Archives for the month of: September, 2012

Before I tell this story, let me just say for the record that in my line of work, sometimes mistakes are made.  When working in often tight spaces with reliance on tools and manual skills, there are occasions when human error rears its ugly head, consequences be damned.  Usually this subjects me to slightly longer hours than predicted, making up for my careless, hasty, mistimed, misjudged or misguided blunder.  I curse myself – not always inaudibly – as I undo and then redo what was done.

Fortunately most of my clients accept that I’m not perfect – even if I don’t – and patiently wait for me to atone for my display of human imperfection.   One such client was embroiled in perhaps my costliest accident ever.

I’d been asked by a woman and her husband, for whom I’d worked on several previous occasions, if I would paint their upstairs and downstairs corridors.  They were valuable return clients and, though I occasionally refer decorating jobs to a very reliable colleague, this job would keep me employed for about a week.

One day I needed to bring my son to this house with me.  He was off school for half-term and this was the day we didn’t have any alternative plans for him.  He patiently sat on the stairs to the top landing playing with his DS while I worked around him.  On the middle landing, where I was working, the clients had stacked all the cans of paint they’d bought for me to use.  I painted one side of the landing and then needed to move the containers in order to paint the other side.  As I began to adjust my ladder, one of the legs accidently nudged something.  I looked down to see what I’d bumped, just in time to find the can of white paint on top of the stack tumbling headlong onto the brown carpet.

It fell so slowly as if it were a lost feather floating down from on high to rest gently in a soft-flowing stream.  When I realised the can of paint would not land like a feather but more like a can of paint, I felt the sudden urge to lunge for the falling canister with outstretched hands like Joel diving for the glass egg at the end of ‘Risky Business’.  But this wasn’t Hollywood and I’m not Tom Cruise.  A puddle of white appeared on the carpet in front of the stairs where my son sat hob-nobbing with Mario and Luigi.

‘Oh fu-aaah …’ I said, putting down the ladder carefully and quickly, somehow editing my instinctive reaction with concern for the eight-year-old on the stairs.  So instead I went with, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no …’

I grabbed the closest thing I could find that I thought might magically sop up the widening spill.  But it turns out a handkerchief only has a finite absorption threshold.

My son looked up from his console and thought about what he saw in front of him.  He finally decided, with understated precision, that he would offer some insight to his flustered, sweating, ‘no-no-no’-ing dad.

‘That’s going to leave a stain,’ he said.

I’d never smacked my son before.  He’d never done anything to wind me up that tightly.  But for the first time in my life I had to dig deep to find the necessary restraint.  After all, it wasn’t his fault.

‘Yes,’ I said calmly.  ‘Yes it is.’

The client was very sympathetic to my panicking explanation when I finally got her on the phone.  I found a quote for the cost of the damage and she and her husband agreed to take that amount from my final payment.  I was lucky.  They could have stubbornly insisted on not paying me at all.

Time of your life, huh kid?

I was ripping out a kitchen in a house in Camberwell.  It was easy, mindless work removing worktops, cupboards and appliances down to the bare bones.  I just had to cap off the plumbing and try not to damage the walls.

The client, a quiet, artistic woman who worked with her husband in a design business, had cleared away the items she didn’t want disturbed by the dust of my dismantling.  Mostly cook books and framed art.  She placed them on the floor on the other side of the long, open-plan kitchen.

Nothing in particular caught my eye until near the end of the day.  On the top of her pile of salvaged items was a small, gold frame around a field of black velvet.  From far away I thought it might be some ‘Elvis art’, all fuzzy paper and brightly coloured lines of Vegas-inspired cheese.  But when I got closer I saw that it was a comb.  Not a picture of a comb, an actual, plain black hair comb like the one Fonzie used to carry in his back pocket.  There was no inscription or commemorative plaque of any kind.  It was mounted proudly on the rectangle of black velvet behind glass as if it had been presented to someone as the key to a magnificent, follicularly-chic city.  I imagined a Dr Seuss-like town of jolly citizens with fantastic hair-dos frolicking merrily among brightly-coloured trees and towering houses shaped like salon tools.  But this was Camberwell.

Neither of the people who lived in the house worked in the hair industry, as far as I knew, nor did they have unusually impressive hair.  I must have been missing out on an inside joke.  Because the comb had been hanging in their kitchen, maybe it was in regard to the preparation of their morning ‘coiffee’.  Perhaps the husband was constantly teased about his exceptionally hairy back.  I suppose one of them could have been a champion comb player in the local Bluegrass band.  The curiosity was agonizing.

I regret now that I didn’t ask about it.  It stands alone as the single greatest mystery of my entire handymanning career.  If I ever work for these people again, I simply must find out.  Stay tuned.

For the past six years I’ve been working as a handyman in south-east London.  I’m my own boss, I’m generally in a different work space every day, I get to cycle to work – from Bermondsey to Penge and all SE points in between – I work at my own discretion leaving time for school runs and finishing my MA and, best of all, I get to meet some very interesting people.

Some of these people I will write about in future postings.

When I enter a client’s home for the first time, there’s always that brief moment of awkward examination in which I, standing in front of the still-open door, am given the quick once-over.  Her eyes (it’s usually a ‘her’) send out laser-like beams that scan me from my bald head to my cheap hiking boots, reflecting off my bike helmet and high-viz cycling jacket, glancing at my weathered bag of handyman tools before concluding that I must be somewhat trustworthy.  I maintain the smile on my face until the mental probing is complete, after which I am nearly always offered a complimentary cup of tea.

With hot cuppa in hand I’m typically taken through the house, guided as if the client has resigned herself to the realisation that the top-secret activities that occur under her roof are somehow about to be revealed to this tall, smiling stranger.  I follow as she points out, room by room, all of the various jobs that require repair, renovation, alteration, assembly, mounting, hanging or any other item on her list that falls within the jurisdiction of my skills.

It’s about now that I begin to feel like a bit of a trespasser.  How easy it was, I think to myself, to enter this person’s home and almost immediately gain her trust.  I consider the possibility that her need for my services must have been so desperate as to welcome the first capable volunteer into her home no-questions-asked.  Indeed as I entertain this thought, she commonly makes some malignant remark about her husband’s lack of proficiency around the family toolbox.  Sometimes, even before my tea is cold, she’ll hand over her spare set of house keys and head out to her nondescript office job or fire up the pram to attend the nearest Mom-and-Baby oestrogen-fest.

So there I am, alone in a stranger’s house, moving freely, tools in hand and the iPod on shuffle.  And I go about my business knowing I have the confidence of my employer-of-the-day.  Not that I’d ever do anything untoward; I never snoop, pry, meddle or enter any room I hadn’t been invited into.  Still, this is my office, at least for today.

Often she will stick around while I work.  She doesn’t hover, exactly, but she does find it useful to make herself available, ensuring, for example, I hang the mirror another half-inch to the left or adding at the last minute, ‘While you’re here, could you just …’

It very quickly becomes a symbiotic relationship, one in which both parties recognise the unique dynamic.  She’s just granted me entry into some of the most intimate corners of her home and I acknowledge her trust by carrying out my work with care.  Although I never quite have the heart to tell her I’m not really a big fan of tea.

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