Keeping the faith
By Phillip Lopate
November 4, 2016
I am not handy. Though I can make a living by my pen, and write or bullshit about almost any subject under the sun short of economics and physics, I am completely incompetent in the use of other tools. When something breaks down, I don’t even try to fix it; my first instinct is to call in the plumber, the roofer, the garage mechanic. These people are professionals; they know what they’re doing. Or should. But in fact I don’t even make the call. I simply turn the problem over to my wife, who is not only very good at fixing things on her own, but also has an eagle eye for correct workmanship and can easily spot a shoddy shortcut, patchy paint job, or unserviceable tool. Her first husband was an artist who moonlighted as a carpenter, and must have taught her considerable amounts along these lines. He died young, and after several years of widowhood, she remarried this wordsmith, me, and has more or less cheerfully resigned herself to my limitations, though I can’t help suspecting that her notions of proper masculinity include being handy, which I am not.
A house is an unending project, and over the years we have employed a series of workmen to try to bring our brownstone to a more finished state, or simply to repair cracks, leaks, and other emergencies. Typically, my wife will get a referral from a friend or neighbor about some jack-of-all trades who is really good at odd jobs—and cheap. Since we are on a tight budget, money is definitely a consideration. The fellow will start coming around, fixing a bunch of small problems, such as installing new doorknobs or hanging a ceiling fan, and graduate to more complex tasks. That is when disillusionment sets in. During this early, honeymoon phase, however, I notice my wife’s spirits brighten. She loves having workmen around the house, she loves watching their progress and learning their techniques, and she loves supervising them. She will chat them up during their breaks, and they will tell her the story of their lives. I will sometimes come down to the kitchen to see her fixing an omelet or a sandwich for these men, all in the name of bonding and getting the best possible work out of them. My daughter sometimes grumbles that her mom has forgotten her and me, and indeed I wonder what happened to my omelet. But overall, I am not jealous; I am glad that she seems so content.
The cast of characters keeps changing. There was Kenny, an elderly African-American handyman from the South who kept working partly to help support his grown children and grandchildren. He loved to talk about his gym workouts, and how strong he was for a man his age. There was Luis, a skillful Latino contractor who seemed to be on the run from the law, evading child support payments to two women. One day he simply stopped showing up, leaving his tools in our basement. There was Marcos, a hardworking Mexican with limited English, who grinned a lot. Each of them ended up costing me thousands of dollars—a little here, a little there—and each of them my wife swore by, until it turned out that they had botched some particular job that had been just beyond their skill set, and had to be redone. At this point my wife would become very angry and wonder aloud why these goddamn men couldn’t just admit that they didn’t know how to do something, instead of botching it up. She would fulminate against the whole tribe of workmen, who so often did not show up when they promised, leaving her trapped in the house waiting futilely for their arrival. I sensed she was feeling disenchanted with the entire male sex—which happens to be my own gender placement, though I was completely blameless, for once.
I would try to console her. I would reassure her that the job would get done right in the course of time. It was as though my wife (faithful to a fault) had had a series of unhappy love affairs that I, the cuckolded husband, had had to ignore during their happy time but assuage her sorrow at the breakups afterwards. Of course she denies that she has had any romantic feelings toward these men, and thinks I am, as usual, making up fantasies in my head. I do live in my head, it’s true, because my relationship to the physical, mechanical world is so attenuated.
At the moment, three workmen are out back, putting a new roof on the extension above our garden apartment, which we rent out. Our tenants, who are very nice, very patient, have been suffering leaks in their bathroom during heavy rains. Without question, we need to undo Marcos’s shoddy work and start all over again. Fortunately, the new head workman, an Albanian named Andy, seems to be extremely knowledgeable about roofing matters, if expensive. My wife is keeping an eye on him, and in a few weeks, at most, the problem should be resolved.
Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.