Ya ever take nineteen 90 pound sacks of cement to the chest?

I have. I was a landscaper for a while in San Diego, years ago. I loved it. Out in the sunshine, feet in the dirt, free avocados, working in back yards, often with an ocean view. It was hard work but it paid well and I had three babies.

Part of what we did was the dreaded mow strips. The four-inch little concrete curb that curves around the edge of the lawn. With one set of wheels on the curb and one set in the grass a mower could cut the grass on a slight angle, topping it at curb height. No edging.

They were very popular then but the fun part was outside the curb where we planted all the cool stuff. Our designers, a couple, had degrees in plant stuff and environmental history and impact. A plus for us they had an aesthetic that fit perfectly in the eco-friendly landscape of San Diego. They were very good at riding the fine line between environmentally sound beauty and strange invasive species. They showed up with something fresh for a weary real estate market sick of ice plant. They were so smart they were eventually paid by the Australian government to move down there and hired to manage a city’s projects or something awesome with kangaroos or both. I don’t remember really.

Lovely people, also working there with me were a witch and a warlock guy that was a little weird. He ran a Rocky Horror night at the local theater on the weekends. She was the welder and made awesome wind chimes out of forks and spoons and stuff she found on the beach. We also had the chainsaw vegan. An artist with dirt and a chainsaw, he made stuff out of railroad ties that rivaled our rock formations and were often more appropriate looking with the plants. Then me and a buddy that I had been working with when I was a welder making equine equipment. He convinced me to take the landscape gig. We worked together, we partied together, we raised kids together. I miss that guy.

We had a wacky and thoroughly competent crew. Almost over-qualified and all of us anxious to work hard and all motivated to MAKE MONEY together. We all had dreams we were working on and we helped each other whenever we could in any way we could. All in all we had an amazing team. We did really good work. We planted the right things for the yard to fit the house. We made awesome sculptures and railroad tie wall contraptions. We made natural patios with water features and my favorite the rock formations with real boulders. My first wife and I had a business called “we got rocks and shit” just so we could go out in the boonies and collect boulders in my old pickup truck and sell them to the pseudo-rich coastal elites a few blocks up from the water. Easy money!

Making a mowing strip isn’t difficult, it’s just a lot of work. Our designer had a chalking tool she made out of a coffee can with a bunch of holes in the bottom. She’d shake it and create the path for the curves freehand. She’d mark a line in the dirt that would follow the edge between what would be the lawn and the planting area. Next you take a mattock and dig a shallow trench following the chalk line. A mattock is the perfect tool. There are sort of two types. It looks like one of those double-headed pick axes the miners use. However a mattock has a pointy pick on one head and a flat hoe-shaped blade on the other. Another type has a hatchet as the other head instead of the pointy pick. One is for breaking rocks the other for cutting roots. You really probably need one of each. Two passes around the whole thing leaving the dirt to backfill with later.

You end up with this sort of railroad track looking thing with a row of dirt on each side, six inch ditch in the middle. Don’t throw the dirt too far you have to put it back. In the garden center you can buy this stuff called bender board. It is usually sold in long lengths, usually redwood, usually four (3.5) inches wide and you can get 1x1x8 inch stakes that match. You’ll need a box of duplex nails if you want to reuse all that stuff later. They have two heads. One that holds it together with an extra that sticks up so you can pull it out easy later. We had grown quite a pile and we oiled ours so we could reuse it. With this you make the form for the concrete. Following the trench you tap a 12-foot long piece of bender board upright on either side. Pounding stakes on the outside to keep its shape and following the curves, you lay it out and adjust the curves until they are all the same width. We’re shooting for around four inches wide; four inches high, sunk a couple of inches deep.

Then you fill that up with cement, wait for it to set up a little, round-over trowel all the edges, smooth the top and wait for it to set overnight. Strip away the bender board, put the dirt back and BAM! Mow strip.

