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Sunday, Feb. 16, 2003
Most of the time it really doesn’t bother me, the way people react when they learn of my profession. It may be at the Watering Hole or a restaurant or some indescribably boring department store which I’ve been dragged into against my will.

It’s cute, in a way. Somebody will get to the point of conversation where they chirp “. . .So, what do you do for a living Outfoxed?” in such a way that you know they’re expecting a reply which includes the words “executive” or “degreed”.

So they look a bit flummoxed when I tell ‘em the truth. “I’m a carpenter, I co-own a construction company and we do a little bit of everything. But mostly I’m a carpenter, (and depending on the questioner, it might come out as “I’m a damn carpenter” or “I’m a wood butcher straight from hell so don’t ask me to work on your bookcase project that you’ve already screwed up beyond recall”) and I strongly prefer to do inside carpentry.” I throw that in since it’s handy to get these things straight right from jump, especially if it’s 20 degrees outside and they’ve already been ruminating about their sagging porch overhang.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t look the part, I don’t fit the image of what most people seem to expect out of a tradesman. Corporate partner Stu, now he fits the image. Bristly walrus mustache and a pair of powerful hands set on a tall frame, complete with beer gut. That’s what they seem to look for. Small hands, brushed hair and clean shaven are out these days, so it seems.

When they recover from their confusion, the first thing out of their mouth is something along the lines of a chuckling “Well, I guess we can’t all be like Norm Abrams.”

Allah be praised, no we can’t.

Norm. We can’t all be like Norm. No more so than we can all be like Mike. And here’s the ugly truth.

I really, really don’t want to be like Norm.

Norm first appeared on my (and everyone else’s) radar in the early 80’s, as best I recall. In what might be called the first of the Reality TV Shows. Norm and Bob Vila, the champions of the Saturday morning home improvement shows on PBS. And you know what, I used to watch them religiously. Back in the day when Ally and I were first married and had little to do on a Saturday since we were both poor and living in an apartment and the only excuse for entertainment came on the television which perched on yet another of my enthusiastic solid wood TV stands in the living area.

Bob and Norm used to do a pretty decent show when This Old House was new. Bob narrated and sloshed around the site in his work boots and occasionally lent a hand doing something other than plug the various subcontractors (in those days, they hadn’t yet dreamed of wearing matching T-shirts with the company name emblazoned on the back). Norm would be seen off in the distance humping plywood up to a second floor deck, his bushy beard tinted with frost since it was mid-winter, his belly hanging over a filthy toolbelt which was actually filled with tools, a toothpick languidly hanging from lips that looked like they longed for the lazily smoking cheroot that PBS undoubtedly forbade. Norm was believable, Norm was real, Norm even had a comment or two which proved his worth to me as someone who might actually know the reality of the trade he exposed.

All around them the air would be filled with the sounds of saws and the steady “Wheep! Wheep!” of a concrete truck backing up to a half finished foundation or the half muted growl of a generator nearby. There was dirt and sawdust and sweat stains on the knees of everybody’s overalls. It was a show filled with rough edges, it was Bob asking Norm “Hey, do you really think the plumber is going to show up today?” and Norm might make a face and say something to the effect of “He damn sure better or we’re screwed on this inspection, Bob.”

It was, in short, what construction really is. Construction is rough edges, it is dirty, exhausting work. It is work performed by People (you’ll notice I’m sufficiently sensitive to not have exclusively said “Men”) Who Use Their Hands for a Living. It is work that involves skill to be sure, but it the sort of skill that appears in small ways. It appears after driving to the supply house or lumber yard, selecting a bunch of materials, arguing with the salesperson, driving to the jobsite, unloading and humping the stuff to a pre-determined spot, unloading $15,000 worth of tools and machinery, setting them up, cursing the helper for dropping (and subsequently ruining) a brand new 6 foot level, chopping a bunch of lumber into mundane lengths for framing and sending the same helper out for coffee and more gasoline for the generator.

Then and only then might the skilled tradesman (there, I said the M word. Sue me) have an opportunity to demonstrate why he is there in the first place. It’s the 15 minutes of fame, the time where he goes from doing what any homeowner might have done to that point. The 15 minutes where skill and experience start to shine and construction speed becomes the stuff of legend, or at the very least, of profit. Where things happen at a rate that causes the homeowner to beam and chortle to their tennis partner “God! The carpenters are really flying on my house this week!”

Which is where Norm and I have long since digressed to the state of suspended disbelief.

Used to be that Norm had a sense of humor about the whole TV thing. You could just about tell by looking at him that he was sizing up ol’ Bob Vila, probably grinning off camera, probably digging an elbow into the electricians belly and saying “Hey Floyd, check out Bob. Sumbitch is probably still hungover from last night when we went out to the Crazy Horse and blew $400 on those dancers. Look, look! He just dropped his combination square in the mud! Hee hee hee! Whatta chump!”

I kinda liked the Norm that was fat and sassy. He fit the carpenter image that is true, the borderline psychopath who slams wood together and flicks nails into lumber with 3 powerful strokes of a framing hammer. Who would not be caught dead with a new hardhat or toolbelt. Who would toss said hardhat across a parking lot a few times or maniacally run a pickup across a new toolbelt just to “break them in” (and trust me, this is a ceremony amongst the faithful that is stringently adhered to. I’ve done it myself more than once).

But now, we have these two screw-ups.

