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Pushing a massive old safe across Berkeley

Berkeley California, Summer 1998—

Moving a baby grand

M_ and I sat in the back, in the dark, with the piano....

Charlie, a guy a worked for when I was in Berkeley, was keen on making scrappy business deals. Though not shady as far as I know, Charlie just didn't care in a normal way about proprieties or normality. Sometimes he'd walk barefoot into encounters with business contacts.

One day he told me that he had arranged to remove and keep a large, old safe that was in the basement level of a building that was in remodel. He'd gotten permission to take it, if he could move it. Nobody could say whether or not there was anything inside of it. Charlie wanted it.

I'd already seen it, when Charlie mentioned it. It was down an earthen ramp under a space between two buildings, in an area that was common to both of them, and it sat there alone in the dirt of a basement area that was being excavated for some kind of repurposing construction.

Charlie asked if I knew of another man who could help us push it back to the garage at his house, about a mile across town. I recruited my friend J_ and we all met at the site on the given day. Me, J_, Charlie, and Charlie's boyfriend M_.

Charlie had fixed up eight-foot-long four-by-four beams with shorter two-by-four sections on the lower end, so as to fit it more closely underneath the safe and move it by leverage, rolling it on its iron wheels.

The safe, which was about six feet tall and about four feet square, was immensely heavy. 20 people might have been able to roll it up the 10% grade to street level. Though Charlie tried to decline his help, a fellow with a Bobcat loader eventually prevailed upon him, and pushed it up the plywood-covered ramp.

On the street, the going was extremely slow. There were times when the fortune of a smooth sidewalk and the force of inertia would let us push the thing by hand for ten or fifteen feet on a roll, before it slowed to a rumbling halt in the snap of concrete pebbles and mortar.

Most of the way, the safe moved only by the leverage of all of us prying underneath it together, lifting, advancing the behemoth another few inches. It took us about four hours to travel the mile.

Charlie himself didn't work as hard as we did, and he also made himself a little pesky with suggestions and ideas. J_ and I got a little pissed-off at him by the time we made it back to Charlie's place, but that's only natural. It was hard work, and tedious — except that we were making an outrageous show of ourselves. In Berkeley, that's a cool thing to do, and we had a great laugh about it, J_ and myself.

The next day Charlie was pretty stressed out because the metal wheels of this massive safe had marked the sidewalks, in a perfect double-line trail right to his door. He went along the route early in the morning and tried to sweep it away, worried the city would find against him for the damage to the sidewalks. They weren't really damaged though, just pummeled a little bit.

Charlie paid us all $10 cash per hour, and stipulated that if there were anything in the safe, it would belong to him. When I left Berkeley a few months later, Charlie had still not been able to get the thing open.

It was probably empty. Charlie was still delighted that he got it. I would be too.