Handy Men: Misandry and Home Repair -The Toast

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Home: The Toast

Heather Seggel’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.

Some people may be born to misandry, but I’ve always been happiest when I have some male energy in my life, my only rule being pants of all parties remaining on at all times. Guys are cat-like in their independence and long silences and more likely than the women I know (as opposed to Women in General) to obsessively quote from The Simpsons at any opportunity. I recall a dead-end gig from years back and a coworker who I was slowly getting to know; the day I said, “That’ll learn him to bust my tomater,” and he laughed, boom: Friends. So it took a little doing for me to want to pulp the whole lousy lot of them into manburger. And it happened because of handymen.

67elconaHere’s everything you need to know about mobile homes: They are compact, affordable housing and likely to play a bigger part in our collective future as the population ages and people have less to live on. The newer ones are well-designed and pretty luxe, though sometimes made with dodgy chemicals (looking at you, FEMA). But the old ones, oh my. As they fall into disrepair, trailers built before their components were standardized are impossible to fix. Home Depot doesn’t carry lilliputian doorknobs from 1962, or pentagonal screen doors with rollers made of unicorn hooves. NOTHING about them is easy or makes any sense. And that’s where I lived for almost a decade—in sheer impossibility.

I moved from one trailer to another within the same park because the landlord was a guy with a reputation for making fast, thorough repairs. The park staff didn’t do a great job on the unit my dad and I were in before, and as he got sicker I couldn’t take care of him AND fix everything myself, or finish the repairs left half undone in the worst way possible. When the kitchen sink was fixed the pipes weren’t reconnected afterward; I was blithely washing dishes and flooding our cabinets and floor with dirty dishwater.

This new guy used a local company that was supposed to be hot stuff, so even though my dad died a week before our move date I elected to go for it, thinking I could at least grieve in peace. Famous last words.

The trailer had problems so involved I can’t begin to relate them without shuddering: Dry rot down to the studs, leaking windows, a roof someone resurfaced with the wrong material, which curled like potato chips and blew away in the wind, and extensive water damage. Eventually both door locks dissolved, tumbler by tumbler, until the place couldn’t be secured except with a pipe dropped in the sliding glass door and a frail chain lock. The more dysfunction I uncovered, the more fascinating it was; not unlike seeing a body in decline, but much less painful to look at directly. And the people dispatched to fix it were a form of theater unto themselves.

I liked the first guy I met immediately because he looked like Henry Rollins, which is to say, like an aging lesbian (we’ll call him “Hank.”) Graying flattop hairdo, paunchy yet muscular, with kind brown eyes. With all these things going for him, his first day on the job he was supposed to deliver and set a possum trap in the yard. Instead he spied a broken one someone had left behind a shed on the lot, pulled it out and told me, “Just buy some cat food. You know how to set this, right?” I assured him I had no idea, and he played with the trap, which was rusted, uncooperative, unsettable. He nonetheless left it, not set and unbaited for me to deal with. I put a bowl of vegetable soup in it and caught nothing but flies.

Autumn’s first rain revealed a leaky window. Rather than caulk it he simply put a strip of tape over the top of the frame, then was perturbed when I had to call to report the leak was still there. “These things are so old it’s not worth it to work on them anymore,” he told me, a philosophy that virtually everyone who worked on the trailer seemed to share, though they were certainly willing to charge for their time. Hank was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, a fact I know because he spent a lot of time shouting into his iPhone while on the job, including a poignant conversation about wanting to invite a new friend to a movie but being afraid he’d be outed as “too worldly.” I was temped to report him to the Kingdom Hall myself when he started blasting The Commodores on my roof and singing “Brick House” in a tortured falsetto. Uch.

