The Shelves

When Julie and I first moved into our apartment in the Upper West Side we started thinking of ways to make it our own.

Our first addition was an area rug for our main room. This was important to differentiate it from the same hardwood floors that are in the kitchen, thus creating the illusion that our kitchen and main room are actually separate areas, a distinction that’s easily lost in a 450 square foot apartment. But this trick worked. I’ll cook eggs standing on hardwood floors, walk 5 feet away and eat them with my feet resting on the rug, hardly remembering that faraway place where I labored over the stove.

When we moved in, we brought end tables from North Carolina that were comically oversized. I think they might have grown during transit in the back of our u-haul. Maybe someone broke in at a rest stop and swapped them for an identical set, but 10% larger. Whatever happened, we replaced them with a more modern set, scaled down to better fit our new shrunken space. Over time we hung paintings and photos.

Most recently we set out to hang some shelves. This idea was a long time coming. We’d talked for months about the shelves and Julie finally ordered some off Etsy.

I don’t consider myself especially handy. Nothing like my dad. To call him handy would be an insult. Dave Brown is an engineer, not just by trade but by nature. It’s inside of him. He has a knack for building systems, be they conceptual or physical. In my youth I watched him build our pool house from the ground up. The foundation, electrical wiring, plumbing, tiling the floor. He did it all himself. I’ve seen him build decks, roofs, fences, tables. He even built “my” pine box derby car when I was in boy scouts. I won first place.

My dad tried to pass down his knowledge to the next generation. I remember growing up, being forced to spend the occasional Saturday or Sunday laboring over one of my parent’s construction projects. In a blatant display of sexism, I was expected to assist my dad far more often than my two sisters. Sometimes they would be called in, but they were the reserves. My mom’s role was more managerial. She decided what projects were slated for which weekends and had to sign off on the finished product.

I can’t deny that these experiences taught me valuable skills I still call upon today. For instance, these involuntary construction shifts are when I first learned to adopt a “run the clock out” mentality. If I knew my parents expected me to be at the job site all day it was irrelevant to me how much work actually got done. I could bust my ass, or do the absolute minimum to keep from getting yelled at. Either way my entire Saturday was shot. So I would drag my feet to an extraordinary degree. Partly to spite my parents, but mostly because it was easier that way.

At the end of the work day my dad would usually say something like

“Thanks for your help today, bud.”

I hated that. I would say “you’re welcome” or “no problem” but he wasn’t welcome and there was a problem. I wanted my Saturday back. These wasted Saturdays and Sundays instilled in me a permanent distaste for construction work.

As much as I loathed helping my parents with this stuff, I begrudgingly absorbed some real knowledge. I can tell a flathead from a phillips head screwdriver. I’m aware of studs and I know how to find them. So I wasn’t completely intimidated by the idea of hanging shelves in our apartment. It seemed like a simple project that would require little more than an afternoon and a drill. Conveniently, we have a drill. Well, Julie has a drill. She asked for it as a christmas gift from my parents. I have no interest in home improvement projects, but I think I deserve credit for bringing someone into the family who does.

The whole process began easily enough. We measured and marked on the wall where we wanted the brackets to go. Then we began drilling holes for drywall anchors. That’s when it all fell apart. For some reason, we couldn’t drill quite deep enough into the wall. The first inch was easy but then we were running up against something. I guessed it was brick based on the reddish dust that was produced as I tried to bore into it. And just like that I was in over my head, totally stumped.

We decided to call a handyman. I didn’t feel the least bit defeated or emasculated by this. It wasn’t a lack of strength or will keeping the shelves from being hung. This was a matter of knowledge and experience. We needed a professional, someone who knew what we were dealing with here. These old New York buildings are foreign to me. Ours was constructed in 1930. Who knows what building materials they were using back then? Wood? Clay? Sand? Tree sap? If spoken confidently, I could believe any of these answers.

A couple days later, per our appointment, the handyman showed up. He was a tall man with very dark skin. His english was good but he spoke with an african accent. We explained the situation to him and he seemed to shrug off all the details of our story. He just wanted to know one thing. Where did we want these shelves hung?

I was so curious. How would he solve the issue? What if he couldn’t? Would he be forced to explain to us apologetically that this wall simply can’t be drilled into and refund our payment? “I don’t know what this wall is made of but I’ve never seen anything like it”, I imagined him saying as he threw his hands up in the air.

The answer was no.

He placed his drill into the shallow hole I had managed to produce days prior, he squeezed the trigger and gave it a push. It went in as far as we needed, maybe further.

“Wow” Julie said, “your drill must be a lot more powerful than ours”.

“What kind of drill do you have?” the handyman asked.

Julie showed it to him.

“Oh no! This is strong drill!” he exclaimed, “Stronger than mine. Must be weak boyfriend.”

He didn’t actually say that last part, but he didn’t have to. It was implied.

Julie offered him our drill to finish the job and he took her up on it, but he had to pair it with his own drill bit. He explained that his was a masonry bit which can handle brick. And so his secret was revealed. I was right, it was a matter of expertise after all. He had the right tool for the job. Strong drill. Strong boyfriend. Weak drill bit.

We watched as he proceeded to hang all four shelves in about 20 minutes. It’s funny how familiar that moment felt, standing back as this man easily threw shelves up onto our wall. It was just like helping my dad. I stood there watching, not spellbound or impressed. I just wanted the task to be done so I could get on with my life and get back to my Saturday.

Our beautiful shelves

Our beautiful shelves