There’s an orchard not too far from my front door that also does a nice job with flowers. Since it was going to be my wife’s birthday the next day, I decided to drive out there to get a bunch because, you know, one can’t go wrong with flowers.
When I walked in, I didn’t see any flower arrangements on display, so I asked if they had any somewhere else. The woman told me that they could put something together, which sounded fine. “I’ll wander around outside and stop back in about fifteen minutes,” I said.
I walked around behind a mammoth old barn and was taking pictures of a vintage Dodge work truck, when a woman, maybe a decade or so younger than I, walked briskly out to the flower field and started cutting flowers. She said hi and I said hi back, and I told her that I thought those were for me. They were.
“What would you like?” she asked.
So she did, and we walked back together to a weather-beaten wooden table where she fussed with the arrangement. I think the style is called rural chic—a simple, yet deceptively elaborate bouquet of flowers arranged in a pickle jar, or whatever else is handy that will hold water.
“So, what do you do?” she asked as she was adjusting the height on a zinnia.
“What do I do? That’s a good question. I know what I did,” I said. “I was a home builder for almost thirty years.”
And so we talked about that and farming for half of an hour, eventually wrapping her octogenarian mother into the conversation as she walked by. After I paid for the flowers and balanced the water and flower filled vessel on the armrest of the truck, I drove home thinking about our conversation.
What did I do?
I spent the majority of my adult life in the construction business, and not a day went by when I didn’t say to myself, “Man, someday I’m going to write a book about this.” Well, that hasn’t happened, largely because I wouldn’t know where to begin. The best parts of my job were much the same as any other occupation, where the sum of the experiences makes up the career. Still, the orchardist’s inquiring words of, “what do you do” rang in my ears. I thought of Batman when he said, “It’s not who I am underneath but what I do that defines me.” True enough, Mr. Batman, so here goes:
The construction business is nothing more than time and people management held together with a diverse range of skills. I needed to know what everyone else knew, and somehow coordinate hundreds of people and components on time and under budget so that when I was done, there would be a house where there once was none. That would be a very dull book, but those were the nuts and bolts of the job and I was very good at it. I learned the business from the ground up from my father-in-law and tweaked what I learned with my own personality. It was stimulating work, made even more remarkable by the people I encountered along the way. I met some very nice people, some very weird people and some people who I would rather, but won’t ever, forget, and since nobody wants to read about how to cut a bird’s mouth in a rafter, let’s talk about some of the folks I met along the way.
We had a young family buy one of our spec houses, which had never been occupied. A few weekends after they moved in, they called to let me know the toilets were backing up—all of them, which was a first. We tried plunging them and snaking them, but neither method worked. That being Memorial Day weekend, I couldn’t leave them home for three days without working toilets, so I called in an emergency crew and we dug a hole in the front yard to get to the sewer cleanout. My fear was that kids had packed the pipe full of dirt before it was cut down, capped and buried. Bored kids living in a developing neighborhood were my archenemies.
We opened the cap on the vertical part of the pipe (the cleanout) and ran a thin, flexible camera line out to the street. Clear as a whistle. Because of the wye fitting, we had to go into the basement to do the same thing with the other end of the pipe, and when we did, we saw that the obstruction was between the house and the cleanout point.
I still thought it was a clump of dirt or sod because what else could it be? There was no way to clear it out without blowing whatever was causing the clog towards the street, which could have caused problems for everyone, so we dug a hole twelve feet deep smack in the middle of their front yard and cut off the wye so we could address the problem.
Back in the basement, we fed a high-powered water hose attached to a bladder from the inside until we hit the clog, backed it up a bit, and then let ‘er rip. I was outside straddling the edges of the hole, and the plumber stayed inside. When it finally blew open, out came at least a half-dozen baby diapers along with everything else that had been flushed down the toilets over the past couple of weeks. The diapers had swollen in the sewer line and everything more or less worked until the pipes were filled to capacity, leaving nowhere for anything to go. The homeowner, holding a baby, looked at the mess and said, “those aren’t ours.”
After everything was buttoned up and working, I went home, took a Silkwood shower, and if memory serves, burned my clothes.
