It's like the time when I was nineteen and I worked framing houses for this guy named Keith--a self-described "Virginia Redneck" from Newport News (pronounced Nuper Nooz) who had ascended to power in a violent overthrow of the previous boss, suffering a "boxer's fracture" in the process and then cutting the cast off his hand with a skilsaw so he could swing his hammer. I looked up to Keith not only as a professional mentor, but also as a personal role model. So I hung on his every word as he told the crew about how he had dealt with the carny at the county fair who had tried to rip him off by luring him into the milk bottle toss scam: "That motherfucker tried to grab my hand and get me to throw that ball and I said don't you ever touch me boy, I will whoop your goddamn ass--I'm a grown goddamn man!"
Sure enough, when I took my girlfriend to the fair that night, first thing, some carny grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the milk bottle toss. I said get your goddamn hands off me, boy, and the carny apologized profusely and told me, confidentially, that he hadn't been making much money and he needed somebody walking around with a big stuffed tiger to advertise his game. Somebody like me.
So I paid for a turn, knocked down two out of three pyramids of milk bottles, and prepared to pick out a small prize. But he offered me a double or nothing opportunity in which I could win back my initial investment and get a large prize for my lady if I knocked down all three. Of course, when I paid ten bucks for three more tries, I just couldn't knock over those damn bottles. But the offer still stood, so I paid twenty bucks more to try and win back my money and a prize. Again, the bottles would not fall. He really made it sound like a good idea, now that I was in for thirty-five bucks, for me to go ahead and try again for forty bucks. I had knocked those bottles down so easily the first couple times, right?
And that's how I spent all the cash in my pocket (75 dollars--and those were 1987 dollars) within five minutes of getting to the fair, and then had to mope around being pissy toward my girlfriend as she paid for the rest of our short visit to the place I suddenly least wanted to be in the world. It's a good thing ATM's were not as ubiquitous in those days as they are now.
So it seems like I would have learned better by now than to trust the advice of someone who stands to make money off me. But the rental guy made a pretty good case for me to pay another $225.00 to rent his Dingo--a little tractor like a Bobcat, but about the size of a rider mower--for another day, even though I had already pissed away half a day messing with the machine and had very little to show for it.
The reason I needed the Dingo in the first place was that I had a mountain of dirt, concrete, and rock in my backyard left over from the addition I built. I had been avoiding dealing with it for almost a year because I just couldn't figure out a cheap way to get rid of it. Because it was such a big pile and in an area accessible only through a four-foot wide gate, I couldn't find anyone to haul it away for less than $1300.00. I found that the cheapest way for me to do it would be to rent this mini-tractor and a dump trailer (like the bed of a dump truck, but you pull it with your pickup) and dump load after load of the debris in various locations. And since my parents were visiting last week, they could help me with both childcare and hard labor.
So I went to the rental yard at 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday to pick up the machine. It took almost three hours to get the machine on a trailer, hook the trailer up to my truck, drive home, unload the machine, return the trailer to the rental yard, pick up the other trailer (the dump trailer), and get it home. Then the machine wouldn't start, so I called the yard, and the rental guy said to give it a jump start and avoid turning off the motor and keep a battery charger on it whenever it's not running. An inconvenience, but not a huge problem. Oh, and by the way, the spark plugs will probably foul if you use the machine for a long time, so you may have to take them out and clean them.
Then I got the trailer about halfway full of dirt, and the Dingo threw one of it's tracks (it has tracks like a tank or a bulldozer instead of wheels) because I was trying to take really tight turns in my tiny backyard with the huge mountain in it. I messed with the track for a while, but quickly became disgusted and called Rental Guy and told him about it. I said it just wasn't working out and he should come get his piece of junk; that I'd pay him for part of the day and just keep the trailer and fill it by hand with wheelbarrows. He sent over his sidekick to get the track back on and pick up the Dingo, and I drove to my friend's house, about twenty miles away, with the first load of clean dirt which she wanted to use to build a hill for her kids to play on. When I got back--after a white-knuckle ride home on the Southern California freeways that are for some reason made not out of nice smooth asphalt like in civilized countries, but instead out of concrete with irregular, curving corduroy grooves and diagonal seams that set an empty trailer fishtailing and bouncing so much that it takes up three lanes and almost discourages tailgaters and impulsive lane-changers from encroaching on it and makes the truck that is pulling it rock like the Hesperus--the Dingo was still in the yard, blocking my gate so I couldn't even continue loading the trailer with a wheelbarrow.
Pretty soon, Rental Guy himself showed up and started messing with the track. I tried to talk to him just to be polite, but he was in a huff because he blamed the mechanical problem on my incompetence--I wasn't supposed to make such tight turns--which was fair; but on the other hand, he had never given me any kind of instructions on how to operate the thing.
He got the machine going again by 3:00 p.m., and tried to convince me that I should just keep using it, although I was mostly sure I didn't want anything more to do with it. He was dirty and sweaty and angry.
Rental Guy: So you're just gonna give up? It ain't none of my business, but I'm the tenacious type. I keep at it until I figure shit out.
Me: Well I figured out that this isn't the right machine for what I need to do.
Rental Guy: You should be able to load that trailer in five minutes with this tractor.
