CONSISTENCY

Jimmy was our teenaged neighbor when we were freshly married and living in northern New Jersey.  Unlike the typical high school students in our high-achieving town, Jimmy was not fixated on attending an Ivy League college and in obtaining the BMW that was certain to follow.  Rather, he was interested in auto maintenance and handyman tasks.  This desire was useful, since his parents’ collection of aged hatchbacks required the former, and our semi-renovated Victorian house required the latter.

When Jimmy was not peering under the hood of a car whose color was unknown to nature, he was in our house destroying old plaster walls and discovering new sources of seepage.  He worked deliberately but charged so little that it never occurred to me to complain.  Jimmy was a quiet perfectionist.

Jimmy’s parents were devout church-goers but his Dad truly sought salvation in the performance of his favorite football team.  His mother found excitement and happiness in her garden.   Besides odd jobs, surprisingly, Jimmy’s passionate interest was in fundamentalist Catholic theology.  To that end, for a couple of years after graduating from high school, he sported hair and a beard like Jesus’s.   He saved his earnings from repair jobs and a part-time position at an auto body shop to visit sites in Europe where minor miracles (as opposed to the big splashy ones, like the parting of the Red Sea) had taken place.

Jimmy’s eyes misted over when he described a shack in Poland or Romania where thorns had reportedly turned to flowers or water had turned to wine, or some similar cause for skepticism on my part.  Each place was named for an obscure saint with a previously unheard of name.  Jimmy’s absolute sincerity precluded overt ridicule; one had to respect his fervor.

When my office required construction of a wall, we called Jimmy.  When our basement needed painting, we called Jimmy.  Even though he finally entered Rutgers on what was to become a leisurely, seven year journey, Jimmy remained available to complete an assortment of household projects.

The primary personal characteristic of Jimmy, who, around age twenty-seven, became known as “Jim,” was a sense of indecisive acceptance.  “Yeah, well, you know.…” he would say regarding almost anything.  Faced with disagreement, he would say:  “Yeah, sure, I guess.”  Responding to a question, he would answer, “Well, maybe, I suppose.”  Despite his extreme passivity, we sensed there to be acute intelligence somewhere deep inside.  Jim was unfailingly patient and kind; he designed and built a soaring tree house for our children with leftover wood, and then refused payment for the work.

After he graduated from Rutgers, Jim found work as a mechanic for a trucking firm and moved to an apartment closer to work.   One day, I saw him arrive to visit his parents and I rushed to greet him before he went inside.

“How’s the job?” I asked.

“Well, you know,” he replied.

“Is it interesting?”

He shrugged his shoulders.

“You should consider design school or architecture,” I stated, with conviction.  “That tree house is amazing.  You have a special talent.”

“Yeah, I guess.  Never really thought about it,” he replied.

“Great to see you,” I said.

Jim took a moment to reply.  He seemed to be pondering what I had said earlier.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, trailing off, more distracted than usual.  Then he brightened, and his voice caught with emotion:  “I’m going to Bulgaria next week to see where Saint (Unpronounceable) prevented a flood by reversing a river.”

“That’s great, Jim,” I said, trying hard to sound sincere.

“Can you imagine what it would be like to be a saint?” he asked.

I shook my head.  “I definitely cannot.”

I was gratified, several months later, when Jim’s mother told me he was starting architecture school.  I thought I might have made an impact.  Shortly thereafter, we moved to a different town and lost touch with Jim and his family, except for annual holiday cards.

Several years later, we were having a vacation house constructed in Costa Rica.  Our builder was confident that he could obtain all the necessary permits with the plans he drew up himself, but he was surprised to find out he needed a sealed and certified architect’s plan for the complicated roof line.

“It’s urgent,” he said.  “I’m so sorry for this short notice.  I’m afraid that if I do not have an official plan to present when the inspector comes out next week, he will not be in the region again for months.  The whole project will be held up.  Do you know any architects?”

We did not know any architects, we thought, at first, then remembered Jim.  Sure enough, his parents told us that, at age thirty-five, he had recently become a fully licensed architect.  He worked at a small firm in south Jersey and, they were sure he would be delighted to supplement his meager income with a moonlighting assignment.

“After all,” said his dad, “a roof system for a whole house is more exciting than the baseboards and mantel pieces they have him working on now.”

“Do you have an e-mail address for him?” I asked.

“He hasn’t gotten around to that, yet,” said his mother.  “But here is his phone number.”

Like his dad, I thought Jim would be excited to create drawings for a vacation home overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  I was surprised it required several messages before he called back.

“Hi, yeah, I heard about the house,” he said.  “I guess I could draw up something.”

“Jim, the floor plan is already done,” I explained.  “We need a roof system drawn up, but we only have a few days.  Can you do it?  You can be creative, like with the tree house.”

“Okay, I guess…. I suppose,” he said.

Jim agreed to come up and meet with us the next day.  We spread out the floor plan on the dining room table and provided photographs of the mountainside lot and its views of the Pacific Ocean.  We waited in vain for some reaction as Jim stared impassively.  He started to speak and stopped several times:  “…this room, uhhhh… hmmmmm, yeah, okay, hmmmmm….”

“Is everything okay?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied, after a long pause.  “I guess, ummm, this will work out.”

After another hour of similar hemming and hawing, Jim said he would produce a plan in a day or two.  He asked if he could charge $50 an hour and said he could finish in just six or seven hours.

“Jim,” I said.  “This would have cost us a minimum fee of $5,000 with an architectural firm.  I won’t pay you less than $1,000, no matter what.”

“Whatever,” he shrugged.

I could not resist asking Jim a question before he left:  “Do you enjoy being an architect?”

“I suppose,” he said.

“Do you remember when I suggested you consider it?”

He looked perplexed.

“Hunh?” he replied.

I dropped the subject.   Jim justified our faith by producing a series of precise and interesting drawings and calculations in just two days.  We e-mailed them to our builder who pronounced them excellent.  Our architectural crisis was averted.   Jim needed weeks of prodding but he finally forwarded an invoice, his #001, for $1,000.

We forwarded early photographs of the construction to Jim since we thought he would find them exciting or, at least, interesting.  We did not hear from him.  When the roof finally went on and his job #001 was actualized, we mailed him color photographs and a note thanking him for his help.  Again, we did not hear from him.  Afraid that we did not have the right mailing address, we called Jim.

“Did you receive the pictures?”

“Oh, yeah, I got them.  Thanks,” he said.

“The house looks stunning, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, I guess.  It looks pretty good, I suppose.”

We hung up feeling vaguely unfulfilled.  Perhaps, we wanted to pierce his wall of seeming indifference.  Perhaps, we wanted to hear an architect enthuse about our house.  Perhaps, we wanted Jim to express just one iota of wonder at his own, earthly accomplishment.

Upon reflection, we had to conclude that Jim’s outlook and behavior is not ours to change.  It is hard enough to influence immediate family members; how could we presume to influence what excites a mere friendly acquaintance?  Finally, who knows?   If consistency is a sacred virtue, Jim might well be a saint someday.

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