In John Nichols’ insightful 1974 novel, The Milagro Beanfield War, Herbie Goldfarb is a VISTA volunteer who literally steps off a bus from back East into Northern New Mexico.
Think Truchas, as Robert Redford did in making the movie of the same name in 1988, two years after I got here.
By then, I had read Nichols’ books and Edward Abbey’s, too, and worked all over the area as a young carpenter with a wife and toddler. I quickly learned to lead con respeto y permiso no matter where I was and who I was with. I learned the red-faced way.
We didn’t step off a bus. For us, it was more like the Joads from The Grapes of Wrath, working our Ryder truck across America from Boston, a place where I’d lived for years but wasn’t from.
Thirty-year-olds will find it hard to believe, but in the first week — knowing nobody and never having been here — we rented half a duplex down by the river and I landed a trim carpenter job in a new subdivision called Eldorado.
Calling myself a trim carpenter was a pure case of fake it till you make it.
I was encouraged to do so by a Boston bar buddy, a young contractor who landed a multimillion-dollar gut remodel on Beacon Hill in downtown Boston. My only jobs were to get the crew’s break and lunch orders from the deli down on Charles Street and spotlessly shop-vac the five floors of construction.
It wasn’t trim carpentry, but I watched, listened and learned. I’d recently caught the carpentry bug in a bedroom that was soon to be a baby room in our Central Square apartment.
While shopping for the baby the year before, we saw a substantial oak crib with drawers underneath and a tall chest of drawers on the end. Way out of our price range, but I assured my wife — and myself — I could make one.
I bought the cheapest power drill, saw and belt sander. And a bunch of dowels and clamps. With ridiculous naiveté, I thought furniture was best without metal fasteners — just dowels, glue and clamps. With passionate purpose and beery nights of sanding, the contraption was done in time for our daughter. No metal fasteners.
Just before the long-planned move to Santa Fe, my boss gave me a ride home. I told him about what I’d made. He wanted to see it. His reaction was mouth-agape surprise. He couldn’t believe I’d made it from the tools I had. He advised me to invest in professional tools and tell people I was a trim carpenter. So I did.
My Herbie moment came the second week in Santa Fe. I was working alone making window sills from two-by-12s and skylight trim with one-by-fours. Greg was right; I could make it. But I was missing human company.
A scruffy-looking crew of younger guys was outside stuccoing. When they broke for lunch, I joined them.
The brothers Gonzales came from nearby North San Ysidro. They were welcoming and friendly. They wanted to hear about Boston. I told them stories and made them laugh. They were curious and had lots of questions.
Toward the end of lunch, in a moment of imagined bonding, I said how surprising it was; as Mexicans they had no accents. There was a short pause of disbelief on the faces of the brothers — then a simultaneous eruption of laughter as the oldest shouted in disbelief.
“We aren’t Mexicans!” he exclaimed. “We’ve been here longer than the Pilgrims!”
Elias Gonzales, who has taught me much over the years, is still counted as a cherished friend on Cow Creek.