TT with HD: Peter Beal
[Ed. note: Peter has been evicted from his life at 1960 South Maple by
Destiny 98, a Florida investment fund that claimed the property in 1998 by paying $2,104 on an unpaid tax bill from
1995. Legal wrangling delayed Peter's departure from his longtime home and woodshop until this past December.
on the legal situation of 1960 South Maple has been compiled by some folks who think it's not quite right
that a man who's late paying some taxes should lose the land.
PB: [Ed. note: PB is remarking on a statue of Mary in one of the flower beds near the totter.] A front-lawn Mary or a back-lawn Mary isn't complete without the bathtub.
HD: Why does it need a bathtub?!
PB: Oh, you haven't seen those?
HD: No! Let me climb on and we can discuss it further.
PB: Alright, let's see, we're pretty evenly balanced.
HD: Yeah, I think we are.
PB: You turn the bathtub, you dig a hole ...
HD: ... so that it's below ground?
PB: Yeah, you turn the bathtub on end, so that the round end is sticking up out of the ground to form a niche for the Mary.
HD: Ohhhh, okay.
PB: If you go up Wagner Road, between--I think between Dexter and whatever comes next, which would be Huron River Drive, I guess--there's one out there. But it's not the only one you're going to see. Now you're going to see them all over the place. [laugh]
HD: Yeah, somebody left that Mary on our lawn extension one year as a birthday greeting for my wife.
HD: Let me get your picture taken for the standard teeter tottering shot here. [Ed. note: Photography ensues, in the course of which, Peter feigns missing his mouth with his water bottle]
PB: ... he has a 'drinking problem'! [laugh] What was that, National Lampoon or something? Oh, no, no, it's Airplane [the movie].
HD: Oh, right, right. So you seem to enjoy movies? You also mentioned this movie, Brazil, before we climbed aboard the teeter totter.
PB: No, no, that's just purely coincidental. I'm not a movie freak.
HD: I would not have guessed you would be.
PB: I haven't actually been to a movie since I went to see Pirates of the Caribbean with my daughter.
HD: So that was the first Pirates of the Caribbean?
PB: No, the second one. Which are just fine. They're good movies. It's when I decided--oh, I don't know. Alright, I'm preoccupied.
HD: Yes, how is your morale these days?
PB: [sigh] Ahh, I'm putting more and more distance between myself and the property itself, and the more I do that, the more aggressive I'm becoming in fighting for it. Because the fact of having moved out, for one thing, makes me no longer vulnerable to the kinds of threats that Destiny 98 was using. I've also been really lucky in the place that I've found to set up my shop.
HD: So you have actually found a place where you can set up all your equipment?
PB: Yeah, yeah. Back in December, I just had to find some place, because that was when the Court of Appeals didn't reconsider their decision. And I just had to find some place.
HD: So you found a place up on Stein Road, is that what I read in the paper? That's sort of north of town right, off of Joy Road?
PB: Nah, yeah, well, kind of. Off of North Maple. It's ironic, because I'm now living and working at the same place, just like I used to live and work at South Maple. And I'm about as far up on North Maple as I was down on South Maple from say, Westgate. It's like my life is totally symmetrical! Now I'm surrounded by very expensive homes, and it's a very upscale neighborhood.
HD: Have you met any of the neighbors? Does it seem like a welcoming place?
PB: Yeah, and actually it turns out that my immediate neighbor is the dad of one of my daughter's schoolmates.
PB: We introduced ourselves actually in the hall at school. And he's been over to visit. And then there's a small farmhouse that goes with the barn that I'm setting up shop in. And that house is actually very close to the barn, so I made a point of finding those people and introducing myself. Because they were the ones who were going to be most immediately affected, although they're on a separate piece of property.
HD: So was it an issue at all to find the right sort of electrical power? I mean, the stuff that you have, is it maybe three-phase?
