When he was younger, my son would pipe up from time to time with what he called “Scott’s rules to live by,” his distinctly personal little life guides. My all-time favorite, arrived at when he was seven, was “Never get your hair cut by a man named Buster.” But the tidbit I would ponder most over the years was this: “Don’t hire repairmen on Mondays.” I have no idea how my son arrived at the haircut rule (he didn’t know anyone, much less a barber, by the name of Buster), but the no-repairmen-on-Mondays idea addressed a specific problem. Strange things were going on in his household, and the boy was just trying to help.
My husband and I happen to be completely devoid of skills in the area of home improvement and repair, and utterly lacking in desire to acquire those skills. While we would prefer that this situation were different, we have come to accept what is, the way you eventually accept flat feet or the inability to carry a tune—regretfully but philosophically. In the great genetic roulette game of life, you win some and you lose some, and why fight it? (I prefer to think of our ineptitude as genetic and therefore unalterable because it removes the possibility, and thus the responsibility, of learning awful things like wiring—or, worse yet, rewiring.)
I’m not sure we’re missing much anyway. We have friends who can take an old house, a mere shack, and turn it into a showplace, complete with guestwing and antique door moldings they found in a pasture somewhere. But they pay a terrible price for this ability, as people with irrepressible talent often do. They go around for three years (the required renovation period) looking like they just witnessed a traffic accident. They begin to talk incessantly about wood and become oblivious to the bits of dried plaster stuck to their forearms. And when they are finally finished, they go and sell the place, which I don’t understand at all. If I were capable of turning a shack into a showplace with my own hands, I would want to gaze upon it for as long as I lived, and I’d make my children promise to maintain it after I was gone, sort of like a shrine.
Obviously, this is something I will never have to worry about. My husband and I have other concerns. It is our lot in life to be the kind of people who are repelled by the thought of handling lumber or discovering what the inside of our TV looks like; the kind of people who think words like wrench and power tool have the ring of violence.
As a result, we have been forced throughout our marriage to “hire help.” If talent extracts a price, well, ineptitude is no picnic either. Over the years, the cost of enjoying plaster-free forearms and an unintimidating toolbox (half a dozen bent screwdrivers, a bag of old washers, and a hand-me-down electric drill that originated in my husband’s family only slightly after my husband did) has been the acceptance in our house of a regular parade of plumbers, carpenters, and repairmen.
You might think that bringing trained professionals into a situation such as ours would be a comfort—an expensive comfort, but a comfort nonetheless. And you might be wrong. We have discovered that these men generally are just human extensions of the appliances we fear and the skills we lack. The various tradesmen we have hired over the years have been responsible for some of the weirdest moments of my life—so weird, in fact, that my son figured that there had to be a reason for it, and the reason was that these people always seemed to show up on Monday.
But that theory was put to the test when a carpet installer showed up at 8:30 on a Wednesday morning and spoke his first words to me: “Boy, it’s hot. You got any beer?” I gave him the only reasonable answer I could think of under the circumstances: “No.” That might have been a mistake, because an hour later my son came downstairs and announced, “The carpet guy is asleep on the bedroom floor.”
And there was the summer we hired a carpenter, highly recommended, to build a deck in our backyard. The carpenter’s name was Harvey, and he was aided in his labors by a son called Duke. On the days he actually showed up, Harvey would, at the slightest opportunity, pop open a bottle of Pepsi-Cola (“aluminum cans will make you sick,” said Harvey) and tell me things about himself I really didn’t care to know, such as, “I’m allergic to fruit.” For his part, Duke would kick back, Pepsi in hand, and relate the plots of his favorite Burt Reynolds movies. And it was Duke who asked one of the most memorable questions ever put to me. Seeing my two children come in from school one day, children who happen to be not only different ages and sexes but also different races (not hard to figure out when you think about it), Duke desired to know, “Are they fraternal twins?”
And then there were the screw-ups, like the paperhanger who pasted a strip of wallpaper over a plugged-in radio cord. When I pointed out this error, he said, “Damn, I guess I’ll have to fix that.” And not to be forgotten is the TV repairman who listened to me explain the problem with my television, then asked, “Are you American?” I said that yes, I was American and why did he want to know? Said he, “I thought by the way you talk you might be from Boston.” If I’m from Boston, this must be Monday.
But my favorite (in a manner of speaking) encounter with a repairman came the first time my garbage disposal quit on me. I called a plumber, who showed up at my door two hours later accompanied by a man of slight build whom the plumber introduced as “my assistant, Dickie.” The plumber went directly to the disposal, while Dickie huffed and grunted as he dragged toward my kitchen a large and ominous piece of equipment that looked like a weapon from a World War II movie. This pair would become known in our house forevermore as “Dickie and the so-called plumber.”
When the so-called plumber had finished his examination of the disposal, I said, “So what’s the problem?” The so-called plumber hesitated briefly, looked me in the eye, and told me, “It’s broke.” It was one of those moments when you feel like your life is a movie and you’ve been forced into a seat to watch the show. There I was, asking, “Why is it broken?” There was Dickie, preparing the war weapon for use. And there was the so-called plumber, giving me his professional evaluation: “Probably it’s a lemon.”
To make a long story short, I called a second so-called plumber, who installed a new disposal, which caught on fire six months later. I hired plumber number three. Told him my disposal had caught on fire. Told him it was only six months old. And he told me, “You got a lemon.”
In fairness to tradesmen, I should say that I have had a few positive experiences over the years. Twice my washing machine was repaired without incident. And years ago I hired a house painter who was a gem—honest, competent, neat, and good-humored—and we became friends. But he retired last summer and turned his business over to his nephew—discouraging news, since I am almost positive there is a rule somewhere (I’ll have to check with my son) about not hiring people’s nephews.
And while I’m afraid to say it out loud, I have even found a good plumber—an elderly Italian man who works with his two sons, neither of them named Duke. When they come to my house to fix something (they recently installed my fourth garbage disposal), “the boys” attend to business while Pop, who sits at the table shooting the breeze, yells sporadic instructions in Italian in their direction. These men show up on time and clean up when they are finished. They don’t ask for beer, and never once in my presence have they used the word lemon. Still, I avoid taking chances. I try not to call them on Mondays. It’s true: superstition accompanies ignorance. It’s also true that I would never get my hair cut by a man named Buster.