July 6, 2008

Fresh Hell and Plaster


They came, as the Bible puts it, like a thief in the night.

            Actually, I’d been given a day’s warning, but for me they amount to essentially the same thing. So warning or not, I wasn’t even close to being ready for them when they arrived.

            Now, I’m a firm believer that, in spite of the profoundly random character of the universe, there is a natural rhythm to everything. Weather and climate patterns, traffic, biological and psychological processes, the economy, the vibrations of electrons, history, everything. A multitude of different rhythms, but rhythms nonetheless. And groups of those rhythms knot together into larger rhythms—look at the effect world events can have on the economy—and those larger rhythms cross at various points. As a result of this process, there are times—and I think we’ve all seen this—when several of these rhythms intersect in an inconvenient, flatulent cacophony. To put it simply, everything happens at once.

            That’s why I wasn’t at all surprised when a large—massive, even—project with a tight deadline fell into my lap at the very instant the electricians knocked on my door.

            I live in an old building, and—this shouldn’t have surprised me—the wiring hadn’t been touched since it was first installed a century ago. Not that there had been any major problems—a few sparking outlets, some mysterious humming in the walls—but as my landlord explained while warning me the electricians were on their way, “you wouldn’t believe how fast these places can go up.”

            “Why do you tell me these things?” I asked. Sometimes blissful ignorance is so much easier.

            In any case, on Monday morning a group of five electricians who spoke no English, men armed with drills and hammers and great lengths of heavy cable, tromped into my small, carefully organized apartment and began destroying it.

            I adore my landlord. She’s a sweetheart, she’s always been kind to me, and I knew this was something that had to be done. It’s just that, as always, the timing was about as bad as it could get.

            Now, the tricky part is that while these guys were replacing all the wiring, I couldn’t leave the apartment, couldn’t step outside to escape the billows of dust and deadening noise, because someone had to be there to let them in and out.

            So every day when they showed up, I (through a series of simple pantomimes) would find out in what section of the apartment they planned to be working. Then I’d move myself to a seat as far away from that area as possible, where I would sit and smoke until they were done for the day.

            As I sat there, I listened as great chunks of wall crumbled to the floor, as bookshelves toppled, as compact disks were crunched under heavy work boots. But I said nothing, figuring they knew (ahem) what they were doing.

            The whole process, I was told at the outset, would take a day or two. Yet for some reason I spent the last half of June being chased from room to room by large foreign men with power tools. It was like a three-minute scene from an ‘80s slasher film dragged slowly out over two weeks.

            Over time, a few of them revealed that they did in fact speak some English. I think they were waiting to make sure I wasn’t going to be standing over them, telling them to be careful about this or that, or complaining about the noise and the mess. When they saw that I was intent on staying out of their way, they relaxed. (To be honest, I was too busy worrying about that deadline to hassle a group of electricians who could easily stomp me to death.)

            One day I was sitting by the kitchen window, smoking and fretting quietly, when I noticed that all the drilling and pounding had stopped. I looked up to find the group of them standing next to me.

            “What do you do?” one of them asked. “Are you in the schools?” Apparently they’d noticed all the books.

            I was tempted to tell them that the schools wanted nothing to do with me. Instead I hesitated, as the shame began bubbling up. Here are these guys who drill things and pound holes in walls and install heavy electrical cables—they’re useful and skilled and necessary in this world. And what did I do?

            “I, umm . . . ” I told them. “I, umm, write . . . stories.”

            They nodded, then went back to work.

            Two hours later while I was still sitting at the same window, it happened again. Things fell silent, and they all appeared next to me.

            “What things have you written?” the same one asked.

            “Oh,” I said, a bit startled by this. I stood and picked my way carefully around the tool boxes and coils of cable and through piles of shattered plaster to a dusty shelf. Then I handed out a few books. I honestly can’t afford to go giving away copies all willy-nilly these days, but when you’re dealing with men wielding power tools and destroying your apartment, I figured a little peace offering couldn’t hurt.

            Well, it didn’t help much either. But they were all very nice, and after keeping me a hostage in my own apartment for two weeks, they all shook my hand before they left.

            The next day, I began putting things back in order. I swept the plaster dust off the floor, them mopped. I wiped down some shelves and tables and countertops. I reorganized some of the collapsed piles of books and music and videotapes. Then, finally, I got down to work on this project. The outlets and switches were still dangling out of gaping holes in the wall like deadly googly eyes, and it still looked like I was living in Beirut, but first things first. The deadline was just a few days off, and I had a ton of work to do.

            Then there was a knock on the door.

            It was the landlord, together with the two men, she told me, who would be doing the plastering.

            The three of them came in and looked around the apartment, conferring in Spanish over the work that needed to be done and the price. When they were settled, my landlord turned to me and said, “They’re going to start today, and say they need to be in here for about a week . . . ”


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