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House Calls 

Tim and the Art of Washing-Machine Maintenance

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He'd be eaten alive. If the Maytag repairman finally got some business--actually went out on house calls, say, in Chicago--he'd be eaten alive.

Tim is a real Chicago washer/dryer repairman who spends every day making house calls. After a year on the job, Tim hasn't been entirely consumed. Yet. He's more gnawed around the edges. If Tim met the Maytag repairman after work one day for a few beers, the Maytag repairman might complain about being lonely, or about the hot lights and pancake makeup and repetitive scripts. Tim might answer with a story like this:

"This one time, I went to this old lady's house on the northwest side. I'm knockin' on the door, knockin' and knockin', and this dog is yapping and she finally answers the door.

"'Hello, I'm here to fix your dryer,' I say.

"And she's like, 'Oh, come in. Oh, the dog likes you! You can have him.'

"'Uh, no, that's OK.'

";No, take him home with you! He's yours. You can have him.'

"'Uh, no, I have a cat.'

"'Oh, he likes cats! You can have him. You can have him. You can have him.'

"'Uh, I'm here to fix your dryer?'

"'Oh. Oh yeah. That's right. That's right. OK, OK. I know that. OK.'

"Then we're walkin' past this bedroom and this old guy's layin' on the bed like he's . . . paralyzed. We go downstairs to the dryer. There's a washing machine too, a different brand than the company I work for. She points at the washer. 'Do you fix these things?' And I'm like, 'Uh, no, I don't think so. That's a different brand.' And she says, 'I had a man out here looking at this machine? And he wanted $400 to fix it!'" Still imitating the old woman, Tim's voice suddenly explodes. "'I said no way! Get outta here! Get the hell outta here! Get the--shit! Shit! Shit!' And she starts hitting the machine.

"I'm like, OK. I start looking at the dryer, and she walks away and comes back and says"--Tim's voice sinks to duplicate the old woman's now unnaturally quiet, polite tone--"'You fix that real good now, OK? OK. OK. Thank you. OK'"--and then explodes again. "'Shit! Shit! I don't have a happy life. I don't have a happy life. Thank you very much. OK. You go ahead and fix that. OK.'"

Tim shakes his head. "Well, I'm fighting the shakes, and I'm handling it pretty good I think, under the circumstances. So I fix the machine, and finally I'm done and I go upstairs.

"'OK, that'll be $42,' I say.

"'OK, OK. You want some soda? I'll get you some soda.'

"'No thanks, I just need the check.'

"'Are you sure? Are you sure? I'll get you some soda.'

"So she gets some soda. 'Siddown, siddown Tim,' she says. She saw the name on my shirt. It was really weird. She was saying, 'My husband has Parkinson's disease and it's just--ha! I can't deal with him, y'know?' And she's writing the check, and her handwriting is crooked, kind of going up the check. She's writing real slow and she's got this ashtray just jammed with cigarettes.

"And she's talking to me. 'You're very nice, you're very patient. Thank you. Thank you for coming.' She finishes writing out the check, and she's like, 'Is this OK? OK. OK! Thank you! I'm Joanne. My name is Joanne.'" (Which, of course, it isn't--I've changed it here.) 'I'm glad to meet you, Tim.' I'm like, 'It's nice to meet you too, Joanne. I've gotta get goin' now, OK?' She says, 'OK, you have a nice day. Thank you for coming.' I flew outta there.

"I'm about six blocks away when I realize I didn't reconnect some wires in the dryer. I go back and I'm like"--he visibly steels himself all over again--'Joanne! I forgot something! I'll take care of it real quick!' I fly down there, I reconnect it, and Joanne meets me down there, right, and she's like, "'Oh, thank you, thank you,' and she hugs me. And I'm like, 'OK, Joanne, see ya around!' And I get upstairs and this old guy's walking around in his underwear, and then I was like out the door. I get to the shop and I'm like, whenever she calls, get somebody else to do it. I am not going back to that house. Again. Ever."

Tim is quitting.

