Despite my best efforts and even setting my alarm a few minutes early, I showed up late for the first day with Habitat for Humanity.
It was only about 10 minutes, but still.
Already, there was a roomful of people, sitting in a partly completed house. The work site supervisor, Bill Hanshaw, a big man everybody called “Tiny” (it was even stenciled on his overalls), was going over the day’s work assignments and passing along news when I lumbered through the door awkwardly.
Everyone looked up, while I smiled and said, “Hello.”
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I pulled my car onto North Hills Drive and the neighborhood where Habitat was building homes for people.
Months ago, I signed on to spend a month working with them — building houses and learning about the volunteer experience — but I decided to wait for spring, when the weather, hopefully, would be cool and kind.
Too many outdoor projects had gone awry because Mother Nature refused to cooperate.
I’d been excited about spending time working on houses with Habitat for Humanity, partly because I love getting out and meeting people who are actively working to make their community better, but I also wanted to do this because I’m a homeowner.
I wound up with a little place with a big yard several years back, and I’m always thinking about projects that need to get done.
My lawnmower shed needs a new roof. The laundry room in my house was plumbed for a washing machine but isn’t equipped for a dryer. There’s no vent and nothing to handle the electrical load, so I wash clothes, then take them to the laundromat or hang them out to dry if the weather permits (from around March to November).
I need to replace an inside door.
I thought I could do that one on my own. I even bought a door to hang — got it cheap — but it was slightly too long. The simple thing, I thought, would be to cut about an inch off the bottom and an inch off the top and make the door fit, so I bought a circular saw to do that.
But I wasn’t sure if I could make the saw work, and I worried the first time I turned it on, I’d take off a couple of fingers.
The bargain, wrong-sized door is still parked in the back room. I keep the saw in my seldom-used workshop, still boxed and unopened.
I would love to one day update my kitchen, which looked very modern in about 1982. I’d love to sand and refinish the floors.
A couple of years ago, I did manage to pull up the orange shag carpet — after two separate trips to Kmart to buy tools.
Shortly after I tossed the stinking, filthy lump, I became violently ill and was bedridden for several days — a reaction, I think, to the vintage mold and mildew trapped between the carpet and the floor since before the days of disco.
The experience made me wary of trying to do anything else to the floors.
Spending some time with a construction crew, I thought, would do me good.
If I’m lucky, I might come up with a few basic skills I could apply somewhere in my own home. With a little confidence, one or two minor things might get fixed.
Crazier things have happened. The fruit trees I pruned last fall after I spent a month learning about cutting and pruning seem to be doing very well. At the very least, maybe I’d learn what some of the stuff I saw on the shelves at the hardware store was used for.
But I was late, and things were slightly off. Because of trouble on my end, I had to cancel my original first day on the job. Then some sort of sewer issue and an impending monsoon canceled the makeup day.
With deadlines looming, I began getting anxious about what I’d signed on for. The information for volunteers I’d downloaded seemed a little “bossy.”
“We begin our workday at 8 a.m. Please be prepared to start promptly,” the general information document read.
There would be a break at 10 a.m., it read. We got a half-hour for lunch at noon, a second break at 2 p.m. and then had to stay until 4.
Water would be provided, but we shouldn’t expect anybody to feed us.
No food? I had to pack my own sandwich?
What was this? Almost every volunteer thing I’d ever signed on for elected to throw in at least some kind of token snack. If there wasn’t pizza and soda, there’d always been chips or crackers and bottled water.
Heck, if you donate a pint of blood to the Red Cross, they won’t let you leave the church basement until you agree to take a juice box and a pimento cheese sandwich. Sometimes, the ladies working the recovery table will make you eat a cookie while they watch.
I started to wonder whether this was going to work out, but I went ahead and showed up.
“Are you here to volunteer?” Tiny asked, and I said, “Sure.”
I added I had absolutely no skills, which wasn’t entirely true. When I was 10, I helped my father put a new roof on our house. Mostly, I fetched coffee for him a few times and then stepped on a rusty nail.
He took me to the doctor. I got a tetanus shot. We went home, resumed work on the roof, and I stepped on another nail before nightfall.
We figured the first tetanus shot took care of the second nail, too — and the nail I stepped on the following day.
I’ve assembled (and then had to reassemble) some bookshelves and some unattractive furniture.
My chief skill or talent, I thought, was a willingness to just do whatever dumb thing was asked of me. I could carry boards, dig a hole or go get coffee — and step on nails, if they really wanted me to.
Tiny smiled broadly after I told him that I knew nothing.
He said, “Good. Then we can get you to do what we tell you to do.”
The volunteers welcomed me, then one of the men sitting along the wall told me I was 12 minutes late.
“Careful,” he warned, grinning. “They’re going to dock you for that.”
A couple of others laughed, and suddenly I felt better about “the rules,” which were more like strongly encouraged guidelines for making the day on the job go a lot smoother.
Mary Ann Schacht even brought snacks — a couple of boxes of fresh Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
Snacks were a regular feature of the Tuesday work detail, I was told. I was invited to have a doughnut at the 10 a.m. break.
Meanwhile, there was a lot to do, Tiny said.
The sewer line needed to be dug. An inspector from the city was coming tomorrow to look at it.
The backstairs to the house needed to be built. Doors inside the house had to be painted. There was plumbing work. The water heater needed to be installed. He announced a couple other tasks that seemed to be in an entirely foreign language.
“If you can’t find something to do, come find me,” Tiny told us, and then ambled off to help dig out back.
So far, so good, I thought, and then followed some of the other volunteers out the front door and then down the steep hill, hoping one of them would help me lend a hand.