Rise early. Sometimes you gotta get to a person's house before they leave for work; if you're lucky, they trusted you enough to give you a key last time. You’ve been there twice already. The first time was officially so they could tell you what needs done, but really so they could size you up. “Is this a guy we want in our home?” You went back a week later — on the weekend, or maybe after supper, ’cause that’s easiest for them — to go over the estimate line-by-line. You had to justify why it costs so damn much to do something so simple.
It’s on that second visit that you size them up. Can you work with the wife? (Always the wife. Stereotypes exist for a reason.) Sometimes, talking to the customer, you just know they’re gonna lose it in the middle of the project and nothing is worth that particular headache. If they’re picky but not real bad you might tack on a fifteen percent PITA charge to cover all the change-orders or “little things” you know are coming. Thing is, nobody ever knows what they really want. “Fix the bathroom doorknob” could mean the toilet's running and the light fixture flickers and the door sometimes sticks. It's a mystery. But you'll do your best. It’s their home, after all. And if it's a little old lady, you might do a little bit more because hell, you're there, and her kids aren't doing it for her.
Quick breakfast while you make phone calls to line up subs and your crew, then load tools for the day. They're in the basement or the garage, locked up because some punks like to steal tools -- they're easy to pawn -- and tool insurance gives shit compared to what they’re worth. Make sure you get everything, especially if the job's across town. Work close to home is best ‘cause of that. If there's more than one job, make sure you cover ’em all. Time is money, and you can't be coming home every time you need a different tool. This is why you spend hours every night figuring out the scheduling. It's a jigsaw puzzle, fitting when this customer is going to be home with when that other customer is available, and if you’re doing wiring it sure is nice to get all those jobs done in the same week because it's easier to leave the electrical toolbox in the van instead of switching it out for plumbing every other day. If some other company’s involved? Make sure you get the timing right. You can't tile if the mud is wet. Two puzzles glancing off each other. You make it work, though. Gotta keep all the balls in the air.
Before you head to the job you need to run to Home Depot, or maybe Lowe's if they've got a better price. Your probably have most of what you need somewhere in the garage or the basement, or that storage place you rent. Hard to keep it all straight. You get your tools at yard sales and from friends who go out of business, and even pawn shops sometimes. Same for materials. Sometimes you find a treasure trove of custom moulding at a dead guy’s garage sale. Like gold, because there's only one lumber yard in town that can get that anymore. Maybe you have a custom jig and can make your own, but it's not usually worth it. The customer doesn't know the difference, anyway. So you stop by the home improvement store for this and that, and hope the customer already called in the order for the special tile they wanted. You'll buy it at contractor pricing and charge them retail, and that mark up right there might be the margin that gets you through the holiday season when folks have visitors and don't want the house all torn up, or strangers tromping through.
At the house you're friendly, respectful. There are specific demands -- don't use this doorway, make sure the cats stay locked in the basement. The worst are the women who don't really want you in the house. Those ones ask you not to use their bathrooms. Like you're dirty. Well, you are — sawdust and plaster dust, drywall mud and paint on you — but what the hell are you supposed to do? The neighbors get twitchy when you pee in the alley. Forget about taking a shit. So you take a break, hoping they don't raise an eyebrow at your slacking, and run to the corner store to use the bathroom. Sometimes you come back with a cup of coffee, but not always.
The work. Oh, you sing if it goes well. The pride of craftsmanship. The best are the unusual jobs, the ones that take a little thinking, some good planning. Hanging curtains and repairing ceiling fans is all well and good, and it pays the bills, but the big ones? The one where you had to tuck a bathroom somewhere on the main floor so the old lady didn't have to climb up and down the stairs all day? That was fun. You like making window boxes. Driving past the house a couple months later, seeing the geraniums all in bloom? That's good. That's making a house into a home. You did that.
At lunch you and the crew take a strange pride in walking into a sandwich shop together, catching the glances from the white-collar types who look sour at you, like they need to wash after you pass. Maybe you step back outside to dust off the fiberglass or plaster or whatever shit is all over. You're never really clean, even after a shower. Your calloused hands snag your worn t-shirt, grate across the canvas of your work pants. The guys inside are laughing, ordering huge meals justified by hard work. You join them. After some storytelling there’s figuring out who does what next: maybe some guys are gonna move on to the next job while you wrap up, or somebody’s making a quick run to the hardware store. There's a camaraderie that comes from physical labor that you don't see in the suits.
You're glad you don't have to wear one of those every day.
Back to work. Hope to get it done by the end of the day. Maybe stay an hour late, just to finish. There's a sweet satisfaction in the completion of a project, no matter how small. If you're good you might finish early and have time for a beer before heading home. That’s if you're charging by the project. Time and materials it doesn't make such a difference.
Clean up really well. Better than you'd do at home. Dust all vacuumed up, everything put back just so, make it look like you were never there. That's the goal. You're meant to be invisible the second you leave. Even if it's a two day job you clean up, no matter that you'll be making a mess again. It's respectful. Takes a little extra time, but when you live by word-of-mouth, your reputation is on the line. Keep ’em happy and you might be able to send the kids to college. One bad customer and you might not work for a year. It's all about salesmanship.
At home you unload the tools and start the phone calls. Think your way through all the jobs you’re managing: mind the customer's vacation; track who wanted you next; shoehorn in that emergency plumbing job that came up today and just has to be done tomorrow. Talk to that other contractor, see if his crew will be working at the house tomorrow — can you overlap? Fit another piece into the jigsaw puzzle. Say hi to the kids and check their homework. Maybe a quick hug for the wife, then sit down and write up bills. If you focus you might have time to sit on your ass and watch an hour of TV before bed. Not that you’ll see any of it. Exhaustion will have your head back on the sofa pillow and you’ll doze your way to the credits.
It's a living. A good one. You might even like it. But you're dirty and tired at the end of the day, boots heavy and hair filled with crap. As you get older you ache a little more. The ladders get a little steeper, the lumber more awkward. Still, a hundred years from now people won't know your name, but they'll love that house. The one with the window boxes full of flowers. The one you made into a home.