Sunday, December 17, 2017

Can't wait for these "handymen" forever

      James Thurber was blind, nearly. His increasingly sightlessness gave him a very keen ear for language. He loved word games and odd accents, and had a wonderful smooth rhythm to his writing.
     Nowhere is this on greater display than in his short story, "The Black Magic of Barney Haller," a seemingly simple tale of a Swedish handyman. 
     "Barney is my hired man," Thurber explains. "He is strong and amiable, sweaty and dependable, slowly and heavily competent."
      So far, so good, the image of the capable helper that any ham-handed wordsmith would covet. 
    There's more, however.
    "But he is also eerie: he trafficks with the devil."
    As evidence of this, Thurber offers the obscure remarks Haller is always saying, starting, during a thunderstorm, "Once I see dis boat come down de rock."
     The phrase plays to Thurber's darker fears.
     "It is phenomena like that of which I stand in constant dread," he writes. "Boats coming down rocks, people being teleported, statues dripping blood, old regrets and dreams in the form of Luna moths fluttering against the window at midnight."
     It is the beauty of the last part of that sentence—"old regrets and dreams in the form of Luna moths fluttering against the window at midnight"—and others like it that lodge Thurber under your skin.
     Well, my skin anyway.
     In the story, which perfectly captures lazy summer evenings in an old country house, Thurber figures out what that particular phrase means—"a bolt coming down the lighting rod on the house; a commonplace, an utterly natural thing."
      I won't recapitulate the entire story. It isn't online, alas, but it's in The Thurber Carnival, which Amazon will sell you for two dollars, and you should own if you don't already.
     I think of Barney Haller whenever my wife, with occult powers of her own, tries to summon up a handyman. There will be some significant task around our 110-year-old house that needs doing, and she will muse idly that we should get a handyman to do it. 
    In years past I might snap, "Handyman? What handyman? Find him! There are no handymen."
     We have, in the past, hired skilled men to do various tasks. But they always do a bit of work then vanish, irretrievable. Part of my annoyance is based on that, part based on the fact that my wife is wishing for these supposed handy men because she is convinced that I am unable to do much of anything when it comes to home repair. Even though I can.
     I'll never forget her shock, almost anger, when she came home to find I had installed a pair of light fixtures in the boys' rooms—another task for the supposed handyman or the even-more elusive "electrician."
     "Well, mister, I hope you popped the circuit breakers first," she said, referring to the switches in the basement controlling power to the various parts of the house.
     "If I didn't pop the circuit breaker," I said, evenly. "I'd be dead."
      Anyway, after a decade or so of hearing my wife muse about someday getting a handyman to put in a linen closet in an old closet on our third floor, I girded my loins, took the first week of December off as vacation from work and tackled the job myself. 
     Now a week might seem like a lot for a closet, but I am, as my wife would point out, not accustomed to this kind of thing. I have to work slowly, methodically, to keep from screwing up, and then to fix the screw-ups I manage despite being careful.
     It took a day to clean the lathe and dust and to chip out obstructive strips of plaster with a hammer and cold chisel then clean some more. Then go to Home Depot and buy bead board, shelving, industrial glue and trim. Then I had to build an inner box to hold the bead board, the second day, and put the bead board up the third day, then paint it and glue the trim in. The whole thing actually took six days—I had to go downtown for a lunch one day—the same time it took God to create the world.
     But God has more experience with this sort of thing, supposedly.
     It came out fine; I wish I had thought to snap a photo of it beforehand, but setting forth on the project it did not strike me as being in the Realm of Endeavors One Writes Blog Posts About.
     My wife was suitably delighted—exclaiming "Perfect!" again and again. That was good. And I was oddly pleased to have spent a week's vacation building a linen closet. That said, I'd still have preferred a handyman do it while I relaxed. Were such people available outside of fiction, that is.


  1. Great job, Neil! There is something almost cathartic about immersing yourself in an unfamiliar project. The surrounding world, with all of it's troubles, dissolve in soft focus as you problem-solve the task at hand. Afterwards, it's immensely satisfying to step back and admire the fruits of your labor. Even a couple of weeks later, you find yourself taking a peek and musing: yep, I did that.

  2. I feel you: I'm a self-under-rated handyman, and when I do take on a similar project & complete it, I beam (c what I did there?). Last weekend, I finally replaced the batteries on two old smoke detectors that were here before I was and remained untouched. It took three hours! Old detectors ca. '03, but with much info printed into the plastic shell plus labels. The text suggested READING THE MANUAL; so I Googled the model number and voila! The manual! Found that if you don't put the batteries in just right, the detectors beep once a minute for up to 7 days. Like water torture! That extended the process, but I finally got it right. And as Mr. Galati notes above, I was aware of how removed from the wider world I was for those hours. One wants to crow about it.

  3. Handymen do exist! Finding them is the trick. Some it is by word of mouth - you know someone who knows someone who can do that. Some advertise in the local newspaper (Evanston), and some is by sharing info on a message / blog board. They are treasures to be cherished!

  4. We once depended on a handyman named Walter. He died, leaving things to be clumsily done by me.

    Sloppy carpentry can sometimes be covered up with carefully applied trim, and no one is the wiser.


  5. I've heard good things about

    1. But congrats on doing it yourself!

  6. I'm determined to find a handyman now because I keep injuring myself. The cost of the handyman is much less than the cost of an urgent care visit and then surgery.

  7. Thurber's greatest quote IMO: "You can fool too many of the people too much of the time." As we see in practically every election.


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