I know the life story of every man who has so much as hammered in a nail at my house. This is not my doing. I’m disinclined to delve too deeply into the depths of anybody else’s dire experience. I’ve got my hands full with my own.
I don’t know why they talk to me. I know they make me nervous. There’s always this possibility of sex about; they carry it inside their metal boxes of tools, which they offhandedly refer to as having “male” and “female” ends. They spend all day every day touching things, getting cuts and bruises, lifting more weight than is possible, and overcoming engineering obstacles a smarter man would leave alone. They look at a problem and think, How can this be done? and come up with one or two preposterous ideas. And then they actually do it, and if that’s not sexy, I don’t know what is.
Like I say, they make me nervous, so I ask them personal questions, because I can’t think what else to say. Plus I do it out of some politically correct desire to demonstrate my dogged disregard for the whole payer/payee paradigm. This sort of thing is a concern only for people like me, who grew up poor, who sat in late-night kitchens listening to stories of the woman in the big house and how she hired a man to do something distasteful and impossible and strenuous in a driving rain the day after he’d buried his mother. People who grew up rich do not patronize and condescend quite so self-consciously as I. The always-have-been rich boss and haggle and contend. I get all nervous and chatty and say, So that would be the daughter from your third wife’s second marriage, then?
Bob, the man I’m dancing around sex and social class with this week, comes to me from the land of heating and cooling. (I am to be heated by this Thursday, if all goes well.) His demographics include two wives and twice as many children, three times as many if you count the twins he fathered as a favor to two lesbians he met in Iowa. The twins are girls and think he is their cousin, which I am working up the courage to tell him could make for some pretty rowdy conversation at some point.
These guys don’t sit around in their free time. They do not watch TV. Heating-and-cooling Bob tells me this morning that he spent the weekend scuba diving off the North Shore. He says today his legs feel like jello. (A person usually hears about at least three bodily sensations from any guy who comes to do a job.) Bob also says he saw a shark about eighteen inches from his face. (These guys measure everything.) He tells me he caught fifteen lobsters, but had to throw three back because they were too big. And I say, My, my, and ask which day he imagines they’ll remove my oil tank. He tells me not to worry about spills, that they just carried out someone else’s oil tank across a white shag rug. That’s another thing about these guys: they always show up at your house having just removed an oil tank from a basement with wall-to-wall white wool carpeting. Methinks they might, every one of them, have a deft hand for fiction.
But these men don’t write. I know: I ask them. They don’t need to; they inhabit adventure stories. Through the plastic sheeting they’ve tacked in place to contain the dust, I overhear them tell each other about One time we . . . and The other time my . . . and Did I ever tell you about this guy who had us dig a moat around his place? I sit, invisible (I think) behind the tacked-up plastic, and take their stories down, knowing full well which ones they tell for themselves and which they tell for me. They talk a lot about their girlfriends and their wives and their wives’ girlfriends.
They’re never catty, never snide or cheap or mean. These are men who spend their entire lives working to soften the edges of other people’s lives. They give us running water, and fans that make a breeze, and baths with heated towel racks — for a price. They move walls and outlets from one place to another and uproot ill-fated trees. You get the odd complainer, but for the most part they maintain a sturdy poise made up of equal parts competent bravado and grade-school pluck, and are never quite so pleased as when taking on a job somebody else says cannot be done.
So different from the other men who populate my life: the scholars and the doctors and the lawyers who earn money in other ways to pay these men who actually improve your life. Do I exaggerate? Or do you imagine that a tax attorney could slide effortlessly into the crawl space under my new addition to determine why the lights blink on and off? It’s class we are dancing around here, but it’s personality too. I’m not saying that I don’t like lawyers. (I don’t, but I’m not saying it.) I’m saying that I do like the guys who come to your house with thermoses of coffee and the capability to turn the whole place upside down. I think they’re sexy. They’re elemental, rarefied, reduced to essence — and, yes, stereotyped beyond belief. I stereotype the men who come to my house; when they come to your house, you can do what you will do. I’m not talking about the men who travel around to twenty houses in one day. I’m talking about the men who come to do a job that takes so many days you miss them when they finally gather up their tools and tales and their testosterone and go away.