Karl loved what he called skulduggery. He misnamed it, really.
What he meant was “stirring the pot,” and whenever there was an opportunity for a pot to be stirred, I would turn around and Karl would be there.
As I came to know Karl better, I understood the “hyper focus” side of his personality. When Karl was a welding apprentice in Perth in his thirties, his teachers often admonished him for doing too good a job. “This is not supposed to take out the Nobel prize for welding, Karl,” they would announce, as Karl labored to create the world’s most perfect weld. I observed that hyper-focus when he tried to design a website for our business. I kept requesting a menu or a list of pages. Instead, Karl devised a way to turn a single bouncing ball into a multi-colored “fireworks” explosion of the letters of my firm’s name. He labored for six weeks. He never finished the website, but we had an exploding bouncing ball. That behavior is consistent with ADHD symptoms. Karl was trying to focus.
Ironically, when he did focus, Karl could catapult into hyper-focus. Then he really lost it. Karl could also lose focus on the strategic direction of our engagement or activism. However, in some areas, he had exceptionally high standards, particularly regarding technical matters, welding and construction. At other times, he would leave his tools outside rusting in the rain for days, and it would drive me crazy.
Nevertheless, Karl is a skilled tradesman, who had excelled in his training as a welder. The first gift he gives me is a beautiful glass jewel box, with impeccable welding around an amethyst stone, my birthstone.
A story about karl, the activist
One of my favorite stories involves my campaign to protect residents from night-time construction noise in Glebe, our high-density Sydney neighbourhood. One summer night, in the late 1990s, I awaken to sounds of welding and grinding. That problem has destroyed my sleep for months. I borrowed a decibel meter from the professor of acoustics, and he taught me how to use it.
I fall out of bed, unpack the decibel meter and turn it on. Then, rubbing sleep from my eyes, I carry it to the front porch and point the microphone toward the offending noise source, several streets away. The reading is 94 dB(A): more than double the acceptable level. As we sleep with open windows in summer, that is akin to a large truck passing twenty feet away at 25 miles an hour.
Karl does not wake when I leave a note by his bedside. I shuffle into my sandals, tuck the top into my pajama pants and stumble out. It’s 3 am. My hearing easily directs me to the construction site. The Broadway Shopping Centre has been under construction for years.
Several of my frustrating conversations with its management elicited acknowledgement of the illegality of night-time welding. However, its construction is running very late, and the penalty for late construction (about $35,000 a day) is significantly more than the penalty for making noise at night (about $350 a day). I know that, but somebody must defend residents’ rights. I must have sleep. I have a job, classes to teach, research to conduct, and a life to live.
I must have sleep.
Before long, guided by the welding noise, I am trudging up the ramp to the parking lot. All the welders’ cords are plugged into one central electrical box, with the men spread out like a web along the parking garage railing, each working on a separate weld. It takes only a few seconds to disconnect about a dozen cords. I just yank them out.
A blessed silence descends. I imagine my neighbors in their beds, gently falling into unaccustomed sleep. I stand there, waiting to see what will happen next. On reflection, I suppose it is a dangerous thing to do, but I am desperate. My Glebe neighbourhood basks in silence.
Soon, the foreman comes running toward me. I hitch up my pajama pants and turn to face him. He is furious, stomping his foot to emphasize his point. This night shift ends in a couple of hours because staff and customers will be arriving. I explain my circumstances. Within minutes, two uniformed police officers march up the ramp. If they are amused, they hide it well. The foreman is pretty keyed up by this time, as I’m not bowing to his demands. I’m a long way from compliant. The welder-men huddle behind us, smoking and whispering.
I wield my decibel meter as the four of us discuss “my problem” and my alternatives.
“Madam”, says Robert, the older one, “This project will never be finished if you keep pulling out the welders’ cords.” Further, nobody in authority will ever listen to my noise readings because I have no qualifications or authorization to read decibel meters. I observe Robert turn away to hide what resembles a grin.
As I canvass my options, I glimpse the silhouette of a small, dark, scrawny figure emerge from the gloom and stagger up the ramp. Barefoot, in a stained, torn T-shirt and ragged jeans, his hair like a rat’s nest, Karl is a frightening sight. He’s forgotten his glasses and appears to have difficulty focusing. He offers me a perfunctory nod, not disclosing his identity.
I am grateful for his support, but within seconds, Karl is magnetically pulled away from me: to the railing welds on the ramp. Rolling a smoke with one hand and gesturing wildly with the other, he plods doggedly along the ramp, bending to inspect every single weld, angrily blowing smoke at each offending one. I wonder how he’s managing to see without his glasses.
Now it’s my turn to cover a smile, as I hear Karl holler at the cluster of workmen: “You call that a weld? Shame on you. This is not welding. Who are you anyway? You’re not welders! Shame! Shame!” Then Karl launches into a sophisticated and passionate discourse about the finer points of the art and science of welding, including, apparently, the most abhorrent failure of craftsmanship: weld porosity, caused by all manner of welding incompetencies.
“Bad welds are never good,” Karl exclaims, galvanizing his audience. These men need to understand their equipment, their materials and, critically, excessive turbulence, gas shielding, gas flow and contamination issues. Karl’s cornered audience cannot escape a dramatic, illustrated lecture on welding technology, professionalism, craftsmanship and health and safety standards. Wild gestures accompany his tirade. Karl amps it up so massively that I must resist the temptation to shove the decibel meter microphone under his chin. Even with the welders’ equipment unplugged, we’re now tracking at well over 94 dB(A).
“This is a public safety health and issue, can’t you see? This railing will collapse,” screams the self-appointed quality supervisor. “People will die, and it will be completely your fault.” He spins around and glares at the foreman: “Somebody should be supervising this work. It’s not welding. These are not welds. This work is complete crap. It’s shit. Shame on you. Shame on you all!”
It’s difficult to leave this dramatic scenario, but I turn back to the police to review my options. I can do it the hard way or the easy way, announces Robert, scribbling on his pad. The hard way involves a night in the Glebe Watch House. The easy way is to discuss the matter with the shopping center management in the morning. The problem with the hard way, aside from my anxiety about being inappropriately dressed, is that arrest would mean a travel ban to the United States. I have a trip booked there in a couple of months, so, reluctantly, I bid my two companions farewell and wander back to Glebe Street. As a weak dawn struggles to illuminate the dingy city streets, I search for Karl, but I can’t find him anywhere. As yelling has ceased and welding commenced, I assume he’s headed home. He’s already asleep, snoring softly when I arrive. He shuffles over to make room in the bed, mumbling something like, “Nice try, Wadie.”
A few months later, the shopping center is completed. Then I am grateful for the post office, cafés, and the supermarket. Slowly, scores of painful, sleepless nights fade from my memory. But this event is etched in Karl’s memory: it’s his signature activist triumph. What exactly did he achieve? I have no idea. Nevertheless, every time we visit the Broadway Shopping Centre, Karl races up the ramp, inspects every inch of railing and pronounces, dramatically, with accompanying gestures, and in the sternest tone, “You call that a weld?”
Rusted weld, December 2019