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Friday, Aug. 09, 2002
You know, I hate to recount specifics from the workday. It can be so petty, so non-readable and so very boooooooooooring.

But, as you can already tell, I'm gonna do it.

Most of you who are self-abasing regulars know that I work construction, specifically the fine finish sort of carpentry which is rare these days, cabinets, millwork, all that sort of stuff. It is what I do, and have done for a few days short of a quarter century.

And those with Orwellian recall can remember that most of it is in the commercial end of things. I don't build tract houses, I don't want to and am graphically inclined against it.

So with that in mind, let's place Outfoxed and Corporate Partner Stu at the local up and coming university. A school which is building, on the premise of a most generous trust fund, a new Dormitory for Freshmen Students, a 225 student capacity monolith which plays out not unlike your average high rise hotel. It is not a thing you would be ashamed to spend a night in. It is fat and fetted and bristling with the latest in high technology and high-end appointments. Four floors of sensuous wonder for the 19 year old in your life.

Trouble being, the dorm is way behind schedule. Look at the calendar next to you, it should sound a warning bell concerning the proximity of incoming freshmen versus the number of days left in August.

BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!! BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!!! Warning bell has sounded, get dorms ready for freshmen that are already on their way over to introduce parents to college life and start ravaging the rooms the parents are likely paying for. You see, dear children, the rooms have already been promised. Already rented.

It's a bit like renting a room in your house when you've started removing the exterior wall for whatever reason that exterior walls should be removed. It could be an ugly thing, renting a room where the new tenant will be a bit non-plussed to find that his water view consists of your sprinkler running non-stop on your parched grass and in the meantime soaking his bedclothes with the overspray.

At any rate, the job is way behind schedule. And it came to a head, in a frantic meeting held by the general contractor, in the sense that he was facing liquidated damages from the college running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars if he could not meet the last and final hurdle.

The installation of the grand reception desk in the lobby of the dorm. The college held a specific paradigm about this desk, it was the centerpiece of the building, a massive and complicated affair that was to be shipped out in dozens of pieces and reassembled on site.

Enter Outfoxed and Stu, the ancient reassemblers of complicated millwork. I got the call early Wednesday morning from an obviously agitated superintendent at the job. "The desk is here! 911! Emergency! Can you come?"

But of course, my good man, we'll be there presently.

And we entered the building in the cool of the following morning, trundling along a cart full of tools. A small crowd had gathered, mostly other subcontractors who had been instructed to watch and wait for the installation of the desk so that their work surrounding it could be started. The electrician had to wire the completed desk, for example, and the carpet guy had to run carpet up to it, and a whole host of other trades had wire or pipes or finishes dependant upon the desk.

So we had an audience. Including the head building manager of the college, the contractor and his group of hangers-on and a few curious onlookers. Stu and I studied the drawings, the crowd hushed in anticipation, the pile of components were readied for our use.

It was a little like playing with gigantic Legos. The thing was a geometric mass of shapes connected in random ways, little towers and walls and countertops. Once you got all the Legos put together you'd have yourself a 40-foot long reception desk.

But something looked, well, not quite right about the pile of building blocks before us. The finished piece was to be an inverted trapezoid, with different sized towers on each end. I looked at the drawings, I looked at the pile of parts, I looked at the adjoining walls. Stu and I moved a couple of the pieces around, roughly into position, and the light bulb went on. I stepped back and addressed the superintendent.

"Well, it doesn't look like you'll be getting a desk today, my man. They built the sucker backwards."

The superintendent gave me a sideways look, and interest perked up considerably among the gathered throng. "What makes you say that?", he asked in a nervous tone. "And how can you tell without at least standing all those pieces up and putting it together?"

"I'll be glad to do that but you're wasting your time", I said. Stu had already shucked his toolbelt with that finality that usually only comes at the end of the day. "Give me a hand Stu, and let the super check those drawings again."

We stood up the major pieces, shuffled things around, slid components together, and within minutes, it was clear to all that, indeed, the desk was as perfectly backwards as could be. The inverted trapezoid had become extroverted, if that makes any sense. Bottom line was - it wouldn't work. Not at all.

The man from the college appeared ready to swoon. The superintendent turned a delightful shade of purple. The two of them exited quickly and were soon spotted at some distance having an animated conversation. With much gesticulating and foaming at the mouth.

The electrician approached us with a wry grin. "So I guess your crisis day is cut a little short, eh? I swear, this business never ceases to amaze me. How much you figure that desk is worth?"

"Oh offhand I'd say in the $30,000 neighborhood", I said. "But it's really worth poop right about now, since it can't be used for much more than firewood."

The superintendent reappeared, with an entirely new entourage in tow. Men in suits. Serious and concerned men in suits. One of them approached me, an elderly man with a grave air about him. He shook my hand and introduced himself as the Dean of the college. Taking a deep breath, he asked "Son, do I understand this correctly? That this desk is wrong, that we can't finish this Lobby on time? And we have students coming in just a few days?" He was pleading with me, with his eyes, to tell him it was all a colossal mistake, a joke, that any minute now Stu and I would have this thing together and all would be well in the land.

I held forth, I showed him the drawings, I demonstrated and explained. Stu had found a convenient roll of carpet to perch on and pointedly fired up a cigar, oblivious to the No Smoking signs pasted everywhere. The crews of subcontractors grouped around in a nervous titter, awaiting the explosion that was sure to come. Of such are good stories made, lovingly repeated at lunchtime for weeks to come.

The Dean listened to my dialogue without comment, never taking his eyes off the hulking mass of backwards desk that sat in front of him. He seemed to reach a conclusion all at once, with the sigh of one with a lot of weight on his shoulders. Shaking my hand once again he said "Thank you, for your time. And for not putting that damned thing together and wasting anyone else's time." And with that, he strode away, a good little man who had the sense to realize the futility of any further anguish about the situation.

The same could not be said for the superintendent. He howled, he wailed. "Maybe if we take this piece and turn it upside down, and cut this off here and rework this over there?"

I shook my head. "This is just not to be, my man. Not today. Call off your subs, get the desk guy on the phone and let us know if you need us to come back. You know where to find us."

But . . but, you can't just leave me here with this thing!" I think he wanted us to hang around and at least give the appearance of some attempt at progress. The prospect of the grim group of suits behind him was already gnawing at his overwrought psyche.

Stu had already risen, stretched, and began pushing the tool cart out the door. With a wave to the superintendent, I followed behind. The men in suits immediately surrounded the poor superintendent, like wolves on a fresh kill. "How come nobody noticed this when it was delivered? How did that carpenter guy come in and take one look at it and know? How did he do that?"

Stu gave me a grin. "Well, what's next on the agenda? How about we go blow up a building somewhere and make someone's day?" I considered, but shook my head. "Naw, too much like work, my man. Seems like we already blew up someone's building in a metaphorical sense. Home, for me"

And that's basically it. No happy ending, but a typical day in the wacky world of commercial construction. Where things get built backwards and upside down, where fortunes are made and lost, where the skilled come in where suits fear to tread.

But I'll bet I get a phone call in a couple of weeks. Another 911 call. From a frantic superintendent asking, "Can you come?"

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