I remodel houses for a living. For the last two weeks I have been working in the basement of a house built 30 years ago, a ranch house on a hillside. I am enlarging a bedroom and reconstructing a bathroom. My helpers and I have finished framing, plumbing, wiring, insulating. The plasterboard is nailed in place. Today I applied joint compound to nail holes and seams to create smooth, flat walls. Soon we will paint, put shelves in the closet, hang doors. Last of all we will install wooden baseboards. I intend to use ranch base, a style of baseboard that has been favored in tract houses since the 1950s. My choice of this material requires explanation.
I have been earning my keep as a carpenter for 10 years. I graduated from college with a liberal arts degree and welcomed the chance to perform blue-collar work. This was an opportunity to change the world, beginning with basics. I wanted to bring style and a certain affordable elegance into the lives of my clients. In kitchens I ripped out Marlite counters and installed plastic laminate trimmed with oak. In attics I removed beaverboard panels to install skylights and cedar paneling. At entries I broke apart concrete stoops and built decks of cedar and fir.
My signature in this work was found in wooden trim, the last and most visible members to be applied. I selected the stock myself, then worked it with hand tools, giving it bevels to create an ultramodern look. Or I shaped edges and corners in large curves that recalled the gracious, wooden finery of houses a hundred years old. I avoided anything that suggested tract housing.
Before my career as a carpenter began, I served as a social worker for two years in an old neighborhood of a distant city. I met people who had little money and lived in rotted tenements. They looked with envy at ranch houses in the tract development outside town.
My current employers are oblivious to the style of their house but care about practical things. They asked me to put extra insulation in the basement walls and to replace rusted pipes before they leaked. They describe themselves as ``simple people.'' The man is from a farm town. After high school he moved to the city, attended the university, became a scientist. He had a long career, but the refinement and snobbery of university life did not touch him.
When he called me to this job he said, ``I don't want a philosopher.'' What he did want was plain talk and hard work.
After 10 years in the trade, I am beginning to reassess my craft. Perhaps a ranch house, built on a hillside, should be allowed to continue without oak trim and cedar paneling. Perhaps, as a final touch, a basement room should receive ranch base, fresh from the factory.