in the basement yesterday. This house is abandoned. It was my mother’s house. The foundation failed. It collapsed.”
“Is, is your mother all right?” I asked.
The man teared up. “No, she was killed when the house collapsed. She was doing laundry in the basement.”
This was all too fantastic. “I swear, sir, I am not crazy,” I said. “I really was in there yesterday. Your mot – the woman hired me to repair the foundation.”
The man looked at me, his eyes watering. “It’s interesting that you imagined doing this work of rebuilding the foundation yesterday. It was one year ago today that my mother died.”
I drove around the neighborhood just to be sure I had the correct location. Nowadays, I wonder, if they excavated that rubble, whether they would find all of my stuff in the basement. It doesn’t seem likely, right? But I tell you what’s been very real for me. I’ve had to replace all of the tools and equipment I imagined losing. That’s been something I’ve not had to wonder about at all.