I’m the Best Hollow Core Door Installer in England, and I’ll Bloody Fight Anyone Who Says I Ain’t
The day I pulled the quarter-inch Makita router from its shiny blue and white box, everything fell into place. A truck delivered it to the construction site shortly after the morning tea break. I found a quiet room at the back of the house we were building, away from everyone else. I examined the router. It was immaculately clean, and the smell of the greased mechanism inside reminded me of an electric train set, fresh out of the box. Its balanced weight fit my hands perfectly and I imagined what it would be like to use this intricately designed and impossibly specialized piece of machinery. I had never used a router before in my life. I didn’t even know how to attach the blades. I took a breath, walked down the unfinished stairs to see my new mentor Andrew, and volunteered myself for my first door installation.
The summer I met Andrew, I was still working at the failing guitar store I had opened with my best friend in my hometown on the English south coast. It was liberating to be self-employed. My store specialized in cheap band equipment to help local kids get started with music. When meeting new people, I would bring up the store casually in conversation. It was like a bohemian currency, a trump card to play whenever I needed to unequivocally prove my coolness. This tiny venture was how I defined myself. It was perfect, and fit me like an old t-shirt. But as a business, it was going down fast.
I had just met the woman I was going to marry, a traveling American who had recently discovered my hometown. She was romanced enough by my poverty and my impossibly noble retail aspirations to trust me with the responsibility of a new life together. I knew I had to land a job—a proper job—that paid well and didn’t destroy my soul in the same way that the dozen or so office jobs I had held since leaving school had done. Anne introduced me to Andrew over the phone.
“I’m not polite,” he told me.
“I expect a lot,” he said.
“Don’t be bloody late. You’re not getting ten pound an hour to get to site late.”
When I hung up the phone, I had to sit down. Ten Pounds an hour? That was almost obscene. The best payday I ever had prior to this had been eight.
The first day on the construction site, I was dripping with sweat from the August heat and eager to make a good impression. I was sitting on a pallet of timber, trying to look like I belonged among the real laborers, contractors and veterans of the trade that had gathered in the muddy field outside the house. When Andrew arrived, he marched up the driveway, straight past me, holding two huge cups of coffee. He had a cigarette and pencil behind his left and right ear respectively. Everyone gathered round. He drank one of the coffees and delegated responsibilities one-by-one, and when everyone was aware of what was required of them that day, he turned his attention to me. He held in his outstretched hand the untouched coffee and a cigarette, and nodded first to his handful of gifts, then to a pile of debris on the floor.
“Get this down you.” Andrew ordered in a voice that was a unique combination of well-spoken Englishman and aggressive dock worker. “Then smoke this. Then pick that lot up. Understand, fat boy?” He sported a huge grin, proud of his own strange mixture of kindness and brashness. I laughed and took both.
“I can do that,” I said. For the rest of the morning, we communicated almost exclusively in asinine insults, and so began the happiest times of my working life.
At the end of my first day, he kept me back to explain to me exactly what I needed to buy. He rattled off a seemingly endless list of tools. He instructed me to purchase one power tool every payday. First, a cordless drill. Then, a cordless pneumatic nailer. That was a grand right there. The list continued for a while, and for every tool he mentioned, he used his own as a benchmark for quality and professional durability. Then, he let me in on a secret. Eventually, when I had collected the standard list of tools to give myself some credibility, I could buy a quarter-inch router. This tool, in the right hands, could cut the perfect hinge recess in a hollow core door, and it made easy work of a complicated installation process. The only person on this site with one of these machines was Andrew. With a quarter-inch router and a sharp chisel, I would be indispensible.
“But…I don’t know if I’ll be any good at this,” I said.
“We’re not building watches, are we?” He replied. “We’re not making a picture frame for the Mona Lisa. We’re throwing up houses for cheap. It’s not about being worth the money. It’s about thinking you’re worth the money. Find what you’re good at. With the right tools and the right attitude, you too could be a highly paid mediocre carpenter.”
As my cache of tools grew, so did my confidence and my admiration for Andrew. Andrew was confident in his own abilities. Many times I would hear him shout from the eaves of a roof in progress “I’m the absolute best there is at cutting roofs, and I’ll bloody fight you if you say I ain’t.” There were no challengers. I was figuring out quite quickly what I needed to do, and who I needed to be. I didn’t need to be the best carpenter in the world. That wasn’t possible. I had never even set foot on a construction site until I was twenty-three. I needed to find my purpose there, so that when that home had been completed, and when every little item finally checked off, I had some kind of direction.
