Grumpy Old Man: American standards

When service providers mention this in their ads, it brings business. But it hasn’t always brought the best results.

Dont' reuse 370 (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Dont' reuse 370
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
America. Land of the free. Home of the brave. And last bastion of the true professional. I mean, look at the ads we see in English-language publications and the flyers we find stuffed in our mailboxes: electricians, plumbers, painters, carpenters, decorators, window makers, appliance repairmen, piano tuners, tailors, optometrists, electrologists, reflexologists and even mohels, all American-trained, American-licensed, American-certified and boasting American workmanship, American service, American quality and American standards.
Well – and with all due respect to the many fine and expert craftspeople and professionals who happen to have been born and trained right here – we’ve all seen what Israeli standards can mean: exposed wires, dented faucets, off-center drains, crooked windows, sloping floors, disappearing corridors, and paint smeared all over those little half-tiles at the bottom of the wall. So this advertising, which brings to mind neat, clean and quality work – and someone who speaks our language – brings business. It’s brought mine.
The first time was back in the mid-1980s with a “US-certified” renovations expert. I wanted him to break part-way through a wall and install a solid wood bar, something similar to the butcher’s block countertops so popular during that period in the Old Country.
He said he understood. As things would be getting messy and I was scheduled for a stint of reserve duty, he suggested the work be done while I was away. So I left a key with a neighbor and went off to the army.
When I returned, I found a bar of plain wood installed in a very broken-through wall.
“I thought it would look better this way,” explained our US-certified renovations expert. And then he told me that for the additional wall work, there would be an additional charge. His decidedly un-American chutzpah should have sounded an alarm.
Another time was in the early ’90s with a painter who had “American experience.” I requested a cost estimate and met a personable young man who sounded not only like a craftsman, but like one who aimed to present a finished product he could sign – a Rembrandt with a wide brush.
The first thing I discovered after the drop cloths were down was that Rembrandt was more painting contractor than painter. The second was that there was not an American among his crew (although there was probably an unemployed Russian rocket scientist or two). The third was that he had at least one other crew to keep an eye on. That’s why his under-supervised men failed to paint the exterior side of my window bars or behind my radiators while painting over my electrical outlets, light switches and even lighting fixtures.
Then there was the aluminum window maker. He came on time to give me an estimate, took his measurements quickly and down to the hundredth of a millimeter, and brought the finished product exactly when he said he would. Except that he also brought a native assistant who (1) broke my kitchen wall tiles while knocking out the old window, (2) bent the new frame trying to make it fit an improperly prepared opening, (3) smeared sealant around the frame like a three-year-old applying lipstick, and (4) glued the broken wall tiles back together like the same three-year-old at arts and crafts camp.
“Don’t worry,” my American-licensed window maker told me, “it’ll look much better once you get some new tiles and repaint the wall.”
Not long afterward – you’d think I would have caught on by now – came the plumber I called when one of our radiators sprang a leak. He advertised himself as a “licensed British plumber” in the monthly newsletter of one of the Anglo immigrant associations.
(Yes, Brits like to boast about their quality, too.) While making small talk, however, I discovered that he had been in the country for about eight years and been plumbing for only two. He was a “licensed British plumber,” it turns out, because he was a licensed plumber who was born in Britain.
Fair enough. Then I watched him turn his wrench clockwise while trying to loosen a standard-thread bolt. “Where did you get this license?” I inquired.
“From the Labor Ministry,” he replied, “after I finished my plumbing course.”
He began to disconnect the radiator without first closing the water supply.
“A Labor Ministry plumbing course? You mean where they retrain the unemployed?” I asked, jumping back to avoid the spray.
They give out licenses? Well, not licenses, came the sheepish reply. “It’s really just a certificate.” Which means, of course, that he had gotten it all wrong – he was a certified British plumber.
Later, an Israeli came to finish the job. He took one look at the damage and said our licensed/certified British plumber should either go back to Britain or take another retraining course. He was giving the profession that bad a name.
MY WIFE and I once had a ritual of sorts every time we heard an Israeli assure us that, despite barriers, failures and an otherwise doubtful outlook, everything would be all right: We’d glance at each other, nod our heads and say in unison, “Smoch alai” (trust me). In our house, that term had become an adjective for someone who was locally born and supremely self-confident. “A real smoch alai kinda guy,” we’d say.
But things have changed, and I think we’ve finally learned our lesson. When we need work done around the house, we don’t waste time looking for ads boasting American (or British or Anglo) anything. I mean, we’ll probably get the same results, for better or for worse, regardless of whom we call, even if it’s a smoch alai-type. And if we can save some money in the bargain, it can go toward other things – such as the valium we’ll be taking no matter who does the job.