Contractors and the theory of relativity

HELPING to build your own house is a wonderful and viable concept, friends heartily assured me. And in many ways it is, although it is now winter and I am living in the old, drafty garage next to the spanking new house which still has no heat or water. But I have learned much these last nine months. Did you know that it was contractors, and not Albert Einstein, who first demonstrated that time is relative? My first inkling of this came in a phone conversation with a stonemason who promised he would begin the chimney in ``the middle of the week.'' Since this was the fourth time that month he had made such a declaration, I pressed him further.

``Now would that be the 15th?''

``No.''

``The 16th?''

``Nope.''

``The 17th?''

``Unh unh.''

Saturday and Easter Sunday were out, too, so I paused to allow time for an explanation. None came. After some heated prodding, he said I should not hold him to a specific date.

I hung up and got another mason who was a vast improvement. This gentleman was only severely tardy.

As the months wore on I began to appreciate the nuances of contractors' language. ``We'll be there Monday or Tuesday'' generally means they are toying with the idea of arriving Wednesday or Thursday if something doesn't crop up, which it inevitably does. ``Middle of the week'' translated into the end of the week, which sounds encouraging until you realize that ``the end of the week'' is a euphemism for not this week.

I learned early on that it never hurts to make sure you are discussing the current calendar year, although many builders deal only in paleontologic epochs. To be fair, some contractors were better than others. These were a week or two late. In the construction business, half a month behind schedule is on time, relatively.

One builder actually showed up on the appointed day. I would include his name and phone number but odds are he has since been laughed out of the industry by his peers.

So why do they do it? Or don't do it when they say they'll do it? Certainly they are busy and I feel some responsibility for the months of delays, having chosen to build during boom times rather than waiting for a rip-roaring recession. Besides being flat out, some tradesmen are not so well organized as they might be. Rather than booking only as many jobs as they can handle and then doing them one at a time, they tend to say yes to everyone and then scurry back and forth from one site to another depending on which customer is screaming the loudest or is the most heavily armed.

In a cyclical business, it is difficult to turn down work and it is even tougher to get on the phone and say, ``We'll be there in six months if we don't hit any snags.''

A friend, however, has come up with an explanation that is every bit as good as the ones above. What is happening to me is an emerging art form: new wave comedy. If you're going to build a house, there's one thing you'll need that the lumberyard can't deliver: a sense of humor, preferably one larger than Montana.

David Holahan is a free-lance writer.

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