An amphibian improves on nature

You notice them at Menards, these guys of middling height with jeans and a cap and a cell phone and a certain kind of subtle swagger: a general contractor. A builder. Someone who makes things happen and has the tools and the phone numbers to do it.

I guess they probably don’t actually swagger. But they don’t browse thoughtfully and aimlessly through the aisles like the normal people do. They know what they need and they know right where it is: in the back of the store, second aisle from the end and two thirds of the way down on the lower shelf. And it’s even odds whether they’ll be talking on their Nextel two-way while they stump purposefully along.

Do-it-yourselfers like to spend time in hardware stores and lumber yards; it’s kind of like going on a safari, a pleasure trip through a foreign yet familiar world, a chance to do some exploring. Maybe pick up a Black-&-Decker drill for tightening some doorknobs.

Contractors, on the other hand, go to lumber yards when they have to. If a contractor is in a lumber yard, it is because somebody goofed.

You drive in there and find a place to park, and the place is swarming with other guys in pickup trucks and jeans and cell phones. Each one with his own tools, his own way of doing things, his own names for everything. Everyone trying not to meet each other’s gaze. You get what you need and get out of that parking lot, back out to your own territory, the engine in your pickup (or station wagon, in my case) warming with every stroke.

Out on those back roads, you have plenty of space, and plenty of time to work your cell phone. You grab the weather report over the radio. You try and write things down while you drive.

When I was just starting in construction, I took every single tool I bought – every screwdriver and pliers and everything – and put a band of green electrical tape on it. Because construction workers are God-fearing and honest, and they have such a solid hardcore work ethic that, in order to get the job done, they will grab the nearest tool, even yours, without batting an eye. You have to love that kind of dedication.

Still, on occasion a tool is lost, a casualty of progress, my unique verdant brand notwithstanding – and it’s off to the hardware store. Somebody goofed. Oh well. That’s what lunch hours are for.


“The goal of all inanimate objects is to resist man and ultimately defeat him.”
— Russell Baker (1925-)