"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, December 9, 2013

Podger Hangs A Picture; or Save Me From Home Depot!

“I brought some wood from Virginia.  Would you mind getting it out of the car?”

Now, this doesn’t seem like a particularly untoward request – unload a few split logs from the trunk of the car– but when my wife brought wood back from the Old Homestead, it wasn’t just a matter of a few pieces of hardwood for the fireplace on Sunday, for a homey afternoon of hot toddies and cookies; it was a  station wagon full of tightly-stacked hardwood.  It wasn’t just any old station wagon either, but the biggest one on the road – a Buick Electra Estate Wagon; a car advertised for “Hauling anything that can be hauled”.

By the time my father-in-law bought the car, the odometer had already turned once; but to him it was not old. He was a fan of these big V8s and bet his life on them.  The Electra had a huge engine, was as long as a boxcar, and was built with so much iron and steel that it was virtually indestructible. “It’s the heaviest car on the road”, he said. “It’s built like a tank. No matter what kind of a crash you get into”, said, “you’ll survive”.

Most importantly, used Electra Wagons sold for a song. America had finally moved on to smaller cars, and no one wanted these mastodons. He would pay peanuts for them, run them into the ground, and turn around and buy others.  It would take years for the inventory to shrink, he said.

In any case it was the Buick Electra wagon that hauled the wood. The car was on its last legs.  The springs were shot after hauling refrigerators, air conditioners, and generators.  The car sagged so much that the wheels were barely visible in the wheel wells. Even with the huge engine as a counterbalance to the weight in the back, the car tipped up like a cigarette boat at full tilt.

My father-in-law grew up on a ranch, so cutting wood, and stacking and hauling it was no big deal; nor was fixing fences, damming streams, building corrals, or pitching hay.  He was so good at stacking wood that there was no space between the pieces of split cherry.  He eyeballed the shape and dimensions of each and built a wall in the way-back as good as any fine Italian stonecutter.

It took me hours to unload.  I not only had to hoist, carry, and dump endless armloads of wood, I had to pry each piece out of the wooden rampart.  They were in there tighter than a puzzle.  I hated it.

I can’t really blame my father-in-law or my wife.  My dislike and total distaste for any physical yard work came early and naturally.  My father believed that yard work was good, honest, man’s labor; so while my sister did the easy or fun things in the kitchen with my mother – stirring the spaghetti sauce, baking cookies, or slicing the eggplant, I was digging, raking, weeding, watering, mowing, trimming, and hauling. I never managed to pass muster. I left tufts and whorls of grass, trimmed the hedges so unevenly that they looked gat-toothed and ragged, yanked weeds so impatiently from the garden that I ripped the roots from the impatiens and daisies, and either overwatered or under-watered so badly that plants and shrubs died left and right.

My father and I ended up in a standoff.  The more he forced me into the trenches, the more I hacked roots, brutalized the privet hedge, and drowned the dogwood.  “Why can’t Maggie do this?”, I asked one day, hot and muddy.  “Because she’s a girl, that’s why”.

I have to give it to my father, though.  He never gave up on this man thing. When I was eight or nine, he gave me model car and airplane kits for Christmas. I had absolutely no patience for Tab A into Slot B, gluing wings and struts and affixing decals; so the balsa aircraft came out misshapen, mismatched, and totally out of kilter.

When I was a bit older he gave me a radio kit.  It was a box full of vacuum tubes, resistors, wires, and switches.  Assembly was complicated.  It required paying attention to what was hooked up to what, and once you soldered the bits and pieces, there was no going back. When I told my father that I had finished, he called my mother and sister, and we all sat around the kitchen table to watch me turn it on and tune in to WNBT. As soon as I turned it on, the lights dimmed, the radio smoked and smoldered, flashed, and flamed.  The lights went out, the house was quiet, and the neighborhood dark.  I had not paid that much attention to the directions, and matched pieces of the same size or color instead of polarity, resistance, and amperage. It was no wonder that it fizzled, sparked, and melted.

For decades I never so much as picked up a hammer. I lived in apartment houses in New York and Newark, moved to India where we had a bevy of servants to do everything, and moved back to Washington to rental houses where all the fixing up and repairs were handled by the landlord. For years, I never weeded, raked, or did anything more handy that screw in a light bulb.  It was exactly as I liked it.

Buying a house gave me a few more fits and starts than most people, because I saw what men did in my neighborhood.  I saw them mowing, trimming, edging, weeding, and watering.  I saw them on roofs, on ladders, and in basement stairwells.

One hot afternoon as I walked in the alley behind my house, I was waved over by a neighbor who was taking a break from his yard work.  After we finished our beers in the garden, he took me into the basement.  “I want to show you my work room”, he said.

My father never had a work room.  He had a few screwdrivers, nails, and wrenches in the coal cellar; and despite his insistence on yard work and his ceaseless attempts to get me to make things, he hired others to do manual labor. “That’s what Polacks are for”, he said; and called Stash Rzewski, the husband of our maid, to repair toilets, unclog drains, and fix anything that went wrong.

I was unprepared, therefore, for the neighbor’s work room.  The term itself did no justice to the perfectly organized, aligned, and gleaming wrenches, drill bits, and screwdrivers. Tools were arrayed like place settings at Buckingham Palace. They were affixed to the walls.  They were hanging from racks overhead.

He had sanders, scrapers, brushes, and levels; tubes of grouting, cans of paint; pounders, packers, and fillers. It was incredible.  I had never seen anything like it.