Joanne is just one of the more colorful reasons. For dealing with the public at this level, $7.50 an hour doesn't cut it. A SWAT team salary, maybe. But before he turns in his repairman's tools and standard-issue dirty white van, Tim thought I should accompany him on a typical day of house calls. We'd have to change his name, he said, and drop the name of his company, though what're they going to do--fire him? Still. Tim's first plan called for me to pose as his apprentice, but at the last minute he switched to a backup plan: I would impersonate a corporate supervisor doing a random check of servicemen. Tim is an actor, not yet fortunate enough to wave good-bye to day jobs, so he coached me on my supervisor character.

"You should be very professional," he counseled. "You're from the corporation, and this is your annual inspection. You're just observing me, so you shouldn't be interacting with the customers."

My first role sounded easy enough. I figured I'd carry a notebook and pretend to jot down observations of Tim while I took notes on the customers. The costume I kept simple--a pair of black pants and a conservative blazer. I hadn't had time to research the sartorial customs of late-20th-century repairman supervisors, but instinct told me a full-fledged suit would be overkill. Tim and I set out from his place at 8 AM. On the way out he grabbed a day's supply of Jolly Rancher packs from one of those big grocery store candy cartons, situated strategically next to his front door.

"You're going to experience the essence of the serviceman. He lives in squalor," said Tim, opening the van door to reveal a floor so densely littered with crumpled fast-food bags and containers that in a future geologic age it may form a new type of peat moss. "He eats on the road," he added, scooping the refuse into a garbage bag. Dunkin' Donuts, Burger King, old banana peels, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell. A variety of crumpled papers and old receipts were stuck to the bottom of the Taco Bell bag, affixed with leaked Taco Bell grease.

Tim riffled through his pink work-order slips and assessed the coming day. Six calls, ranging from West Lakeview to Aurora. "OK, so I'll do my first call, and then from there, the traditional Dunkin' Donuts stop for hot chocolate and doughnuts," he ticked off, then read the first work order. "Hmmm. 'Vibrating on any load, walks.' So chances are it's gonna be on an uneven floor, so it walks." You mean it does that thing where it moves around by itself like it's possessed? I asked. "Yeah! I'll just level the machine."

He pulled out a pocket-size street guide and studied it as he drove. "You know, the other day we had an audition," said Tim. "I did one of my monologues from my last play, and I also did this piece that I said was from a play called 'Servicing,' and I just told them the story of one of my experiences and they were blown away by it. So that's kind of cool. I'd like to sit down in my time off and actually write a play about my experiences."

We pulled up on a nondescript side street lined with bungalows. Tim gathered his tools and I tried getting into character. I'm a supervisor, I'm a supervisor, I'm a supervisor, I told myself, realizing that actors probably have a significantly better method.

Tim stood on the front porch holding his tool bag and rang the bell. A 70-ish man answered the door. Wearing surgical gloves. I thought about what someone might need surgical gloves for around the house: cutting up the bodies of missing repairmen and their fake supervisors and dissolving the evidence with gallons of acid in a big cast-iron washtub?

Tim eyed the gloves and launched into his introduction. "Hi, I'm here to fix the washer. This lady is a supervisor from the corporation, and she's doing a random check on servicemen so she'll be observing me today. But if you have any objection, she can wait in the van."

"No, no, that's fine," our customer assured us. "My wife's just back from the hospital, so if you wouldn't mind going around the back. But my gate's locked, so you'll have to go through the neighbor's yard and jump the fence." Sure. We hurried down the narrow sidewalk between the two houses, toward the neighbor's yard. "I don't think it'll look appropriate for a supervisor to be hopping a fence," I hissed to Tim. "I'll go out the neighbor's back gate, then come back in this guy's yard." Tim jumped the fence.

As Tim had predicted, the floor was not level. If NASA finagled a $3 billion leveling project and parceled it out to research universities across the country, they couldn't invent a washing machine that would stand level on that floor. The rest of the basement was in similar shape. Clotheslines ran randomly across the ceiling, each one holding two or three torn, yellowing T-shirts. A big pile of glass bricks sat near a workbench. The rest of the basement receded into a cobwebbed mist of junk.

