The battered, dust-covered cement mixer backed slowly, rumbling and slowly spinning. I leaned a little harder on the handles of my wheelbarrow, knowing that the first load would be for me. Bob and I were both recent grads of Brentwood High School, and part-time laborers. I was working in a city park for 75 cents an hour--my summer job. A perk in this small town, since a lot of other jobs were inside
Bob and I waited for the inevitable with large barrows, flexing our arms. We watched as the driver, somebody in his late 20s, skillfully backed the truck into the tight lane where the new steps would be, not even bothering to open the doors of the cab, just glancing casually at the mirrors, making a perfect landing. He jumped out, cigarette dangling like a white string from his mouth to tell us where to stand, what to do when he opened the mixer’s chute. His massive forearms bore tattoos reflecting his love of his mother and another girl, someone named “Jayne.” He pushed a lever and the lava-like slurry flowed down the metal riverbed into my barrow. I could feel the pulse, the life of this mysterious paste as it settled into a Jell-O-like mound.
“Go,” he yelled, telling me to take that load to the most distant wooden form of the steps and dump it. I moved with the unsteadiness of a punch-drunk fighter, but in this case the blows were coming not to my head but to my underdeveloped biceps. For a time it seemed as if I might make it through to the step without mishap, but the load seemed to want to escape, go to ground, and I was powerless to stop it.
The boss was cursing He was a large guy who seemed to tolerate me and the other high school kids like a mother dog tolerates her nipping puppy. I was waiting for the next yell, but I had made it to the wooden form and with a heave, I pushed the load forward. The regulars, the hardscrabble park crew who labored year-round, quickly smoothed out the concrete and brought it to a wet velvety gray smoothness like a dolphin’s back. “Go back, get another load,” the nicest of the regulars said, lighting another Camel and wiping his brow in a practiced motion.
I was tired, and it was only 30 minutes into the nine-hour workday. This might go on for a while, since the load we put in these wheelbarrows seemed puny compared to the size of the truck and its load. Bob Baldizar was ahead of me, his neck red from sunburn, his white tee-shirt stained with sweat and concrete. “Hey Bob,” I yelled, “don’t lose your load!”
He turned and gave me the “get lost” look that we all practiced in the hallways of high school. I was tempted to try one of the newly learned epithets from the regulars, but the boss stopped our repartee with a massive pointed finger.
“Kids! Get on the stick!” he yelled. It was his favorite thing to say, a comment that he’d picked up from some other crew member, one he used all the time.
Bob rumbled unsteadily down the path. I was glad to see that others had as much trouble as I did. He slipped on some loose gravel and the entire load of wet concrete fell sideways, away from the wooden form. The boss ran down the hill, took the wheelbarrow and started back up the hill. He took the next load, in fact he took twice as many loads as any of us, until all the forms were filled, smoothed and edged. I guess there were about 25 steps in all, a cascade of new cement.
“You and you,” the boss said. “Make sure that nobody messes with these or screws ‘em up. No drawings or initials. Stay here until dark. Got that? Now get on the stick!”
Bob and I looked in awe at the day ahead, a day of guard duty, lounging in the shade or the sun, watching everybody else work while we played. We laughed about the summer, the time that the boss’s 25 year-old daughter-in-law put the moves on us, the great sun tans we’d be getting, and all the muscles we’d have from this labor. It was 1962; we’d both be going to college in a month or so. We were more than a little scared.
It was early 2001. The Concierge Lounge at the San Francisco Marriott Hotel is perched on the 18th floor. I was waiting for my wife. A man about my age came in, sat down, asked his pretty blonde wife to get him a drink. She headed for the bar while he shifted on the leather sofa across from me, putting his cane beside him.
“You from here?” he asked without ceremony.
“Yeah, Monterey. But originally, I’m from Back East, Pennsylvania.”
“Me too,” he said, “where?”
“Small town near Pittsburgh…”
“Me too,” he said, “Was it Brentwood?”
“Bob, Bob Baldizar!” I screamed, startling everyone else in the lounge.
We caught up that afternoon, fast-forwarding through four decades. He told me of being shot down, the irreversible damage to his leg, and the end of his Air Force career. He was with BASF, the tape people. I told him of my 30 years in intelligence, of a life spent wandering through a wilderness of mirrors. He seemed interested.
“Have you been back to Brentwood, to the Park? I asked.
“Once or twice,” he answered with a grin.
My wife arrived, we were due somewhere for something, can’t remember what. “Well,” I said, “I gotta get on the stick, good to see you Bob.” I shook his hand, then turned and left the lounge. I turned and stopped at the door. “Those park steps still there?”
“Yep, they’re cracked in a lot of places, but they’re still there, even those special initials.”