“I can fix anything”, he proudly said.

We eventually did buy a house; but I was saved from menial chores by Mr. Glenn, otherwise known as Superman.  He was a retired Government worker who loved to putter, who offered handyman services as a retirement hobby, and charged very little.  And he was fast.  No matter how long the list, he whipped through it in hours.  He was a godsend, hence the name Superman.

The only minor problem was his pride.  He had to let me know that he was doing this as a hobby, not to make money.  “Mr. Parlato”, he would say, “You can fix this.  It only requires a 3/4” grommet, some insulated wire, and a Phillips screwdriver”.  I wrung my hands before him, abject, and penitential.

“Yes, I know, Mr. Glenn, but do you think that perhaps just this once you could do it for me?”

Each and every time he came we did this pas de deux. He berated me, and I bowed and scraped with my begging bowl.

My son had a friend whose parents went to Home Depot even if they didn’t have anything specific to buy.  They were like women who visit Saks, Nordstrom’s and Neiman Marcus simply to shop – to sample the Dior perfume, ruffle through the racks of new Phillip Lim dresses, try a pair of Manolo Blahniks, and see how the new Valentino handbags accessorize with the St. Laurent.

At Home Depot the Salors watched demonstrations of floor waxers, Dyson vacuum cleaners, and lithium battery-powered drills.  They tried out ergonomic shovels, verified the decibel levels of the latest Amana dishwasher, and cruised the aisles for the latest latex bonding, epoxy sealant, corner-bending sprays, and the latest in garden tools.  They spent many happy hours not only at Home Depot, but at Lowe’s, Target, and Walmart.

I have absolutely no idea what motivates the Salors, my new neighbor, or my father-in-law who set the bar for DIY handyman expertise. There was nothing new in the house where my wife grew up.  Everything was old and repaired and taped with stickums (“To turn on, move the dial all the way counterclockwise, then flip the toggle switch marked ‘On/Off’ until you hear water run.  Then reset the dial to 40”).  Every appliance had as many stickums as prayer flags on the road to Dharamsala.

One summer, my father-in-law asked me if I could help him do a little work down by the lake.  The Lake Branford Community Association had decided to raise the level of the lake, and each lakefront property owner was responsible for raising the level of his waterfront land. It was only a matter of inches, and most residents of the community said the hell with it, let the water lap over the sides after particularly heavy rains. Who cared?  Not so my wife’s father. “This is an opportunity”, he said, “to finally give us a decent back yard with a thick carpet of grass”.

To make the improvements, he bargained with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad for used railroad ties, negotiated with a West Virginia excavation company for landfill, and a Loudoun County hauler to carry everything to the house.  When I arrived on work day, I saw a pile of long,creosote-laden, 20 ft. ties stacked by the lakefront, and an enormous pile of wet, dense, and slick mud by the house.  “Now”, said my father-in-law“, “all we have to do is to put the ties in place to form a seawall; and to spread the dirt two feet thick uniformly from the lake to the sycamores”. 

I gave a few perfunctory, desultory pitches into the mud, and a few trial hefts of the ties, and called it a day.  “Cameron”, I said to my father-in-law, “I think it’s time to call in the heavy artillery”.  And so he reluctantly opened his wallet and hired a fleet of back-hoes, mini-Cats, front loaders, and an army of illegal Salvadorans to build his earthworks.

I won’t say that I am proud of my lifelong success in thwarting menial work – there is nothing wrong with it, of course – but I am satisfied that I have been able to devise a way to keep afloat without having to bail.  As long as we can find the Mr. Glenns (Superman) of the world who actually like to solve DIY problems, and as long as I have the resources to pay for mowing, landscaping, drain reaming, gutter cleaning hold out, I can continue to lie back and watch others do work.

“Do you want to spend your whole life reading books and watching movies?”, my father rhetorically asked when I was 14. “Yes”, I said to myself then; and not surprisingly would answer the same way 50 years later.  Who in their right mind would spend a Saturday at Home Depot when there are so many other and far more seductive sirens calling?  While Mr. Glenn is grouting my bathtubs, I am in the exotic garden of Suddenly Last Summer. While Pedro and Juan are cleaning my gutters, I am watching Olivier in his mother’s bedroom in Hamlet.  I happily decamp to Starbucks when las fuerzas armadas, the team of Honduran maids who come to clean on Thursdays, take over the house.

Wealth has its privileges, and, although I do not live in the aerie of the One Percent, I have enough to free myself from the drudgery of cleaning, painting, raking, mowing, and fixing.  I have not set foot in a Home Depot, Lowes, Target, or Tools ‘R’ Us for years, and I intend to keep it that way.

I have a friend who tries home-therapy on me. “Ron”, he says, “Maybe if you went to Sherman’s (one of the last remaining local hardware stores in the area) , you might feel differently”.  Yes, this small, homey, user-friendly, community service store is far less intimidating than the scary hangar-size spaces of Home Depot; but it is still stocked with screws, bolts, and hoses.  If I happen to go there early in the morning I have to wait in line behind all the Salvadoran painters and gardeners and the West Virginia-bred, mullet-wearing, tobacco-chewing plumbers and electricians.  This is how it should be – division of labor. 

Whenever I actually do something around the house – like tighten a pesky screw in the frying pan, or put an old photo in a frame – my wife says, “Podger hangs a picture”, a reference to the 19th century husband who was all thumbs.  I love this sobriquet, for it means that I have won yet another skirmish in the marital wars.  Even hanging a picture is considered an accomplishment.



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