Under construction

People are always saying that working with a contractor will take longer and cost more than expected. I figured that I was the exception. 

You can see where this is going.

I don’t want to go into the details of what the work was, or how it went wrong. I’ve noticed that as I tell my friends and family about fascinating intricacies like how the door wasn’t stained when it was finally delivered, people often suddenly need to use the restroom or remember that there’s a stack of old receipts at home that they really should get back to scanning.

Instead, I’ll tell you about two moments that I believe sum up the month of contracting work.

First, we dropped in on the guy who was ordering a door for the contractor to put up in our “media room” (a sophisticated way to say “TV room”). This was the second time we’d come to visit him; he was near impossible to get ahold of by phone or email. “Where did I put your file?” he asked himself aloud. His office was full of papers, so I didn’t feel optimistic that he’d be able to locate it quickly. In fact, I began taking mental notes on how he could rid himself of some clutter.

He grabbed a paper out of the recycling bin and jotted down a few measurements on the back of it. I tried not to burst out laughing.

Apparently our file is kept in the garbage can.

The second moment that I believe summed up our contracting experience was one of the contractor’s phone calls overheard by my husband. “Yeah, I’m on a job right now,” our contractor said into the phone. I would guess he didn’t know my husband could hear him as he said, “It’s not going very well.”

If only he’d had that door up sooner and if only it were able to close all the way, maybe my husband would have been none the wiser. But given that things weren’t going very well, those were not the current conditions.

“It’s not going very well” became a mantra for my husband and me as we laughed as best we could, stumbling over couch cushions we had stored in our bedroom for the duration of the project. In fact, we had our red living room couch in our bedroom, plus the cushions from the giant couch in the media room, which serves as a guest bed. If you wanted to be dramatic, which I do, you could say we had an extra mattress in the room, plus the red couch. The red couch just barely fit, leaving about eight inches to walk between it and the foot of the bed. During my spring break from work, I spent hours sitting on the couch, my feet resting on the bed, watching the NCAA tournament on my laptop. Though I rarely opt to watch NCAA games on TV, now that our TV was unusable, all I wanted to do was watch those games! Luckily I was able to stream them from my dorm room bedroom.

During the third week of the project, my husband was out of town. Time for a Netflix binge in the media room, right? Not exactly. I was still quarantined in the bedroom – much of which was my own doing. My husband and I wanted to avoid excessive clean-up after drywall particles and dust from the industrial fans, so we kept as many of our things as we could in our bedroom or covered and unusable in the other rooms.

While my husband was gone, the contractor texted me updates like, “I’ll be leaving in a few minutes. OK, if I leave the fans going to air things out?” It was as if I had a phantom roommate who used the apartment by day and left behind only paint fumes and whirring fans to signal that he had been there. And sometimes the progress he made on the project.

I think it was good that my husband travelled for week 3 of the project. At that point, it was getting hard to spend most of my at-home time in the bedroom. I think if we had been holed up in there together, we may have started bouncing off the walls, which really wouldn’t have been too harmful, since the couch cushions would have softened the blows.

One Friday after work, the contractor texted me around 3 to tell me that he’d be working for a couple hours yet, and that the paint fumes were pretty bad. I told him I’d go out to do some errands. I had thought ahead and brought my laptop with me to school; I headed to my favorite café and entertained myself. He texted around 5 saying that it’d be another couple hours more. I told him not to worry; I was headed to a friend’s for dinner. But not until 7! The great thing about loft living is the myriad of options within walking distance for entertaining oneself while trying to avoid going home. I know you think I didn’t go home because I didn’t want to make awkward small talk with the contractor, but that was only most of the reason. The toxic paint fumes sure were a good excuse.

Just days before the project was completed, I was laying in bed and reached to turn off the lamp. This bumped one of the throw pillows that was balanced on the couch cushions tucked in behind the nightstand. The throw pillow fell, hitting a framed picture on the windowsill, and the picture tumbled onto the decorative wire candleholder that usually goes in the front hall. I heard a small crunch. Thanks to the Mousetrap-like series of events, one of the glass candleholders had broken.

The surprising thing is that it took so long for something like that to happen, and that so little was broken.

After the project wrapped up, my life went back to normal. My friend, however, was having some work done in her basement. She told me about sanding down the facade of the fireplace bricks. The terminology was new to me, but with some mental exertion, I was able to envision what she was talking about, because I know her house. And then I wondered just how many colleagues I’d told about our project who had no idea what I was talking about. They’re probably still wondering what a “media room” is. I feel especially bad for going on and on to my dental hygienist and impeding the speed of my dental exam.

My friend had hired her parents — or rather accepted their free offer — to do the paint job. They showed up on Sundays, in the middle of her workday on Mondays; you name it. They were insistent contractors, trying to get the job done on schedule. Their own accelerated schedule, that is, since they were leaving to go out of town the next week. They cared more than my friend does. I guess that’s all you can hope for in a contractor. They’re booked for the next few years, so don’t get any ideas.

Last week I got an email from the guy at the door store. “I need a quote on 3 3070 47C frames in black,” the email said. “I also need the lead time.”

Had he worked with us for so long that he now considered us experts in the field? Did he stumble upon our email address while going through his recycling bin?

I didn’t know how much to quote on the frames, but I did have an idea about the lead time.

“A long time,” I replied.

Carissa Jean Tobin lives in a condo in Northeast Minneapolis with her husband. Her hobbies include creating humorous surveys for friends, lounging at the Wilde Roast Café, and administering the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to interested family members, friends, and strangers. She teaches kindergarten in North Minneapolis.