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First Person Singular: Thomas Buford, 56, Arlington, repairman/architect

By Amanda Long,

I got into doing repairs as a twist and a fluke. I had had it up to my eyeballs with all the screaming and insanity of working in a large company office. I was in a construction management position for a contractor at Andrews Air Force Base. In addition to government jobs having the tendency to suck your brains out, the management thought it was perfectly reasonable to have me working weekends and evenings to make up for their mistakes. Now I don’t mind working hard, I don’t mind working up a sweat, and I don’t mind being devoted, but when you mess up, I’m not going to cover that. So I quit. At the same time, my house was falling apart, so I started fixing it. When my friends would hear me talking about what I was doing at my house, they would say, “Oh, you have a hammer and a saw. I’ve been trying to get someone to do something at my house, but no one returns my phone calls, or they do return my calls and they don’t speak my language, or they say they’re coming and they don’t show up” or whatever version of what always goes wrong with contractors.

Dealing with the general public, you deal with all kinds. The hoarders are out there; the white sofa people and white rug people are out there. The people who just want to know how much and when it’s going to be done. I can’t help the “how much?” segment. I have to ask questions. There’s this idea that you just do it. Nothing “just happens.” There’s no such thing as just a light bulb. If someone is just trying to get it done, get it done, get it done, and not allowing me to find out how that needs to happen, I set myself up to be the bad guy.

The part that makes doing construction hard is that there is no more talking about it. You are dealing in hard reality. The boards go together and are fastened. The boards don’t imagine themselves there. They don’t get from the tree to the house by thinking about it. Someone had do physical labor to get it there. It’s amazing how complicated a simple, sweated copper pipe can be. You can do 10, and then one goes south, and you have to take time to figure it out. You don’t just cram it in there — there’s that word again: “just.” I don’t “just” do anything. That’s part of the religion of craftsmanship: bringing something together with something it’s meant to be with.

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