WE ALMOST lost an ambassador this week. India's Shankar Bajpai turned 58 on Sunday and was supposed to retire. But at the eleventh hour, after his farewell cocktail party, the ambassador got a call from New Delhi asking him to stay a while.
Ambassador Bajpai is a distinguished diplomat, a gourmet of note. But for me, his real distinction is that he is the only person I know in Washington who speaks glowingly of having his house remodeled and fondly of his contractor.
For most people, and I include myself, having a home renovated is what survivors of messy divorces and brain surgery gamely call "a learning experience" -- though the only thing you learn is that it must never happen again.
But for the ambassador and his wife, Mira, my Macomb Street neighbors, renovation was like having a band of elves on the premises, all doing good and, in fact, seeking perfection: workers toiling into the night, a contractor laboring on Saturdays and Sundays and volunteering to do tasks not covered in the contract. They did over the kitchen, fixed the roof, changed the pipes and the wiring, and in 2 1/2 months they had the embassy at concert pitch for the visit of India's prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi.
My own experience with a far less ambitious project began last September, and while such miracles as having rugs back on the floors have occurred, we're still not ready for the photographers.
Looking back, I think what I minded most was the mess. I got used to the gas stove in the livingroom and the piles of lumber over which I regularly stumbled, but the rubble and debris, which I tried to clean up on weekends, made me sad and edgy. Once, after I had gone skating across the floor in the dark on a stray hunk of plaster, I took it up with the contractor.
He is debonair and a little devil-may-care in the way of his kind, and much given to saying, "Trust me." I told him, when he made one of his cameo appearances, that the downtown-Beirut aspects of my home depressed me.
"Oh," he said, "the subs expect the general contractor to clean it up."
That was the end of the sentence, the paragraph, the discussion.
I had more luck with Butch, the kindly carpenter. I pointed out that by grinding grit into the new tile on the kitchen floor, we were not giving me a fair chance of ruining it myself.
"Oh," he said, "we can get that up."
"Why put it there in the first place?" I asked. He put down a layer of paper, which got shredded over the months but comforted me somewhat.
The tiler turned up 10 days late. He laid a dozen tiles and disappeared.
"What does he want?" I asked the contractor, being of the "feed them" school of interpersonal relationships. "Roast beef, pan-browned potatoes, cheese cake?"
"You've got it all wrong," he said. "They like pizza and Miller's High Life in bottles."
The day the plumbers came -- two glowering young men -- I knew what to do. With the temperature at 26, I went out and bought pizza and beer. I offered it to them.
The older, angrier of the pair growled, "I don't care for any."
After a small silence, his junior partner said, "I don't care for any now."
I crept off to the kitchen to eat some pizza by myself. Seconds later, when I came back, the younger fury was sawing a pipe on the edge of my only antique, an Italian chest. I said, over the din, in a voice that probably reminded him of his fifth-grade teacher, that he was damaging a piece of furniture of value to me. He glared at me and stomped outside to the patio, muttering.
The tiler chose a small cupboard with a gold-leaf top which I had lovingly covered with plastic. I came home to find that he had removed the plastic and had put an overturned toilet tank top on the goldleaf to use as his toolbox. The contractor seemed impressed by my volume when I called the next day.
The cabinetmaker, midway in the construction of file drawers that stuck, announced he could not finish the job. After several weeks, a substitute was found. He was booked to come on Saturday at l0 o'clock. He showed up three hours late. His cats were sick, he explained; he had taken them to the vet. They are Abyssinians, very rare.
On the Monday before Thanksgiving, the contractor said he would be finished at the end of the week. At Christmas, he brought me a fruitbasket -- appropriate for the invalid that plaster-dust and reclusiveness had made me. I suggested a St. Patrick's Day completion. He said it wasn't funny, and besides I was to blame for changing the plans. On Easter I showed company where the corner bench would be.
The painter went to Hawaii for 2 1/2 weeks. The carpenter's mother-in-law fell ill. I stopped complaining. I fed on other victims' horror stories.
The moral of my tale may be that if you're going to remodel, it's better to be an ambassador.