Diary of a Small Contractor, Day 8
Friday, October 3, 1986
I have just wiggled on my belly through raw dirt and spider webs. Now I’m lying on my back with a reciprocating saw in my hands. I’m about to cut a pipe, which will then squirt water into my face, onto my clothes, and make a puddle in the dirt that surrounds me. The question on my mind is, What am I doing here?
I don’t enjoy crawlspace work. I’m thirty-nine years old. I have a bad back. I have a college degree.
What in hell am I doing here?
Of course I’m here because I promised to help Sonny install his new kitchen sink just as he helped me install two pairs of french doors in my house. We trade labor. He knows doors. I know plumbing. We’re friends. I wasn’t Best Man at his wedding, but I was the guy who hired a stripper for his bachelor party.
When Sonny was a hippie carpenter, I was a hippie computer operator. He loved his work; I hated mine. I hired Sonny to help me fix up an old house I’d bought in San Francisco. He told me I should quit my job and do what he was doing. He had complete confidence in himself and in me. One day, I quit. Quickly I had an utter disaster — a one day shower repair turned into a three day marathon of faulty soldering, squirting pipes. Sonny came to my rescue.
Ten years later, I still have occasional disasters, but I no longer call on Sonny to help. He’s settled into a specialty — installing and weatherstripping doors. I’ve become a generalist — a licensed general contractor. And you can’t be a general contractor unless you’re willing to hump it in a few crawlspaces. Or hire somebody else to hump it.
My niche is the small job. Details that the big contractors don’t want to bother with. Adding an electric outlet for somebody’s new computer. Installing a sink. Repairing a deck. My competition is not other contractors but unlicensed handymen who charge less and who as a result end up working for the people who have less money. Which is why I quit being a handyman, myself. If I have to wiggle on my belly through somebody’s cobwebs, I’d rather they were a rich person’s cobwebs.
Sonny is not rich. When Sonny bought this house (cheap, by California standards), my first question was "How in the world did you qualify for a mortgage loan?"
Sonny answered: "I lied like shit."
At my own house in La Honda, Sonny replaced two sets of doors that leaked cold air into my rooms and water onto my floors — doors that I had installed myself — and now the air and rain stay outside. He gave up two and a half workdays to do it, and if necessary I will spend two and a half days in this goddamn crawlspace to pay him back.
Oddly, in my perverted way, I love poking around people’s houses. A construction voyeur. I don’t peek into the medicine cabinet or violate private space. I snoop around the attic where the electrician took blatant shortcuts (probably on a suffocatingly hot day, when I would probably do the same), and I stop to admire the handiwork of some previous tradesman in the crawlspace who took the time to properly insulate each hot water pipe when he knew nobody would ever see the difference if he left a few gaps — I notice, and I salute his dogged sense of values.
I find beer bottles, candy wrappers, and I wonder: did somebody lie in this dusty coffin and goof off? Who could be that desperate?
I witness the work of fungus, and sometimes I bear the bad news of termites.
A house is alive. It breathes. It expands and contracts. It ages. Sometimes it falls sick, and then I'm a doctor of houses. I probe intimate cavities to learn its history. I study the multilayered changes of an old house where generations of remodels have built upon themselves — I note the compromise, the painful choice, or the brilliant solution. In new houses I learn the latest techniques, some good, some dismal.
A house reflects the values of the people within. If a strong person buys a strong house, it remains strong. And vice versa: Weak people, weak houses. But if a strong person buys a weak house, he gradually, painstakingly fixes it up (which is what Sonny is doing). A weak person in a strong house will gradually destroy it.
The structure will tell a story: tragedy, comedy, or heartwarming family drama. Day-to-day life slowly, inexorably leaves an imprint. You can find it in the attic, on the roof, behind the drywall — or in the crawlspace.
Anyway, that's what I'm doing here. It's all Sonny's fault, and I'm grateful for it as I cut Sonny’s pipe and the first stream of water arcs upward and falls like warm rain on my eyeglasses.