IT IS BARELY LIGHT when the alarm goes off. Before I am tempted to snuggle down for another five minutes, I leap out of bed and get into my running clothes. Gone are the mornings when I could take a cup of tea back to bed and read for an hour after the kids were off to school.
Because the day of a home improvement contractor, or anyone connected with the building and construction business, begins shortly after dawn.
In the kitchen, it is dark when I put the kettle on for tea while I make my son's breakfast and prepare his lunch for school. At 6:25, I'm on the road creating a shroud of mist around me as I pant though the frosty air. The first mile or so is always the hardest. Four or five miles later, I am back home feeling well exercised and ready to face the world. I take a cup of tea to my husband.
I check with the stone mason and am told by his answering machine, "At the tone . . ." He must have left for work. Good.
Between 7:30 and 9:30, I telephone sub-contractors: the electrician, to remind him to connect the fan a client purchased over the weekend; the plumber, to tell him to supply the sink even through the contract says that the owner will provide it; the electrical company, to find out if the light fixtures I ordered back in August have arrived. I also receive several phone calls.
By 9:30, I am out of the house to make the rounds. I arrive at the patio job expecting to see wonders, but what I find is nothing. I am told that the mason "walked off" because of a disagreement about the pigment for the mortar, which was not specified in the contract; he was afraid he would get the wrong color, as the owners were too "nitpicking." He did have some black pigment of his own if they cared to use it. No, they wanted gray. Back to the negotiating table.
Next, to the landscaping job, only to find the backhoe broken down and everyone standing about waiting for the repairmen. The plumber has to be postponed because the floor is not finished, while the electricians, knowing that the fixtures hadn't come, did not show up.
By the time I talke to my respective clients, contact subcontractors and discuss matters with the architects, it is close to 4 p.m., time to return home and to my office.
My son is home and preparing to do his homework. On my recording machine are some messages which I attend to. By 5 p.m. it is time for "All Things Considered" on WETA and for preparing dinner.
At 7:05, I drive to the local Metro bus stop to pick up my husband. By the time dinner is over and dishes loaded into the dishwasher, it is nearly 9 p.m. A short read and chat by the fire with my husband about the events of the day and in bed at 10:30. Tonight I am lucky: No one has rung up to complain. Tuesday
This is the day the vast and vastly expensive sliding doors (at this price, they are called "gliding" doors) are suppose to be delivered. I ring up at 8:30 to confirm.
"Sorry, ma'am, they are not in yet, but I'll get them to you by Friday."
Call the electrical suppliers again, but still no lights; promised date now is three weeks hence.
At 10:30 I arrive at a prospective new client's home, a basement renovation job. I do not usually do any work in the District because of various constraints, e.g. thefts of tools, materials and machinery from job sites, lack of parking, distance to work for my men and high workmen's compensation insurance. However, if the job is interesting and challenging enough I might consider it.
As expected, the basement is in shambles -- old kitchen cupboards, rickety bookshelves, odd pottery from another culture three cracked rubber boots, piles of paperback books, a couple of chairs with six good legs between them, a foldaway ping pong table and all manner of junk.
The owners want to transform it into a lovable-workable-reacreationable space with darkroom, sauna, mudroom, etc., etc., of course at a "reasonable" price. The house is old, so everything will have to be worked around the not-so-flat walls, the pipe-contoured ceilings and the less-than-level floors.
Furthermore, with all that junk around, it will be impossible for my workmen to raise a hammer, let alone wield a 4" x 8" sheet of plywood. Anyway, it is a challenge. I agree to estimate the cost of the job.
Back at the patio job, the clients have decided to use the mortar dye which the mason had, so all I have to do is locate the man, no small feat. The drywall man is going like wildfire in the foyer, which should be ready for the painter tomorrow.
At home, I find my son waiting for me to read and comment on an essay he has written for his journalism class. After picking up my husband at the Metro bus stop, I go to my weekly choir practice -- a wonderful tonic, when for two hours I can completely forget about temperamental workmen, vague architects and difficult and fault-finding clients who are showing signs that their cash flow is drying up. By 11 p.m., I am home and in bed. Wednesday
The weather is bad, but it will not prevent my daily run. By 9:30, my clients have started to ring. "Where is the painter," "What happened to Tom?" "Are the roads that bad?" I explain as well as I can and try to find the best excuse for each of my workmen.
