Archives for category: incompetence




The world appeared it might be coming to an end last Friday when forecasts predicted a 6-8 inch snowfall for Durham, NC. I’d always heard about pre-storm panics and stores selling out of essentials, but I’d never personally experienced it until I went to the local hardware store that morning in need of a paint sample. The parking lot resembled Normandy Beach on D-Day. A line snaked out the door with people clutching numbers like life preservers. Though some customers planned to purchase sleds and saucers to enjoy the storm, most hoped to obtain portions of the store’s fast-dwindling supply of salt, sand and shovels. Not anxious to spend ninety minutes at the store, I retreated, paintless, to my new home, a townhouse half a mile away.

After lunch, I went to the public library to pick up a book. A sign on the door indicated the library had closed at noon “due to inclement weather.” Even the direst of forecasts did not call for precipitation before the evening!




We moved from New Jersey to Chapel Hill in 2009. Having heard tales of an ice storm in 1999 that had shut off electricity for ten days we were putty in our realtor’s hands when she showed us a house with an optional generator for $7,000 and a large basement. “That’s a small price to pay for peace of mind,” she said. “And you can host the whole neighborhood in your basement when their lights go out.”

As an introvert, the latter possibility sounded awful, but the idea of having electricity during the famed Carolina ice storms made sense. We bought the house and the generator and smugly signed up for its $350 yearly service and maintenance contract. We settled in and waited for the opportunity to be “the smartest people in the neighborhood.” There was no ice during our first winter, or the second.

The years went by. No ice. We began to hope for an ice storm or even a tree to take down a power line, anything to help us realize value from our generator. Increasingly, we doubted there’d ever really been an ice storm that rendered local life as primitive as the Stone Age, or more appropriately, I suppose, the Ice Age.  After seven years, we moved to a new home in Durham just one month ago. It has neither a basement nor a generator. “I’m not making that mistake again,” I declared.




The forecast downplayed the risk of ice damage because unusual cold foretold a dry, puffy sort of snow. Instead, the predicted sleet/snow line moved thirty miles farther north than expected, and we woke on Saturday to little snow but two inches of accumulated sleet. The temperature then plunged to the teens and the region shut down like a congressional committee on ethics reform. Nothing moved, not cars nor people nor trucks. And that includes snow removal trucks because North Carolina communities hardly have any, and what they have is focused solely on major highways.

Today is the sixth day after the storm! To the amazement of anyone who’s ever lived as far north as New Jersey, schools and libraries are STILL closed even though temperatures have been above forty for three days. The local news refers to “stubborn areas of ice that are under trees and pose a grave danger.” The icy mix is now a muddy mess. Our electricity has stayed on, however, a fact for which I’m mostly grateful. To the extent I’m a writer, however, I’d sort of hoped for a dose of delicious irony.




An amiable fellow named Seth is painting our front door today. Nothing notable about that except that he’s here for the fourth time. In my humble opinion, his tendency to run his brushstrokes in various directions prevents the job from being acceptable. He feels otherwise, of course.

The first time, he blamed the fiberglass composition of the door.   He said the grain was uneven. The second time, he blamed excessive humidity. The third time, it was the quality of the paint. “This stuff’s too good,” he said, of the quart we’d provided. “I’m not used to it.” Today, he’s come armed with his “usual” brand. I sure hope the result is satisfactory.

Seth is not unique in our experience. Five years ago, the previous painter of this same door chose to spray it without taking it off its hinges. He diligently taped around the hardware and placed drop cloths on the floors. But he didn’t take into account the gap between the door and the door jam. Like mist from a water cannon, flying paint speckled the interior foyer wall. He spent significantly longer re-painting that wall than he would have spent simply removing the door from its hinges.

Repairpersons, certified and self-styled, have similarly flailed in missions around our home. Our refrigerator icemaker no longer works because we refuse to pay hundreds of dollars for a THIRD time to have it repaired. And when the dryer made excessive clunking noises and we obtained a visit from the only official, Bosch-certified technician in the local area, he sat on the floor in front of the disassembled machine and read the manual to figure out how to put it together again. After four hours, punctuated by wholesome oaths, such as: “Good golly,” “I’ll be darned,” and “Well, how ‘bout that?” he finished. To our surprise and relief, the dryer still worked. The clunk, however, remained. We live with it to this day.


As one singularly unable to do repairs more complex than changing a light bulb, my critiques are rightly subject to skepticism. In New Jersey, however, our repairman, George, a former soccer player from Poland, was completely competent. He pondered projects before he started. He thought through what parts and tools he would need. He strategized. In matters of drainage or deck supports, he devised solutions. George was one of my favorite people; I believe we created a need for some projects just to have an opportunity to call George and take comfort in watching him work.

Besides George, we also used a free-lance landscaper named Omar. I mowed the lawn and planted flowers myself, but the annual leaf removal from our tree-covered acre, as well as mulching and wall-building projects, were Omar’s province. A Mexican immigrant himself, Omar assembled a crew of workers from the Central American diaspora for each project. If we needed workers of no particular skill for mulch spreading, he brought youngsters. If a decorative wall with indigenous stones was to be built, he brought true artisans who conceived of and executed stone works of art without mortar. Our wall was so impressive Omar ended up completing walls throughout the neighborhood.


What to make of our recent spate of poor repair jobs? My original theory was that North Carolina is deficient compared to northeastern states.   I settled on that idea last year, when a “plumber” from a prominent local plumbing firm arrived to fix a leaky outdoor faucet and, instead, destroyed it. When the next plumber chosen from the phone book arrived to correct the job, he explained that he came from Massachusetts, where his training included a minimum of two years as a union apprentice. In North Carolina, he explained, our original “plumber” might have obtained his license from a six-week certification class.

There’s more to it than mere geography, however. My brother in New Jersey just told me on the telephone that he is waiting for the “technician” from the cable company. When he or she arrives (it’s already an hour past the end of the service arrival “window,”) he or she will be the third company representative to attempt the replacement of a ten-year-old DVR box. The job is not one I could personally complete, but it doesn’t seem like it should be difficult for a person employed as a cable television technician.

It’s not just an American problem. In Costa Rica, when the air conditioner in our condo required service, a neighbor recommended a repairman named “Three-times Victor.”

“How did he get that name?” I asked.

“He always has to come out at least three times to get it right,” explained our neighbor.

“Why would I want a repairman like that?” I asked.

“Well, at least he shows up,” said my neighbor.

Is modern society, with some exceptions, adrift in a sea of incompetence?


Seth finished a couple hours ago. The door is drying and the major blotches and missed spots are now evenly covered, more or less. I believe the job will finally be considered satisfactory. Honestly, we weren’t expecting work worthy of the Sistine Chapel. But four visits for a door? Now, we have a dilemma with humanitarian, economic and aesthetic ramifications. When we hired Seth to paint the door, we’d told him the entire exterior of our house would need to be painted this fall. He just e-mailed his estimate. Price-wise, it’s reasonable. And, as he notes at the bottom: “I didn’t make any money on the door. So, I hope to have the chance to do the whole house.”

What should we do?