June 15, 2018
Customers grow on me. I can't help it. It's like making friends with someone you never imagined you'd be friends with. It just happens. You work in someone's house for days or weeks at a time, and chances are conversation more than pertaining to the job will break out. I don't think this goes on with all craftsmen. Some guys are just pretty quiet. Most of my customers make an effort to get to know me. And I'm not so quiet.
I've worked for a couple for about six years now. Usually, every winter, they hire me to do a room in the house. The jobs are generally fairly involved; they like hand-built cabinets and wood ceilings. The wife always got the job started, and the husband supervised after that. He loved having things done just about perfectly and was great to work for. The husband would always visit the house during the lunch hour. He did this, preferring not to be visited by supervisors, who turned his lunch back into work, so he came back to the house. He always walked into the room I was working on to let me know he was in the place. He'd stand around and ask about the materials; then, he'd tell me the chemical compound and organic construction of said material. He was a scientist. He'd hang around and ask a million questions about the work I'm doing, then subtly tell me his dad was an 82-year-old master carpenter who will check out my job the next time he's in town—nothing like a bit of pressure to get things just right. The guy coming home for lunch made my day. His visits broke up the long day of no one else in the room except the cat who comes and goes. In its previous life, the cat was a lab cat, which means by osmosis, even the cat was more intelligent than me. I paid it extra attention, and if it acted out and clawed my arm to smithereens, I'd chalk it up to the lab life it had. The guy coming home for lunch taught me about chemistry, lab politics, film photography, industrial organic coatings, protective jumpsuits in desert conditions and threw in some audio amplifier stories to keep things cool. I learned to like this guy, and honestly, I know he liked me.
As the years went on, I would go to the house to see our next job together. When I arrived and went in, the lunch hour guy started calling the cat into the entry to announce that "uncle Jonas is here." What can I say, now I'm family, at least for the cat. I've done some of my best work in that house. I've admired the couple who live in a full three stories with no kids, just a cat. When the house turned 100, they threw a birthday party for the house—everyone dressed in period clothing. The house was quietly flattered. At the party, I wasn't just the guy who did the bathroom. I was Jonas. The couple was complimentary of my work and practically insisted their friends hire me. And, of course, I was introduced as uncle to the cat.
Early this spring, I called the lunch hour guy to swing by and touch up some caulk in a bathroom. We talked briefly, and he asked me to call him back. We texted a couple of days later, and he said he'd have to get back with me, that he was up against some health challenges. I've kept that text for about seven months now because the lunch hour guy died a couple of days later.
It's not the first customer funeral I've gone to, but this one felt kind of close. I'm sad for the widow left behind who is a strong, intelligent, professional woman. Except when it comes to the loss of her husband, this has been crushing. I'm sad for a neighborhood that knew this guy for the quiet, smiling guy he was. I'm sad for the house with so many hours of improvements that were all carefully discussed and supervised during the lunch hours. I'm sad for the cat, sitting in a window, watching carefully, for the lunch hour guy to come home. And I'm sad for me, because uncles have feelings too.