After him, my landlord had a neighbor come work on a new thermostat that the first guy had installed incorrectly. I used to work with this neighbor at an on-call job and thought he was nice enough if a little eccentric. “Grifty” fixed one problem with the thermostat, but in so doing knocked a wire loose that left the unit shorting out constantly. As he was the fifth person to work on a heater that was getting ever more suspect in my eyes I insisted a professional come in at that point. Instead Hank came back, but refused to touch the heater because it was working at that moment. He literally folded his arms and pouted, upset that his installation had not been perfect and I’d seen fit to ask that it be repaired. He left and I walked around outside to stay warm until an actual Heater Guy came a week later, touched the unit with one finger and said, “It’s unfortunate that nobody wanted to listen to you. That’s obviously shorting out.”

Heater Guy was one of the good ones, someone actually qualified to solve problems yet not so arrogant as to presuppose what was wrong, or that his work was infallible. My coworker, on the other hand, must have boosted a piece of my mail while he was inside, for he went on to use my personal information to fudge up a reference claiming me as a relative, then established a line of credit and wrote thousands of dollars in bad checks all over town. I dearly hope he goes to jail.

My landlord was a member of some Pentecostal church in town, and he brought a lot of church members by, hoping a random tongue of flame might gift them with magical plumbing abilities or something. This did not come to pass. I initially had my refrigerator decorated like a John Waters/Lady Gaga/Studio 54 dreamscape, but as my home kept hosting more and more Godly guys, with their phones blaring Christian rock at crotch level all day long, I started to take all my Keith Haring postcards and rainbow crapola down, and was soon just sporting one magnet holding a prayer sheet some woman handed me on the street called “The I AMS of God.” It would confuse me every time I saw it because I didn’t have a cat, yet here was a list on the refrigerator with IAMS on top in all caps. That was a difficult stretch.

There was one actual general contractor, himself yet another Pentecostal, who was good at his job and as a bonus named Shane, which made me titter into my sleeve for reasons he couldn’t grasp. Sadly, he left half his work unfinished to take another job, never filling the hole he’d made in my kitchen floor (not unlike the effect L Word Shane had on the hearts of the female populace). It took seven months of asking for my landlord to find another guy, this one on the west coast all the way from Arkansas to pursue his love of snowboarding. He was supposed to be a professional painter, but did not use a drop cloth and got paint all over everything he was close to, and he failed to patch the hole in the floor. He tried, but he failed. I thought he stood out as my first non-religious handyman at least, but I passed him on a street corner in December and he was twirling a giant “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” sign. We’d had an actual shouting match when he was working, due to my lack of appreciation at having to wash every surface he’d splashed with paint, and I wanted to blow past him and be mean, but instead I asked if he was sign-waving for a church. He said, “Oh, no, just for me.” We left it at that.

As it turns out my landlord, who characterized me as a mean-spirited perfectionist for wanting these jobs finished by competent professionals, had hired the snowboarder to work at his own place and, upon seeing him in action, immediately fired him. He did apologize to me, since I’d asked him to step in and prevent further damage to the trailer or my property, and he refused at the time. Turns out to be less fun when it’s your microwave he’s slopping semi-gloss on. I’d been giving my landlord lists of needed repairs from the time I moved in, at his request, only to be repeatedly ignored. This disaster seemed to finally focus him, and he said he was going to find someone to take care of all the loose ends. (Perhaps not coincidentally, he also sent me a one-sentence letter on a slip of paper the size of a cookie fortune informing me of a rent hike). OK, I thought, bring it on. Let’s fix this crap shack once and for all.

I had a long-standing leak in the kitchen ceiling that was not connected to the condition of the roof at all; the insulation had deteriorated to such an extent that condensation was forming on the inside of the metal roof, freezing, then thawing out and dripping into the room. One Sunday afternoon I was taking a much-needed coffee break after reviewing a pile of books, stepping outside to check the rosebushes and rest my eyes, when a carload of overdressed people pulled into my parking space. It was my landlord, in a suit and tie, and he brought forth a young guy in a leather jacket who appeared to be sucking on an elaborate fountain pen. The e-cigarette threw me a little, but the main thing about this guy was…have you seen these actual human males who look like Ralph Wiggum? He looked like that! Weirdly broad through the hips, with earnest but kind of tiny eyes and hair parted in the middle and strand-divided so it looked like someone drew it on with a Sharpie. If not Ralph Wiggum, then the love child of all Three Stooges. Apparently this guy was going to be bavenging all the misdeeds of the prior handymen, starting with a few small jobs, then working up to the kitchen ceiling. His qualifications? Well, not only was he a Pentecostal, he had worked with the licensed contractor before! Calloo callay! We set a date several weeks out and I forgot about him immediately.