PB: Some of it is, but I have a converter, because Maple Road doesn't have three-phase. They've got three-phase across the road in Pittsfield Township at the Ice Cube. Actually the barn [where I am now] was used by the landlady's ex and had it set up for as a welding shop. He was building boats in it, so it has its own gas and electric. A friend of mine actually spotted the place. He has family that lives up on Stein Road and he just saw the sign. All things considered, it's pretty damn miraculous! Because I mean, if I had started out there, if I hadn't been forced out of Maple Road and all the bad shit that surrounds that, if I had moved into town and found this place on Stein Road and sort of picked up where things are going now, it would just be too good to be true. Maybe it is! [laugh]
HD: So you said the 'more distance you put between yourself and the property', so while that's true in a literal sense--you're actually on the other side of town now--but it doesn't sound like you've achieved any emotional distance from the place? Because you still would like to fight for it in whatever way you can?
PB: Well, yeah, I mean--you know what the teeter totter needs--I'm going off on a tangent.
HD: Please do!
PB: Just like therapy, as soon as something difficult comes up, change the subject!
PB: Now, I've just understood why there's a cutout on see-saws.
HD: Right, for your thighs.
PB: That's right.
HD: Yeah. I think in the near future, probably sooner rather than later, I'm going to have to re-build it and that's one of the things I'm considering. I'm trying to figure out how to make it a bit--woah ... ! [Ed. note: PB proves he can be playful.]
HD: ... a bit more comfortable.
PB: Yeah, you're doing this [splaying your legs], and I understand that now.
HD: Yeah, you have to attend to the comfort of your own inner thighs.
PB: Sure. Alright, back to emotional attachments to 1960.
HD: The address, not the year.
PB: Well, you know, a lot of people make the association with the year when they get down in there. Some people have actually come down and said, The place is like a time warp!
HD: Well, the house doesn't have any heat, right? It only has a fireplace?
PB: Oh, it's not that. It's just the general feel of the place. One of my stock lines in describing my career is I'll say I'm a romantic craftsman victim of the 60's. Or something like that. Because that's sort of what set my career. It was back in a time when people were doing all kinds of wonderful, earthy stuff, and Whole Earth Catalog and Foxfire and stuff like that, and go out into the woods and live off the land, and all kinds of other nonsense, which all breaks down as soon as you realize, you kind of like electricity! But it wasn't that I had any kind of conversion during that period. I was an undergraduate in the late 60's, but it just fit right in with what I've always done, because I've always made and sold things.
HD: Always out of wood?
PB: Usually. Just because that was what was handy, and also the kind of tools you need to work with wood are relatively inexpensive. It's only been in the last 15-20 years that I've gotten serious about working with metal. And even then, I don't do that much metal work. Anyway, no, I don't dwell on personal feelings and associations and memories about having lived there. It's a pretty fair balance between really good memories and really lousy ones, so it's not too hard to kind of cancel it out. But people have asked me, What do you do, if you get the place back? Well, for Chrissake, I've been working on this shop and studio to suit my own needs for the last thirty-odd years, and it's stupid to walk away from something like that when it's so fine-tuned to what I need. I get asked, well, Why am I fighting this battle? There have been people who have said, Ah, screwit, cut your losses, walk away!
HD: Especially since you've found a place where you can live and you've been able to set up your shop.
PB: Yeah, I could make a living just fine up on Stein and so on. And I could make a comfortable home up there, at least for a while. But the truth is, though, the home could never be mine. It belongs to the landlady. And Michelle, she's as much invested in that place as I was at Maple Road. So that's her place. Things would have to change radically.
HD: So you feel like you're really a guest on that property?
PB: Yeah. But I mean as a guest I'm being made to feel very welcome, so that's not the issue. It just her place. I told my ex, she's as imbued in that place as I was in 1960. I sort of gave Rachel that opportunity to say something that amounted to, Yeah, now you can imagine what it was like, me trying to move into your place.
HD: Rachel is your ex?
