»  The Straggler, No. 20

May 31, 2004

  On the Fence

My Chinese father-in-law, a career officer in the People's Liberation Army until he retired seven years ago, is a robust sort of fellow. He survived the Korean War, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution without a scratch. What broke his health at last was supervising the workers hired to refurbish an apartment for his son and daughter-in-law. Both of the latter work full time, so Pop volunteered to oversee the project — to make sure the contractors showed up, didn't overcharge, used the specified materials, didn't steal anything, break anything, hide anything, or paint over anything. It was only a two-bedroom apartment in a provincial Chinese city, but it well nigh gave Pop a nervous breakdown.

Once in a while you see in some magazine article a list, drawn up by psychologists, of the most stressful life events. Way up near the head of the list, just under death and divorce, are moving house and having contractors in. I have sworn never to move house again, having boxes still unpacked from our last move twelve years ago; but there is no avoiding contractors, not unless you have much more time, and a far wider range of do-it-yourself skills, than we have.

This year's visitation has been the fencing people. That last move, back in 1992, was our first from the city to the suburbs. Rosie had set her heart on getting a dog, so I insisted we put up a fence round the back yard, to permit the creature some free roaming out of doors. We called in a local firm, which sent two young men, college students I think, to put up 200 feet of wooden palings, which we then painted white. A white picket fence! We two immigrants felt we had penetrated at last to the warm suburban heart of the American dream.

Twelve years later the fence was in a sorry state. Weather, termites, and a sort of creeping greenish slime had done their work, weakening and disfiguring. The dog was still with us, and we put off decisions for a year or so with the excuse that he could not live much longer, and we'd get a new fence when he left us. The dog, however, though an octogenarian in people years, remains doggedly, and doggily, hale and hearty, while the fence is so dilapidated that he can push his way through it with little difficulty, and has begun showing up in neighbors' yards. By this spring the logic of the situation had become inescapable: We needed a new fence.

The firm we settled on sent a pleasant young man with an Italian surname to take measurements and negotiate details. After he had left, I remarked to Rosie that the work crew, when they arrived, would probably consist of him, or some other white American guy, in charge of two illegal immigrants from south of the border. My guess was (I further remarked) that erecting fences is now the kind of work that, as our president says, "Americans won't do." The only kind of work Americans will do nowadays, I concluded — honking away in full pundit mode now, wife rolling her eyes — is lawyering, trading financial futures, making movies, and appearing in reality-TV programs.

I was mostly right. The crew that showed up this morning consists of two Jamaicans. They address me in fluent British English with that slight, rather attractive Caribbean accent that makes them sound oddly like Welshmen. To each other, however, they speak the impenetrable patois of their native island. What their immigration status is, I have no way to ascertain. They are polite, but distant. I attempt some friendly exchanges, but the ball does not come back over the net. They are very large, very black, and very foreign, and I feel slightly intimidated by them. What if they insist on playing horrible music at high volume while they work? How shall I deal with that?

The fact of their being Jamaican adds further anxieties. It is of course a very wicked thing to trade in stereotypes, but in England, which has lots of West Indian immigrants, the common canard about Jamaicans is that they are light-fingered, the Romanian gypsies of the Caribbean. (Whatever else you may think about this slur on an entire nation, it is certainly not racist. I first heard it from a black Trinidadian landlady I once had in London, and it is apparently current all over the West Indies.)

In the context of having contractors in to fix up your house, this is particularly disturbing. I seem never to have had a contractor in, of any nationality or ethnicity, who did not leave with some item of my property in his van. My basement, where I keep my tools, is now out of bounds to contractors, unless I am there to watch them. I am just sick of replacing tools. I'm not even sure contractors realize what they are doing when they steal my stuff. One fellow, a plumber one of our neighbors had recommended, American of Norwegian ancestry, took off with my tool carrier. It's only a $12 plastic item, but I find it awfully handy. When I phoned the Viking to ask for it back, he brought it round at once, but with no sign of embarrassment and no apology. There is apparently something in the contractor code of ethics that says he has a right to help himself to a homeowner's tools and equipment.

[Later]  The fence guys have gone, leaving behind them a not-quite-finished job. We have, of course, not quite paid, so I suppose this is fair. When will they come to finish up? I asked Clive as he got into his truck. "They'll call you." I suppose they will, in their own sweet time. Oh, well. They didn't steal any tools, were considerate to my wife's daffodils, and didn't play music. Not my worst contractor experience, by any means. And we have a fine new fence. The garage, badly in need of an overhaul, now looks twice as bad by contrast, but that will be work for next year's contractors.