by Mark Jordan
"I'd like some of those black, shiny nails with circles
going around them," I said brightly.
Bob looked at me. I knew his name was Bob from the label on
his green work shirt. His eyes glittered like those of a
starving wolf ready to devour its kill; then he looked back
down at the paper in front of him, pulled a pencil from
behind his ear, and began to write.
I waited a moment, unsure of his gesture, then asked again
in a smaller voice. Bob never looked up but spoke in a
slow, evil tone, "Buddy, find out what it is you want, and
then come back here."
Chagrined, I turned and walked out of the store past three
smirking men in work clothes. I felt their eyes burn my
neck and heard peals of laughter erupt when I left the
store.I cursed the lumberyard quietly and furtively. Then,
with the undying optimism of a man with a cause, I headed
for the hardware store.
The hardware store man was with a fellow who had a tape
measure gadget on his belt. They were deep in
conversation—something about 12-2 Romex—and
made frequent, reverent references to "The Code." I lined
up behind the workman and waited my turn. Two other workmen
came in wearing huge grins, greeting each other and the
hardware man like bosom buddies and getting what they
After about 20 minutes and much coughing and shuffling of
my feet, I finally got the courage to speak. Just as I
began, the workman looked at his watch and said in a voice
louder than mine, "Well, John, I gotta be heading
back—I was supposed to be back 20 minutes ago." They
both laughed, and he turned and brushed by me. His tape
measure jabbed me, then fell to the floor. As he stooped to
get it, his eyes narrowed.
"Watch it, bud,"
he snarled. Shaken, I waited for him to leave before
stepping to the counter. "Do you have any of those black,
shiny nails with the little circles going around them? To
help them stick, I think," I stammered.
He looked at me for a moment as if in deep concentration,
then said in a loud voice, "Those are in the left aisle."
Gratefully, I headed for what I presumed to be the left
Suddenly I realized he had been talking to a clerk in the
front of the store. With one last effort I returned to the
counter. He watched me, then reached for a phone. The next
thing I knew, he was talking to Black & Decker about
the jigsaws that were supposed to be in last Tuesday.
I walked out of the store depressed and ended up in a
grocery store where I found some nails in a plastic bag
that were smooth and big but nevertheless would have to
Those were my early days as a do-it-yourselfer. They were
dark days indeed. Drugstores and grocery stores were very
limited in their choice of hardware. The remodeling project
I had started came to a plaster-falling halt. Despite the
chaos, I rebelled against the construction
industry—never would I return to those malevolent
My holdout ended when a raccoon made its home in our attic.
Nocturnal noises overhead had warned us of our unwanted
tenant, but it wasn't until the masked intruder fell
through the ceiling into a pot of steaming borscht that its
identity was ascertained. My wife screamed, the raccoon
escaped, and I, after masking the hole with a piece of
cardboard, drove straight to the public library. I returned
two hours later with the construction shelf's entire
I read. I memorized. My wife gave me quizzes. I even
outlined chapters. Finally, I was ready. Armed with typed
note cards in my shirt pocket and tiny reminders on my
cuff, I headed back to Bob's lumberyard. Inside, I
immediately spotted Bob. He was leaning over the counter,
the pencil in his ear pointed right at my heart. I turned
and almost walked out, but all that study and the taste of
plaster dust turned me back. With a determined step I
approached the counter. "Yes," said Bob menacingly, but
never looking up.
"I'd like some 3/4-inch A/C, exterior grade fir plywood." I
said it fast, like a child in a Christmas program, remotely
and without comprehension. Bob looked up.
"Yeah? Well, is that it?"
"No, I'd also like some . . ." I panicked. My mind raced
furiously, grasping at every building term I had learned.
In that same instant, my dilating eyes happened to catch
the words on my sleeve, which was rising to cover my
panic-stricken face. Rapidly I read, " . . . quartersawed
oak, surfaced on four sides, 3/4-inch, 16 board
Bob broke into a broad smile. He yanked the pencil from
behind his ear and wrote down my order. He called to the
yard and had them check to see how soon they could get it.
I tried to hide my surprise, but when he added, "If you're
going to be buying in quantity, we can get you a discount,"
my mouth dropped wide open.
As I was leaving, I almost bumped into a workman who'd just
entered. Before I could utter a word of apology, he
exclaimed, "Oh, excuse me, sir. Clumsy of me not to see
you." As I turned to close the door behind me, both he and
Bob were beaming and waving goodbye.
That day revived my remodeling career. No longer did I fear
the Workmen of the World. I had discovered the key, the
passport without which no one may enter this group or any
other: words. Just words. Know their terms, and you'll make
the team. Protected by the time-honored jargon, I snuggled
into that green-work-shirt society. And it got very
One day Jerry, my neighbor, asked me if I had any small,
black nails with little circles going around them. For a
moment, a scowl jerked between my eyebrows. A thousand Bobs
in a thousand cliques from time immemorial scowled
delightedly with me.
But then I remembered.
I smiled and said, "Sure." I got him the nails, and as he
was leaving I told him, "By the way, if you ever try to
pick these up at the lumberyard, ask for drywall
Jerry smiled and said, "Hey, thanks a lot. I'll do that.
You know, you ought to go into the business, selling
hardware and stuff: You'd do real good."
I've thought a lot about that, while pounding nails.