The dopey kid who used to wear your clothes
A lesson in life learned the hard way:
Never gloat over someone else’s stupid mistake. Make it better if you can, but don’t laugh. Just let it slide and do your best to make like you never saw a thing.
I say this because there’s a BIG ONE waiting for you down the road, my friend, and when you slam into it, you’re going to need all the understanding you can find.
Years ago, my wife of one week, The Lovely Marianne, and I woke to the sweet silence of our first apartment. She offered to make the coffee.
Most everything was still in boxes, including the new electric percolator someone had given her at the shower. She opened it, tossed the directions in the garbage and filled the pot with coffee and water. She carried it to the gas range, placed it on the back burner, and turned it on high.
This didn’t seem quite right to me so I asked if she knew what she was doing. (Her folks had an electric stove.) She smiled and said, "Of course!"
Now this particular electric percolator had a see-through glass part for the coffee and a black-plastic bottom. It occurred to me that it had no business being on the back burner of a gas range turned too high, but what the heck did I know? In my house, coffee had always been Mom’s job.
"Isn’t that an electric coffee pot?" I asked.
"It works both ways," she said.
Then she scurried around the apartment, reveling in things domestic while I stared at the coffeepot. I stood there like the village idiot and watched the pot list to starboard as molten globs of black plastic dripped into the flames.
"Hon," I said, "can you come here for a minute? I think you should see this."
Another time, just a few weeks after we’d finished scraping plastic out of the burner, The Lovely Marianne sat on our living room rug and hemmed the new drapes while I sat, king-like, reading the paper in my new Lay-Z-Boy. I remember it was very quiet. Marianne stitched slowly and deliberately. Every now and then I glanced over the top of the paper and smiled at my bride. She smiled back.
An hour went by. She got up, left the room and returned with something hidden against her thigh. I kept reading, letting a few minutes pass before I peeked over the top of the sports section to catch her using her secreted scissors to clip the drapes fee of the shag carpeting.
Coming dead on the heels of the business with the coffeepot, this was too much for me to bear. I let loose a giggle from behind the newspaper. The Lovely Marianne walked from the room, saying nothing.
Now, I knew very little of life or women back then so I told everyone I met about the Great Coffeepot Melt-Down and The Hemming of the Shag Rug.
All in all, she took it pretty well. It became, after a few years of telling and retelling, a better and better story – part of Holohan family folklore. I’d bring it up to new friends as our lives cycled through phases of new neighbors and new neighborhoods. Every time I told THE STORY, it grew a few more details, finally making the subtle leap from bent-truth to legend.
And all the while I was sculpting my tale, weaving in more and more fabricated detail, The Lovely Marianne smiled sweetly and said nothing.
She was waiting.
Years passed. One day I decided to do some concrete work in the backyard. It was just a small project, nothing I hadn’t tackled before.
I went to the lumberyard to get three, 80-pound bags of Sandmix. The price was higher than it was at the home center, but I wouldn’t have to lug the stuff to my car a quarter-mile away. I went to the counter and ordered the cement, paid for it, and went out to back to "See the yardman," who pointed me toward a pile of brown sacks.
Once home, I grappled the three bags into the backyard, got myself a bucket and a hose and started mixing with great enthusiasm. I troweled, smoothed and leaned back with satisfaction.
I called The Lovely Marianne and the kids out to see what I’d done. She smiled; so did the kids. Then I had a beer.
Night fell. My concrete wasn’t hardening as it should and The Lovely Marianne was the first to notice. She mentioned it to me.
I took a long look at the concrete, probed it with a cautious finger, and told her not to worry; it would be fine in the morning.
"You know," she said, "it looks like sand to me.
"Don’t be silly," I said. "It always looks like that before it sets up."
But it did look an awful lot like sand.
Days passed. I kept sticking my finger in my "concrete" while The Lovely Marianne smiled. She had a vicious gleam in her eyes, but she said nothing.
A week later, my "concrete" walk still had the consistency of Jones Beach.
It turns out I’d paid $15 for 240 pounds of sand. The same stuff you can get for free at any Long Island beach. I’d bought it, lugged it, mixed it, troweled it, smoothed it, stood back and looked at it, drank a few beers to it, stuck my finger in it. I did this for a week. And never once did I read the bag. The bag read, "SAND" in six-inch-high red letters.
But you know what stays with me? The Lovely Marianne never told anyone about The King of Concrete. She didn’t even laugh at me. She just smiled with that private and very wicked gleam in her eyes. The gleam said, "Gotcha!" But she never told anyone about the dopey kid who spent a week laying a sand walkway.
She’s wiser than I am. That’s one of the reasons why I love the woman.
I was thinking about all this years later when I went out to look at a problem steam job with my pal Alan Levi, Ace Troubleshooter. The basement looked vaguely familiar, but then, I’ve been in a couple of basements.
We went over the problems as we found them and Alan and I made a list of what was wrong with the installation.
"What do you think of the way the piping comes back from those steam traps, Dan?"
"Oh, that’s not right," I said. "It should be this way." I made a sketch. He looked at it and nodded in agreement.
"And how about these lines here? Shouldn’t there be steam traps on them too?"
"Of course there should be," I said, sketching again. "There are a lot of mistakes here, Alan, but don’t worry, we can fix them. By the way, who installed this system?"
"You did?" My eyes widened, but I was thinking about coffeepots and drapes and sand walkways so I didn’t laugh. I just smiled a little and said, "Don’t worry. We can fix it."
"Oh, I’m sure we can, Dan," Alan answered. "But you know what the best part is?"
"When I installed this stuff? All this wrong stuff that’s put in the wrong way?" He waved his arms toward the botched job. "All this stuff we can fix now? Guess who told me how to do it?"
And then I remembered. Alan smiled as the job came back to me like an unpaid bill. A much-younger Alan and Dan had visited this job years earlier. I remembered now. We stood in this same boiler room, scratching our heads and looking at each other while the customer waited upstairs for answers. Steam job, eh? Well, let’s see . . . Yeah . . . steam job.
We were just a couple of dopey kids in a boiler room back then. We’d combined our YEARS OF EXPERIENCE like so much loose change and did the best we could to buy ourselves out of a roomful of problems. Some of what we’d done was even right! Well, enough of it was right enough to keep the heat limping upstairs all these years. It’s just that it wasn’t quite right.
But now an older and more-experienced Alan and Dan got to go back and look at what "those dopey kids" had done years before. We were getting a second chance. This time (hopefully!) we were a little better armed.
Neither of us laughed or pointed a finger at the other as we went over the mistakes that morning. But I noticed Alan had that all-too-familiar gleam in his eyes. I probably did too. "Gotcha!"
You learn from a lot of people in this industry, but mostly you learn from the dopey kid who used to wear your clothes and sleep in your bed. You bring him with you on every job you work on. There’s no getting away from him. He follows you all your working life.
The next time you look at someone else’s work and find it not quite up to your current high standards, take a minute to look backward and inward. Remember that dopey kid who helped train you. And then without laughing, use what he taught you to make that job better.
Fix it without finding fault. Everybody needs a break now and then. Even the guy who was there before you.
Besides, while you’re using all your present brilliance to make things right, that horrible job just might start looking uncomfortably familiar to you.
Who knows? Some dopey kid who used to wear your clothes might have been there years ago.