Three months later, I bought the router. The first time I used it was also the first time I installed a door. When I had finished, the door looked beautiful and closed tightly. With the router, I could cut hinge recesses that were impossible to tell from factory cuts, the perfect depth and width. It was incredibly satisfying how simple the router had made the job, and I started getting strangely excited about hollow core door installation. I was looking at thirty pounds per door. It was a matter of perfection and speed, Andrew told me. On my best day, I installed thirteen. Perfectly. I felt unstoppable.
This tool paid for numerous airfares to visit my girlfriend in Youngstown, Ohio, and it paid for my wedding and erased the debts I had accumulated in closing the store. When Andrew and I eventually parted ways, it bought for ad space in the local newspaper to advertise my superior door installation abilities, and for beautiful white signwriting on the side of my shiny new blue van. I graduated to installing expensive designer doors for expensive designer housewives, replacing commercial construction sites with their private seafront houses and apartments.
Four years later, when it came time to move to America so my wife could be closer to her family, I embraced the new start as an opportunity to create a business. I daydreamed often, composing jingles which I imagined to be delightfully and deliberately cheesy, and sung in a chirpy American accent on the local radio station at prime time. I brainstormed slick company names and chose business cards months before we left England. When America discovered what I could do with a quarter inch router, the calls would come pouring in.
The day we left the English seaside for good, I finally sold my router. It was battered and scarred, but still worked as well as the day I pulled it from the box. It sold for a few pounds and was thrown carelessly into the back of a stranger’s cargo van before driven away by its new owner. A friend I had worked with had built an apartment block in New England, and he told me that electrical outlets in America have a different power rating. My router wouldn’t work there. I assumed I would just buy a native replacement after I took a couple of days to get myself accustomed to living in a new country.
It took more than a couple of days to get used to life in this new world. To this day I still do not own a router. On my first trip to Lowes, I discovered that Americans have a much simpler way of installing hollow core doors. Apparently, they have been doing pre-hung replacements for years. It was so much easier to do it their way, so much more cost effective. Who needed a router when you had American inventiveness?
But the router was not just a tool for carving out perfect recesses in finished timber. It defined the niche I had carved out for myself in England, one that could not be replicated in this place. I was immensely proud of my area of specialty, which had given me a confidence I had never had before. For the first time in my life, I had been taken seriously professionally. Now, with my router not only left behind but entirely redundant, I was displaced. I found myself looking for work without it. I landed a dead end part time retail job for the interim, but this quickly evolved into a dead end full time job with benefits. I looked around at my retail surroundings as my thirtieth birthday came and went, and wondered if I would ever rediscover the purpose and pride I had with the router in my hand.
On a whim, I researched programs at Youngstown State University. I couldn’t believe how accessible it was. I applied in January and at 8 a.m. on the first day of the semester, I thought about Andrew the second my Geography professor entered the room.
“Good Morning. I’m Doctor Cerney. Okay? Not Mrs. Cerney. Not Dawna. Doctor Cerney.”
How incredible for her, I thought. How incredible to have achieved a level of competency in your field so high that your actual salutation had to change to accommodate your knowledge. I thought of what Andrew had said about having the right equipment, the right tools, and the right mindset. I could never be a true academic. I had arrived too late for that. But maybe I could find a purpose here too, some kind of path that would define me, and reveal hidden skills in the same way the router had.
Whatever Andrew is doing now, he is doing it better than anyone. And as Dr Cerney ran through the syllabus, I realized I was at the start of something just as significant as that morning I sat drinking Andrew’s coffee and smoking his cigarettes. This university is for people like me, who regardless of what life experience they hold are still looking for that one thing that defines them, or who are seeking to rediscover it. By choosing to surround myself with the right tools, I had created my life, designed and built it from the ground up. And as this chapter of my life unfolds, I am finding opportunities in places I had never expected, with new doors opening to exciting and unexplored ventures. I find I am surrounding myself with tools again: my computer, my brown bag, the most appropriate classes that will prepare me for my major. If I choose the right tools from the beginning, and stay confident, and find a secret niche like I found with my router then—to paraphrase Andrew—I too could be a highly specialized, mediocre history major.