Wednesday, December 21, 2005

We Could Make a Fortune!

EDITH & EL PUEBLO, NORTH VALLEY--Let me skip 30 years of stories and just say that I built my own house once, an adobe, and that I no longer have it. But I get lonesome for those days and years I spent building her. So I went out to visit where it all began: Richard Levine at his adobe yard, New Mexico Earth. My friend photographer Steve Bromberg went with me. These are his pictures.

I actually met Richard before he started making adobes. It was 1971 and I was teaching kindergarten down at Valle Vista School in the south valley. Richard drove the county bookmobile and it used to stop right in front of my portable kindergarten classroom. It had new, shiny books...and those 5-year-olds loved every second we spent inside that special vehicle. I started building my house late that summer. When I went to buy the adobes it turned out that Richard Levine had quit the bookmobile for life in the mud.

"So Richard," I began, "how did a Jewish boy like you end up running the biggest adobe yard in Albuquerque?"

"I knew a guy named Simon who had just come here from New Jersey by way of Saudi Arabia. He said to me, 'Richard! Two shovels of dirt and we sell 'em for a quarter! We could make a fortune!' So we started. Eventually I bought him out."

I look at Richard's face and I know how hard he has worked for the last 35 years. He is currently working in the office due to emphysema. I am not trying to be overly personal here...just hoping it might help someone quit. He answers the phone, and I look around the room: adobe building magazines and code books, a shelf of pain relievers, a wood stove, a price schedule. What a time warp. Things really haven't changed much in this little corner of the world.

When I got ready to add on to my house in the early '80's I invited Richard over to eat dinner with us. We ended up trading a 1969 blue Dodge Pickup with a broken timing chain for roughly 1500 adobes...enough to finish this monster addition. We both smile thinking about that truck. The timing chain had broken in the yard of Alameda gravel. The truck was plumb full of sand and gravel mix. I had to borrow another pickup and shovel the load into it before I could even tow the Dodge home. It sat in my yard for a year before I talked Richard into the trade.

I asked him about Don Gaspar, Albert Parra, and Sister Giotto. "Sister Giotto came in here for adobes...for her place in San Ysidro. She didn't look too strong." I told Richard she was still working on the place. I asked him about his other customers...about whether there are differences between then and now.

"There are no 'new-timers'...just 'old-timers'. No modern Nat Kaplans. No one is vigorously pushing adobes."

"I know," I added. "Adobe was the medium of the very rich and the very poor. No one else has the money or the time. And today we punish the rich by making them live in houses fashioned from particle board."

And all this started making me feel better. Like building that house was a good thing even if it is gone. Like how nothing seemed impossible to us in those days. Like how good friends just get dearer as the years go by...even 13 million adobes later.

Mazeltov, Richard. Mazeltov.

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