As the most recognizable pair on PBS, maybe anywhere, they are the most eminently revered and admired of construction experts. They are praised as “Master Builders”, they are referred to in every conceivable way as construction people to seek out and to learn from, the very Fountain of Irrefutable Truth from trusting yuppies seeking the Dali Lama in Carhardts.

Oh please. Save me from the hype that is uninformed television.

Out here in reality land, they are cause for much gagging and choking.

For one thing, Steve Thomas comes across as the most limp-wristed of project managers. I understand that he used to be a carpenter of sorts, that he swung a hammer and got just as filthy and probably swore like Popeye when the stud layout came up short or the drunken landscaper on the backhoe smashed his finish trim work to bits. But I just can’t see that happening nowadays. Mention Steve Thomas to the typical working lackey and the best you’re liable to get is a rolling on the ground sneeze-fest of laughter with many pantomimed gestures indicating wallpaper selection at the local Home Depot. In a dress and pompadours.

And Norm? Geez, pal. TV sure seems to have put a damper on your Pabst intake. There’s only a hint of a belly where a mighty beergut once stood. I could swear I see just a hint of eyeshadow behind those sensible glasses of yours. Appearances aside, we’ve all heard how you’ve parlayed your Yankee Workshop show into a million dollar home, that while you might drive a pickup on TV there’s bound to be a Mercedes or a Lincoln in the garage somewhere and frankly, your credibility with the dudes onsite is shot to hell and back. I won’t even get into the oft-overworked television image of the working guy who just happens to have a 24” industrial Timesaver sander and a computer aided routing device on board in his backyard shop. Along with a seemingly endless supply of “biscuits!” and monotone safety tips which make me yearn for unsheathed saw blades and flying wood chips. Sans safety glasses, of course. You ought to try to find a pair of those on a muddy, freezing jobsite. You might as well ask for a bottle of Perrier water and a copy of today’s Wall St. Journal.

Which brings us, of course, to our sponsor. Or rather the guy who seems to have no lack of them. Aside from one juicy site I found online which described Bob Vila as “Martha Stewart with a beard”, there seemed to be no end of praise for this magnet of the construction industry either. While I can’t say I disagree with a lot of the assessments of Bob as a huckster, an opportunist, I’ve always had a bit more fondness for Bob than some of his ilk. A little more forgiveness for his sins, if you will. Because while the other dudes seemed to buy into the whole Madison Avenue retro-fit for profit, at least Bob was that way from the start and was unapologetic for it. Seemed to be a bit more believable in that respect. The guy has done well, he’s slick and enterprising but at least he’s not hiding behind a personna of being a “master builder” rather than a TV personality for a genre made good. I might cringe at some of his videotaped technical gaffs but I get the feeling that he could care less, that he’s promoting a sponsor and he knows it, rather than harping on the knowledge that he may or may not have.

Of course, others are not as forgiving as I.

On the rare occasion that Stu and I have been in the same room when one of these self help masterpieces have been on TV, the hooting and profane criticism have come fast and furious. Doesn’t matter what show it is. Could be Norm’s, or Bob’s or any combination of the Trading Spaces crapola that dominate the HGTV scene these days.

“Holy cow, look at that! Norm’s gonna build a freaking 12 drawer Chippendale in 30 minutes! Check out that smock he wears for stain work! Trendy, no? Hey Stu, I’m gonna run right out and get me one of those purty lab coats when we start slinging stain next time! God, ain’t they just cunning or what?! Geez, Ally just about had a coronary when we put stain on plywood for 4 days running and I put the royal slamming to 4 pair of new jeans! Helluva mess! ‘Bought toasted the washing machine! Show us the way , Norm, teach us thy truth!”

“Look! Look at that bald headed geek on the Trading Spaces thingy! He’s gonna make the carpenter saw up a crate and make an armoire! Oh no, he got a splinter! Suck it up bub, get out the razor knife and cut the damned thing out! Let ‘er bleed for a while, it’s the best way! Oh Jesus listen to that Skilsaw squeal! Heeeeeeee!”

And so on.

When next you pass a new home site and see the carpenters out there with radio blasting and saws singing and gas compressors making music only we can love, do me a favor.

Don’t stop and pull over and gawk. Don’t be smug and point out perceived flaws in the siding or the trim with that uneducated finger which no doubt has not touched anything heavier than a computer keyboard in months. Don’t even presume that what you see on the Bob Vila hour has anything remotely to do with what I’m doing on a scaffolding which is swinging in the breeze two stories in the air while I’m trying to un-jam a balky nailgun.

‘Cause it don’t. I’m making a living here, and when I’m done you’re going to do your gawking with my blessing, because it will look just swell and your praise will be much more appreciated at that time, thank you. I’m not living for working here, I’m working for a living.

And if you want to take my place I’ll be glad to move aside and sit in the truck and shoot the breeze with Stu for a while and sip a Coors Lite. It passes for entertainment. Even better than what Norm does. Trust me. The humor value to us is precious.

But I won’t invite you to join the club. A pal of mine calls it NACWA (irreverently pronounced Naq-Waah, at odd hours preceded by many beers at the Club). Which, as anacronyms go, is a fair to middlin’ Organization that is more exclusive than any yacht club you’ll ever see. One with more unspoken rules and bloodlines than anything Norm could ever dream of, or remember from his past life. It’s a tough club to get into, and even tougher to leave, if my age has anything to do with the whole situation.

Nasty Ass Construction Workers of America.

Be fearful. We are coming to a home just like yours. And soon.

But PBS won’t have anything to do with us. I have no idea why.

It could be that reality TV can only be taken so far.

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