It takes a village to renovate a house

Much as we love to brag about our DIY doings, we’re kidding ourselves if we overlook the contributions of the skilled tradesmen who’ve passed through Casa Vitone. I’m happy to say they’ve all been great, in spite of their eccentricities.

There was B, the Brick Guy. He gave us a honey of a deal and did a wonderful job on our kitchen windows. The tradeoff: He’s so busy that it took six weeks to get him out here. And he’s got a wacky sense of humor—he likes to disguise his voice and leave prank messages: [BEEP] “Hello, this is B’s wife. I’m just calling to let you know B won’t be able to finish the job over there. I dropped him off at the rehab center yesterday….”

Then there was T, the buzz-cut plumber who rarely addressed me directly. The exceptions: 1) “So, Elaine, do you work at all?” [???] and 2) “Oh, you’re a writer, eh? Do you write porn?”

I can overlook this. T is a third-generation plumber, and it shows. The new pipes under our sink are flawless perpendicular lines of shimmering copper. “That’s the most beautiful plumbing I’ve ever SEEN,” I gushed.

“That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me,” he said. Poor T.

Dylan’s favorites were the used-appliance-store guys: a tiny Asian dude who spoke only in indecipherable shouts, and his one-eyed lackey. They engaged in a little bilingual screaming smackdown as they took the previous owners’ old freezer, fridge, and dishwasher off our hands. When they were done, they stayed to help move our washer and dryer down to the basement AND reinstall them, all gratis.

But of all the characters who’ve passed through here in the last five months, my favorite by far was last week’s visitor.

When I came to the door, I found a hoodie-headed figure standing on the porch, his back to me. “Good morning?” I said. He turned—a lanky, college-aged, pale male. His company truck was parked way down the street, and his hood hid his uniform, so I couldn’t be sure what was up until he identified himself: R, the Air Duct Cleaning Guy. He was right on-time for our appointment.

By his demeanor and dress, R reminded me of Dylan back when we first met—just a baggy-pantsed, crazy-haired gutter punk, by the looks of him. But Dylan was a perfect Texas gentleman, all yes-sir’s and no-thank-you-ma’am’s. He opened doors for people and always looked them directly in the eye. He never slacked off, or lost his patience for folks who judged him—he was happy to prove them wrong, one by one.

With that same competence and courtesy, R carefully surveyed our heating system and explained his procedure in that wonderful Pittsburgh accent we’ve grown to love since we moved here in ‘03. “This needs done,” he said. “Hafta get my tools n’at….”

He then began cleaning and sanitizing the hell out of the ducts—and I do mean hell. It was the first time this had ever been done to our house in its entire 87-year history. Clouds of coal dust shot out of our vents while he worked. “Damn!” I said, much more amused than concerned for the mess. Our house can’t get much worse, after all, and for once I was grateful for that.

In spite of my sailor mouth, the guy never swore. He re-cleaned things that needed a second work-over, re-taped things that were slipping apart (who knew you can’t use duct tape on ductwork?!). He treated our appalling mess like it was just as important as any grand old house in the neighborhood.

I left him to his work, then halfway through the job, he shut off his giant vacuum cleaner and came up to my office, all shy and apologetic. At first I didn’t know what he was getting at. “I’m sorry to be so unprofessional like this,” he said, “but do you have any Neosporin? Some people are kinda offended by… this… but I figured since you’re young….”

On his forearm he wore a cut-up sock—a makeshift bandage. He peeled it away, revealing a brand-new, foot-long tattoo of a crouching lion, now red, raw, and covered in a century’s worth of toxic dust.

“Oh God!” I said. “Of course I don’t mind! We’re from Austin, man!”

As R scrubbed his arm with anti-bacterial soap, we started up one of those conversations you tend to repeat over and over in your early twenties: what kinds of tattoos are lame, what kinds of places seem to frown on youth in all its Manic Panicked variety. He was surprised when I told him what a laid-back college town Austin is.

“It’s the Live Music Capital of the World,” I said.

“Really?!” he said. As he dried and redressed his wound, he told me he’d just started playing guitar in a metal band. He gushed about music like it was his very first crush—unabashed, uncontrived. Just: love.

He asked if I play, and I told him I used to dabble. “But my husband was really into underground hip hop, back in the day,” I said. He grinned, and I realized I’d just earned a little cred, if only by proxy.

In R’s three-hour visit here, I gave him Neosporin, a clean sock for his arm, and a dust mask from our DIY arsenal. When I found myself mentally going through the pantry, wondering what I could offer him for lunch, I had to laugh at myself.

It wasn’t that long ago that I might’ve seen this kid as somewhat of a contemporary. But now, it’s… different. I don’t want to impress him. I don’t want to be his pal. I just want to feed him and scold him about protecting himself from infection.

My God. I want to MOTHER him.

Guess it’s no wonder—I hit the big 3-0 this year, and I got *a new nephew earlier this month. Lately I’m thinking a lot about the everyday, Herculean act of raising a good kid.

I can only hope that on the other side of all these DIY disasters, Dylan and I can do that—send out into the world the kind of human being who wouldn’t think of saying the word “porn” to a complete stranger, or of placing phoney phone calls that scare the hell out of people. The kind who takes pride in a job well done and treats every human interaction, no matter how fleeting, as a gift.

[This post is dedicated to the cutest little newborn in all of Texas, and his folks. Congratulations, y’all. We love you a zillion.]

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