The hired men

When it comes to "the help," I need a guilt exorcism.

By Nancy W. Hall
Published April 3, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

As I write this, two good-looking and soft-spoken Brazilian men are making hash out of my kitchen. The sounds of a ripsaw and of splintering wood fill the air, and my cup of tea has sawdust in it. I have taken refuge in my office, along with my daughter, who can't wait for the afternoon kindergarten bus to come and whisk her away from the shrieking of the saw and the roar of the power nailer's compressor.

I can't complain -- we have, after all, hired these guys to liberate us from the disreputable old vinyl flooring we inherited from previous owners and install the beautiful maple we bought with our children's inheritance. They seem to know what they're doing. But I am fundamentally uncomfortable because, frankly, I am wracked by guilt every time I hire "help."

With these gentlemen my uneasiness is compounded by a virtually impenetrable language barrier. The guy in the flooring showroom with the plummy Yankee accent has given way to my newfound friends with their lovely but -- to me -- unintelligible Portuguese. "How's it going?" I ask, slipping into the not-yet-ripped-up part of the kitchen to get a cup of tea. "Little English, sorry," says their apparent leader, adding "Good, good."

The hour between their arrival this morning and the delivery of the actual flooring was excruciating -- the three of us nodding and smiling and making gestural small talk, and me saying every five minutes, "I wonder where that wood is," and calling the flooring shop every 10 minutes to be told each time: "It's in transit."

I mimed and used pidgin English to offer tea, coffee, sodas and bananas (the only food available after a pre-floor-day hiatus from shopping). They politely declined with charming smiles, indicating either "I wish you'd go back to your office and leave us alone" or "Back in Brazil, I was a professor of theoretical mathematics and I'd rather eat nails than put in your stupid floor."

But it wouldn't really make any difference where they were from or what they spoke -- I don't do so well in English, either. What do I say after I've said, "The pump's down here. It's been going chook chook chook when it comes on" or "Do you think you'll be able to stay within your estimate?"

I come by my ambivalence honestly: I get it from my parents. For Dad, living in the mid-South in an era that straddled the advent of civil rights, the idea of hiring anyone to do your work for you implied that you felt superior to them, an idea that was anathema to him. We got the impression as kids that it would be a disservice to any self-respecting person, especially a black person, to hire him or her to work for us white folks.

But Mom's hatred of ironing was stronger than Dad's middle-class guilt, and in the end Martha came once a week to do the ironing. Mom never seemed to know how to treat Martha. She would offer her brown-edged wafers and Cokes and sit at the table making small talk with her as if she were an unexpected guest, but when the little cookie klatch was over, Martha still did the ironing.

I was 3 and loved to sit under the ironing board, enjoying the starchy cooked smell of my daddy's cotton oxford-cloth shirts as she pressed them, wrapping my naked Barbies in the cotton handkerchiefs waiting to be done and watching the little balls of spit bounce and sizzle on the iron as Martha tested it.

Once I reached out to touch them as they skittered over the iron's surface, and after I recovered from my burned palm I wasn't allowed to hang out with Martha anymore. She didn't stay much longer anyway, not after she expressed her gratitude to Mom one day for continuing to let her come and work even though she had tuberculosis. Mom was pregnant, Martha was history and Dad learned to iron.

My next close encounter with the service industry came when I was 10 and my parents decided to add on to our tiny house. The building contractors were a father-son team we knew as Garry Dean and his dad. The father could be heard throughout the day calling to his son in his Southern accent, "Gurdean! Gurrydean, brang me that hammer!"

The father had a fine, appraising eye for his own work, and never seemed to notice that everything he and his son accomplished was ever so slightly off kilter. Neither Mom nor Dad, however, could bring themselves to ask for corrections. Garry Dean's dad stood beside my mom one afternoon, showing off the wallpaper they'd put up in the powder room -- its stripes a good 3 or 4 degrees off true. "Now that's a right beautiful paper you picked," he offered.

"Mom!" I hissed, when he was barely out of earshot. "Why didn't you make him put it straight?"

"Well, he's so proud of it, how could I?" she countered.

When I became a homeowner myself, I discovered I'd inherited this uncertainty about how to deal with what can only be called -- with what I hope is a generous dose of irony -- "the help." And help is what our 200-year-old farmhouse needed, lots of it. Within six months of moving in, we were on a first-name basis with an electrician, a plumber, a roofer and an odd-jobs man whom we know to this day only as Charlie, a Vietnam vet who could be a poster child for post-traumatic stress disorder, and who does only outdoor repairs, refusing to enter the house even to go to the bathroom.

After years of student life, I was clueless about my role. Beyond being polite, respectful and paying on time, what should I do? Serve coffee? Make their lunch when they stayed all day? Inquire about their home life? Should I just clear out, leaving them to work unmolested by my guilt and ambivalence? Was I their boss? Queen for 45 minutes? Should I tell them if the wallpaper was crooked?

Some of this uncertainty comes from my feelings of protectiveness toward this particular old house, which has been mishandled over the years by owners who clearly would have been better off in a nice new ranch house.

It quickly became easy to tell between the tradesmen who really love old houses and those who find them eccentric, even slightly creepy. "Lady," said one electrician, emerging from the cavelike cellar under the kitchen, after our antique electric service proved unequal to handling two computers and a microwave on the same circuit. "Lady, if I were you, here's what I'd do. I'd move out and I'd set this place up as a wiring museum." He fixed the immediate problem and refused thereafter to take our calls. Frank the furnace guy came up from below one day, clearly spooked. "I think there's something alive down there," he confided. He never returned, either.

But our plumber, whose children I'm putting through college, one foot of copper pipe at a time, loves this place. Tommy considers it a challenge to keep us free of leaks, drips, dribbles, seepage, frozen pipes, hazardous materials in our water and even mice that nibble away at our insulation.

With Tommy I have a history. When he called to me from across the coffee shop downtown one day, "Hey, I can fix that sink today if you're going to be home later," and I called back, "You can go on up there anytime -- door's unlocked," I knew we'd reached a new level in our relationship.

I still don't know what to do when he's working here and I'm working at home. I shuffle ineffectually between my office and wherever he happens to be on his knees with a wrench and a shop light, offering iced tea on hot days and coffee on cold, neither of which he ever accepts, intent on getting done and getting to the next job. Should I watch him work? Check what he's done before he goes? Should I offer to help? Why do I feel so guilty that I'm paying this man a handsome sum to do a job of skilled labor I wouldn't begin to know how to do?

Whatever the reason, I'm pleased to say that we may have nipped this thing in the bud before it passes to a new generation. The last time Tommy was here -- his baby-blue truck with the blue toilet seat on the hood parked in front of the house -- my 5-year-old stood shyly behind me, whispering urgently, "Mama, I have something for Tommy."

She crept up to where he was working and, as he looked up, pressed into his hand a shiny red floor tile she'd found on the school playground, one of her treasures. We had an errand to do then, and left Tommy hard at work.

When we got back, there was a message for Meg, written in block letters on the box from the faucet Tommy had finished installing, a penciled drawing of his truck at the bottom.

"Dear Meg," he'd written. "Thank you for the beautiful tile. I've glued it to the toilet seat on my truck." Meg was as thrilled as if she'd had a letter from Santa. Now, whenever we see the little blue truck (with the little red tile on the blue toilet seat) around town, she waves gleefully. "Mom," she asks, "when can Tommy come and visit us again?"

Nancy W. Hall

Nancy W. Hall is a freelance writer. She lives in Madison, Conn.

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