Working for the Man in America

We’ve lived in other people’s houses for the past year so I haven’t had to worry about home maintenance, but that all changed when we got back to Denver at the end of June.

Before we left for our year abroad we put our house on the short-term rental market. We live in a nice part of Denver so the bookings filled up quickly and over the course of the year, the house was occupied about 80 percent of the time. That’s good in terms of paying the mortgage but as we made our way back to Denver I wondered what the house would look like after all those people lugged their suitcases up and down the stairs, cooked in our kitchen and partied in the basement.  Would the furniture be trashed? Holes in the walls? Broken windows and lighting fixtures? After I walked in the door and surveyed the place I was pleasantly surprised. Aside from a leaky faucet, hail damage to the roof, a dead aspen tree in the backyard and louver doors at the bottom of the basement stairs that had (again!) come off the tracks, everything seemed pretty good.

I come from a family or real estate agents, contractors and people who do stuff with their hands and who know how stuff works so I try, as much as I can, to fix things on my own.

Not that I’m very good at it.

I worked for a builder for a spell after I finished college and I enjoyed the labor and being outside, but I’m not really good with my hands and I don’t have a mechanical mind so I never excelled in that area even after I put some effort into it. As I struggled setting the miter box properly or setting a door header, the guys I worked with–good, solid, industrious people who spent their lives building things and solving problems in the world of “things”–would look at me with pity, roll their eyes and come over to give me a helping hand. This isn’t something I’m proud of. I’m envious of my friends and family members who know how to dig foundations, repair cars, hang doors and build decks and I guess it’s just a good thing for me that graduate school worked out.

Oftentimes, when I do try to repair something around the house I just break it even more, precipitating a call to a general contractor anyway.  Shortly after we bought the house we live in now, I tried to fix the sprinkler system in the backyard but ended up breaking a water line so I had to call in a plumber and ended up paying double what it would have cost had I just called the plumber straight away.  I don’t fail every time, though. Last year before we left I built a new gate for our back yard, I’ve replaced locks and doors and I’m pretty good at making shelves.

Infuriatingly, Sujata is much better at fixing things than I am. We sort of play this game that I’m marginally competent at doing projects around the house, but when I get stuck or can’t figure out how something works, she usually saunters in, spots the problem and fixes it herself.  I guess that makes her the handywoman of the house.

Last week when I set out to replace the leaky faucet, I couldn’t get the old faucet out of the housing so I went to the hardware store and bought a basin wrench proudly crowing to Sujata as I walked out the door, “I just watched a YouTube video and realized I need a basin wrench to get this job done! Be back in a bit.”  I got home, crawled under the sink, stuck the basin wrench up into the slot and started to use the wrench to turn the hard-to-get-to nut.  It wasn’t working and when she heard me cursing, Sujata came over, asked what the problem was, grabbed a wrench and twisted off the old faucet from the top of the sink.

Show off.

For as bad, though, as I am at home maintenance, I’m even worse at dealing with contractors who have the tools and knowledge to fix the things that I can’t.  I’m too trusting and I don’t have enough technical knowledge to know if what I’m being told is honest or a load of crap. I tend to believe people and think that they have my, as well as their own, best interests at heart. In a weirdly condescending way I can’t imagine that anyone would be dishonest to me because (I dishonestly tell myself) I am so honest with everyone else.

Last week, I opened our garage door and pushed the garage door button–the door opened about halfway and then reversed directions and closed again. I pushed the button repeatedly and the door kept doing the same thing, opening half way, then closing. This garage door has, over the years, given me plenty of headaches. Oftentimes, we’ll open the door, pull the car out of the garage, hit the garage door button and watch the door close halfway before it pops open again. We used to drive away before the door was fully closed and then we’d come home to a wide-open garage. It’s a wonder our bikes were never stolen and there are, obviously, not enough tools in the garage to tempt a thief. It’s a ritual now in our family to patiently wait in the car and watch the door fully close before we put the car in drive and head out. That said, I’ve watched enough YouTube videos to know how to adjust the garage door when it acts up. There are little tension adjusters on the motor that hangs from the rafters and that works the chain the lifts and sets down the door.  When the door refuses to close I usually get on a ladder, mess around with the adjustments and voila! the door either opens or closes without incident and I don’t end up having to call a garage door company to fix it.

That was not the case, last week, though. I couldn’t get the adjustments right and after watching way too many YouTube videos, pricing new garage door openers online and even visiting Home Depot to examine their selection of new garage door openers, I gave in and called a couple of garage door companies to come over and look at the problem.

In hindsight, I should have just called the guys who have fixed the door over the course of the past 10 years. They are, as Sujata reminded me at the denouement of this incident, honest, trustworthy and reliable. Plus, she hastened to add, they live in the neighborhood: “Why would you go calling people from god-knows-where when you can just work with people who are local?” Well, I was actually bit miffed that the damn door kept acting up and wondered if those neighborhood guys were just putting it into a periodic fail mode (so much for being too trusting!), so I looked around for another company.

