When I say I hope some work comes in, what I’m really saying is that I hope someone’s house burns down and they lose most of everything they owned so that I’ll get some money to buy things I need and put them in my unburned-down house. Basically, if someone’s home doesn’t catch fire somewhere on the West Coast every month, I cannot pay my bills, or even dream about taking Pilates and strengthening my core.
Sure, I’m on the “good” side of natural disaster inventory, and not working for an insurance company whose ultimate goal is to keep client’s monetary losses to a minimum, but making a (small) fortune on other people’s misfortune can still cause some cognitive dissonance. Especially when I get excited about, for example, this e-mail:
“A run away tractor trailer hit a house and everything exploded. House is to the ground. Driver of the truck dead. Owners are suing the trucking company. Can you do it?”
Of course I can do it. I have $44 in my bank account. I emailed back asking where Incline Village was and tried not to think about the trucker’s last moments. When I learned that Incline Village was nestled among the pine trees at the shores of Lake Tahoe, I couldn’t wait to do the job and pictured myself going on trail runs before work and sipping liquored hot cocoa at a lodge afterward while googling the Donner Party.
Unfortunately, that job fell through—meaning it went to someone else, or it was still under investigation. But luck soon swung my way. A woman had rented the top floor of her new home to a loose screw who stood around naked in front of windows for a month, then lit the place on fire and disappeared. Even more luck got sprinkled on top of my luck when I learned the woman lived in Kauai. I’d never been to Hawaii, and now I was getting paid to go. Even better, I could charge for the travel time, which was about twenty hours. Making money while traveling to Hawaii was perhaps the most stereotypically successful I have ever been. Never mind that when I got there I had to rummage through her boyfriend’s smoky duffle bags full of porno DVDs. Who cares that when I finally yanked open her water-logged silverware drawers, I was splashed with putrid brackish water and that some of it went into my mouth. I was in Hawaii! The Aloha State! Also, never mind that I only had three hours of free time, and I blew the whole wad on the patio of Tomkat’s Grill eating so-so poki tuna and watching free-range roosters interact with stray cats.
The second most stereotypically successful I have ever been was when Ronald’s house burned down in a beautiful coastal California town, and I was forced to spend a week at a quaint bed and breakfast in nearby Half Moon Bay. Ronald’s home was set ablaze by a wood-burning stove and burned so thoroughly that there was nothing left to physically inventory except bricks. Although he looked and lived like a pioneer, owning almost nothing, the interview process took a week because Ronald insisted on meeting me at the town general store and was always late, stoned and absent several teeth. Any sentence out of Ronald’s mouth was hard-won and usually missing some vowel sounds. When I plied him for more information about anything he claimed to have collected (and he collected everything from fossils to Renaissance garb to beakers to bayonets), he’d give up and say, “Oh, it was just a bunch of junk.”
So, I’d get up from our booth in the corner of the store, pour us more coffee, and ask him about his days as a “revolutionary,” right after he dropped out of Dartmouth to “ban the bomb” (and, I guess, an Ivy League education). We talked about antiques, Civil War cannons, the value of bread. I wasn’t trying to accumulate work hours with random banter, I’d just discovered that Ronald was better at telling me what he’d owned through conversation. For instance, he told me that his last name meant “blower of leaves” and then he said, “Oh, I had one of those.” Trying to crack a toothless smile out of him, I said “A last name?” But he said, “No. A leaf blower.”
Many billable hours later, I got the job done. Before then, each day ended with Ronald standing up at random times and saying, “Well, see ya tomorrow,” at which point, I was free to wander around his town snapping artistic photos of crumbling buildings, then drive through green hills to the beach and watch the sunset. When that was over, I’d go back to Half Moon Bay, find a burger and a beer, put it on the company tab, then slip into a king size bed with a handmade quilt and fall asleep, cozy, sated, and feeling very much on vacation.
As sorry as I feel for people like Ronald who lose a lifetime of carefully collected “junk” or the lady in Hawaii who rented her top floor to a sadistic man, I’ve come to accept that disaster strikes (in some really beautiful parts of our country) on a fairly regular basis. And if it weren’t for me, it’d be somebody else—perhaps someone less meticulous who doesn’t bother estimating thread count to maximize a person’s total loss—who’d be sitting around wishing someone falls asleep with a lit cigarette or has a bird’s nest in their dryer vent.