06 October 2009

The Construction Trades

My yard light in the tree.


I have put up several entries here in the past that in one fashion or another are related to building and construction in México. It was not until recently that it occurred to me that this whole subject says something larger about the entire human environment in which I live right now. That is why it is such a fascinating subject for me. I am going to put this text up now and add some photos later.

You will recall my several mentions of Frank and Allyson here. In order to undertake an attempt to explain what I am talking about above, I need to tell you just a bit more about them, particularly Frank at this point. The reason for that is that Frank's profession is construction. He is good at it. He know whereof he speaks.

The unusual thing about Frank and Allyson in the context of Americans living in San Miguel is that they are young. They are in their thirties. The vast majority of Americans living in San Miguel are old retired people like me. Frank and Allyson's youth is so unusual in fact that when they meet other Americans here in San Miguel, they typically face very probing questions about why they are here, what they are doing here, how they are supporting themselves (the implicit assumption there being that they are obviously too young to be living on a pension and social security), and what their plans are. Older Americans are intensely curious about that for some reason. I have seen this happen at a dinner party that I attended with them and on several other occasions. It is well-intentioned. Frank and Allyson are very personable and appealing young people. I am not critical of it. Hell, I was curious, too, upon first meeting them.

Frank and Allyson lived in Kalispell, Montana, before coming here. They gradually became more and more unhappy there. Apparently, there was a closed-mindedness and narrowness of outlook there that they came to feel was stifling. They also thought that is was gradually getting worse and hardening into an ambient bitterness among too many of the citizenry in Kalispell. The apotheosis of this from Frank's point of view was the widespread, utterly irrational hatred of the current President of the United States and the wry jokes about shooting him. Frank is no raging liberal. There is nothing of the hippie or vagabond or gypsy about Frank and Allyson. They simply became very unhappy with the atmosphere and environment in which they were living in Kalispell.

I have some feel for what they faced. I came very close to getting stalled in rural Texas. There were so many aspects of life there that I found profoundly attractive, much to my surprise and delight. However, it soon became apparent to me that there was an atmosphere there, too, identical to that with which Frank and Allyson were dealing in Kalispell. A general, stubborn knot-headedness. That is exactly what moved me on.

Allyson came to visit her father and my friend, Steve, here for a time. Steve is my age. That visit ripped it. She went back and conferred with Frank. They set about renting out their house, ending their employment there, throwing the dog in their little camper, and coming to México, too. Frank shipped his tools. He came to México with Allyson never having laid eyes on the place. I have a great deal of admiration for their courage and sheer gumption in doing something about their unhappiness rather than hanging around up there in Kalispell and lapsing into chronic bitterness and constant complaint themselves.

Frank's idea was that he would periodically go back up to Arizona or someplace like that, work construction hard for four months or so out of the year, earn a little wad of money that goes a long way in México, and spend the rest of his time here. Kinda like a lot of Mexicans themselves do but with the advantage of an American passport and valid social security number.

Right now Frank is getting more and more work here, however. There is a common desperateness on the part of many Americans here to hire another American to repair or renovate parts of their homes in order to correct some little thing, or sometimes not so little thing, that has been fucked up by Mexicans. That is the blunt truth of the matter.

Now let me pause here. I am fully aware that I am going to sound disparaging of Mexican contractors and construction workers and home repairmen here at times. I simply do not know how to talk with you about this and at the same time be tactful. So I am not going to worry about it. It goes without saying that there are many highly skilled Mexican artisans and tradesmen in the construction trades here. That is so obvious. I do not know where in the United States, for example, one could find someone capable of constructing some of these beautifully crafted, vaulted brick ceilings that I so admire. I mean, I can stand there for several minutes just staring and wondering how it was done. Or hand carve an ornate door out of oak, for another example. In fact I have great admiration for the unskilled laborers in the Mexican construction industry. They are capable of awe inspiring feats of long, hard, brutal physical labor with nary a complaint that I am aware of. There are no eight-hour days here for those guys. They are just getting warmed up after eight hours on the job. What the hell else can I say about that?

I think a good part of what goes on is this. An American engaging someone for a little construction job or home repair job here runs a high risk of hiring the wrong Mexican for that job. (Mexicans hiring Mexicans would have ways of knowing better.) Mexicans have the entirely admirable trait of thinking they can do anything. They have no fear. Let us say that you need some plumbing repair done. You may end up hiring a Mexican who is excellent, the equal in skill to anyone anywhere, in masonry for example. The problem is that he has never done any plumbing work before in his life. But he will take on that plumbing job anyway.

I love chatting with Frank about this kind of thing. I love walking around town with him and just looking at some of the amazingly quirky construction features that you can easily find everywhere by just looking a bit closely. Quite often one's reaction is to wonder about the thought process that went into approaching a particular little facet of construction like that. Sometimes it is obvious that the construction person was missing some suitable material or supply, and he simply made do with some other unsuitable material or supply. By the way, Frank's stories about going south to the Home Depot in Querétaro for supplies alone are hilarious.

This is the kind of thing Frank is doing right now. A wealthy American lady recently hired him to fix the windows in her house. Part of what Frank had to do was dismount all the metal window frames and grind and scape off the water-based paint on them. Then he repainted them with the proper paint. This kind of thing is way below Frank's skill level, but it is work and it pays. The lady insisted on paying him at a rate equal to the rate for that work in the United States. More in fact. She was desperate to get the windows repaired by someone in whom she had some faith. This desperation was born of more than one nightmarish experience she had had previously with Mexican workers.

Now, Frank, Allyson, and Steve are in a little of the same soup themselves. After their house-sitting for a rich American that lasted a few weeks, they have rented a house up the street here. When they rented it, they did so on condition that the kitchen sink plumbing be repaired. There was no hot water there. In fact, there was no water at all coming out of the hot water tap at the kitchen sink. The landlord initially suggested that they simply carry hot water from one of the other taps to the kitchen sink whenever they needed it there, but they found that arrangement unacceptable for some reason.

True to his word the landlord hired a guy to repair the kitchen sink plumbing. He is working on it right now as Steve, Frank, and Allyson complete their move in. The kitchen sink and counter are fabricated out of concrete surfaced with tile. That plumber—I mean, I assume he is a plumber—chiseled out a very large chunk of the back of the counter in order to get at the plumbing inside. I am not kidding you. I am not exaggerating. The poor guy had to do this. There was no other way to get to that little piece of plumbing. Moreover, there are no shut-offs inside the house. He had to shut off the water supply to the entire house outside in order to work on the kitchen sink.

Plumbing repair nearing completion.

It turns out that when the concrete sink and counter were installed, the little pipe feeding the hot water tap was crushed and mutilated. The construction people apparently ignored that damage—it is impossible that they did not notice it--because the water probably still ran at the time after a fashion. They simply drove on and finished covering the damaged plumbing with the concrete.

I told you at the outset that this whole subject says something larger about the entire human environment in which I live right now. And it does. But that is more than enough for today. I will get to the larger thing later.



1 comment:

mister anchovy said...

It takes a certain admirable determination to take the trouble to cement over shoddy work. What were they thinking? Let's collect the money and get out of town before they find out? Or perhaps it was faith that if they cemented over the problem well enough, the problem would simply heal?

I've moved by the way, and can now be found here.