Tim knelt next to the machine and examined the countless wooden wedges haphazardly shoved under the machine. "Do you want me to put something in the wash?" the old man asked. It turned out to be a typical question. The customers were always anxiously wondering if they should run the machine for Tim, as if he might not be able to figure out how it worked otherwise. Tim demurred and set about testing different wedge combinations. I concentrated on looking like a professional supervisor, scrawling notes. Eventually the old man excused himself to check on things upstairs, and Tim looked up from the wedges. "The last time I was here, he let me in the front door and his wife was walking around with her drawers down," he said confidentially. "She's got Alzheimer's."

Evidently Tim is NASA material, because he found a winning wedge combination and explained the whole level problem when the old man returned. "Now, you should also understand that this is a heavy-duty machine, so you should use a good amount of clothes or the centrifugal force will bunch them all up on one side of the machine and then it'll make a lot of noise and stop working," he instructed. The old man nodded constantly. "Uh-hunh. Heavy-duty machine. Un-hunh, centrifugal force. A-hah! I checked once, and the clothes were all on one side! Is that in the instruction booklet?" Tim said he didn't know, but the old man persisted. "Is that in the instruction booklet? That really ought to be in the instructions," he repeated.

I nodded thoughtfully and stayed dutifully in my observer mode, letting Tim handle the customer. The old man finally looked directly at me. "I'm mentioning that for you," he said, and I snapped to attention. "If it isn't in there, it should be." "Oh right, right, good point," I stuttered, pretending to jot down this important tip for the corporate offices. I could see him thinking: "Darn kids. Some supervisor."

I thought I'd better act more helpful, so as we left I volunteered, "You might have to throw in some sheets or towels that aren't dirty sometimes to make a bigger load." Tim squinted at me disapprovingly, then turned back to the customer. "Now don't hesitate to call if you have any more problems," he smiled.

Back in the van, he picked apart my performance. "You shouldn't be remembered," he insisted. "You're just observing. OK. Dunkin', Dunk-in' Do-nuts!" he yelped. Tim does not hold a grudge.

The traditional Dunkin' Donuts stop includes a Boston Kreme, a jelly, or a chocolate frosted. Tim started that day with a jelly and I asked how he deals with eating in the van, which seems to be a big part of the job. "Drink in the crotch, always," he said, demonstrating with his hot chocolate and steering with one hand. "I used to have another van where the floor came up higher and I was able to put my foot on that and steer with my knees," he reminisced.

We were headed for a call on the west side, and between hot chocolate sips and jelly doughnut bites Tim examined the work slip. "This is gonna suck," he pronounced. "This is gonna be a roach motel in there." What's the complaint? I asked. "Fills only. What happens is, it doesn't agitate. You've got these cockroaches, they'll go into the timer and lay their eggs on the terminals, so that the terminals don't work. Then the machine fills up with water and it won't do anything. I say they need a new timer, and that really pisses 'em off."

Tim's frequent visits to Cabrini-Green have gotten him used to cockroach-related mechanical problems. "Oddly enough, you go in there and you have your gangbangers hanging around and they don't even look at you funny," he mused. "They'll say, 'Hey, how ya doin.' They're friendly, it seems like. But they always ask me if I'm there to fix the elevators, and I'm like, 'No, washing machines.' The first time I went in there, I was petrified. I was petrified. But after that . . . I mean, I still get a little . . . you know. I'm much more aware when I go in those places than when I'm going to the Gold Coast. But oddly enough, it's always the Gold Coast people who are always looking at ya, being real suspicious.

"It's interesting observing how people respond to me, my presence," Tim went on. "I don't really take offense to whatever people say or think. All they see is a repairman, you know? They don't see Tim the actor, or the boyfriend, or the floor hockey player. They just see Tim," tugging on his front pocket where his name is stitched in red, "the Repairman. And that's OK. I can deal with that. That guy just now, he was pleasant, he was nice. Lots of people, though, you're invading their home. There's a real sense of that sometimes."

