The right tool for the right job

Every so often, I veer into slightly dangerous territory with my neighbour. It happened again on Saturday. We both drove up to our respective driveways at the same time, got out and waved at each other, and then I dropped the bomb.

“Greg,” I said, “I have a question for you about drill bits.”

In fact, I had two, related, questions about drill bits. Our house was lovingly built by master plasterers sometime in the 1950s, which is wonderful in terms of structure but a bitch when you want to hang a picture and can’t sink a nail into the wall. In desperation, I tried to drill a hole into one the other day. Barely made a dent. And then, I tried to put a latch on our new back door, in order to prevent the children from opening it during blizzards: again, not a dent.

So I figured that maybe I was using the wrong kind of drill bit. And I knew that Greg would know what kind of drill bit I needed. I knew this because Greg is the kind of guy who, on his summers off from teaching high school, does little household projects like, oh, single-handedly PUTTING AN ENTIRE SECOND FLOOR ON HIS HOUSE. I know: I watched him do it. The following summer, he insulated and sided the whole thing, and then landscaped his front yard.

Greg spends afternoons and weekends putting siding and a shingled roof on his garden shed, or rotating the tires on his truck. Or re-sodding his backyard. Or renovating the kitchen. If there something handy to be done, and a particular tool with which to do that handy thing, Greg knows how to do it, and by God, you can be sure he has the tool.

I am in awe of Greg’s abilities. I kind of covet them. (And the tools, too.) I mean, I’m handy, but in a kind of “I can install a dimmer switch or clean out the dishwasher trap” kind of handy. I can put together an IKEA bookcase with the best of them (admittedly, somewhat like this), install childproof latches and baby gates. I paint walls. One fateful weekend, I even sanded and refinished the floors in the ground-floor apartment Rachel and I rented just off Queen West in Toronto — I inhaled a lot of varathane fumes that day and ended up hallucinating about communing with my peasant Russian ancestors on the steppes. Mere hours before I wrote this, even, I finally got round to replacing the missing shelf in the built-in bookcase in my office, a task that involved visits to two different hardware stores, and the use of a drill, a level, a screwdriver, and a mallet. Lots of my projects end with mallets.

Because the thing is, I’m also a Sagittarius, which means that three-quarters of the way through any largish (or smallish) project, I get impatient, clumsy, frustrated with my lack of expertise and the inherent chaos that inevitably comes when tools are involved. Which is why only six of the eight holes for the screws that hold the bookshelf to the brackets actually have screws in them. Which is why so many of our ceilings look like this:

And our walls like this:

Still, things need to get done. And while I have finally succumbed to Rachel’s begging and of late agreed to hire someone to do many of the things I normally would have — disastrously — insisted upon trying myself (she once said, as we contemplated getting a new roof, “I really, really, want to hire a professional to do this,” as though I would actually attempt to replace the shingles myself), some of them are just too small or too mundane to outsource. Hence my question to Greg about the drill bits.

On the one hand, it was innocent enough: I needed to know what kind of bit to buy, and he could tell me. On the other hand, asking Greg a question related to home improvement is a bit of a calculated gesture, because the man just cannot stand the thought that something might not be done right. In a jiffy, he was over, cordless drill and bits (for wood and concrete) in hand. He inspected my latch and the guide holes I had marked for the drill. “I think you’re a little close to the edge of the doorframe here,” he murmured. “You think?” I said — and, ten minutes later, our latch was installed. Perfectly. As though by angels. “Who was that masked man?” I thought as he glided off back to his house.

This kind of thing happens fairly frequently. When we first moved in, Rachel and I attempted to hack away at the neglected, Gothic moss garden of overhanging Manitoba maple branches that made up our backyard. Within minutes, Greg showed up with a ladder and a chainsaw. He and his oldest son, Greg Junior, not only trimmed back all the trees — which had kept the sun from reaching their backyard — but then tied up two truckloads worth of branches and hauled them to the dump. Rachel and I stared out the window, flabbergasted. This was not the kind of thing that happened to us in Toronto.

The next summer, when I decided to do something about the overgrown hedge separating our two properties, Greg was on it like white on rice. I was timidly trimming the tops off the branches; he drove stakes into the ground ran a string between them, and used his hanging level to make sure the string was plumb. And then we spent a couple of hours hacking six feet off the top and shaping it into something respectable. Once we got everything tied up, he drove the branches to the dump. For days, I just stared out the window at the hedge, happy.

If there’s a blizzard, Greg’s snowblowing our driveway, as well as that of the neighbours on the other side. When our roof leaked because of an ice dam, Greg climbed onto it with a hatchet and a shovel. Toddler turn on your headlights so you need a boost? Greg has a charger and will plug your car in for you. Good fences make good neighbours — and good neighbours make good fences. I know this, because Greg rebuilt our fence when we decided to take down the most offensive of the Manitoba maples.

And then Rachel and I bake cookies and Bundt cakes and take them over, with our undying gratitude.

Every so often, I’m tempted to say, all casual like, “Hey, Greg, do you know anything about taking down garages? Cause the insurance people think ours is a big liability”, and then count down the seconds until he’s on the driveway with crowbar and a Bobcat. But I bite my tongue. One doesn’t want to take advantage. Of a very, very good thing.