However, the day is not entirely lost. It gives me an opportunity to catch up on some of the ironing which has piled up over three weeks, and the basket of single socks need pairing. Also, I'll be able to put down on paper some designs for a solar bedroom I have in mind for another client.
Steeling myself, I decide to call up a particularly deliquent client who has not made the final payment, though it is now almost three months since we finished the job. Having been a sheltered housewife and mother for the past 15 years, I find this the most difficult and unpleasant part of my business. I still have a long way to go. Thursday
I start the day pessimistically thinking that no one would show up for work again; on the contrary, everyone did. When I arrive at the patio job there are jokes all around. "Hey, man, look who's turned up on the job," and, "Thought we'd take the rest of the week off, huh?"
I take my trusty old Peugeot wagon to the supply yard to pick up some materials for a redwood deck. In this almost all-male business, it is still difficult for some men to take me entirely seriously, but most of the jokes are in good spirit and I have found everyone very helpful. I go to the counter and suddenly my mind goes blank. I blurt out, "I'd like 50 pounds of number 16 ordinary nails, please." The salesman looks at me deadpan and shouts across the showroom so everyone can hear, "Hey, this here lady wants some number 16 'ordinary' nails; we got some 'ordinary' nails?" In a flash the word "common" comes to my mind, and I can feel the blood rush to my face. He grins.
When I return to the job site I find my carpenters enjoying bowls of hot soup provided by the client and generally happy in spite of the cold. Since, due the cold, the stone mason can't do any work outside, he starts work on the inside.
I can see that he is trying his best not to lose his temper -- with the owner two feet behind him peering at his work and trying to tell him which stone to lay where. I ask the architect to try to explain to our client to please leave the workman alone and let them get on with the job.
At 4 p.m., I am home, glad that tomorrow is Friday. A couple of friends have left messages to call back. "We never see you these days. Have you forgotten us?" "Can you come for tea next Thursday at 3 p.m.?" "How about lunch, I'll treat you." "I have a friend who wants to enlarge her dining room, wants passive solar and all that . . . Their number is . . . "
To all of this I reply, "I'm sorry, I have not forgotten you; I will try to come, but I will give you a call to confirm." "I'll have to check my schedule." "No, no, I have not forgotten our opera date. How could I ever?"
There is also a message from my dentist's office to remind me of my husband's and daughter's appointments. After dinner, my husband tells me that he will be going abroad to give me a series of lectures. At 10 p.m., I get a call from an irate electrician to say that if there are any more changes in the location of the light fixtures in the room, he will pull out his wires and quit. Wow! Friday
Payday. This is the one day in the week when everyone turns up for work. "Doing the books" is the one chore I do not relish, and it is the one thing that makes or breaks an embryonic company like mine.
No matter what, once a week I must attend to them. After phone calls to respective job sites and making sure that nothing major needs attention. I give my husband a call to say that I am coming to lunch with him. Then I settle down to my payroll and income and expenses for the week. I also start on the design and planning of the basement job. Three hours later, no serious errors or red figures have appeared.
I close the books and drive into town. After dashing about all week in jeans and shapeless old sweaters and muddy boots, it is good to feel elegant and worldly. I meet my husband in his plush World Bank office -- what a difference from mine.
The pina colada is perfect, the quiche piping hot, conversation stimulating and company tantalizing -- something else after hearing about 2 x 4s, carpenters' glue and 4"x 8"x1/2 sheetrock etc. all week.
After lunch, armed with a checkbook, I go to the job sites. I am greeted with looks of approval and exclamations of, "She's been to lunch again." "Hey don't you ever do any work?" and "She must have a secret boyfriend somewhere."
By 4 p.m., everyone is paid and away. As usual, I find myself hoping that they will come back to work on time on Monday.
I return home tired but happy at the thought of the weekend. "What's for dinner?" I ask, and ruefully realize that I am the one who has to cook it.