The Racist In My House
How a handyman revealed his true colors, and how I (mis?)handled the situation.
“You know why he did such a bad job cutting this plywood?” the new handyman asks me, looking down at the sheet he’s just brought back from Home Depot.
I don’t know what he’s getting at.
“Because he was black,” the handyman says. “A black guy at Home Depot cut this. And really…what can we expect?”
I stand speechless, looking at this man in my home, a man I’d first met just an hour earlier.
When he arrived at 9:45 a.m. to repair several cracked treads on my staircase, I had no idea he was racist.
Like everyone I meet, I gave him an initial “A”, then let his actions determine his final grade.
But let me be crystal clear: Even if he begged, I couldn’t give an “F” about this guy if I tried.
“Hi. Nice to meet you. C’mon In.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Avishek*,” I say, extending my hand. “Did I pronounce that right?”
“Just call me Avi,” he says, smiling, stepping into my foyer.
He is, perhaps, 60 years old. White hair. Tall and lithe. He wears a white t-shirt and jeans.
“I’m so glad John gave me your number,” I say, referring to a contractor with whom we’ve both worked. “Let me show you the stairs,” I say, pointing the way.
As expected, Avi agrees that several treads need immediate attention, confirming 3 earlier assessments and estimates. “It won’t take me long,” he says. “I can do it today.”
He names his price.
We negotiate for a bit.
Then, when we agree on a number, we shake hands.
And as we do, I catch a strong whiff of alcohol on his breath.
It is not yet 10:00 a.m.
Avi then drives to Home Depot for plywood.
Since I work from home, I leave my front door open for him. This way, he can walk right in and get to work. I’m on a deadline, and I need my stairs fixed asap.
Clearly, we both have our work cut out for us.
Avi returns from the ‘po and sets up his sawhorse on the deck just outside my kitchen door. I’m working from my dining room table today so I can keep my eye on things.
As Avi begins cutting pieces of plywood using his measuring tools and a power saw, I dive into my work.
Then, thirty minutes later, he calls to me.
“Christine? Let me show you something.”
I stop what I’m doing and stand with him at the base of my stairs.
A Racist Revealed
“What’s up?” I ask.
Five of my sixteen steps are already repaired, so at first, I assume he wants me to see the work he’s completed. But he’s just staring at a rectangular piece of wood, laid across the bottom step.
He’s kneeling on the floor with his feet tucked under his butt and a tape measure extended across the width of the plank.
“Look at this!” he says, shaking his head.
“What?” I ask.
“I asked them to cut this thirty three and a half wide,” Avi says, “…but look!”
I squint, trying to see exactly what he’s talking about.
(And now there is no question — I smell a lot of booze.)
“Ummm,” I say, perplexed, looking at the plank. I really don’t know what he’s getting at.
“He cut it thirty three and a quarter!” Avi shrieks.
“Oh,” I say. “Okay…”
Looking up, he says, “You know why he did such a bad job cutting this plywood?”
“Why?” I ask, confused.
“Because he was black. A black guy at Home Depot cut this. And really,” he says, smiling and looking into my eyes, “what can we expect?”
In this moment, I have four options:
A) Tell him his comment is racist and demand he leave my home immediately.
B) Say nothing and never use his services again.
C) Let everyone know he’s a racist asshole.
D) Blog about the experience (which includes Option C).
Believe me, I want Option A.
I want to kick him (and all his tools) to the curb.
The truth, however, is that I am too scared, because I’m alone in my own house with a practical stranger who may — or may not — be legally intoxicated.
Believe me, I’d throw him out in a heartbeat and not think twice about it, because I’ve looked many racists in the eye and openly called them out. I’ve also written about racism and white privilege here and here and here.
But in this moment, it feels like I’m chickening out, and I hate it.
I am ashamed.
I’m in the safety of my own home, and yet I don’t have the guts to call this man out. Instead, I fold my arms across my chest, walk back to my dining room table and begin thinking about how this draft will look.
During the next few hours, Avi knocks over his sawhorse several times and bumps into walls/doors/corners as he moves through my home completing the work.
“I’m Russian, you know,” he calls to me at one point, chuckling. “Is my accent obvious?”
As much as I’d like to, I cannot ignore his direct question.
“I wasn’t sure if you were Polish or Russian,” I say, typing emphatically so as to disengage from him immediately.
At one point, around lunchtime, I reheat some leftover Indian food in my microwave. Passing through my kitchen, Avi says to me, “What’s that smell? Oh wow. You like that? Well, it’s a good thing I brought a sandwich with me. Home Depot’s a long way from here to get something to eat.”
I can’t even bring myself to look at him.
It takes Avi six hours to finish the job and leave a sloppy mess in his wake.
He’s tracked sawdust throughout my first floor and left carpenters’ glue oozing on my steps. His dirty handprints are on my walls and his empty water bottle is on my floor. And as I discover later, he also leaves behind a tool.
Once he finished, I couldn’t wait for him to leave. I paid him and walked him to the door. I didn’t want to rock the boat with someone whose temperament I did not know.
If I could do it over, though, I’d have paid him, walked him to his van, and spoken my mind with all of my neighbors as witnesses.
I’d have said, “Avi, I will not hire you again because of the racist way you spoke about black people. It’s not acceptable.” And then, I would have gone inside and cleaned up his mess, knowing I’d been brave and given him an opportunity to make a new start.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the experience, though, and I realize there’s still an opportunity to make a difference.
Since Avi left one of his tools behind, I will call him to say I’ve left it on my front porch for him, along with this note:
Maybe, just maybe, his final grade will rise. It’s really up to him.
- Avi was not the handyman’s real name. For the purposes of this post, I chose the Russian name Avishek for its meaning: “Inauguration of a new start.”
Question: Have you ever encountered racist comments? From whom? How did they make you feel? What, if anything, did you do?