Essay by Auden Schendler
Royce Green (not his
real name) and his wife were eating dinner by the kitchen window
during a storm when the wind blew their new roof into the air,
opening the tin trailer like a can opener. Royce's wife thought the
whole place was going to go, just like Dorothy's house in The
Wizard of Oz.
I built that roof when I worked
for an energy center. Did I forget the nails?
few years ago I had one of the most unhealthy and disgusting jobs
in western Colorado: energy technician. It sounds fancy, but it
meant this: I crawled under trailers through mud and animal
carcasses into spaces so small you couldn't turn your
I poked holes in the floor and blew boric
acid-coated cellulose insulation into the floor. I breathed
fiberglass - the next asbestos - while wrapping water heaters. I
fought hordes of children while sheet-rocking attics filled with
dust. I fell through the ceiling while blowing insulation, landing
close to a 70-year-old man sucking on
Working for the Energy Center in
Carbondale, my partner and I inhaled fiberglass in trailers in
Rifle, Meeker, Maybell, Craig and Silt. "Silt happens' is the
unofficial town motto. "Stop talking and start caulking" was
Royce Green's yard in Rifle was a sea of
car parts inherited from his father-in-law. "When he died, we took
five truck-loads of carburetors and differentials from his garage,"
I only found that out later. The
first time we drove into his yard and said, "Morning," we got no
response, even though he was no more than 20 feet away. That's the
"trailer park hello," a common form of non-greeting, no malice
We had to repair his sieve of a roof.
The night before it had rained, and the sea moved indoors, dumping
40 gallons of water in the living room. True, the roof we built
eventually blew off, I told myself, but it also got Ken through the
It was hard to set up appointments for
"weatherization." Often phones didn't work, unpaid bills having led
to disconnections. Sometimes even a trip to the address was
worthless: the client might have moved on, employing trailer park
rule #1: If your credit is bad and you haven't paid the rent, skip
town. If a potential client was home, we had to overcome trailer
park rule #2: Keep three huge dogs to discourage
Giving out applications for free
weatherization was never a breeze.
here. They stole a moving truck. Now they're somewhere in Texas."
"She's in Peru."
And from an elderly woman in a threadbare
pink nightgown: "Yes. How about yesterday?"
Royce's house, we patched holes in the heating vents and vacuumed
them clean. Vents in kitchens are usually covered with a
combination of hair, mud, honey and unidentifiable brown pastes. In
every trailer there's at least one room so full of junk that human
activities, like motion or sight, let alone finding vents, are
impossible. Wal-Mart, beyond extinguishing Main Street, can claim
credit for this: It is now possible to have the money of a hobo but
the possessions of a king. Inflatable neck cushions for the tub.
See-through telephones. Juicers. Stuffed animals that squeak when
you step on them. Soft-soap dispensers.
for the energy center, I got an intimate look at old boom towns on
the Western Slope. Towns not located near ski resorts have little
economic base beyond hunting season, but "near" can mean within 100
miles. I picked up a hitchhiker who told me he takes the bus from
Rifle every morning to Snowmass Village, some 60 miles, then
"I meet interesting people and
save wear and tear on my truck," he said. When I dropped him off,
he said as if it were a recitation: "Thanks for the ride. Wonder
who I'll get next?"
We coated a trailer in
Cottonwood Springs. The renter, Luke, was very accommodating. He
took his speakers out into the yard and, with the volume as high as
it could go, blasted music by Boston and Journey. Then he started
mowing the lawn, so no one could hear the music. Then the speakers
blew. Though his house could have been a Superfund site, he
complained that we had dripped tar down the sides. Then he went
I wondered what Luke's plan was. I
wondered about all our clients. When I allowed myself to think he
was lazy, I feared I might be turning into a Republican. I asked my
writer friend, Randy. He pointed out that Luke was paying sky-high
rent for a trailer that was overpriced and under-insulated. Rent,
the great American tapeworm. Utility bills are outrageous, my
friend added. Luke has three kids. Once he accounts for clothes,
food and medical expenses, plus a $100 medication cost for beer,
the family's already in hock.
Many dreams in
Rifle went bust when Exxon's Colony oil shale plant dissolved in
1982. Town borders are peppered with trailers that are falling
apart. The scene would look natural if the trailers were old
farmhouses, but their fiberglass, vinyl and plastic wheels won't
return to the earth. Trailers punctuate the West with
The big dream that
fueled a trailer's journey West is still around, but now it's spent
on Lotto. Gambling is the new buffalo, the Indians
Royce Green said he knew
a week in advance that Exxon was going to lay off 400 workers. He
felt it in the air. More than a decade later, his fencing business
is floundering, undercut by cheaper work based in Grand
After repairing his doomed roof, we
patched holes in the trailer underbelly. Under a trailer, wearing a
respirator and a Tyvek suit made of the material used in air-mail
envelopes, everyone becomes a spider expert, and all spiders become
black widows. We stuffed insulation into the floor cavities and
stapled aluminum-coated cloth over the holes as fiberglass settled
in our eyes.
Every job was like that: dirty,
unhealthy and tinged with desperation. And though I quit as soon as
I could, I still think about the lives I walked into and insulated.
Is there any way to make them better?
of the amateur roofing we did, the answers were never obvious. Try
caulk. Try solder. Try duct tape. Try roofing tar. And if nothing
works, pull the whole thing off and rebuild it from the start. But
don't call the roofer, it costs too much. Better to obey trailer
park rule #3: You can always figure things out yourself. Improvise.
Schendler, a former HCN intern, lives in Carbondale, Colo., where
he teaches at the Colorado Rocky Mountain