BRICK by BRICK: Profile: STAN GEMBICKI OF PASADENA HAS A WILL OF STONE, A 60 YEAR-OLD TROWEL, A PROUD WIFE AND A BACK YARD TO BOAST ABOUT, IF HE HAD A MIND TO. BUT THERE'S MORTAR TO MIX AND MORE WORK TO BE DONE, ALONE.

July 08, 1996|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

He lives off Ritchie Highway in Pasadena, past the McDonald's that has ditched drive-through intercoms for a "Face to Face" window service that takes all the joy out of screaming garbled orders back and forth at each other. He is Stan Gembicki, the brick man of Pasadena, and he is out back of his home on G Street.

Stan extends his tanned tough hand, jacks up his jeans and wonders out loud why the heck anyone would want to see his brick work. And why the heck did his wife, Edith, write the Sunpapers about it.

"She thinks I walk on water," Stan says, warming to the crazy idea of getting a little attention. Edith, married 47 years to this man, looks quite pleased with herself and heads into the house to get a couple of Dr Peppers. Her letter said:

The story is a noble one. I was and still am amazed at the artistic endeavor of this man who with mortar and water has turned a plot of dirt into a beautiful show place. Please, come out and see it yourself.

You know what people say? "What's that crazy Pollack up to now?" says Stan, 72. No, people say his work is just beautiful -- his brick altar with a Virgin Mary statue, his round brick barbecue, the Jeffersonian serpentine wall and brick porch. What else would they say? Stan says it's like when your wife puts on a new dress. You say it looks great, even though it makes her look like a lavender flounder.

One could say Stan has spent 30 years salvaging roughly 200,000 bricks from Maryland landfills and waterfronts to create, brick by brick, something that holds up. Drive in a five-mile radius of his home and see the brick stoops, brick back porches and landscaping he has done at his children's homes.

"My dad sees the landscape as sort of his way of being there for us always," says the oldest child, Stan, a 47-year-old engineer. His father likes to drop by, say he can only stay for a minute and proceed to walk the yard. Early morning is his time. "He is a solitary man."

Maybe every neighborhood has an older man working alone in his back yard, with his kids grown and his days marked by doctor's appointments and new pictures of the grandchildren. The yard man does daily battle with his body and with boredom. His children don't ask him for advice anymore; they ask him to Thanksgiving dinner.

Every day, Stan finds another chore, another reason to get up and get to work. In his back yard, he finds ways to feel useful and to do his solitary raging against that dying light.

"Used to go to McDonald's, sit and talk with other retirees," Stan says. The other men would moan about getting old. Stan got a little fed up. "Go home. Do something in your life." He also used a word you don't hear too much anymore.

He told them to go home and play.

The brick man lumbers out to his back yard to give a tour -- that's why we're here, after all, he says. The neighbors take pictures of his back yard. Husbands tell him to stop being so handy because it gives their wives ideas -- dangerous ideas concerning work they, too, could do around the house.

We're in the Wonderful World of Bricks -- the Camden Yards of back yards. Stan's brick wall runs from one end of his property to the other, where bricks spell out LAND END. He meant to say LAND'S END, but he goofed. Then the wall abruptly stops. "And this is where I ran out of bricks."

Anyone who has ever laid brick can testify it's monotonous work. "Laying up a brick wall is one of those projects that's more time-consuming than difficult," according to Better Homes and Gardens' "Complete Guide to Home Repair." It teaches that when bricks are laid, they're staggered so vertical joints are never aligned. Lines of bricks are called courses, and bricks laid crosswise are headers. We did not know this.

Mortar recipe

Stan says he uses a header every six courses. For mortar, it's always one shovel cement, three shovels sand, then add water. "I get a nice gray color, then I figure that's it." Dig a foot under the frost line and start. He really doesn't have any trade secrets.

"Trying to express in words brick work is pretty damn tough."

Stanislaw Gembicki, one of 15 children, grew up on Cereal Street in Curtis Bay, then an industrial boom town with a tavern on every block and neighbors on every stoop. "There were so many kids they called it Incubator Alley." He still calls Curtis Bay "the land of milk and honey."

His father, also named Stanislaw, was born in Poland and had no particular interest in mastering English. He was a carpenter. His son, nicknamed Jim, laid bricks for 25 cents a day until he realized this was no way to make a living.

He gave up bricks but kept his trowel, same tool he uses now. And he hasn't named his trowel "Old Betsy" or something. A man doesn't name his tools. Stan doesn't own power tools, either. "Everything I do is with my hands."

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