HOME REPAIR and MR. BROWN
Observing my father shaped my attitude towards people, business, politics and religion. He inculcated me with disdain for hypocrisy and those who project a “holier-than thou” attitude. He taught me to be skeptical and to delve deeper than what appears on the surface. I appreciate those lessons, whether intended or accidental; however, he taught me absolutely nothing about home repair.
When I was young, changing a light bulb represented the pinnacle of expertise in repairs. Words like “gasket” and “connection” are recognized as mundane to society at large; in our household, they were mysterious and scary.
The tradition of helplessness in the realm of repairs continued into my adult life. Regretting my ignorance, and hoping to ingratiate myself with a particular girl, I once enrolled in an adult class in lamp wiring. I learned enough to know that I never want to wire a lamp. There was something about “black goes with black” and “green with green,” etc., but the message I received had everything to do with “shocks.”
When I married, my wife brought a varied collection of garageanalia (a newly developed word) including: a mallet, a sander, a power saw and a vice. I initially believed this dowry conferred at least a modest level of expertise, but I eventually learned (as the rust and spider webs on the objects hinted), these tools were not so much mastered, as inherited, by her. We share an inability to fix things though, admittedly, she is more knowledgeable. If this situation were analogized to height, she would be on the second floor of the Empire State Building and I would be in the basement.
I freely admit my lack of ability in this realm is unfortunate. The amount of money wasted and opportunities lost as a result are incalculable. When I once invested in a fixer-upper to rent out, it was maddening to be consigned to pulling weeds outside, while an expensive electrician or plumber ran up bills inside. I painted several times, but was asked by co-owners, tenants and spouse alike, to desist, lest the subject rooms be ruined forever.
My father’s solution to the money pit of home repair and maintenance was twofold: first, ignore the situation and hope that no one will notice or care enough to require action; and, second, when finally hiring someone to do the work, negotiate so hard that the person who is willing to take the job is desperate and/or incompetent. These strategies combined to prevent satisfactory solutions to almost any problem.
Mr. Brown was the usual bête noir in my father’s maintenance struggles. Whether it was a driveway that needed paving, a toilet that needed sealing, or a patio that needed pointing, Mr. Brown eventually got the call. He arrived in an ancient truck, a slight, light-skinned African-American man, wearing a pair of paint-spattered overalls. He walked around the house with my father, like an always-hopeful bird awaiting crumbs from an extraordinarily fastidious diner. At each project, he would estimate the cost, and listen patiently to my father’s howls of indignation and disbelief.
Because my father and Mr. Brown could not always reach a deal, some projects, like our basement bathroom, were never completed; the room remained in a state of “rough” plumbing without fixtures for fifty years. Other large projects, like the re-covering of our sun-deck, were completed in such a manner that we never used the area again. The materials used (concrete!), and the low level of workmanship, suggested strongly that walking on the deck would result in the collapse of the entire structure.
Generally, Mr. Brown was willing to work within my father’s fiscal constraints and was resourceful enough to handle most small jobs with a passable degree of success. One day, while I watched a ballgame on television in the adjacent room, Mr. Brown labored in a bathroom trying to fix a faucet leak that was staining the kitchen ceiling below.
“Mr. Sanders,” he called to my father downstairs. “I know what the problem is. The spigot was installed wrong and it’s dripping backwards inside the wall.”
“Can it be fixed?” asked my father from the bottom of the stairs.
“Well,” said Mr. Brown. “I’m afraid I’ll have to open up the wall to get at it, but it shouldn’t be too bad to patch up.”
“Accchhh,” said my father, possibly skeptical of the diagnosis and/or simplicity of the cure, but absolutely wary of the cost. “Will it take long?”
“Not more than an hour or so,” said Mr. Brown. “And I’ve got wall cement in the truck so I won’t even charge you for materials.”
My father grumbled assent and returned to reading his newspaper.
From my vantage point I could see Mr. Brown as he worked. Though I was only about ten, and nearly as ignorant in the ways of adults as of repairs, I sensed he was not as certain as he’d indicated to my father. There was something about the shrug of his shoulders, the furrow of his brow, and the sighs that only I could hear.
While chipping away at the wall with a chisel, Mr. Brown was accumulating an impressive pile of dust and debris. Eventually, he exposed the pipes and commenced manipulating them with a wrench.
“Hmmmm,” he said.
“Ummmm,” he added.
“Well, well, well,” he concluded.
I went over to watch; after all, the project seemed more interesting than another Phillies’ defeat. Mr. Brown did not address me directly. In fact, we never shared any words during the decade or so that I was acquainted with Mr. Brown. After a final twist, he put down the wrench and declared aloud: “That should do it. I’m going to patch up the hole.”
When he returned with cement and spackling tools I wondered if he was going to turn on the water before restoring the wall. It appeared not. I wordlessly willed him to do so. Instead, he applied himself to enclosing the plumbing with wallboard and caulk and spent an hour sanding and spackling. I had never seen Mr. Brown work so carefully, like Michaelangelo at the Sistine Chapel. Finally, he called downstairs: “Mr. Sanders. All finished up here.”
My father bounded up and immediately turned on the faucet.
“It’s flooding down here!” shouted my mother from the kitchen. “Turn it off!”
My father glowered at Mr. Brown.
“Didn’t you test it?” he demanded.
I knew that Mr. Brown had not, and Mr. Brown knew that I knew. Our eyes met, just for a moment. I felt loyal to my father but also a tug of sympathy for Mr. Brown.
“Of course,” he finally said to my father, his eyes downcast. I felt a pit in my stomach.
“He did,” I blurted spontaneously. “I heard the water.”
My father looked doubtful. An awkward silence ensued.
“I’ll open it up again,” interjected Mr. Brown, anxiously. “I’ll adjust it until I get it right. I won’t charge for any more time.”
“All right,” said my father, satisfied, before returning downstairs.
Mr. Brown and I exchanged one more glance. I returned to my ballgame, and he resumed working on the faucet. After several hours of re-configuring and much testing, the leak appeared fixed. At least, it was several months before the kitchen ceiling resumed dripping.
I derived two lessons from that day. As to plumbing, my original intuition was correct: never enclose the repair without verifying its effectiveness; and, as to life: lying to one’s father is hard for a kid to justify, but in some rare circumstances where no one is hurt, perhaps it is okay to extend a lifeline to a fellow human being.