PB: Yeah. And going through this experience makes me realize how hard it must have been for her to try. We were married in '95--no, it was later than that. I don't remember. Anyway. But the other thing is, there is some reality to it. The Supreme Court might take the case, but.
HD: And if they don't then it's over.
PB: If they don't, that's it.
HD: So the only remaining option would be to purchase the property back ...
PB: ... buy it back.
HD: Have they put an asking price on the property?
PB: Well, a very qualified, No. Because Doug Gale, who's the principal at Destiny 98, I've never had anything from him that he's come to any kind of realistic appraisal of the property. The only figures he ever gave me in the very beginning were just outlandish. He thought initially that the property could be developed commercially, which it can't.
HD: What are the obstacles to commercial development? Is it zoning or just the suitability of the geography, or?
PB: Just about everything. The funny thing is, that it is a very peculiar property, and it's something I've come up against myself in my own plans for it. Back in the late 70's the City had a history of--as the surrounding townships got developed--the City extended sewer and water to them, and then those parts got annexed. And right about then, or in the early, middle-80's that trend started to reverse, because the townships started to realize they were losing their best tax base to the City. So now they're at a compromise standoff. The net thing is that there's no sewer and water. The amount of sewer and water in Scio Township is very restricted.
HD: So at 1960, there's no sewer and water.
PB: No, none of those older properties down along Scio Church do after you cross the highway. You don't hit sewer and water until you get to the Uplands, which were made possible by sewer and water that comes down from, I think, Liberty--it may come all the way from Jackson. But the Township sewer district stops at the Uplands border. A competent local company, Norfolk Development, is trying to build on the largest piece of land that's in that collection of ten properties, and that piece of land is immediately adjacent to the Uplands. And like I said, Norfolk, they're a competent local developer, and they're getting nowhere. For the simple reason that the Township doesn't have the capacity to spare, and they have to use it very carefully. People go out there [to 1960] and they jump to the conclusion that it would be a prime piece of developable land, because they see the traffic pattern out there. It's like, Wow, put up a 7-11 here and make a million! They see the Ann Arbor Ice Cube, and Wild World of Sports, and the storage facility that's down on Oak Valley ...
HD: ... and the new branch library.
PB: Yeah, the new library, that's right, I forget about the library! Yeah, well, the library is once you get past Wide World of Sports. I'm thinking about the things you can see immediately from that intersection. And they just assume that whatever is taking care of the Ice Cube can come and take care of me. Well, 1960 is literally the south-east corner of Scio Township. In order to get services from Pittsfield, if they were willing to extend them, they'd still have to go through two other political boundaries. I suppose technically they could cross the intersection of the four townships, and go directly from Pittsfield to Scio. But that's not going to happen! And there are no city services in Lodi. The only reason the other two facilities are down there is because they're on large enough lots, and they have very low sewage and water requirements and, to the best of my knowledge, they have wells and engineered fields. And you just can't do anything like that on a one, one-and-a-third acre lot. In the Scio Township Master Plan, 1960 and all those older properties, is looped into a 'urban' category--urban residential--which means R-1 or possibly R-2. In the written specs of the last version of the plan, it stipulates that yeah, I can be R-2, but only if it has city services. So what can you do there? The only thing conceivable would be to hold on to the property and just hold it indefinitely. And the way things are happening out in that part of the township, it wouldn't surprise me if the corner lot--there's 1.7 acres of land that's bounded by I-94, Scio Church, and the little piece of Maple Road--I can see that eventually becoming a city park.
HD: For the City of Ann Arbor?
PB: Or something like that. Rather than anybody ever bothering to bring sewer and water down into that area, because something would have to happen to make it an extremely desirable location that has nothing to do with anything that exists now. I've been trying to identify properties around Ann Arbor that have had this kind of fate. And I'm sure they exist. The property's become isolated and the city's grown out around it in such a way that the property itself, nothing could be done with it, and they finally just threw up their hands and said, Okay, it's a park! And there is a park on the corner of South Maple and I believe it's the first road if you turned north on South Maple off of Scio Church going up towards Liberty. It's the first street that comes off to the right into the Dickens neighborhood and there's a park right there. It's got some English-sounding name like 'Kent' or something like that.
