I called my local hardware store early that chilly morning. I enjoy shopping in person at this particular store. But before heading out on this gray, damp day, I wanted to be sure what I was looking for was still in stock. I needed a portable heater. It was May, and the damp cold weather had continued for days. I was freezing, dressed in heavy sweats, and swathed in my winter quilt at night. The heat had been turned off in the high-rise building where I live. We’re a development built in the early seventies meaning we have a two-pipe heating and air conditioning system, not four, which, also, means it’s either heat or air conditioning. Once the heat is turned off and the air conditioning turned on, or vice-versa, we’re stuck. It would take days of draining pipes to reverse.
It was seven in the morning when I called. I knew the store would be open. It caters to painters and building contractors who come early to load their trucks with supplies. A man answered the phone with a firm assured voice. He sounded like his name would be something like Rob White.
“Yes, we have a few heaters left,” he said
“How much,” I asked
Between 40 and 80,” he replied
“I’ll be right there.”
Once I arrived, I asked at the Help Desk for the number of the aisle where I could find the heaters.
“Aisle sixteen on the left.”
I headed that direction and looked for a Rob White, someone I’m used to relying upon to guide me through my hardware shopping. These guys wear red vests (and they are usually guys, the women generally assigned to housewares or the paint selection areas) and give the same attention to those looking for a certain size screw or a special type of light bulb, as they do to shoppers interested in one of the big outdoor grills that line the sidewalk in front of the store entrance. They are all business, sure of their knowledge. I wonder how they learned so much. Were they once former builders, fixer uppers in their own homes, or naturally inquisitive about how things work. Do they learn on the job?
There was no Rob White around. I looked in the aisles on either side of sixteen. Then a red vested man came through the aisle hauling a large box. He stopped with his unwieldy box across from the heaters. His skin was brown. He had bad teeth, was tall and skinny. His English was heavily accented – East African, I thought. He wasn’t what I would call, a cheery, how can I help you kind of guy. Where was Rob White? I wanted a Rob to help me. And then I felt myself flood with shame. I can do this.
I asked questions about each model and wondered. Can he explain to me, a not so handy person, the differences, the advantages and disadvantages of each model? Will I understand him? Does he understand me? I will, can do this. I must.
I hated myself for first hesitating, for being judgmental, shamed for the recognition of my prejudice. For my wrongful assumptions about his capability. He never smiled. He did not have the robust sound of Rob White. But the Rob Whites don’t smile much either. He opened the box of the model he thought would fit my needs.
“I need a demonstration, how do all these buttons work,” I asked.
He demonstrated. I sometimes had to repeat or reword my questions. I warmed to his knowledge and smiled. He still did not smile. He repackaged the heater. I thanked him. I’m still recoiling from my initial reaction. I’m still righting myself.