All homes need mending. Over time, mortar and concrete crack, metal warps, wood lignin dissolves and crumbles away. Pipes split. Paint and stains fade, peel and crack. If you’re not careful, it can all fall apart. Having worked on houses as a kid, and as an artist in adulthood, I’ve cultivated an appreciation for materials, the thought behind them, the labor it takes to make it do your will.
It’s one of the hottest days last summer, for instance, and I’m sanding, then painting and restoring the front patio and facade of a house for Kara and Wilder, the thoughtful and generous lesbian couple who hired me. There’s this lovely moment when we’re standing on their front stoop, and I notice Kara’s wearing these sparkly silver, curled, pointy-toe house slippers, a nearly transcendent moment for me, as I’m almost delirious and dissociative from the heat. It’s in the high upper nineties, my son Tristan’s with me for the day, and we’re sizzling in the direct sun. “Daddy,” he says, wringing out hanks of his back-length blonde hair, watching sweat drip-drip from the tips to darken the concrete below, “Why do you do this kind of work? It’s like torture.”
Summer’s the hardest. If you’re a person working with your body, it’s when things get busy repairing houses in upper-income North Side neighborhoods full of tech security people, wealthy families and others. And there are lots and lots of them. So, there’s plenty of work to be had. Lincoln Square, Ravenswood, Albany Park, Irving and Old Irving Park areas, anything biking distance. I’m not certified, so I’m up front about the limits of my skill sets and do not risk burning the house down, though sometimes that’s almost bait for people wanting to get more out of you for less money. Either way, you trudge through it. Outdoor work in winter, you can wear the gear, but there’s no way to take anything off outside in the heat. My iPhone today displays a heat alert emergency shutdown, goes black. There’s a trade-off that comes with the tangible and intangible things you decide are the basis of what you’ll trade for a living. What you give up. For me, it’s getting to choose your hours. I trade my selective labor for time. Time to write, make oil paintings, compose dance choreographies, articulate philosophical tracts, make time for myself and my life work, my lebenswelt, and that feeling of freedom and dignity is worth the trouble: clients, the too-cold and hot days, the accidents, injuries and toll on my body.
There’s also usually an amity and familiarity to this way of making a living for me; it almost has a sense of a beat to it. Birds singing, riding my Hill Topper everywhere, a rickety, abandoned bike I’ve restored and nicknamed Old Red, we travel around and get to meet hundreds of people in our neighborhood. Look into their eyes and get to know them. There’s this trust agreement that comes with working as a handyman who walks into people’s homes, welcomed in among their children and partners, into their kitchens and bedrooms, into situations where you get an intimate look into their lives. The overly picky, self-absorbed couples, the overworked people losing their minds and freaking out. People with dementia who change their pants in front of you, slowly and unaware. People screaming at each other. I go home those days, sailing atop Old Red as cars pass, their tires hosing me down with near-frozen slush in winter, wanting it all to be over.
Then, there’s Aline, the portrait photographer, and her husband who’ve become friends of mine; like my friend Catherine in the EPA; Amy the comix collector; the folks at Baker Miller; Patty, the single mother renovating her basement; Steve, the socialist archivist who shows me his original Black Panther recruitment posters, enthuses to me about Joffre Stewart, and has me split a sofa with a circular saw.
I realize, to some degree, it’s a choice, that it’s not just, as one client wryly put it, “nominative determinism,” that as a guy with a Northwestern degree, bylines in world-class newspapers and magazines, I could find something else to do. That I have it so much better than a lot of people, especially of color, who never get to ask, “Why suffer working manual labor?” But that’s not it.
I remember sitting in a Lakeview diner in my early twenties, maybe around 1997, with my friend Mark, now a philosopher of neuroscience and pragmatism, and we’re discussing suicide. I was struggling, as I long have, with the idea of sticking around in such a corrupt, horrible world where so often the bad guys ostensibly get to run the show, where greed and power and self-interest dictate so much of society. “I’d never want to do it,” he explains, smiling as he reaches out and picks up the clear glass salt shaker, running his pointer finger over its aluminum topper. “Not that I don’t understand despair or hopelessness, I feel it too. But because then I wouldn’t be able to move this from here—” he says, placing it in the middle of the table. “—to here,” and slides it across to the table’s edge. I grin in recognition and nod, slowly.
It’s an act of profound and powerful philosophic inquiry to strive after an understanding of the nature of things, the world, ourselves in it. Rather than embrace any one profession and the tradeoffs in limited ways of thinking and imagining they require, for me, that has meant finding a way to clear a space for them. So much is done out of fear, necessity and comfort, there’s hardly any time for thinking. When my plan works the way it should, there’s a very direct sense of an honest trade, of figuring things out together with the people who I live among everyday. It’s not perfect. But often, people are willing to enter into a trust with you on working to make the sink stop backing up, or caulking a tub with the right sealant. Basic, quotidian facts become more important than ideal outcomes or personal ambitions, facts which you agree upon ahead of time, and the striving is then toward a discourse of cooperation. Sometimes it isn’t, and you have to own and remediate your fuck-ups. Or the person you’re working for has to (and they don’t always, of course).
But there’s very little confusion about the thing, what it is you’re doing, working by the hour, or the project, and of what the objective outcome will be. The sink stops leaking, the tile gets more grout, you tuckpoint and paint whole rooms, patch the concrete—it’s an endless list, because everything ages, even and especially in the sunlight of summer, the icy pale of winter, and the rainy seasons between. And as I sail atop Old Red through some of the most diverse neighborhoods in the nation and in the world, I look around and know that so much here is what I have made with my own hands, that I have not only contributed to the health and restoration of so many homes and businesses, but to myself. In that moment, I’m surprised to realize, too, that my work has restored my faith in community in a way I never thought possible—that perhaps we can help make each other better too. (Michael Workman)
A few names were changed to protect people’s privacy.