We pulled up at the second call, about 3400 west. The neighborhood is marginal--some trashed vacant lots, a couple of buildings with no windows and bed sheets used as drapes fluttering outside. But most buildings are vaguely maintained if not well kept. Our customer lived in a relatively good-looking brick three-flat. She was a 30-ish woman in a white sweatsuit. As soon as Tim finished his spiel about how I could stay in the van, she asked if she could leave after letting us in. "I've gotta pick somebody up," she explained. "How long are you going to be?" said Tim doubtfully. "Just like five minutes," she pleaded. "Well, OK," Tim acquiesced politely, but the idea of an absentee customer clearly disturbed him.

The basement looked like someplace Iraqis would have tortured Kuwaitis. Everything was crumbling, as if the whole room were constructed of radioactive elements whose half-life was up. There were only hints of how bad the floor was, where it peeked out beneath piles of what I took to be painter's rags until the customer swept past us. "Sorry about all the dirty laundry," she said.

She was already at the machine. "Sometimes it just keeps goin' and goin', sometimes it works, and sometimes it don't do nothin'," she explained, then pointed out that the sink the washing machine fed into was clogged and sometimes overflowed. According to Tim's work slip, the machine was two years old. It looked 20.

Tim swiftly removed the machine's front panel, turned some dials, and scrutinized the machine filling up. He hooked up a small box to the machine--his "function junction," a device that overrides the machine's timer to test its various cycles. He opened the lid to observe, fished out some green paper, and flicked it away. Everything checked out. He was pleasantly surprised at the scarcity of cockroaches. "It's fine," he declared. "They're just overloading it."

No sign of our customer. I surveyed the basement. An art deco dresser in the corner that must have been gorgeous at one time, now warped, splintered, and missing drawers. A lot of wood scraps, an old refrigerator, some garbage cans and odd shoes, an old steering wheel. Tim was bored. He looked at his watch and fished a pack of Jolly Ranchers out of his pocket. "This is getting annoying," he said, handing me a piece. We unwrapped our pieces simultaneously--I got grape, he got green. "Oh man, you got my color. I got booger green," he mock whined, half shoving it up his nose. This type of Jerry Lewis shtick is much funnier in a stranger's basement than in a Jerry Lewis movie. Then he ate the green piece and took another. "Aw-right," he whistled happily. "Watermelon!" Tim is the least jaded person I have ever met.

When our customer returned a half hour later, Tim told her that the machine had been overloaded, tacking on a complicated explanation about a certain pump and how it gets thrown out when the machine is overloaded and how he'd tightened it. The customer interjected with things like, "I told 'em not to put in so many jeans," shaking her head. We waited in the kitchen while she wrote Tim a check. She'd been joined by a friend, another 30-ish woman with a small child who appeared stunned to see white people in the apartment. "Please do call us if you have any more problems," Tim waved on the way out.

Back in the van, I asked for a recap on the pump problem. "I thought you said it was just overloading," I said. "I was bullshitting," Tim acknowledged. "Just to make sure she doesn't overload the machine anymore. I don't do that very often, but it's obvious she doesn't take any care with this machine. She said the sink overflows, did you hear that? That's why the bottom of the machine is all rusted out. That machine's not gonna last very long like that.

"See, this is the thing. People don't like you to tell them, 'Your machine is fine, gimme $52.' You know? But I've gotta charge 'em for the call. So you've gotta tell them something like, 'OK, I did this, I did this, don't overload your machine.' Then they're like, 'OK.' Now if there was something wrong, I'd be glad to fix it. Don't get me wrong. I don't dick people around. I had to charge her $52 regardless, so I just tell people what they need to hear."

A good repairman is a good psychiatrist then, I said. "Yes. It took me a while to learn that," Tim agreed. "By the way, you'll find Division is a great street to go west on. You'll always catch the lights. North Avenue is a nightmare."

We cut all the way across the city to Forest Park. Some stately River Forest homes on the way reminded Tim of a call in Lake Forest. "When you walked in, there was a stairway that went right up to the third floor," he marveled. "So I go in and look at the machine, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with the machine. Brand-new machine. That's the thing: Rich people are very anal-retentive about the littlest noises, you know? Whereas people on the west side are like, let the fucking basement flood. It's weird."

The Forest Park customer was a landlord putting the last touches on a house renovation, a man in his mid 30s. The basement was immaculate; even the floor was newly painted. The washer and dryer sat on blocks. Tim began tinkering, and though I tried watching him, the landlord wanted to talk.