Outside of that issue, plumbing calls were usually minor. I got one from a customer whose garbage disposal quit, so I stopped over on my way home. Disposal problems were always easy, so I pushed the reset button and it started running, but it sounded as if the disposal was full of nails before it promptly quit again. I looked inside and saw what appeared to be ice cubes, and since you couldn’t pay me enough to stick my hand into a garbage disposal (even a dead one), I detached the unit from under the sink and dumped out chips of thick glass. “Oh, my kids knocked over a vase that was on the window ledge, and it broke in the sink. They ground it up in the disposal, and that’s when it quit,” she told me as if this were perfectly normal behavior. I cleaned out the disposal and advised her not to grind glass ever again. Or celery.
There was the first-time homeowner who called me because a few of their lights weren’t working. I stopped over, looked at the situation, and then went out to the truck and got some supplies. When I got back, I showed him how to change a light bulb.
Then there was this guy who complained about everything, and on the morning after the afternoon we had poured the concrete for the garage floor, he called to tell me that there were footprints all over the surface and that he wanted a new floor. I met him at the house, where he was standing there with his three kids. Each of them was wearing sneakers with concrete on them. I didn’t give him a new floor, but the concrete was still green enough to fix, which I did.
It was a strange sort of job, and we always tried to go above and beyond.
I think my favorite character was the old woman who hoarded everything. She was a voracious reader, and within a few months of moving into an empty house, there were newspapers, books, and magazines from floor to ceiling. One had to walk from room to room in a maze-like pattern. Both of her bathtubs were filled from bottom to top with linens. She washed herself from the kitchen sink.
She was a nice old lady, a widow with no kids and no relatives at all that I could discern, and I ended up doing odd jobs for her—I built a deck, put in a clothesline and changed a sump pump when it went bad. I probably never charged her enough if at all, and I think she knew it. She would flip me a twenty once in a while after some sort of oddball service call. She had no one else to take care of these things.
She would clip newspaper articles relating to my daughter when she made the dean’s list and flag me down in front of her house to give them to me. For all of her eccentricities or maybe because of them, I liked her, and we had many interesting conversations. She came to my house one day and was wandering around the yard looking for me. My wife didn’t like that and I can’t say as I blame her. I had to ask her not to do that again.
She died in her house a few years after we built it.
The list goes on. There was the man who brought donuts and coffee every morning for the four months it took us to build his house, always knowing how many guys were on the job. People baked cookies and cakes for us, and in the summer they brought ice cold drinks. Couples would sneak into their newly framed houses and have candlelit dinners on the plywood floor of their future dining room. Many couples showed up with cameras and family members, and I would talk shop with fathers and uncles whose entire knowledge of construction came from watching This Old House on PBS.
I wish I could quantify each of the people I met and thank them for some great memories, as I can honestly say that the overwhelming majority of them were kind and grateful for what we did. I was a counselor for some, maybe a teacher for a few, but for several months, I was the one they called almost every day, and when the house was finished and the job was over, we parted ways. I tried not to lose sight of who I was to them. I was a contractor, hired to do a job, but in the end, I did miss some of them.
My task was to insulate people from the sharp edges of building a house, no matter how difficult the job or how complex the problems. Any one client was never my only client, as we would build several houses at the same time, but the goal was always to make everyone feel as if they were the only person with whom I was working. Of the hundreds of homes we built, we were never late with one.
The job and the hours sometimes took a toll on my family life, but I worked with my wife for all those years and she understood what was involved. I think my daughter did too, although I missed a few practices, games and weekend events. I’m sorry, honey. The hardest part of working with family was that the nature of the job made it difficult to leave work at work, so there were far too many casual dinners and holiday conversations that brought the job home. If I could change anything, it would be that.
So on this Labor Day, I’m going to get a little reflective on all of it. I do miss the job, even the bad days, the sore muscles, the broken bones, the stitches and the bad coffee, not to mention dealing with capricious tradespeople, unreliable suppliers, bad weather, onerous state regulations, neurotic clients and neighborhood kids who would swipe whatever they could and build the most elaborate forts possible. If I could somehow go back and do it all again, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
With that said, here’s to all of the working grunts out there. Those of us who did our job and did it well and honorably, and with any luck at all, made a small difference.