Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Mark of Maufrais

On my way to work at UT every morning, I step on a durable reminder of one of the most significant days of my life. Literally stamped into the concrete sidewalk at every corner all the way from Shoal Creek up to the University is the word 'Maufrais'.

MaufraisThe subject of much speculation among Austinites new and old this mark is is actually the name of the concrete contractor who poured this sidewalk and countless others in Austin, beginning in 1892. A number of sidewalks, especially in West Austin, were poured by the Maufrais Concrete Company during the post-war building boom that created the Tarrytown, Windsor Road and West Enfield neighborhoods.

As Austin writer Rob Hafernik observed in his concise and informative piece about the history of the company, "Just in the space of one good dog walk, I see the word a dozen times or more."

Well, we don't see the name Maufrais when walking the dog in our neighborhood, but when I lived in Clarksville many years ago, because I was required to see it on every corner between my house and the bus stop, I was unable to escape an unpleasant memory of what is my now-distant past: my arrest.

Yes, dear Reader, I was arrested in March of 1975, for possession of marijuana. I was just eighteen at the time, living with a co-worker on a tiny, dead-end street in far southwest Austin called Maufrais Lane. Ironically, there were no curbs or sidewalks on this street. It was a semi-rural area, with open fields next to freshly built subdivisions, technically outside the city limits. This key fact was both the reason we were arrested and the reason that the charges were ultimately dropped, though it was considerably more complicated than that.

In this era of plausible deniability fostered by our leading politicians and financiers, it seems foolish for me to admit that I was ever arrested, especially because nothing every really came of it. Nothing, that is, if you do not count the most dramatic and significant 'life lesson' that I took away from the experience; nothing but a dream denied and innocent trust abandoned. I will not claim to have been ignorant of my situation nor to have been simply duped by an unscrupulous roommate. I was certainly taken advantage of for being far too trusting and willing to go along with things I knew to be simply foolish, if not outright dangerous.

My roommate, Jim, was an old hippie, Vietnam war vet and committed pot smoker. This fact alone didn't bother me, for after graduating from high school in 1974, I too had 'discovered' pot. To say that I took to it would be something of an understatement, but it was, for me anyway, a vice that was both expensive and still quite hard to come by. Though the subjects of (my) drug use and addiction are worthy of reflection and comment, I will not here complicate the story by trying to resolve or even approach those rather controversial subjects. Another time and another place, perhaps. This is the story of the bust.

A little background to the story is required first, however.

Jim and I lived in a small two bedroom frame house at the end of Maufrais Lane. It was an old farm house, with a detached wood frame garage in back next to a long-abandoned plank-covered well. Beyond the back fence the land was still being farmed by the man who owned the house we lived in and the company we worked for.

Both Jim and I worked as welders for a small machine shop situated a few hundred yards up the road at the head of Maufrais Lane called B&M Converters. The owner was a big strong ex-GI named Marvin who ran the shop with the help of his British-born wife Betty. Together with another good old Texas boy named 'Old' Jim, Marvin, Betty, 'Young' Jim and I worked together in an un-airconditioned tin-roofed shed. For eight to ten hours a day, we cut open, cleaned out and re-built automobile torque converters.

Of course I knew nothing about these devices when I was hired. I know virtually nothing more about them now, thankfully. For the two years that I worked at B&M, however, I knew every type of bearing, stator, hub and welding bead required for every kind of converter for every kind of car on the road in 1974. That's something like 250 different models. That is also the number that I managed to forget in less time than it took to pack my bags when it came time to leave. Like many other sets of useless information acquired and abandoned in the years since, it is mostly gone, but not entirely forgotten.

The function of the shop was to take old, presumably worn out but not destroyed torque converters, cut them open, clean them out and rebuild them for re-sale to the many transmission shops and car dealers in and around Austin.

A torque converter is, quite simply, the clutch in an automatic transmission in an automobile. Don't ask me how it works. I know it has to something do with fluid dynamics and pressures. The insides of the devices bear this out. Having seen the guts of countless thousands of these devices in my short career with them, I can tell you this: at the very center is a circular set of what look like electric fan blades, called the stator. Over time, the stator wears out, which causes the car to acquire that lurching sensation--you know the feeling--that we get when the car is at a standstill but like an eager dog on a leash, doesn't want to remain so. When the stator wears out, the torque converter must be replaced, but that doesn't mean it can't be repaired.