"So, you're from the corporation," he nodded.

"Yes, yes, that's right," I grinned, jotting fake notes.

"That corporation name sounds familar."

"Well, they also make missiles and nuclear power stuff," I offered.

"Really!" he exclaimed, staring at the washing machine as if it might lift off the floor in a roar of orange flames.

"You'd be surprised how much missile technology went into your washing machine," I said, thinking: Oh boy. He's on to me. We watched Tim in silence for a while.

"So, how's he been so far?" he asked finally, gesturing at Tim.

"He's been very nice to everyone so far," I answered lamely. This, I thought, was it. He'll kick me out now for sure. But instead he asked for my help in identifying an odd metal tool. He said he couldn't decide whether to keep it. It was blue, obviously ancient but in mint condition, featuring three metal cylinders. The best I could come up with was that it looked vaguely like an antique washing-machine wringer. Tim took a look after he'd fixed the machine. He twisted a few pieces and transformed it into a long rolling platform, apparently for moving heavy objects. The landlord thanked us.

"I just bought another machine from your company," he told us as we left. "Now I'm 100 percent your company."

"That's what we like to hear," I said, feeling like Jack Webb.

"Call us if you have any more problems," said Tim.

Back in the van he griped. "You gotta do the role. You've gotta believe in yourself. It's your job, y'know. You should be a little less friendly. You know, you started watching this guy when he was showing you that weird metal thing, where you shoulda been watching me." I countered that it would have been rude to ignore the customer. "But it's important that he doesn't call back and say, 'Yeah, and that lady from the corporation was such a sweet person.' You should be forgotten about. You shouldn't be remembered."

OK, OK, OK, I agreed. We were moving farther and farther west now, into Elmhurst to fix the transmission on a minister's washing machine. Tim glanced at the machine, then went back to the truck for the transmission, which he had repaired at the shop. He reappeared at the top of the basement stairs lugging the transmission, which was essentially the entire machine without the thin outer hull. I watched him inch backward down the stairs hugging the transmission, which was slightly bigger than he was. It seemed certain to me that he would kill himself if I did not intervene.

"Uh, you need any help?" I whispered.

"No," Tim grunted. As soon as he got to the basement floor, he put down the machine and hissed: "You're an observer. You only watch. Do not give yourself away. This is my job."

I went back to my notebook, and Tim reinstalled the machine's guts. The minister, a middle-aged professor type, came downstairs and started working at his desk. It looked like a ruse, an excuse to observe us. I scribbled furiously, Tim bolted and screwed and hammered, and the minister shuffled papers, all in silence. Tim turned on the machine, watched it fill up, stuck his hand in to test the temperature, and suddenly spotted a small smudge on the machine top. He rubbed his wet hand on the smudge and wiped it off with his shirtsleeve.

"OK, we're in business," Tim announced, gathering his tools. "Would you like a check for $75?" the minister politely asked. "That would be wonderful, sir," said Tim. "Now you call us if you have any more problems."

I knew I was going to get it in the van. "OK, see, I'm an actor, and you're playing a role opposite me right now, OK?" Tim started. I know, and I'm doing a lousy job so it's making your part harder, I sighed. "No! Y'know just now, while I was fixing that machine, I really felt like I was being observed by a professional observer." I did better? "Oh yeah. My point is: I'm getting into believing you're a supervisor. I was feeling as if you were watching me and you were going to make an evaluation of me, as an employee. When I cleaned the top there with my elbow? I was saying to myself, 'Uh-oh. I shouldn't be leaving any marks like that on the machine.' And then all of a sudden I realized I was being observed by you, which made me kind of laugh to myself." Phew. A good review, finally.

We headed toward Geneva, on the lookout for a suitable lunch spot. "It really isn't a bad job, it really isn't," Tim said as we drove. "But I can't do it anymore. I've seen Bill and Jerry, and they're old, bitter men, and I don't wanna be like that."

Bill and Jerry, not their real names, are Tim's bosses. Tim was presumably using the word "old" in a comparative sense, since Bill is in his 50s and Jerry is about 40.

