Our recent home renovations required a state of controlled chaos for about two months. During this time we saw a lot of contractors and served them a lot of coffee. We ignored the saying, ‘If you feed them, they will never leave,” and sometimes provided donuts. They have all left now, and left us with a safer, more comfortable, lovelier home.
We’ve not always been so fortunate with contractors. Back in PA, we experienced some stereotypical contractor-not-showing-up, contractor-not-calling-back, contractor-leaving-job-unfinished situations. Facing renovations here in Providence and having abundant free time, I resolved to manage the situation better. I asked family members and neighbors for referrals. I looked online for contractors with advanced credentials in their fields. We interviewed the contractors ahead of time rather than hiring them in desperation to fix problems that couldn’t be ignored any longer. Then we selected electrical, plumbing, flooring and painting contractors, and created a timetable for rewiring the house, installing new lighting, painting the living and dining rooms, and remodeling the first-floor powder room.
The contractors we hired were all competent, interested in their work, desirous of doing a good job, pleasant and efficient. There was one exception, a grumpy plumber, but the other workers sent by the same plumbing firm were good-natured.
Being retired, we could hang around the house most of the time while the contractors were working, so we were available for consultation whether they wanted us or not. We got to know some of them pretty well. They all seemed to approach their work with a can-do attitude and a sense of humor, and for the most part, so did we. A little humor – and seeing the funny side of things – helped us all to coexist during the many tiresome days of dusty, dirty, loud work. Here’s a look back at some of the more memorable exchanges.
Me, after hearing many loud sighs from the plumbing boss during his preliminary inspection: “How bad is it?”
Him: “It’s bad. But I’ve seen worse. Maybe a FEW worse.”
Me, after hearing many loud sighs from the head electrician on his crew’s third day of rewiring our house: “How bad is it?”
Him: “This house is in the top twenty of difficult houses that I have worked on since I started this business 15 years ago.”
Me: “You mean the top twenty percent?”
Him: “NO, the top TWENTY!”
Me, to the plumber’s answering service: Many important details about the upcoming installation of fixtures in the powder room.
Answering service to the plumber: “This lady wants you to call her.”
Me: Many helpful tips about how I think the new powder room floor should be installed.
Flooring installer, after listening politely to all of it: “I’ve installed a lot of floors before.” Then he set about laying the tiles with resolute good humor, despite having to contort his 6’4” frame into uncomfortable positions to fit into the very small room.
Me: A very logical explanation of how I want to replace an existing wall-mounted sink with a corner vanity.
Plumber: “You don’t want to do that.” Followed a bit later in the conversation by, “Why do you want to do that?” And still later by, “Do you really want to do that?” And lastly, by that most eloquent of non-verbal communications, “Sigh.”
Me, to the painting crew boss: “How about if you hang the mirror first and then we can see where to position the light above it?”
Him: “Mrs. O’Connell, what would we do without you?” Followed by much laughter from both Jeff and the painting crew.
The plumber: “How do you expect me to install THIS vanity on THIS floor that is NOT AT ALL LEVEL?”
Me: My best, most dramatic, highest-shoulder, with lifted palms and raised eyebrows, shrug.
I also overheard random comments and noises, including:
“Uh oh.” (I learned that it’s best to pretend not to have heard that.)
“Is it on? Is it on now? How about now? NOW?” (yelled about 200 times during rewiring, often accompanied by boots stomping up and down stairs.)
Frequent noise of a drill sounding like a moose with terrible gas, or a middle-schooler learning to play the saxophone.
“We have to cut another hole in the ceiling.” After hearing that, Jeff closed the door to his office and stayed in there for the rest of the day.
(VERY LOUD CRASH) “Ow!” “Are you ok?” “Yeah, I’m ok.” After hearing that, I carefully tiptoed downstairs to investigate. Everyone was ok, but there was collateral damage to an innocent bookcase, which they fixed later.
“Sheila? Sheila!! SHEILA!!!” I ran downstairs expecting to see an electrician lying pale and still on the floor, smoke rising from his electrocuted body. Happily I saw instead a small flood, which I was able to mop up with old towels. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve been happy to see a flood in my house!
Despite all of this, or maybe because of it, the work was finished days before our Christmas Eve party, to which we had invited 21 family members and significant others. Everyone fit somehow into our little house, we enjoyed the time together, and I got to show people the new improvements. Among many nice comments about our remodeling was this one: “I love how you put the toilet paper holder above the radiator to keep the toilet paper warm.” We did have a lot of good ideas, but we didn’t think of that; it was pure serendipity. Also there are not many options for arranging things in a tiny 4 X 4 powder room! Or lavette, as they call it here.
Afterthought: It is distressing to see a bunch of holes cut in your walls and ceilings, as was necessary to replace all of our old knob-and-tube wiring. One morning, up early before any workers arrived, I noticed how some of the exposed cables formed graceful, almost dancer-like bends and loops. I took a few pictures. I felt better.