Enter the B&M torque converter rebuilding shop. Torque converters look like steel doughnuts with a polished steel hub emerging from where the hole should be. The back side has bolt holes to attach it to the transmission, and there is a welded seam right round the circumference of the converter where the two halves were put together at the factory.

Marvin's job was to cut them open. He would mount the converter, still dirty, heavy and full of noxious burnt oil, on a lathe and cut it open like a filthy clamshell, spilling out the dirty blackened oil on the floor but retaining the guts.

It was my job to take them apart, remove the broken bits and 'file' the cleaned parts from in the inside in various bins in and around the rebuilding station. I spent the first half of every day over a fifty-five gallon drum three-quarters full of dirty varsol (a chemical cleaner not far removed in the cracking tower from kerosene or turpentine) being recirculated top to bottom with a endlessly whining pump. The broken stators were literally tossed out the back door into a huge pile of oily junk (EPA?) while all the springs, bearings, pins and shims went into their respective bins.

'Old' Jim--which is what we called him to distinguish him from my roommate was the master re-builder. He came in for just half the day. Like a surgeon with the special skills, he held himself apart from the rest of us as the 'brains' of the operation. To his credit, he did know his shit. The number of parts and pieces was staggering, but he knew them all by heart and hand. Re-building these devices may not be rocket science, but there is no doubt that the precision and skill of the re-builder was the core of B&M's business. If they didn't come back, we did good business, and Jim made sure they were built right the first time.

'Young' Jim's job was to re-weld the seam that Marvin had cut to start the process. This he did by mounting the re-built steel doughnut on another lathe with a automatic wire welder that completed the seam with just a start from the operator. Low though the skill to do that job might have been, my job required even less, so I was yet one rung down from 'Young' Jim.

Nonetheless, I managed to acquire some skill and thus escape perpetual part cleaning job for half the day by learning to use the heli-arc welder to patch holes in the seam weld and attach the polished steel hub to the doughnut hole.

The heli-arc welder looks and works something like a powerful electric arc pen. Unlike the wire welder, which required just a start and stop, the heli-arc required serious attention to the flow of liquid white-hot metal filling the gap between hub and hole. Rotating the piece in front of my on a wheel, with head down in a full face helmet, long sleeves, pants and boots, I was forced to remain focused on the bead even as I got stung by bits of molten sparks. After the weld cooled, I tested them by submerging the the converter in water and forcing air into them; bubbles meant more work.

I was still in my work clothes and greasy boots, smelling like varsol and writing in my journal after supper in the kitchen when it happened.

It was about ten p.m. Through the window over the sink I could see headlights coming down our road. First one set, then two, then three and four. Even a single set of lights on our road would have been unusual; Maufrais was a dead-end and our only neighbors were already home. The lights came up the road fast. Though paved for the first half, the half in front of our house was still the typical Texas caliche, so we could hear the crunch of the gravel as they roared up to a stop.

Even seeing this, I was only able to stand up and move a couple of feet to the center of the kitchen when the cops came bursting in through both the front and back doors simultaneously. I obeyed their orders to freeze, was handcuffed and placed in a chair in the middle of the kitchen. Jim, who had been in the bedroom, was also handcuffed and placed in a chair in the living room.

The cops began to tear the house apart, almost literally, all the while shouting at us, trying to intimidate us. In the kitchen, they pulled out all the boxes of cereal, bags of flour, coffee and sugar and dumped them all on the counter and the floor. The entire contents of the pantry and the refrigerator were dumped out on to the floor while I watched.

Where is it?" they screamed, over and over, as they tore through one thing after another. In the bedrooms they pulled out all our clothes and threw them around the room. They pulled up the mattresses and cut them open. One cop went up into the attic and actually fell down into the living room when he stepped off one of the ceiling beams. The six foot fall though a cloud of sheetrock dust barely dented his fat ass, and this blunder just made him, and the whole group that much madder.

