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04/15/2009

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04/09/2008

Desperate Homeowners

By Ray Lesser

I’m not quite sure how Fred got to be our handyman. We were probably completely desperate one day, toilets overflowing, front door fallen off its hinges, or maybe it was when the kids somehow pried the electric plug out of the wall of their room with a plastic sword, and started pulling out the crumbling wiring to see where it ended. Since we usually hire handymen due to desperate circumstances, most of the handymen we’ve known are guys like Fred that only desperate people hire.

I don’t know why Fred became a handyman, but it certainly isn’t because he loves to fix things. He originally studied to be an oceanographer, inspired by National Geographic specials with Jacques Cousteau. He imagined a life of scuba diving in the Caribbean, in search of undiscovered marine life, or sunken treasure, not of snaking out the drains in a city 500 miles from the nearest ocean. But entry-level oceanographers were not in high demand when he graduated from college, so he returned home and began puttering around some property his grandfather owned, and has been puttering around ever since.

Handymen are notorious for not showing up to do a job that they have promised to do, but Fred suffers even more from the opposite problem: He’ll show up to do a job, and then never leave. A job that would take an ordinary, semi-competent do-it-yourselfer a leisurely weekend to do, Fred can easily stretch out to a month. If you make the mistake of hiring Fred to do any sort of major renovation, you can expect that he will continue to periodically appear in your house, to add a few more screws or a spot of paint, for the rest of your life.

Once you undertake a project with Fred, you are no longer his customer; you become his”client.” On a typical day Fred begins visiting clients at around 8 a.m., timing his arrival for the middle of breakfast. He helps himself to coffee and a bagel, then in his ingratiating, laid- back way, entertains the children or the dog, while listening carefully to see if any new repair projects have developed since his last visit. The client is usually hurried, and often in immediate need of some repair. The other five specialists, some highly recommended, haven’t even bothered returning their phone calls and the lock on the backdoor is now completely broken, the door won’t even stay shut. “Maybe we could have Fred look at it,” says the desperate husband out loud. His wife shoots him a piercing look. The last job they asked Fred to do is still not finished after two months. “Fred, do you know anything about locks?”

Soon Fred has promised to have the door fixed, or at least usable, by the time the family comes home for dinner, and says he’s headed to the hardware store for parts. No, he doesn’t need a spare key, he already has one from the previous job, and anyway, the lock is broken. Hmm. Was the door broken before Fred started using it to bring in those oversized boards? “See ya later,” says Fred, off to search for his next desperate client.

The fact that Fred rarely completes his work, and often botches it up completely, seems to have done nothing to hurt his business. This may be due to his pleasant disposition or because, no matter what happens, he keeps showing up. Clients feel so comfortable with Fred that they often ask him to housesit when they go out of town. “I’ll paint the living room while you’re gone,” he promises, although the clients usually find upon returning that he has done nothing except to eat up all the food in their freezer. “I had to ask you about a leak I spotted,” he says. “We’ll need to fix that before we paint.”

Another thing clients appreciate about Fred is that he rarely gives them a bill. He’ll immediately ask to be reimbursed for any supplies and parts that he uses, but the final reckoning, just like the completion of the job, never seems to come. This, it turns out, is Fred’s long-term savings strategy. “I don’t trust banks,” he says. “Whenever I need money, I just collect for one of my jobs.”

We’ve often been asked by neighbors, “Who’s your handyman? Can we get his number?” Once we had a really great, competent handyman and were reluctant to give out this information, because we had so many projects we wanted him to do at our house first. But like all good repairmen, he was soon discovered and hired away to a higher paying full-time job. Now we’re back with Fred, who we’re happy to recommend to anyone that asks, as are most of his long-time clients. We’re all glad to have him be handy at someone else’s house for a while.

Neighbors are thrilled to find Fred, at first. He seems like the ideal handyman. He is confident, and seems to have a solution for almost every problem a homeowner might have. He has a shiny new truck full of tools, and promptly returns calls on his cell phone. He’s friendly, polite, sober, and honest. There’s only one small problem … he’s terrible at fixing things.