I left out the part about getting the cement to the backyard. In those days there was a development built in the rolling hills well inland; the high ones had ocean views. I’ve built some cool shit in there. Stairways and libraries with hidden rooms behind swinging shelves like in the movies. A couple of kitchens and and a ton of baths. They all had lots of bathrooms. Beautiful houses on big lots with driveways that were mostly nightmares for construction crews. You wouldn’t use a cement truck anyway because it takes too long to pour the strip and time is money for a trucker that gets paid by the load.

The particular house I am remembering was no exception. The driveway was nowhere near the back yard. The back yard was huge but it wrapped around the house on a different level than the driveway. There was a man gate on the other side to get back there but it was too far away. Let’s count. I picked them up once to put them on the cart: 19 sacks x 90 pounds. Picked them up again to put them in the truck: 19 sacks x 90 pounds, take them out of the truck when I get there: 19 x 90, again one at a time into the mixer: 19 x 90. Four times without getting hit in the chest just to get them into the mixer and then mixed with water and wheel barrowed into the strip: 19 x 90. Enough cement to do about 100 feet of curvy curb. For this particular transfer the tall guy (guess who) stood on the lower level and the chainsaw vegan threw them to me while the witch, the warlock and the guy with the PhD took them a few at a time into the back yard in wheel barrows.

Let me explain why I chose to catch instead of throw.

A: I had already picked them up twice to get them in my truck
B: the path from the truck to the back yard went down two little steps, around the edge of the pool with four long step levels, down two steps around the patio area over the existing grass and down a few more steps to the back of the lot where we had the mixer set up in the dirt. Trust me, you do not want to tip your tippy one-wheel barrow load of four or five 90-pound sacks of cement into the deep end of the swimming pool. I knew this was NOT a good idea, no matter how fun it sounded. I would never hear the end of it. So I chose to catch.

I figured I would just have to stand there catch sacks, throw them in the wheel barrow and smoke cigarettes until they came back for more. 19 x 90. Silly me.

So the first thing you learn on the first throw is you turn your jean jacket backwards so the big brass buttons don’t hit you in the breast plate. You want it on for protection from the gritty bags but backwards. Next you want to have one foot set behind you or you could go ass over tea kettle into the bushes and slide down the bank. It could happen. Also you cannot really predict how it’s coming at you. Broadside, end first, diagonally, there are literally 19 ways to land a 90 pound sack of cement in someone’s arms, maybe more.

OK, so there you are, jacket on backwards, foot set, facing the chainsaw vegan who was laughing his ass off as you climbed back up the bank. As impressed as he is that you saved the sack from exploding (which would require another trip to the store) he is determined to see that again. So he is ready to chuck those things.

The thing I eventually learned is that there is a good way to do it and it doesn’t hurt. Though it sucked and sucked hard it was much better when I learned the trick. You set that foot behind you, you level your upper arm muscle a little proud of your chest, bent at the elbow. You take the hit with as much surface area as possible and you not only lean into it, you kind of chest bump it on contact. It somehow transfers some of the energy back into the sack. Apparently there is some physics behind this idea with math and stuff but I don’t know… mass, velocity, distance, resistance, persistence? Persimmons? Who knows? Once you bump it you rock back a little and lift your arms and suddenly you are holding a sack of cement using its inertia to turn and lay it into a wheel barrow for the white witch. It’s magic. When I hit it just right I used the forces to do the work and I feel like I didn’t have to catch all that weight. I just transferred it over there. Didn’t hurt a bit after the fifth sack or so, or maybe I was just numb by then. However at - I don’t know - 27 years old or so I walked away with a basic principle of life.

When shit comes at you hard, lean into it, give it a little shove back. Don’t just stand there and take it. Always take a strong stance on a stable platform, keep moving and go with the flow. Transfer the negative energy to positive energy and go about your business. I’ve lived my life using that formula and so far so good. Things come at you hard. Hit back or some crazy chainsaw vegan is gonna be laughing at you lying in the dirt with a 90-pound sack of cement on your face while you figure it out.


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