Two days later I get a call. Ralph Wiggum wants to come this week, in two days in fact, and rather than prove his mettle on a small job he’s going to take down the kitchen ceiling and insulate it! This strikes me as a terrible idea, but as a renter there are limits to what I can refuse, apparently including the right to refuse handymen who want to steal my identity. The fact that I work from home draws nothing but blank stares from these men of God, so I rearrange my schedule and pray it’s all over quickly.

Ralph W. shows up and it begins to look as though he’s not terribly well prepared. His first words to me are, “I’m not going to be able to take this ceiling down without your help.” This is the point at which I should have asked him to leave. But I agreed to try.

I can’t even explain the process that went into the complete ruination of my kitchen ceiling. It ended up taking two weeks, at the end of which the ceiling had been pulled down in places, improperly insulated, the old sheetrock put back up despite being both wet and moldy, barely nailed into place, and—this was an off-white ceiling—sealed with enormous frosting smears of brown caulk. A significant piece of wood paneling had been pulled down and replaced with some ludicrously unmatched wood as well. I just mistakenly wrote “off-shite,” which is a perfect description of the ceiling I was left with. When I came home to find him sealing the cracks with Hershey’s finest and asked politely what in the holy hell he was doing, he said, “I thought it would match.”

ME: “But the ceiling is white!”

RALPH: “Yeah…my head’s kind of all over the place right now.”

The following week this same young man tore down a neighbor’s fence and rebuilt it, laying new posts and screwing one board at a time into place. It looked perfect, and I was simultaneously furious that he would put such care into this job after he’d so wrecked my place and impressed with his obvious talent. A few weeks went by where the last of the wood hadn’t been put into place, but when finished it looked beautiful. I asked my neighbor if he was going to have it painted and he smiled ruefully. “Pff, yeah, once the guy comes back and puts it together right. You can’t touch any of these boards or they’ll fall off. Dude used screws that were way too short!” Ah, there’s the rub.

This was the winter when California saw a record drought. What little rain there was, however, made its way down my bedroom wall in sheets and found a seam in the living room ceiling that went over time from a single drip to a five-stream water feature. I was running out of pots to contain it. Over five months the snowboarder, Grifty, the contractor, Ralph Wiggum, and the landlord himself not only couldn’t fix the leaks (which are admittedly hard to find and seal on mobile homes); none of them could successfully put up and anchor a tarp to simply keep the water out. So the landlord sent one more close, personal friend to see me, a squat man with a befuddled squint who disagreed with my request that he use a long tarp instead of two short ones. When the short ones failed, he brought a long one and put it up some distance from where the water was coming in. When he was leaving, he remarked, “I really don’t like roofing, but I hated—.” I misunderstood him to have said “pasturing,” and pictured him with a pitchfork, squinting angrily at some hay, but came to realize he had been a pastor. Anyone who can’t handle a tarpaulin should not be placed in charge of a flock of humans. And yes, the leak won that round, too.

I finally moved, and am currently in between addresses, living out of a few bags and boxes. While I can’t wait to find my forever (or at least for right now) home, one of the perks of being a couch-surfer is that I’m free from the gospel of mansplained misrepair for the time being.

Heather Seggel is a full-time freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Bitch, UTNE, at Elle.com, SpiritualityandHealth.com, and she blogs with good intentions but no frequency at donkeywork.wordpress.com.

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