"So many days I'll be driving and I'll just wanna pull over and appreciate the trees, look at the sky, and sit on the grass," Tim continued. "But I can't do it. Gotta get to my next job. But what would be worse is if I would be driving by these beautiful trees" (he waved out the window) "and beautiful sky, and not even notice it or know that I'm missing it. That would bother me. That's what I think happened to Bill and Jerry. But see, they've got overhead. They got houses, families. They gotta do what they gotta do. Here we'll be crossing the Fox River," he said. "Very pretty."

Tim was still nursing his hot chocolate, which by now was simply "chocolate." "It is phen-omenal!" he exulted. But what, I wondered, could be so wonderful about cold Dunkin' Donuts hot chocolate? "It's got a nice, creamy, rich blend," Tim answered immediately. He said he's noticed something else too in his travels: "I'll go into a McDonald's, get fries, a Coke, a hamburger. And start eating it and driving. And before I can finish that meal, I'll pass another McDonald's."

We tried a modest-looking restaurant. Tim took one look at the daily special board, which listed a $7.99 shrimp platter, and said, "No, I want you to get the real repairman experience." We went to Sally's Sub Hut instead.

Over subs and potato chips, I asked Tim to tell me the story he'd used at the audition. He nodded, took a few bites, then leaned forward and scrunched his shoulders.

"It was to a woman, Nellie Smith was her name, in Cabrini-Green." (Again, the name has been changed.) "There's this old guy in a wheelchair in the hallway, and I say, 'Is this where Nellie Smith lives?' And he's like, 'Yeah, yeah, come in, come in.' It's really dark. It's painted this really dark, drab green. In the middle of the floor is this girl, 16 or 17, who's severely mentally retarded. She's just kind of drooling and making weird noises to herself.

"And then Nellie Smith comes in, and she really thanks me because sometimes they have trouble getting things fixed. She shows me the machine. Meantime this guy in the wheelchair comes back up to me and points at this Siamese cat with crossed eyes." Tim switched into an old-man voice. "See this cat over here? You know what happened to it?' I say no. "Well, when her mama was pregnant, OK? She got bit in the head by a pit bull and all the babies came out cross-eyed.'

"So anyway, I'm working on the machine, and I realize the problem is the timer. I open up the top panel and hundreds of cockroaches scatter. Hundreds. Gigantic. So I explain the problem with the cockroaches in the timer, and I'll be back in a couple days with a new timer. I go back the next day with the new timer, knock on the door, and this four-year-old little boy lets me in. The retarded girl is just kinda runnin' around the apartment, screaming and yelling and going into hysterics. And there's somebody else sleeping on the floor.

"I go up to the washing machine, and the kid follows me. I take my screwdriver and I'm just smacking the timer and cockroaches are pouring out. I keep on smacking and smacking it, just trying to get 'em all out. It's under warranty so I have to take it back to the shop and mail it back to the manufacturer. Meanwhile this kid is standing next to me the whole time, watching these dozens and dozens of cockroaches just scatter, and he doesn't even flinch. Doesn't bat an eye. And I'm sitting there sweatin', freakin', jittery. I replace the timer quick and I'm walking out of Cabrini-Green holding this timer with like two fingers.

"I get to the van and put the timer on the sidewalk. I go in the van and get a plastic bag and put it inside the bag, and seal it up with electrical tape and make sure it's airtight. I don't want any of those in my truck. Then I shake the bag, and there's like another 20 of them in there at least."

I didn't finish the sub.

Tim turned back into the Frank Rich of repairmen after a stop in Geneva, ripping into me for breaking character and speaking to the customer.

"You're not to be remembered," he lectured. "It's not a popularity contest. Your job is observation. You're not there to sell anything. You're not in public relations."

I disagreed. Every employee is part of the PR of any company, and thus I'm one of the foot soldiers of his company's PR department, I claimed. "I'm responsible for creating a good impression of the company, and I take that responsibility very seriously," I said.

"You don't have to sell a washer or dryer," Tim argued. "It's already been sold. OK, it doesn't mean you should be a bitch, but you're there on a job. You need to watch how I deal with the customers. And I'm doing an exemplary job if I do say so myself."

