CATEGORY: MORE PORT TOWNSEND
In 1976 I moved from Portland to Port Townsend and opened my own architectural office in the house that my then-husband and I had purchased as a second home. Doing such a thing in such a small town was a risky move. However it proved to be advantageous. The town was just on the brink of being discovered as a popular antique town, and from the day I started I was never without work.
I had been in business for several years when Tom Burke came to my door asking for a job. By then I needed help, and I had someone working for me: “J”, a woman who had gone to architectural school for two years. She should have been paying me to work for me, because I was teaching her as we went along. She could draw a floor plan to scale, and that was about all.
Even though the town was home to many strange looking people at that time, few were as scroungy looking as Tom. When I opened the door to his knock I wondered if I were being stalked by the Grim Reaper. He had long unkempt graying hair; his face was gaunt and his expression haggard. I didn’t know how old he was. Maybe he was in his thirties, but he looked like a replica of Old Father Time. He said he was an experienced architectural draftsman and that he had an architectural degree from the University of Chicago. He said he had worked for some famous architects including Paul Rudolph and Richard Meyer. I was put off by the way he looked. I said that I already had somebody (giving J the excessive title of “somebody”) and didn’t need anyone else.
He came by again a couple of weeks later; again I said no. How could I prefer someone like J to someone who seemed to have great qualifications but looked like Tom did? It made me wonder about myself.
The third time he came to my door I was trying desperately to get my work caught up so I could take a trip to Portugal. I had two extra people working for me temporarily and we didn’t seem to be getting anything accomplished. I hesitantly told him I could only pay him five dollars an hour. He said, “I’ll work for that.” I opened the door and said, “Come right on in.” I sat him down at a drafting board; I gave him some drawings and told him what I wanted. He knew exactly what to do. Before I left on my trip I told J I didn’t need her any more. I told Tom that when I got back, he had a job.
Tom worked for me until I retired; I can’t remember how many years that was. Shortly after he started, I took the guest bed out of the front bedroom, which opened into my work space which was in the front end of my long living room. I put a work table and a large drafting board in the room, so he could have his own office. He really liked having a space of his own. He was very neat except for one little habit he had. He liked to wad up the little pieces of used drafting tape and flick them at the waste basket. Sometimes they hit the basket and sometimes they didn’t.
I paid him at the end of every day because, at the end of the first day, he said he needed money badly and asked for that days wages. The next day I paid him the same way, and so it was for all the days thereafter. This method of payment worked out well for me too, because I tend to be a careless record keeper. When I paid him, I wrote on his check (and hence by carbon to the tissue beneath) the name of the job and the hours spent. That way I had a dated, itemized, daily record, even if I forgot to put the time in my main record book. He never asked for more money, but I gave him regular raises. He was worth more than I could ever pay him.
I could tell that he drank from the way he smelled on some mornings and especially on Mondays. These were times that I was glad he was in a separate room. He told me that he was a quarter American Indian. I had read that Indians lack a gene, or some such thing, that makes them easily addicted to alcohol, which is why so many are alcoholics.
I also knew that he used marijuana, because once I bought a surgical tweezers at a garage sale, and I thought it was such a nifty gadget that I showed it to him. He got a strange look on his face, and when I questioned him, he told me that, because these tweezers had their own clamps, they were used for smoking marijuana. I didn’t understand how tweezers could be used in smoking, but I didn’t ask. I didn’t smoke, but I always thought it was done with two fingers.
In all those years, Tom was never late to work despite the fact that he had to walk four miles from where he lived west of town. His wife sometimes brought him to work and picked him up afterwards. He told me that he had been convicted of drunken driving and his license had been taken away. What I didn’t know, but found out from someone else, was that he had been in the Viet Nam war and had been in the hospital for what was then called “shell shock”. He was still trying to get his life together.
However, he really did have a degree in architecture from the University of Chicago and he really had worked for Paul Rudolph and the other architects he mentioned. He used to tell me stories about things that happened in those offices. One I remember is that, when he was working for Richard Meyer, Meyer was sued by a couple for whom he had designed a house, because the house over heated so badly that the windows broke. Richard Meyer is famous for his white and glass boxes, most of which have no overhangs or any other means of sun protection. I loved hearing this because I have always strongly disliked style over function and livability. I believe that designers like Richard Meyer, and especially Frank Gehry with his exotically fantastic shapes, are basically sculptors. I read recently that one of Ghery’s famous museums had sprung a leak, and no one has been able to figure out how to fix it. Maybe they will have to send tiny spacemen in drones into the inner works of the outer extravaganza to find the leak and figure out how to seal it with rubber cement.