HD: I'll look it up and fill in the name! [Ed. note: Mushroom Park is not precisely on Maple, but is very close, and is bounded by streets with English-sounding names--Saxon, Waltham, and Windsor. Kent St. is also nearby.]
PB: It's there. There's this piece of land there that could have had a house on it, and it just kind of sat there vacant for so long that eventually the City owned it and it became a park. The little woods across from the house on South Maple, on my piece of South Maple, I believe the Department of Michigan Transportation holds the deed. And unless somebody comes along and says, I really want that piece of land! then it's going to be a park! And if 1960 becomes derelict--which there is a good possibility it could happen--then nobody is going to want it, either. Because it'll sit undeveloped for ages.
HD: So the chickens you used to keep, they've been moved out to Dawn Farm? Is that right?
PB: Most of them went to Dawn Farm. And a handful of them went to a friend of mine's house. She and her finance were looking for a place right at about the time when I thought I was going to have to leave in early December. My realtor friends started sending me listings to things they thought might appeal to me. And one of them was an old farmhouse with a 'large two-car garage'--I think that's the way it was described. Not a barn. Up on North Territorial. And I went up and looked at it, and I didn't even have to go inside. This was just like moving to 1960 all over again from the beginning. And I was like, No! I can't do that again! [laugh] I've got to at least have a place I can live and fix up the work space, or a place that has a work space where I can camp out wherever there is to live. But I can't deal with both again. And then Karen and Matt, I just passed it on to them, and said, Check this out, maybe you'll like it. And sure enough they bought the place. The one good thing this place had--and that was the real point of this--it had a really good chicken house! [laugh] And I really seriously looked at it like, Hmmm does this chicken house make this worth the trouble? I was like, No!
HD: So how many chickens were there at 1960?
PB: Oh, I think it peaked out at about 120. Usually there were around 80 birds.
HD: So are the folks out at Dawn Farm collecting eggs and selling them somewhere?
PB: Yeah, as far as I know they've got a regular business. The consume a certain number of the eggs at the farm and then the extras are sold. I checked with Rick, the maintenance guy, and he said, Yeah. And so I've been sending my egg clients down to Dawn Farm. That's a long way away for a lot of them. My clients, a lot of them are Chinese and Japanese, and just barely get by on the English they have. So, sending them off to a strange environment, I dunno ...
HD: ... well, as long as you point them in the right direction.
PB: Yeah, well, see I grew up in ...
HD: ... Uruguay? Is that right?
PB: I was born in Uruguay, but we moved very soon to a little sea coast town--well, it's not that little any more--Vitoria in Brazil. My dad was in the State Department. When I was living at home we were mostly in South America. We went to Columbia after that, we were in Bogota. Then we came to the States for a while when my dad went back to grad school. Then we were in D.C. for a while, then we were in Portugal. But what I was thinking about in relation to my Japanese clientele is, I have distinct and not necessarily pleasant memories of trying to function in a culture that wasn't mine. I've been told I was fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, and I know I was, because I remember clearly conversations--I remember them in English, but they had to have taken place in Spanish. Still, as a teenager, when we went to Portugal, my Portuguese had gotten really bad by then. And I remember trying to function when I couldn't be sure that I was being understood, and couldn't be sure I was understanding them. I really empathize with my foreign clientele. There's a lot of pantomime.
HD: So if you had to buy chicken eggs in a Portuguese market today, could you pull that off?
PB: Well, I wouldn't have any trouble with it! [laugh]
HD: Have you followed the story over in Ypsilanti of another man named Peter, who wants to raise chickens, Peter Thomason?
HD: He was over here on the totter--I forget when exactly--a couple of months ago. The weather was still cold anyway. And at that time he was talking about getting some chickens to raise.
