A couple of weeks ago, I got a message from a woman called Anita, offering some timber to the Urban Bush-Carpenters. She lived in Brooklyn, in the western suburbs, out of bike riding range. I called her, planning to say thanks, but no thanks.
But when we spoke, she told me about her dad, Ricardo, a lifelong builder and tinkerer. “He re-used everything,” she said, “to the point where he made a wooden base for a broken wineglass.”
So on the weekend, I drove west to pick up the timber. Four years ago, when her parents became unwell, Anita had moved in next door to her childhood home. I knocked on the door, and she welcomed me into her house. Most of her belongings were packed away in boxes and the garden was bare – the place was well cared for, but with the air of a waiting room.
The yard next door was teeming with life. Above the fence line, I could see several fruit trees: stonefruit, citrus and olives. It was an abundant garden, with veggie patches near and far.
“When I was younger, an ex-boyfriend once told me he always knew I was a wog, because we grew vegetables in the front yard,” Anita told me. Both her parents had passed away, and the two houses had been sold. “Living here is just too emotional,” she said. She was about to move suburbs.
Ricardo, a carpenter by trade, had emigrated from Italy after World War II. He was lean and poised, and he liked to present himself well. In the photos clustered on Anita’s table, he wore a suit and hat.
Anita put on her gloves and helped me move the timber. She told me about how she’d grown up learning how to do things with her hands. In her street “there were Italians, Greeks, Aussies, Polish, Germans and even a French family”, and many of them shared the DIY ethic.
Recently, she and her siblings had cleaned out Ricardo’s collection of useful materials. “We grew up reusing and recycling,” she said. “I can’t tell you how much it pained me when the skip came and we threw away so much of the timber.”
Over decades, he’d built two houses and two extensions. He built the “taverna” as well, the small brick building where he cooked family meals and smoked meats. Anita showed me a photo of its interior, pointing out the sinks and stove and bench top. “Everything was salvaged, second-hand, re-used,” she said. Then she pointed out a pattern of white tiles on the floor, which formed his initials. “The man had an ego, too,” she laughed.
“He was always doing something. He carried had a notebook in his top pocket, with a list on it. But the list never ended, it just went on from one page to the next. Even as he was dying he didn’t want to stop. He said to me, ‘I can’t die yet, I’ve got too much to do.’”