I have always considered myself a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy. I can hang a picture straight, cut a two-by-four and chop firewood. I like to think that if I had to, I could still make a living as a working man. So I was dismayed in the course of building a new house recently when the carpenter called me a "yuppie twit."
John is a friend from our old neighborhood. He comes from one of those venerable New England families that was probably running clipper ships in the tea trade back when my people still had our knuckles in the muck. He likes to let on that he represents solid Yankee common sense.
My wife and I, if I am reading the scorecard correctly, stand for nouveau dubious values. The first time we showed John the site for our house, 11 feet above sea level on the Connecticut coast, he remarked, "I think the foundation will crack and your house will float out to sea."
We hired him anyway, because John is a careful carpenter, with an eye for ogees and quirks and plinth blocks. And despite his misgivings, he came to work for us, on the usual premise that he was just trying to keep us from making too big a mess of our lives.
In the beginning, I used to pick on John's work in the spirit of malicious fun. I'd walk up when he was in the middle of some job and just watch for a minute or two. I'd twist up one corner of my mouth, as if there were something I didn't really want to say.
"What?" he would snap, finally.
I'd shrug. "Just looking."
Then I'd draw out the silence until he was about to swing the hammer and I'd say, "But I think that piece is crooked."
I did this less often later on, when the budget got thin, and it dawned on me that John's standards were way higher than mine. Like most people building a new house, we were — how to put this delicately? — a little over-leveraged on the financials, and I got in the habit of waking up at 3 a.m. to make long lists of items costing more than we could afford. John, on the other hand, would come in the next day having dreamed up a better way to do the work he'd done the day before, or some new scheme for what he liked to call "the trim program."
He'd put together a triple window trim with beading and biscuit-joinery, and glue it in place solid as rock. Then some little disproportion in the verticals would haunt him until he had to rip it all out. I suggested that maybe he was being a little too fussy.
"Fastidious," he corrected me.
I started to recommend small economies. "You could fix that gap with some caulk," I said once. John looked at me balefully and replied, "Putty and paint make it what it ain't." This was his ironic motto for hack carpentry, usually repeated as he was demolishing some nice piece of work (but not quite nice enough) with his crowbar.
One afternoon I happened to spot John having lunch at a local sushi joint, and suddenly it all added up: he'd been coming to work every morning with strong Columbian coffee from a local bistro, he sometimes warmed up leftover bouillabaisse in our microwave and he'd even borrowed the scheme for a bookshelf from a Martha Stewart plan. He says it was Architectural Digest, as if that's any defense.
The day we moved in, John surveyed the piled up boxes and jumbled furniture, a little dismayed at how we were desecrating his work.
"This looks like someplace a couple of college guys would live," he said, "after they got thrown out of the frat house."
I just smiled and offered him a beer, one of those boutique beers I knew he favored, with an oaky nose and a slightly bitter aftertaste.
"Hey," I said, as we lifted our glasses, "here's to yuppie twits."