In another lifetime when the children were about 5 and 6 years old, we bought the shell of a house and set about finishing it. It was bigger than we needed – 4 floors, if you count the basement – so, being the girl I am, I created a schedule, giving each contractor an entire floor to work on then rotating them through the other floors. That schedule was a beautiful thing to behold, if I do say so myself. Framable.
But sometimes on paper is the only place things look good.
Things rolled along nicely for the first two or three weeks, then one morning the finishing carpenters, who were slated to come in and finish the crown molding on the first floor, didn’t show up. I started calling. No answer. No voicemail. No calls from them to explain. By the thirteenth day, I was beyond frustrated, but not knowing what else to do, I let my fingers do some more walking on the telephone, and this time somebody picked up. “Hello?” a female voice said.
“Hello. This is Jeanne Hewell-Chambers. Is Jim available?”
“No, he isn’t. This is his mother. Can I take a message?” she asked, and with that, the dam broke. Tears flowed as I told her between sobs that I’d been waiting on Jim for two weeks. He’d promised he’d be here in two weeks and figured he’d need about two weeks to get finished, and I hadn’t heard from him since. Now my schedule was getting all messed up because it was about time for the carpet and hardwood floor people to come in, but they couldn’t possibly lay down flooring with Jim and his crew working on scaffolding to finish the crown molding.
“When do you want him there?” she asked.
“Tomorrow morning would be fine,” I told her. “I get here at 7 to get ready for everybody.”
“Jim will be there at 7,” she assured me. But he wasn’t – he was there at quarter till 7, and he showed up every morning and worked till quitting time until that beautiful crown molding was in. Took him about five days.
From then on, I never waited more than 30 minutes on anybody. After half an hour, I’d start calling and when somebody answered, I led with “Hello. My name is Jeanne Hewell-Chambers, and I’m calling for Bob’s wife or mother.”
Finally it was time for the carpet to be laid, something I’d saved it till last for obvious reasons. I’d been rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light, and the soreness just wouldn’t seem to go away.
The morning the carpet layers were to come, I got to the house early and soreness or no, moved everything (paint, boards, boxes of nails, 5-gallon buckets, ladders, and such) into the garage so they could cut the carpet in the great room where it would stay dry if the predicted rain did come. I was tired but pleased when they showed up an hour late. The man in charge of the crew walked behind me as I showed him around and told him about my plan and how I’d moved everything into the garage in case it rained.
He spat his toothpick out onto the ground, glared at me, and said, “We will not cut the carpet in this room, we will cut it in the garage. Now we’re going to breakfast, and if you don’t have the garage cleaned out when we get back, we’re going home and you can call us when you’re ready for us to come back down.” And they turned to leave.
“What?” I asked. “Wait. I thought I was doing something good for y’all – saving you the time and effort to clear a place to work. A dry place where neither the carpet or y’all will get wet.”
“I’ve told you what to do,” he said, “if I was you, I’d get to work. We eat fast.”
That, my friends, was the camel that broke my last straw.
I called The Engineer, who was at his office an hour away, and told him what had just happened. I also told him that I was leaving, that I wouldn’t be here when these fellas got back, that I’d had it. I’d absolutely had it. I was tired of having workers from other houses in the neighborhood stopping by to tell me how my people were doing it all wrong, I was tired of having to fetch these men drinks and food. I was tired of having to wait on people and call their wives and mothers to get them to do what they were hired to do. I was tired of having them pressure me to pay them at noon on Friday, something I wouldn’t do because I’d already learned that if I paid them early on Friday, I didn’t see them again till Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning when they’d sobered up. I was leaving. I didn’t care if this house never got finished. I was leaving, and I didn’t know when I’d be back. “Stick a fork in me,” I told him, “cause I’m done.”
And being as good as my word, I left.
I stayed gone about an hour – just long enough to stop crying – then I headed back to the house. There on the top step, sat The Engineer and the carpet laying foreman, laughing it up like they were old buddies while the worker bees were inside, cutting carpet . . . in the room I’d cleared for them that very morning.
It took them about four days to finish laying the carpet, and the carpet man said not another word to me the entire time. Nothing at all. They arrived in the morning and walked straight past me without so much as a nod in my direction. They left for lunch without a word, returned from lunch without a word, left at the end of the day without a word. The only time the man spoke to me again was when they’d completed the job. He handed me the bill and told me who to make the check out to. I wrote the check – entered the payee’s name, the date, the amount. I even wrote our new address on the memo line. I filled out everything on that check, but I didn’t sign it. Without uttering a sound, I handed him the check and turned to leave.
“Wait a minute,” carpet man said brusquely, shoving the check back at me. “You need to sign this check.”
“Oh, do I now?” I said coolly. “I tell you what. I’ll sign that check for you when you apologize to me.”
“Apologize for what?” I swear, he seemed genuinely surprised.
“For the way you talked to me when you first got here and for the way you’ve behaved every day since. Let me ask you something: who hired you?” I asked him.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, who is the one who initiated contact with you, interviewed you, called you back to say you had the job? Who is the one who was here waiting for you the day you were supposed to show up an hour and half earlier than you did? Who is the one who’s been here every day when you arrived, having the house open and ready for you to get right to work?”
“Oh no, no, no,” I cut him off. “You think about that again. There’s no ‘y’all’ that comes into play here. Think about it and answer my question.”
Finally, with his hands on his hips, he said reluctantly, “You did.”
“Damn right,” I said. “It was me. I found you. I hired you, I’ve been here every day when y’all got here. I’ve been here to lock up after you left. I’m the one who cleared the room you’re working from to keep you and my beautiful carpet dry. I am also the one you talked so ugly to, the one you treated so badly. When I got back that day, you were looking my husband in the eye and smiling and talking and carrying-on like y’all were best friends. My husband didn’t hire you, and not only is he not here to sign your check, he’s not going to come to sign your check. I am going to sign your check, but not until I get an apology from you.”
I stood there, prepared to wait till hell froze over.
“But my wife has brain cancer,” he blurted out.
“I’m so sorry to hear that. How long has she had it?”
“About nine months.”
“And when did I first call you? Never mind. I’ll tell you: I called you two and a half months ago. She had brain cancer then, and you were downright friendly to me – at least compared to the way you’ve behaved on the job – cause you were trying to get this job. Since then, you’ve behaved very badly. And while I’m sorry about your wife, I’m appalled you would use her as an excuse for your unacceptable behavior.”
After several minutes, he apologized . . . to his toes.
“Not good enough,” I said. “You have to look at me – look me in the eyes – and you better sound convincing cause my ink pen stays in my pocketbook till you do.”
Eventually it became clear that while I might hear the words, I’d have to forego the sincere delivery if I wanted to sleep in my own bed that night, so I signed the check.
I’ve not had carpet in a house since.