PB: Is he trying to do it in the city?
HD: Yes. He's trying to do it in the city.
PB: Yeah, I heard something about this, yes.
HD: And I asked him about this space back here for this backyard whether it would be big enough to have two or three chickens. And he thought it would be no problem at all, as far as the geographic configuration--legal questions aside.
PB: No, you wouldn't have any trouble at all. You could keep a couple hundred chickens back here if you wanted to.
HD: A couple of hundred??!!
PB: Sure. And they'd still be considered 'free-range'! [laugh]
HD: Oh, okay, so you're being somewhat tongue-in-cheek.
PB: No, no, I'm not. See, I remember in Portugal we were living in a fairly nice neighborhood. It wasn't right in the city, we were in a smaller town just a few minutes outside of Lisbon. And I shouldn't say it that way--it sounds like we went through country to get to this town. It wasn't like that at all. It was all urban. It was like going from downtown Ann Arbor out Packard to the point where the houses thin out just a little bit. And everybody had chicken coops. Our neighbor was an attorney, and he had a chicken coop, and they probably had about 50-60 birds. You don't need a lot of space. Your typical single-car garage is big enough to comfortably house that many chickens without them being stressed out, as long as you take decent care of them. But listen, the thing I was waving my hands about, you obviously don't know, but you're within easy walking distance of an historic spot, where Uncle Ben--now, they didn't call him Uncle Ben, but what did they call him?--but anyway, his name was Ben Zahn, one of the Ann Arbor Zahn's.
PB: Yeah. And he had been the fire chief and probably he retired sometime in the 60's. And he lived over here on Washington, maybe on the south side of Washington, maybe about three or four houses down from 7th, going towards town. And as far as I know--he told me this actually, though he's since died--Ben told me that he was the last person who could legally keep chickens in the city of Ann Arbor.
HD: How about that!
PB: Well, yeah! He had this chicken coop and all these birds. And I remember I asked him, Why do you keep them? And he said, Because I'm the only one who can! [laugh] He was a funny old guy. I met him because his neighbors, Ivan and Judy Sherick were some of my earliest furniture clients. I would go over there--and I was doing semi-built-in work at the time--and Judy told me I had to go over and meet Ben.
HD: So that early work that you did, built-in's or stand-alone pieces, do you have a log of all the pieces that you did, or do you have them fixed in your memory? Or is it just way too many to contemplate keeping a mental inventory?
PB: Well, I've saved all my job files. So for most jobs of any significance, I've got at least a piece of paper that corresponds to it. But I didn't start getting methodical about maintaining what now has taken the form of a database until the early 80's. Because way back--okay, I'm going to go off on another tangent! My background is all hard sciences.
PB: I was bio-chemistry. My intention was to go to med school. I went to a school that had no grades--that didn't help. But my SAT scores, my M-CAT's scores and National Merit stuff was good enough that I would get interviews. But the story I usually tell is that I was very un-politic about it and I didn't realize you don't go to your med school interview wearing leather pants.
HD: Is that how you showed up to your med school interviews?
PB: Well, I had had a pair of leather pants made for me and they were my only pants. I just wore them all the time. They were pretty gross after a while.
HD: [laugh] Is there any way that you could clean them? Did you just use like saddle soap, or?
PB: In principle, you could just wash them, that's what the guy who made them told me. But the reality was that that was enough trouble that I rarely ever did it.
HD: Speaking of grades, you teach woodworking out at Washtenaw Community College. Are those graded classes? I mean, do you have to assign grades? And if so, then how ...
PB: ... do I do it? [laugh]
HD: Yeah, how do you do that? Because on the website you have these really interesting examples of student work, where I guess--is it the final exam where you give them a foot-and-a-half piece of board and they have to made a box with a lid out of it? That's some kind of a test, right?
