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Distillations: Life Lessons from a Ditch-Digger at The Mucky Duck 

Tuesday, Sep 2 2014
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I'm sitting in the Mucky Duck with Jimmy, who called me up today and told me that his old mentor from back in Montana was in town, and he wondered if I could meet him.

"This guy's important," Jimmy said. "He's the guy who first taught me how to dig a ditch."

Of course I said yes.

Craig was recently elected the mayor of the 800-person town he lives in, which, he says, has let its infrastructure get so bad that it now needs more than $50 million in repairs to its water system. How does a town with just over 800 people raise that kind of money? "It's going to be the work of a generation," he says. Unfortunately he's getting ready to retire. He's going to try to leave them with a solid plan before he leaves public life. Something everybody can rally behind when he's gone.

The Mucky Duck is a sports bar's sports bar: lots of screens, good jukebox, pool table, better-than-average beer selection (for a sports bar), great Bloody Marys, and absolutely no pretension. I order an Arrogant Bastard, which Jimmy finds hilarious.

"I can't believe you ordering that!" he says over and over. "It's perfect!" Thanks, Jimmy.

The story, as Jimmy tells it, is that he was a teenager working in a sandwich shop one day (he pantomimes slathering mayonnaise on bread) until Craig came in and said, "Hey, kid, you want to make some extra money doing some side work?"

"I said yes," Jimmy says. "I mean, sure. And so that night I found myself digging a ditch, my back was sore, my body aching, getting blisters on my fingers, and just having the time of my life, and I thought, 'I can get paid to work like this! I had no idea!'"

Since he's come to San Francisco, Jimmy has helped build massive art installations, created robot fighting rings, built boats out of garbage, worked the lighting for Center Camp Café at Burning Man, and been the go-to gopher for Camp Tipsy ... he's everywhere, using his hands to help a whole arts movement develop in rickety buildings and DIY masonry.

"How'd you know?" I ask Craig. "How did you know: This kid will make it happen?"

Craig waved the question away. "I tried to get lots of kids to help me," he says. "It was trial and error. They didn't work out. They'd be digging and I'd leave for a half hour and come back and find they hadn't gotten any farther, and they'd say 'There's a rock in the hole. I don't know what to do!' But Jimmy, he was the one who worked out."

We all laugh. "Oh man, I've hired that kid," Jimmy says. "I tell him to help me pull up a carpet and get the nails out, and then I tell him to clean up all the dirt from the floor while I'm gone, and then when I get back I find he's asleep on the damn carpet!"

One day Craig told Jimmy it was time to go and gave him some tools. Jimmy got on a bus and, eventually, ended up here, where he's helped shape a culture.

That's how this works.

I don't really know why Jimmy asked me to meet Craig. I'm worried that the kid looks at me as a mentor figure too. He can do better. Why isn't he?

The Mucky Duck was also Jimmy's choice of bars. As long as we were nearby, that's the one he wanted to go to. Fair enough: It's about as straightforward as a bar gets. I've lived in this neighborhood for years, and people love this place. I'm not a sports bar guy — I think Jimmy can do better — but I can tell you how much people adore this spot. It's a bar for people who don't like bars to walk in and feel right at home.

Jimmy asks me if I've heard of "Burling," and when I say no, he tells me that Craig invented it.

"It's a combination of 'bowling' and 'curling,'" Craig explains. "Curling stones are actually really expensive, so instead for Burling you take a bowling ball, cut it in half, attach handles to each half, and play with that. What do you think?"

I'm not a sports guy, but I can tell him the complete and unvarnished truth: "You had me at 'cut a bowling ball in half.'"

That's the sort of idea that a man might leave behind as a legacy.

About The Author

Benjamin Wachs

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