They were angry with us because it was clear to them, almost from the instant that they burst in, that this wasn't the big bust that they were expecting. We din't know it at first, but they were expecting to find huge quantities of marijuana in our house.

After half an hour of literally frantic searching, they hadn't turned up so much as a single joint. This wasn't because we didn't have any. We just didn't have that much. We had less than a single ounce--known as a 'lid' back in the day--in a wooden salad bowl on the top of the refrigerator. It wasn't really hidden; that's just where we kept it. We didn't have that much because, contrary to the expectations of the Austin Police department, we were not dealers.

So, to the oft-repeated and most angry screams of "Where the fuck is it?" I could only say that I had no idea what they were talking about. And, in part, this was true.

Handcuffed and scared shitless in my now ransacked and damaged house, surrounded by armed, sweaty and angry policemen, I was seriously wondering what they could be looking for. Our lid? Seriously? Did it take eight cops in four cars to dispatch two scared hippies with a single ounce of shitty marijuana casually placed in a wooden bowl on top of the fridge? And, why couldn't they find it? Did they really need my help?

Or, were they looking for something that wasn't there? The reason they didn't look in the bowl on the top of the fridge was because the quantity of dope that they were looking for simply wouldn't have fit in that bowl. They were looking for tons of pot.

Police incompetence is another topic that is outside the range of this now lengthy recollection, so in the interest of brevity I shall let it remain so. Nonetheless, faulty 'intel'--as the Bush warmongers were fond of saying after their incompetence had been revealed--was at the heart of our little bust. The inability of the APD to find any dope was not unlike the inability of American troops to find WMD's in Iraq; you can't find what isn't there.

In our case, as I've said, there was something there, but nothing like what they'd been told to look for. The police had been told, by an informant, that we were major dope dealers in Central Texas, with literally tons of marijuana stored in our house on Maufrais Lane.

But if we really didn't have such quantities and weren't even actually dealing dope, how did they get that idea?

It turns out that all it takes is a combination of odd circumstances, bad luck and poor judgment. And stupid though it may have been to even possess marijuana back in the day when anything over a gram was considered to be a felony, the poor judgment that led to the bust was not confined to Jim and me.

The police more than anyone in this little melodrama embodied the entire collective failure of sense by choosing to believe a story told to them by an informant; a crazy pill-popping addict that Jim had foolishly befriended at a bar one night. Even more foolishly, Jim brought this strange cat home for a friendly smoke and a place to crash. The guy only stayed the night and was gone, but while he was there, he'd gotten some very strange and very wrong ideas about who we were and what we did for a living.

Again, the importance of the fact that this all took place on Maufrais Lane comes to bear on the story. It so happens that, at the time, although this half-paved strip of road was a named city street and had even a street sign, it was not actually inside the Austin city limits. This had but one serious consequence. Even though we had city water and electricity, we were not 'eligible' for City trash pickup. This meant that we were obliged to collect our trash in large plastic bags and haul them to the dump every week.

Well, obliged though we should have been to the task of taking the half dozen or so bags to the dump every week, recall that we were just a couple of dope-smoking hippies at the time. Taking trash to the dump wasn't high (pardon the pun) on our list of things to do every week. Especially because were were actually working hippies, with little ambition to clean house after a long day amid varsol and welding sparks.

So, the trash bags accumulated. We couldn't keep the bags outside, because the raccoons would tear them open and strew the trash around the yard, so we took to keeping them in a little utility room next to the bathroom in the back of the house. The room wasn't hard to find, by the way, but the cops didn't even open the door to it for at least a half an hour. Perhaps they just wanted to toss the flour on the floor before looking in more logical places, but for whatever reason, it was the last place they looked that night.

You'd think it would have been the first place that the police would have looked, given the fact that their informant had ostensibly told them where to look. The informant, when taking a piss the morning of his brief stay with us, had cleverly 'deduced' that the mountain of trash sacks he'd 'discovered' in the utility room were actually sacks stuffed full of high grade cannabis. Never mind that the dope we'd shared with him was of such poor quality that we'd paid no more than ten dollars for it, he'd pegged us as big-time drug dealers.

