Thursday, February 1, 2007

How to Shop for Hardware

I used to be embarrassed when I went into a hardware store, like some people are embarrassed when going into an adult book store. As strange, and perhaps sick, even twisted, as that sounds, it’s true. Let me explain.

Before I started doing lots of work on my house, I’d go into a hardware store looking to buy, say, a valve stem for a faucet. The only problem was, I didn’t know it was called a valve stem. Or a faucet. I figured I could find it hanging on a hook somewhere in the store, if I just searched long enough. I tried to avoid the staff as long as possible, those intimidated apron-wearing know-it-alls of my nightmares, but eventually, they would corner me, say, in the broom, massive rat trap, and tea-towel aisle, and ask if I needed help. Suddenly, I found myself using rudimentary gestures and sound effects to communicate what I was looking for. I’d start with a pantomime of turning a “sink handle thingy” and before I knew it I heard the sound “swwwwwshhhh” issuing forth from my mouth. The ensuing laughter and calling over of coworkers were enough to force me to leave in shame, my face red and my manhood impugned.

So when I discovered Home Depot and Lowes, I was thrilled! Here were these gigantic buildings where no one ever, for any reason, approached me to ask if I needed help, and even if they did, they would be just as ignorant about everything hardware-related as I was! It was like paradise! I could stagger around the store for hours, without fear of harassment, ogling a full range of hardware-type objects, without any chance of anyone making me feel the slightest bit embarrassed for my lack of knowledge.

But, as they say, “necessity breeds contempt” (or “familiarity is the mother of invention”, or some damn thing), and so, as I became more proficient with the recognition and proper naming of hardware-related items (although no more adept at their manipulation and installation), I became more and more frustrated with my formerly-idyllic big box “home center” experience. For I seemed to spend hours at these places, most of which were spent looking for my cart. (And by my cart, I mean the one that was just sitting right there, with drain opener and a sixteen foot length of shoe mold on it, that someone invariably stole! When I finally find the miscreant (often in the “tool corral” eating hardtack with the “toolboys”), I walk boldly up to the thief and say “sir” (or “madam”, or “thou” if it’s hard to tell), “I’ll ask you just once to kindly return to me what is rightly mine, the property you have so unashamedly purloined in the Building Material aisle. If you choose not to comply, I can not answer for what harm might befall you!”)

(I don’t actually say this. It took me quite a while to think it up.* I usually just snatch the cart when the person isn’t looking and run like hell, tossing away their items in random places around the store as I go.)

And so I have retreated to the places of my former embarrassments: Frager’s Hardware on Capitol Hill or the True Value Hardware on 17th, where I’ve learned not to be ashamed of my ignorance. Maybe I don’t know the difference between amps and BTUs, and maybe the mere mention of a “P-trap” makes me giggle, but I bet the hardware store people don’t know the first thing about the Hanseatic League! Not that I do, either, but it sure makes me feel better.

(*With my apologies to Robert Benchley and the Benchley family.)

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