I came across what I thought was a great online deal: a Denver company was offering $125 off a new opener and $50 off for new customers. I figured the whole thing would cost $350 with parts and labor so with the $175 off that I was, or so I thought, getting a great deal. I called the dudes and they held to their promise to come out later that day.

The Irish, who have mastered the art of the insult, will slight a rude, incompetent or obnoxious man by referring to him as “your man,” except that the Irish pronounce it as yerman. As in, “Yerman over there tried to charge me six euros for a pint of Guinness when it’s still happy hour.” Halfway through our stay in Ireland earlier this year, we gleefully discovered that there’s even an Irish way of referring to a rude, incompetent or obnoxious woman. You just call her yerone. Now, I know some Irish person is going to read this and say, “No, that’s not right at all, yerman just means any dude and yerone just refers to any given woman,” but I have to say that in the five months I lived there I never once heard any Irish speaker use yerman or yerone without rolling their eyes and performatively casting aspersions at the person they were referring to.

So, yerman, the garage door guy, pulls up to our garage, hops out of the car, shakes my hand and begins to assess the situation. “The motor’s fine,” he opines, “but it’s the springs, man, they are shot and you really need to replace them.” “Look,” he says, “See how the door crashes to the ground when it’s halfway closed? Not supposed to do that. The door is supposed to gently glide to the ground. What that means when the door is crashing down is that the springs are all messed up and the motor can’t handle the weight of the door.” “Oh,” I said, “Can I just adjust the springs myself?” “You don’t want to do that, brother,” he replied, “I’ve seen people nearly decapitated themselves trying to do that. You let that screw out just a little too much and the whole spring unravels–sounds like a gunshot. My brother lost his finger and I’d say he was lucky.”

This was all news to me.

I was figuring I’d just need a new motor and that with labor would be about $350. I wasn’t anticipating bad springs and just the mention of possible decapitation made me more than willing to hand over the job to yerman.  He gave me a quote. I asked if he could knock off 50 bucks to which he readily agreed and then I, feeling good about the deal I was getting said, “Great, good luck and watch your head.”

I walked in the house to find Sujata standing in the kitchen, arms akimbo and brows furrowed. Had someone else been in the room she would have nodded her head my way and declared in her Irish brogue, “Yerman is a right edjit.”

You will not be surprised to learn that Sujata was correct. In my desire to get the best price from the garage door guy, I looked over a number of things: 1) the fact that he readily dropped the original price more than 50% of the original quote; 2) the fact that the springs had just been replaced five years ago and 3) the fact that this company, Sujata haughtily informed me as she lifted her smart phone to my eyes, had the very worst Yelp! ratings that a garage door company could have! No! I thought to myself, this can’t be! I looked at the Yelp! reviews and they were all good. I was dismayed and embarrassed, of course, to see, quite clearly, a host of one star reviews and short, direct, pissed off comments about the bad service unsuspecting customers had from this company.

I took 20 bucks from my wallet, walked back to the garage, thanked yerman for coming out, placed the money in his hand and informed him we were going to look for another company. He didn’t seem surprised. I suspect this sort of thing happens all the time and, honestly, I didn’t blame him at all. He was just an ordinary guy working for a dishonest company and I was sure that he was getting all kinds of pressure to make sales at any cost.

It’s easy to get mad at dudes like yerman, but I know that behind him, poking him, putting pressure on him, taking his health insurance and other benefits away are unscrupulous people who care even less about him than they do about me.

When I walked into the garage to give him the 20 bucks he handed me his phone. On the other end was some guy with a Jersey accent and a slightly aggressive tone in his voice asking what price I was expecting for the repair and why was I wasting their time? I didn’t say anything, I just handed the phone back to yerman and tried to convey in my expression that I was sorry he had to work for people like that.

The fun never ends, either. This morning, I took our kids and the Shea boys up to the playground and when we came back to the house we were all alarmed to see a squirrel running across the kitchen counters. The kids ran out of the room and came back with their homemade boys and arrows trained on the frightened squirrel. “Don’t shoot!” I shouted, worried they’d hit their mark and I’d have to clean up squirrel remains from the kitchen sink. The squirrel jumped up on the top of the kitchen cabinets and then . . . it just disappeared. We spent a full hour looking all over the house, but no sign of the squirrel. I suspect that someone will wake up tonight staring back at two beady black eyes. I put a call into a squirrel exterminator (good Yelp! reviews and a local company) just in case.

My point here, though, is that in America, my quarrel is with the guys in the suits, not the guys in the work boots.  I’d like to see an America where guys like yerman enjoy the same entitlements that I have: good, affordable health insurance, a 401k plan and a 529 account to send my kids to college. Let’s face it: It’s not easy working for The Man in America.

And maybe that’s why I have such a difficult time with contractors. I’ve been in their shoes and I know how hard they work and how much they have to hustle to get by. I admire their skills and abilities and I generally enjoy talking to them. Guys who work with their hands are generally more informal and much less pretentious and easy going than the people I rub shoulders with in my profession. They are good-humored, use colorful language and, as far as I can tell, they don’t treat me any differently than they’d treat any other client.

As for me, I’ve got about two more weeks of home improvement projects to get to before go to New Zealand where we are, happily, renting a house for the year.

 

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