No doubt he enlarged on his story to make the case for lenient treatment on whatever charge they'd brought him in for, but even a causal visit to our little house at the end of Maufrais would have revealed to the police that we were neither drug dealers nor big-time anything. The ramshackle house and beat up old Chevy that Jim drove would have been ample evidence that their informant was selling them a load of bullshit.

In fact, this very failure to do any sort of basic investigation prior to the bust led to the fact that all charges were dropped in the case. Eventually, they found the bag of pot on top of the fridge, but not until they'd already loaded us into the squad cars and were about to take us downtown. One of the police came out of the house holding the half-full baggie exclaiming that he'd 'found it' but you know he and the rest knew it was just the opposite. What they had found, he hoped, was enough to make it look like they knew what they were doing when they planned the raid.

Ironically, this was the second time that they 'found it' The first 'discovery' came when they actually opened the door to the back room and found the trash bags. This was a critical moment for them. One of the officers brought out a bag into the kitchen and held it up for me to see.

"Gotcha" he claimed triumphantly, pulling his buck knife out to slice open the bag. Despite my waring--no, because of it--he only smiled as he cut out the bottom of the heavy sack, expecting to see me cry when my dope poured all over the floor. Instead it was he who had the surprise of seeing--and smelling-a load of maggot-infested garbage pouring all over his shoes. He looked like he wanted to puke. I laughed.

Don't laugh at the police. This just pissed them off more, as you might imagine. It certainly didn't turn us into big-time drug dealers that they were looking for and that was making for a bad night indeed. Lucky for them, they managed to find our little stash.

Lucky for us, they screwed it up in the end.

It turns out that the warrant issued for the raid was in error. The cops, it seems, had taken the time to come by and 'investigate' prior to the raid, but in doing so, they had parked on the wrong side of the street, and thus wrote up a description of our neighbor's house, complete with their address instead of ours.

Six months after the arrest--and one day after I made the final payment on the $2500 lawyer fee--the case was dismissed with a single swift strike of the gavel. Though I've always wondered about the timing of that event, I've never looked back. In that instant I was spared a lifetime of explanations and recriminations. Jim skipped town without paying a cent or even finding our that the charges had been dropped. For all he knows, he's still a wanted man in Texas.

For my part, I resolved not to let it happen ever again. I kept my job at B&M, but I cut my hair and moved into my own apartment on South Congress. By year's end I had moved 'back' home with my parents--who were now living in England--and had started a whole new life.

Although the Mark of Maufrais might have been placed on every curb in West Austin by city ordinance, I believe that it was really placed by there the synchronistic forces of the universe, as reminder to me about where I've been and where I want to go.


valgal said...


d2 said...

I never knew the full story. Mom and Dad never told me any of this... Thanks for sharing it.

bc said...

Fact or fiction--a great story! So hide the stash and take out the trash... bc

Greyghost said...

All fact, no fiction. And the suggestion is a good one, albeit 35 years late ;^)

Trevor W Goodchild said...

good one

Anonymous said...

Whats your name?
My garandma Irene not Betty was married to Marvin on Maufrais Ln. who owned B&S. but my grandma is very interested in who you are?

Greyghost said...

Thanks for you note. I apologize for getting your grandmother's name wrong. Indeed, I recall Irene very well.

I hesitate to put my name here, but a google search certainly ought to lead you to me. If not, post here again and I'll leave you my email address.

I hope I haven't offended you with my memoir. If so let me know and I'll omit the references to your grandparents.

Take care.


Anonymous said...

Well my grandpa died about 16 years ago. My grandma remembers you very well. It was real funny for about 3 days straight My mom, Linda and my grandma kept arguing about who you could be! I did hear phillip a couple of time though, and no your memoir did not offend us at all. We actually laughed reading threw it!

Greyghost said...

Well I am delighted to hear that Irene remembers me, and feeling a little sheepish for failing to recall her name correctly. That and I managed to change the name of the shop! That's just an old mind at work!

I also recall Linda, although just vaguely, and I don't know if I met you. You'd have been little, I expect! ;^)

I am sorry to hear about your grandad and give Irene my best, please.

If you'd like to contact me directly, let me know and I will leave my email address here for a couple of days.

Rob said...

Maufrais street has totally gentrified. It's now an expensive neighborhood and no longer dead-end.