Big name architectural offices use graduates of architecture as starting draftsmen and pay them very little. These young people usually are given one small part of a building to draw and they do similar details of that part over and over. Tom said he liked working for me because he got to draw whole buildings. A few years ago, after I had moved to Central Oregon, one of my Port Townsend friends happened to meet Tom on a downtown sidewalk. In the course of their conversation, he told her that he had learned more from me than from anyone he had ever worked for. Perhaps it was because, like he said, he got to work on whole buildings, and maybe because the two of us always turned out very complete drawings. We worked out even the smallest details.
Tom and I got along beautifully. In all the years he worked for me, there was only one unfortunate incident. One Monday morning he did not show up for work. I got a phone call. He was in jail. He had been arrested for drunken driving, and driving without a license. His jail sentence was for one month. The county had a “work release” program. He could be released during the day if I would verify that he came to work every day. I said I would be willing to sign for that. The jail was near Chimacum, about ten miles out of town. I can’t remember what transportation he used to get to and from the jail: maybe there was a bus or maybe his wife picked him up and returned him. One weekend, when he only had a few days left of his sentence, he went home after work on Friday instead of going back to the jail. He got drunk and then drove his car out to the parking lot of Reid’s Market in Hadlock, about a mile from the jail, and walked from there showing up intoxicated in the middle of the night. They gave him extra time without work release. I was chagrined because I had a lot of work, and I needed him. When he finally came back to work, I said, “Tom, look, why don’t you do something about your drinking? Why don’t you, like maybe, join Alcoholics Anonymous?” He reared back like a shying horse and said, “I’M not an alcoholic!” By coincidence, I had recently read an article about alcoholism. I articulately repeated what I had read. “The definition of an alcoholic,” I said with photographic memory precision, “is someone who’s drinking interferes with his or her life to the point that he or she cannot carry on a normal life.” I primly continued: “Do you mean to tell me that you are leading a normal life when your driver’s license has been revoked due to drinking, and your wife has to drive you to and from work–that you aren’t even able to drive yourself anywhere?” He had no answer so he just went in and went to work and we never mentioned it again. Those were the only unpleasant words we ever had.
Once on a weekend I found I needed to get in touch with Tom. He didn’t have a phone so I decided to drive out to his house. He had told me once where it was. He always spoke of his place fondly; he owned acreage and was gradually finishing a house he had started. It was in a ravine off of Cook Road, and he had told me once that, when it rained, they had to leave their car near the road and walk into the ravine because it was too muddy. It wasn’t mud season when I decided to go there, so I ventured to drive in. It was a steep two-rut (and I do mean rut), eroded dirt driveway, full of potholes and about a quarter of a mile long. Although I drove very slowly up on the edge out of the ruts, and in the lowest gear of my little Volkswagen, I wondered with each clunking foot of the way if I would ever be able to get back out. When I got to the bottom of the gulch, there was Tom’s house. The yard around it was littered with old car parts, car seats, barrels, old boards, broken furniture, and other junk too thick to comprehend in one brief visit. The house reminded me of the Indian village of Celilo on the Columbia River, in Oregon, which we used to pass on our way from Grass Valley to The Dalles when I was a child. The town was only seasonal and was an extensive conglomeration of shacks thrown together using canvas covered bed springs and old boards that had probably been scavenged from drift wood. Suffice it to say that Tom’s house was also built of old boards that probably came from the beach.
Tom was there when I arrived. He proudly showed me around. Part of his pride seeped in, and I found myself appreciating what he had accomplished with very little. His young daughter was there and he introduced me to her. I knew from our past conversations that she was the light of his life.
When I was sixty three, I figured out I would have enough money for an early retirement if I sold my house. I was burned out and wanted to move to a climate like the one east of the Cascade Mountains where I grew up–a place where there was blue sky and sunshine. I loved Port Townsend and I loved my house, but I was tired of all the gray weather. I will never forget the expression on Tom’s face when I told him I was retiring–that I was going to put my house up for sale and leave Port Townsend. He looked as though I had given him a body blow. I told him I was really sorry.
Looking back I think I was a stabilizing influence in his life. He had a steady job and daily pay during those years. And, although I was not one of his drinking buddies, we were friends.
A few years ago Tom called me just to say hello. I was then living in Central Oregon and he in Montana. He told me his daughter was now a lawyer and was living in Virginia. I asked him about his Port Townsend property. He said that someone had cheated him out of it. He also gave me his email address, but said he wasn’t fond of email. Now when I occasionally send him emails, I never hear back from him. Neither do I get a “not deliverable” message, so I never know whether or not he gets them.
I always think of Tom with fondness. I hope he is still alive, sober most of the time, and doing well, wherever he is.