How I tried to patch together a disintegrating world


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?

A 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 head.

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 oxygen.

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 ours.

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," Royce said.

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 intended.

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 winter.

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 visitors.

Giving out applications for free weatherization was never a breeze.

"She's not here. They stole a moving truck. Now they're somewhere in Texas."

"She's in Peru."

"He's in jail."

And from an elderly woman in a threadbare pink nightgown: "Yes. How about yesterday?"

At 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.

Working 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 hitchhikes homes.

"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 fishing.

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 non-biodegradable periods.

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 say.

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 Junction.

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?

Like some 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.

Auden Schendler, a former HCN intern, lives in Carbondale, Colo., where he teaches at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School.

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