When Contractors Share Too Much
What happens when contractors turn your home into reality TV
Sonny's trying to drop a few pounds. Ritchie's thinking of declaring bankruptcy. And Hector's potential sister-in-law is a burglary suspect.
A beautiful morning, the veranda of an 1860s Victorian. A young husband and wife drink coffee at a rickety picnic table. Enter Sonny the exterminator, wearing a shirt open to mid-chest, gold chains, and slicked-back hair—like Schneider from One Day at a Time.
Sonny, pulling up a chair, looking at the broken-down table with sympathy:
"Hi, folks. It's a nice spread you got here. But I know someone who could make it even nicer."
Husband, jiggling the table as he sits up, slightly put off by the stranger:
"Yeah? Who's that?"
Sonny: "Famous backyard guy. From Ireland. Maybe you've even heard of him. Paddy—Paddy O'Furniture!"
If I were writing a sitcom about living in our new old house, that first meeting with Sonny would be in the pilot episode. If it were a soap opera—and life around my place is just as often tragic as funny—it'd still be in the pilot. And it would be there if it were a cop drama, too, which it could be thanks to the dueling sets of exterior paint crews we've hired, one employing a part-time drug dealer, the other populated by recreational users.
For better and for worse, our home remodel is a reality show. But unlike most reality shows, there is no immunity here, no hope of getting booted off the island. No, we're in it for the full run, which is why my wife and I have hired Sonny, the joke-spouting exterminator. Word of mouth said he was the best—the only man to take care of our mouse problem.
After Sonny finished baiting the basement, he took great pains to explain exactly what he had done and why, and right away my wife and I saw why he was so highly regarded. We offered him a cup of coffee, which is what we understood through our own past TV viewing to be country custom. Sonny agreed.
The three of us stood in the kitchen and talked. Actually, my wife and I mostly listened. Sonny told us he was scaling back on processed sugar, trying to drop a few pounds from his barrel-chested frame, cut his cholesterol. He had graduated from the nearby liberal arts college before catching the "bug for bugs" while working a summer job for an exterminator. He's been married twice. His younger son is a soccer fanatic. His older son, from his previous marriage, was serving in the armed forces in the Middle East. He—the son—had just overcome a long and serious drug problem.
All this we learned not only in our first meeting but in less time than it takes to TiVo through an episode of Law & Order. And just like on TV, where time is compressed and characters reveal a great deal in just a few ticks of the clock, Sonny worked overtime on oversharing. And on subsequent days so did our other contractors. The ponytailed plumber and part-time equestrian. The philosophical landscaper. The hippie slate-roof expert who's a dead ringer for the Dude in The Big Lebowski. To a man they offered too much information, using our kitchen and bathrooms as confessionals.
I know, for example, the plumber, William, is actually named Ritchie. But because Ritchie's father was named William and because William started the business, Ritchie feels obliged to keep William's name on the truck and on the voice mail, even though the man was a bad businessman and not by any stretch the most attentive father in the world. I know that Ritchie raises horses on a farm he bought with his wife. Or longtime girlfriend—it's never quite clear—and the lease may be in her father's name. It's hard to keep track. Ritchie's elderly mother won't sell her house in the adjacent town and come live with them, despite endless entreaties that it would make everyone's life easier. Also, he is considering declaring bankruptcy.
I worry about Ritchie, because he's a nice guy, hardworking and honest.
Then there's Hector, head of the marijuana-smoking (but not marijuana-dealing...those were the other guys) painting company we hired to strip and repaint our porch. I can't blame him for his self-medication—not with an alcoholic wife, a young son killed by a drunk driver, a brother involved in an affair with a burglary suspect. Hector shared this last fact with us to explain the suspect's absence from the paint crew that day, and from that day forward, as she fled south to evade the authorities.
I worry about Hector, too.
You can make all this stuff up, I suppose, but I don't have to. More to the point, you wouldn't hear about it if you lived in, say, some new construction in a suburban Atlanta subdivision. Maybe that's because such structures generally don't demand as much maintenance. But I suspect there's more to it.
Old houses, almost by their nature, create an instant connection between the contractor and the homeowner. Connection might not even be a strong enough word. It's a sort of intimacy. It starts with the simple step of inviting a stranger into your home to do work. But the intimacy is instantly deepened by history—the history of the house. And possibly, while you're at work, by a burglary suspect snooping through your things.
The very act of opening your home's doors—or windows or pipes—to a contractor is to share something important and substantive. Perhaps that provokes in our contractors the need to return the favor. The walls may have ears, but we are the conduit, and with our group of guys we are honored to play the role.
Evening, kitchen interior, full of the noises, sights, and smells of making dinner. The wife removing a tray from the oven. Enter Sonny, carrying his exterminating equipment, the husband following behind.
Wife: You like chicken parmigiana?
Sonny: You know I do! Did you hear the Secret Service caught a guy trying to scale the walls of the White House today?
Sonny: They told him, "Sorry, Mr. President, you have to stay until January 20th!"