The Magazine

Home Mechanic

Joseph Epstein, unhandyman.

Jun 15, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 37 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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When I was 11 years old, my parents bought a two-flat apartment building. The building had a small front and back lawn, the care of which was turned over to me. I was no more than 10 minutes on the job when I found it even more boring than hearing about your children's high SAT scores. I rushed through the rest, and returned to our apartment to let my father know I had finished. Looking around, he noticed the patches of grass I had missed, how uneven I had left the edges of the lawn where it met the pavement, all the little clumps of grass I failed to rake up. "You know," my father said, calmly, "comes another Depression, you are exactly the kind of guy they let go first."

In Chicago grammar schools in those days, girls were required to take a course in home economics, where they learned the rudiments of cooking and sewing, and boys to take a course called home mechanics to acquaint them with tools. In home mechanics, we made bookends and lamps with bowling pins or fancy wine or whisky bottles as their bases. We did a fair amount of work with something called a coping saw. Every so often we used one of the large electric power saws; this was my first and last interaction with the firm of Black & Decker, apart from the few Black & Decker haircuts I've since had.

I did not cope at all well with the coping saw, and broke its slender blades fairly often. I had no patience for careful sanding, no interest in wiring. I took no pride in my ineptitude, as if it suggested that I was cut out for higher things. Nor did I look down on people who were good at home mechanics. I vaguely admired them, but not enough, apparently, to concentrate sufficiently at improving my own skills in this line.

Living in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the early 1960s, I often met men who tuned their own cars or did their own plumbing, and, in one instance, a guy who was building his own house. My admiration was no longer vague; I wished I had their talent, which, among other things, set them free from having to worry about being overcharged for jobs any normally (oh, hell, let's bring out the word) virile man ought to be able to do on his own but also gave them a sense of independence I lacked.

Over the years, I acquired a tool box. In it I keep a number of screw drivers, a heavy hammer, a long and a flat-nosed pliers, a small drill, a complex wrench I have never learned how to manipulate. I do very minor repairs around our apartment. I hang pictures, I can stop a toilet from running after flushing, I can screw in this or hammer down that. I stay away from anything electrical, and plumbing isn't my specialty either. Fortunately I don't have roofs and air-conditioners and furnaces to deal with. If I had, good chance I would by now be dead.

Of late, a sense of decline and fall has taken over our apartment. Many little things have gone kerflooey, requiring repairs that I cannot provide: a few small chains to secure our casement windows are missing; a bathroom sink isn't draining well, despite all the solvents I've poured down it; a flap is missing from our garbage disposal; a ceiling fixture is out of commission because of a broken off halogen bulb that I have been unable to remove; a toilet requires jiggling after it is flushed; a small portable bathroom heater I bought from Hammacher Schlemmer needs a bracket to attach it to the wall. All this is beyond me and called for the services of a handyman.

The man we hired, an acquaintance of my wife's from the time when they both worked for a reference book company, arrived in a baseball cap with the name of a lumber company across the front. He wore not jeans but denim workmen's pants and a sweatshirt. His belt had a holster containing a select set of screwdrivers, probes, a small wrench, and pliers. He carried a clipboard, on which he made notes about the things I asked him to repair.

None of the jobs was unduly complex, at least not for him. He approached each with a nice analytical eye. He handled his tools with strength yet delicacy and respect. He had earlier been a copy editor, straightening out other people's broken sentences; now he was fixing broken appliances and appurtenances.

I didn't want to leave off watching him put our apartment back in order, so measured, so logical, so satisfying seemed his work. I thought I wouldn't mind signing on as his apprentice. Regretting my inability to do what he can, I finally pulled myself away, to return to the repair of my own broken sentences.

JOSEPH EPSTEIN