PB: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, look, first of all, the program out there is 'under development'. They always used to give the very basic class as kind of an adjunct to the construction program. And the construction program is very healthy, and seems to be very well run, and does a good job. But the woodworking part, they never really had anybody to teach it, until I kind of blundered along. It was kind of two things that went together at the same time. One was I constantly get calls from people who want to know if I teach classes. That's one of the few places where I draw the line. The idea of having people come in and use the shop without having them totally covered by insurance, is just something I can't deal with. And yet I can't justify the expense of getting the insurance. So I've always been paying a little bit of attention to, Where is there a shop where the public can use it? or Where is there something where they can go an take lessons? And until it was shut down, the place I sent everybody was the Student Woodshop over at the U of M. You know about that?
HD: Ah, no, I'm not familiar with it. So they shut it down fairly recently, or?
PB: No, it's been closed for a while, probably at least ten years at this point. I'm not sure. I don't really understand how it was sponsored. It was paid for by the University. I was told by somebody--who thought they knew what they were talking about--that it had been shut down just as one of these routine cost-cutting things, and somehow it had to reach the level of the Regents. It made it sound like it was being funded at a very high level as a 'noblesse oblige' thing by the school. Again, I don't know enough of the details to know why they decided to shut it down, or if it was just penny-pinching.
HD: So how long have you been teaching classes out there at WCC?
PB: Well, that's the other thing about that. I called up Washtenaw, because I wanted to know what kind of thing they did, because I had heard there was a woodshop over there. And I wanted to know if I could send people there. And at the same time, a guy who was on the staff there told me they were looking to hire somebody. And at the same time, Destiny 98 was closing in on me, making it sound like I was going to lose my shop imminently. So I applied and I started teaching there part time. And that was about three years ago, and since then--when they realized that I could teach the whole program--we've been offering all the classes. And admittedly, a lot of them are very skeletal, because there was nothing there, and I'm having to create the program as I go along. And the objectives are not precisely stated, but they're kind of self-evident, I think. I don't know, the very basic class, the 170 class, is pretty well structured, but the other classes are being too improvised. I need to have more bodies so that I can teach. Right now I'm having to combine classes, which means that everybody is being a little bit short-changed, but I'm not sure about that, because the feedback has been generally good. But I know that I'm not getting across stuff to them that I really think they ought to know, even though they go away thinking they've learned a lot.
HD: Is there a specific example of something that you think you haven't been able to get across to specific people? Is it specific skills, like how to use a joiner? Or is it more at the level of philosophy of what wood means, and how it should fit into the finished piece?
PB: No, it's mostly technical stuff. I can't deal with technical stuff at the advanced levels in the degree of detail that I'd like to. Because I just can't spend the time on it in class without short-changing somebody else. And going back to what you asked about the boxes. That's why I feel that the 170 class is under pretty good control--and the 173 is okay, too--because everybody builds a little cabinet, and there are pictures of that online. And in doing that they learn the very basic techniques of working with raw lumber, raw wood, rough wood--which a lot of them don't have. One of the things that is a constant, also guys coming to me in the non-credit class--I get a lot of older people in those classes, who I know have been doing woodworking for decades, and pulling off pretty respectable work, who really don't know what they're doing! [laugh] They've come up with ingenious ways of improvising solutions around the fact that they don't know the fundamentals. Or they've just been given materials that have been partly processed, and therefore unsuitable for really doing it the way they want to. The analogy I always give is that it's like trying to teach a cooking class when people bring in their own ingredients, and sometimes their ingredients are already half-processed. You can't make hollandaise sauce with hard-boiled eggs. But to them, they're eggs, so what's wrong?
HD: Now when you say, 'raw lumber', you're talking about a piece of wood that actually needs to be planed down to proper thickness?
PB: Yep, well, we start off with rough cut stuff straight from the sawmill--well, straight from the kiln after they've dried it. Because that's what you have to start with--I don't want to go into the details--but to get certain results you really have to start with the raw stuff and handle it properly in a considered series of steps in order to end up with what you really want. And you cannot do that if you start out with material that's already been partly processed. It's just too difficult, it's not practical.
