Talk of the Town - Against all enemies June 19 2003

Foreign and domestic

Foreign men appear in my yard. They mutter. They plan. They disappear.

No, I'm not hosting an al-Qaeda sleeper cell. We're talking contractors, or rather subcontractors. Make that sub-subcontractors. These guys are zooplankton in the food chain of home repair.

Yet despite their seemingly marginal status, they have succeeded in driving me stark, staring mad. They have taken apart the front of my house — and show no signs of putting it back together.

The initial assignment was simple. Remove fieldstone around the front door. Remove old plywood backing. Install new plywood and waterproof sheeting. Reinstall stone. End of job.

This whole process, even considering the certitude of "truck trouble" (a euphemism for "hangover" in the building trade, there is an epidemic of truck trouble every Monday morning) should have taken 72 hours. Max. Instead, it has gone on for two weeks. And it's getting worse.

First I had a pile of stone in my yard. Three days later, some guys dumped a pile of sand next to it. In color and texture it resembled a kiddie-size pyramid. More stone arrived, slabs big enough for a large print edition of the Ten Commandments. Then bags of concrete mix. Each was delivered by a different gaggle of men, who were never seen again.

I should add that I've never actually met most of these people. I suppose if I had a high-speed camera, or access to the Hubble Telescope, a scrapbook could have been kept. Meantime, it's like some demented Santa Claus is leaving enough construction material to build a replica of Hitler's Atlantic Wall. Except there's nobody to do the actual work.

Because contracting, at its core, involves not doing anything. There's a term for it — spiking. Contractors go from site to site, initiating jobs to get the business, whereupon they move on and give you the business — by not completing the work. The Johnny Appleseeds of flimflam.

We've been waiting a week for the stone masons. People tell me this is an ancient and honorable trade, practiced with great skill. I wouldn't know, because the masons in question have yet to stack one stone on top of another. Masonry, as far as I know, is akin to marriage. It requires the joining of at least two entities.

What the masons are definitely good at, however, is going. They come, but mostly they go. Perry Mason and Jackie Mason I can find on TV. But stone masons? Forget it. Maybe I got it wrong and they're stoned masons. That would explain a lot.

I presume that many of these elusive artisans, new arrivals to our shores, are living a long-held dream: "To come to America, land of hope and opportunity, where I can goof around and lie my ass off."

And please don't accuse me of xenophobia. I hate all contractors, regardless of nationality. I've had the same lousy experiences with Born in the U.S.A. non-service providers. For a sample encounter and verbatim dialogue, see any episode of "Green Acres" featuring Mr. Haney and an apoplectic Oliver Wendell Douglas. I sound more like Eddie Albert every day.

For my next trick, it started to rain. To keep the sand pyramid on the driveway from morphing into a gritty, cafè-mocha-hued lake, I covered it with a tarpaulin left over from the last time contractors decimated my hacienda.

I have a problem with tarpaulins. Why are they always that bright shade of Renoir blue? I mean, what house is that color?

From the tarp-using homeowner's perspective, it's bad enough having your primary residence turned into a demolition site. Does the situation have to be exacerbated by a rubberized sheet that screams azure catastrophe (or "Boating on the Seine," c. 1880) to the whole world? How about a camouflage tarp in olive drab? Something restful for the beleaguered landed gentry.

By now desperate for a solution, I seized on the forthcoming arrival of family as a reason for getting the job over and done with.

"After all," I said to a contractor, "I can't have my parents tripping over that pile of sand at the top of the driveway."

The contractor agreed. Next day I came home to find the pile of sand moved — to the bottom of the driveway. The Renoir-blue tarp was firmly in place, the work still firmly undone. Ancient Egyptian civilization may have had bigger pyramids, but I bet theirs didn't jump around. The mobile mound caused neighbors to believe that a colony of giant fire ants had descended on the subdivision.

So where does this leave me? Mummified and moribund, my own civilization is in disarray. Demoralized and distressed, I await another devastating strike on the homeland.

Hey, maybe those guys are terrorists.

Get me Tom Ridge.


i>Glen Slattery is on Code Renoir Blue alert in Alpharetta.