Me: The problem is that I want to get at the clean dirt that's on the top of the pile, because I have a friend who wants it. I don't want to deal with all the rocks and concrete on the bottom yet. I haven't figured out where those are going.
Rental Guy: You can't just scoop the dirt off the top. It won't work like that.
Rental Guy: Why don't you just get rid of all this bullshit first and then move the dirt?
Me: I was just gonna pick away at the rock pile. Take it out in my truck a little at a time. I'm trying not to pay to dump it.
Rental Guy: But you got this machine right here now. And you already got money in it. Why not just get it done?
Me: Hmm...that's just not...the way I planned it. Now I'm gonna have to deal with rush hour traffic. I'll never get all this stuff moved by tomorrow morning.
Rental Guy: Fuck rush hour. If it was me, I'd hit, shit, and git. Look--let me just show you how to do this. I mean, there's people who can do and people who can't. I'm just trying to help you be one of the ones who can.
Me: Hmm...well, lemme call the landfill and see what it costs to dump rock...[goes inside to look up number]
[Rental Guy furiously loads the trailer with a couple tons of rock and debris]
Rental Guy: See. I loaded that thing in the time it took you to make a phone call. [all up in my grille, mockingly] You could have loaded it just as fast by hand. Pssht.
Me: Well, how about if you move your truck out of my way so I can get to the dump before it closes.
Rental Guy: I knew you'd see it my way. [gets in truck, continues pontificating] You just gotta think about your priorities...if you didn't do it my way, you would have wasted all that money...I always say work smart, not hard...
Me: Time's a-wastin,' Polonius. I gotta get this stuff to the dump.
Rental Guy: I drink Corona. You owe me a twelve pack. Corona.
Me: [drives off with a faux-friendly chuckle.]
I ended up keeping the equipment the next day so that I could get the whole mountain out of the back yard. I had to jump start the Dingo a few more times, and when it started running rough, my dad broke a spark plug trying to pull it out to clean it, so he went ahead and put in new plugs while I was on a dump run.
There were a couple moments that made up for some of the hassle and defrayed a bit of the expense: the cashier at the landfill got distracted telling me about her parrot cage and charged me half what she was supposed to for one load of rock and 'crete, and the guys who are trying to flip the house that got foreclosed on across the alley needed some backfill in a porch they were pouring so I got rid of another couple yards of debris that way.
But as you may recall, one of my projects while my parents were here was to demonstrate that even though I'm only 42.99 years old, I am a competent adult who makes wise decisions. I probably should have told Rental Guy to take his crappy machine--and his avuncular advice--and cram it, just out of principle. I even joked (kind of) with my dad that I should have let him deal with Rental Guy so I wouldn't get pushed around. I tried to imagine what Dad would have done in that situation, but I could only conclude that he wouldn't have gotten into it in the first place. He probably wouldn't have chosen a sketchy rental operation simply because it was close to home, and when he saw the condition of the Dingo, he would have told Rental Guy to pound sand. I'm pretty sure I know what my old boss Keith would have done, and it would have involved punching Rental Guy in the brain.
Despite feeling overcharged though, I am relieved to have gotten done with a job that's been hanging over my head for months. It ended up taking two days and costing about $750.00 for rental and dump fees, which was cheap compared to the alternative. And it was kind of fun to use the machinery when it worked properly. And most importantly, I learned some valuable lessons about cutting my losses, swallowing my pride, and recovering from a downward spiral.
Actually, the lesson thing is mostly bullshit. The important part is the fate of the Dingo. After I had dumped the last tractor load of rock into the neighbor's yard, I dug the bucket into a pile of dirt at the edge of my deck. The Dingo was running pretty poorly by then, cutting out every 15 minutes and requiring a jump start to get going again. When I plunged the bucket into the dirt, the motor made a horrific clattering noise and then stopped dead. I turned the key and only got more clattering.
Dad: That doesn't sound good.
Dad: You ever check the oil on this thing?
Me: Nope. You?
Dad: Nope. Sounds like the pistons are swappin' holes.
Me: He never told me to check the oil.
Dad: [pulls out dipstick] It's dry.
Me: I shouldn't have to add oil after just using it for a few hours, right?
Dad: I wouldn't think so. Seems like he would have checked it before you took the thing.
Me: Think it threw a rod?
Dad: Reckon so.
Me: So he's probably gonna try to get me to pay for a new motor.
Dad: I wouldn't be surprised.
Me: Wonder what I should tell him.
Dad: I'd tell him that he should convert his rental business to a junkyard.
Rental Guy tinkered with the Dingo for a while but couldn't get it to start. He managed to drive/push it out of my yard by cranking the starter motor and getting some assistance that way, but once he got it into the alley, he had to drag it up onto his trailer with a come-along. He wasn't so smug as he struggled with that, and he even made some small talk about my addition, asking me about the permit process and essentially acknowledging that I was able to do some stuff. But mostly he kept repeating that he never had to winch a tractor away from a job before, and lamenting the eighteen grand he had spent on that machine. I could have given him a lecture about maintaining his equipment and not renting out stuff that needed to be serviced or junked; but instead I took the high road and humored him as he told me how difficult his job was, all the while composing a Yelp review in my head. He never mentioned the Coronas again.