HD: So earlier I asked you about whether you had a record of all the stuff you've built. Looking at it from the perspective of someone who's got the piece you've built in their house, or in their business, or somewhere around them, is there any way that you 'sign' your work or put something in your work so that someone would know that for sure it was built by Peter Beal?
PB: Yeah on any distinctive pieces I've done, I've signed them.
HD: And how do you do that?
PB: Just sign it 'Beal' and the date.
HD: So on the inside somewhere, or?
PB: Usually on the bottom, or somewhere inconspicuous. I don't sign it on the top of the cabinet! [laugh]
HD: [laugh] I wouldn't have guessed that.
PB: No, a long, long time ago, somebody pointed out to me that I really had to sign my pieces. I really don't claim to be a tremendously original or innovative designer. I've done some particularly nice pieces that I'm happy with in that way, but that's not what my thing is. I'm much more practical. I build stuff that people need for a particular purpose. And if it looks nice at the same time and maybe even has some original touch, fine. But that's not the object. That's why, for a long time, I was kind of haphazard about whether I signed a piece or not. It's a little end table. So what? It's like a thousand other little end tables I've seen. But one of the people that encouraged me to sign stuff, it was clear from the way they put it, that it wasn't really what it meant for me, it was what it meant for them. It was their special piece that I had made for them.
HD: Well, yeah, right.
PB: And they wanted to have it signed, because they it was special for them. Okay, great. Now, pretty much except for really mundane stuff, or stuff where it doesn't make any sense, I sign things. Or every once in a while--I don't know what I did recently that was like this--but when I've done demolition, and when I was doing construction I'd do demolition every once in a while, and I'd know I'd be demolishing some built-in piece, and somebody had written on the wall, you know, their name and the date that they built it. Or I'd find a business card buried in the wall. Well, I started tossing business cards in and I've been leaving notes on the wall!
HD: Did you save that material in the job file for your project? Would you put in the documentation that you had found?
PB: Oh, I might have, I don't recall. I stopped doing anything very construction-related back in '85. When I started doing this stuff, when I decided not to continue with grad school, I didn't have a decent shop at all. And I quickly found out that, nah, I couldn't do the sort of thing I want to do in this basement, or in this living room, or wherever, with this limited equipment. But people were asking me to do more construction, finished, built-in kind of stuff, so I pretty easily got side-tracked into construction. And got my builder's license and ran this little construction company for a while.
HD: So do you remember what it was you built or worked on for the house right next door here up the hill? You said in an email that ...
PB: ... oh, for Judy? That was pretty mundane. I know I did a lot of little things for Judy. Because, you know, she needs to have things adjusted for her. And one of the things I did--and back when I first was working for her she was more mobile than she is now--the real reason she called me up was to install a fold-down attic staircase. So that's what I did! [laugh]
HD: So if that fold-down attic staircase is still there, then that would be something that you built.
PB: Yeah, well, I didn't sign it, I don't think! [laugh] It was straight off the shelf from Fingerle's. I cut the hole the right size, framed it in properly and installed it!
HD: When you emailed with the question about whether Judy still lived on the street--because you had worked on this street before--at first I was really excited, because I knew that two owners back for the house that I live in, the owners' names were Chuck and Judy. And I thought, Wow, maybe it's the same house! So I checked it out, and asked around in the neighborhood, and nope. But she sold that house to a woman named Jane, and Jane sold it to a woman named jude, so apparently there must be some kind of deed restriction that requires the house be sold to a woman with a name that starts with 'J'! [laugh]
PB: [laugh] There you go. The J House! I ran into Judy not that long ago. Anna and I were down at the Artisans Market on Sunday morning and she was there selling some little things she makes.
HD: She turns things, right?
HD: She turns things on a lathe?