Last stop was a very 60s suburban apartment house. An old woman answered the door, and Tim went into his speech: "Hi, I'm here to fix the washer. This lady is a supervisor from the corporation, and she's doing a random check on servicemen so she'll be observing me today. But if you have any objection, she can wait in the van."

"That's between you two," she snapped, already halfway to the building's utility room. "It filled up, but then it wouldn't do nothin'," she told Tim. Tim pulled out the handy function junction, tested the machine, and determined that the problem lay in the timer. Since it was a pay machine, though, he needed the landlord's key to open it up and fix it, which he explained. "Oh, you have to have the key?" The old woman repeated it several times, apparently not wanting to believe it. She tried repeating the problem. "It filled up, but then it wouldn't do nothin'."

"Well, in any case, we'd have to come back with a new timer," Tim said patiently, "so I'll just bring a timer with me when I come back, and you have the manager get the key." He pulled out his work slip and asked the woman to sign. "I don't know if I can sign it without my glasses," she apologized. "That's OK, penmanship doesn't count," Tim smiled.

We got onto the impossibly crowded eastbound 290, a 3-D illustration of the city's declining job base. "Well, we didn't see anything shocking today," Tim reflected. "It was a pretty nice day. You must be thinking, 'Being a repairman is a pleasant job.' I've seen some pretty nasty stuff, though. The west side, y'know? The projects are nice compared to some of the atrocious things I've seen on the west side. Oh God. This one time I went to this one house, West Warren Boulevard. I walk in and everybody's sittin' around drunk and hung over. It's 10 o'clock in the morning.

"So they take me downstairs where the washing machine is, right? There's extension cords hanging down the stairs to the basement, and the washing machine's hooked up to one. The sink that the machine's drain hose goes into is clogged; the water's been sitting there for weeks. It's disgusting. I've gotta put the hose into the floor sewage system. There was rat shit, cockroaches. So I'm down there fixing the machine and I hear this rustling in a back room. I go in there and there's a little cot, and a little baby. That's where they kept the baby.

"It made me feel like, how do people live like this? Like, whose fault is it? I felt bad about being white, y'know? Like I've had so many privileges. But I'm like, is this our fault, or is it their fault? What's going on here? What is our government doing? Y'know, what're we doing? What is the purpose of education if people are living like this? Why is poverty being perpetuated? How can some people live in houses with three-story staircases, humongoid houses, and then some people live like fuckin' rats? I don't know . . . I've gotten to be . . . a lot of socialist thoughts going on in my head.

"A lot of times I feel like I've gotten a raw deal, and then a lot of times I feel like I'm so blessed. And that's something I've learned through this job. When I was training with Jerry, we went to this one house, a lady lets us in and says the machine isn't running properly. Jerry takes off the front and I reach in to grab a spring, and my hand slips, smacks into the bottom of the tub. Untreated metal. My hand starts gushing, just gushing. The lady comes in and sees it and says, 'Oh, oh, let me get you something for that.' And Jerry's like, 'Tim, don't panic. Look at my thumb. The same thing happened to me, on this exact machine. There must be a curse on this machine or something.' Jerry checks everything out while this lady gets me a napkin, and a towel, and everything. Her two kids come in and start talking to me. They're showing me their ninja turtle toys or whatever.

"Jerry went back to replace her motor and told me what happened. He says, 'I knocked on the door and the kids recognized me and let me in. I walked in and I saw the lady, and she didn't, uh, have a wig on. And she runs upstairs, and I just started on the machine. She came back with her wig on.' The deal is, she's in intensive chemotherapy. One hospital gives her six months to live, 5 percent chance she'll survive. Another hospital gives her zero chance. And she's telling all this to Jerry while he's fixing the machine.

"And she goes, 'But you know, the fact that I'm going to die doesn't bother me. What hurts me is that in six months my kids aren't gonna have a mother.' And Jerry comes back and tells me all this, and I almost start crying. This woman was fixing my thumb while I was like bleeding to death. And I didn't know this woman, but I knew her. I met her. I was in her home. I met her kids. I fixed her washing machine. Whatever."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.

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