PB: Well, she might be turning things. She was doing these little assembled things. I've still got it. Anna picked one out and we bought it. But it was the first time I'd seen her in ages. Let's see, now what have I done in this neighborhood that I can remember? See, now that I try and think about it, I blank on it. There's a house over on 7th over there, in fact that salmon-colored house right there! I believe that the front porch posts to that are ones that I made. And the way you can tell it's them is that they're fairly massive posts, and there's a long taper and then a long taper, and in the middle, it's like a pair of donuts meeting. So if you go over there ...
HD: ... I'll check it out after we get off the teeter totter!
PB: It's right over there somewhere. I don't know. If I start trying to think of all the jobs I've done in the Old West Side, it'll get pretty quiet and pretty boring for a very long time while I try to recall them all. I've done a lot of work in the neighborhood. Some of it furniture, some of it construction. Some of it work for other contractors where I was making or restoring parts. Well, since the neighborhood started becoming--'gentrified' is actually too harsh a word for it--I mean, people just started taking decent care of these houses. I've gotten more work of that kind of historic nature out of this area.
HD: Let me ask you kind of a philosophical wood-working question. I noticed that in the description of a lot of pieces on your website, it makes a point that the dovetail joins are hand-cut.
PB: No!? No! I think you're recalling the desk of one of my students--actually she's a friend now. She reproduced a roll-top desk--well, she and some other students started it, and she pretty much finished it off. She cut all the dovetails by hand on this reproduction roll-top desk. It's a small Sheridan desk. She insisted on cutting all the dovetails by hand, although I tried to get her to use the machine.
HD: Oh, okay
PB: No, I don't believe in doing handwork that's ...
HD: ... when there's a machine that'll do it for you?
PB: Ehhhhh, it's more functional than that. If it's just as good or a better job to do it with a machine, why the hell do it by hand? But there's some things that almost have to be done by hand to get them to turn out right. I have a very pragmatic attitude about that. I don't have any kind of purist idea about how I do my woodworking. You do what works best. My basic construction technique is designed around using biscuits. Because they are the most sensible and economical way to put a lot of things together. But every once in a while, I do get put into a position where I have to make a solid mortise-and-tenon or something. It wasn't that long ago I had to cut some dovetails by hand. And when I get into boat and car work, you're almost forced to go to hand techniques, because there's just no machines that'll produce the kinds of weird-shaped joints that have to be made. Unless you're going to make a whole bunch of them and it justifies making a special jig, and it's hardly ever worth doing that. There was a guy--I don't know if he's still there--and I think I'm remembering his name right, his name was Michael North and he was working out of Plymouth. This was a while back. But he made a thing out of that. He was making top-of-the-line 17th-18th Century reproduction work. And when you do that, when you go into that kind of niche and there's a real market for it ...
HD: ... a market for a piece where everything is historically accurate in appearance and in the way it was made, namely by hand ...
PB: ... yeah, you're not really making furniture so much as reproducing--it's almost like a historic re-enactment.
HD: Yeah, okay.
PB: If you don't do it like they used to do it, it's not the same!
HD: Right. You know it's like these Civil War battle re-enactors, I would hope that they're actually wearing Civil-War era underwear underneath the uniforms ...
PB: ... [laugh] there are guys who do that. I had a guy working for me for a while who was a re-enactor. He was talking about some of these guys who are just a little too hard-core for him. They'll go to that extent of wearing appropriate era underwear and not bathe for weeks. Okay! But then again there's to be learned from doing that.
HD: Well, listen, do you have anything else specific on your mind, before we hop off the teeter totter?
PB: Oh, everything, and nothing. Well, if I'm going to say anything, it ought to be that the response to my problem, I just can't tell you how, you know I can't come up with the words on short order, I can't say how much it's meant to me and how it's touched me. If I'm going to try to put the paradox of my position into words, it's like this: I've been working for so long in such an isolated way, that it just blew me away to find out that there were so many people who would care about me.
HD: Thanks for coming over to ride the teeter totter.
PB: Thank you for having me!