Making ovens, friendship work

Posted: March 19, 2003

The oven wouldn't work, but it was a good stove, not something to be cast away lightly. I called a friend who knows about these things and he gave me the name of an appliance repair man.

Tom was friendly on the phone. I was hopeful he might bring us good news but braced for the worst. He was even more friendly in person. He had grown up in our neighborhood before moving out to the suburbs. He remembered dances at the Catholic school across the street. He talked as he checked out the oven: "Well, it's an old one, but the problem is really simple. If I can find the part, it won't cost much."

He did find the part, came back, and fixed our oven for practically nothing - and we had another good visit. It felt like a miracle to have found such a person in our lives.

Over the years, he fixed our washing machine. He fixed our dryer. I watched his skilled hands, learned a little about the inside of machines, was always warmed by his cheer and his delight in keeping things working. While I can't say I looked forward to appliances breaking down, it was with confidence and warm expectancy that I would call up Tom. I valued this relationship; his visits often turned out to be the highlight of my day.

It was not a small thing when I called up - about that old oven again - and heard him say he couldn't come out. Something had happened to his eyes, and he wasn't working. It sounded very final. What could I do? He recommended a colleague. When I told him how sorry I was, he made light of it. All I had was his phone number, not even an address where I could send a card.

I felt bereft. The man he suggested was OK, but not the same. We ended up buying a new stove, throwing the old one out. I grieved. Somehow it would have been different had Tom been there. He would have fixed it with his deft hands and a good visit. Or he would have explained regretfully why it was beyond repair and joined in my sorrow at facing the end of its working life.

We managed without Tom for years. Appliance repair become another one of those hurdles to get over one way or another. Then at a gathering of friends, someone said that she'd been referred to this wonderful repairman that I had used. His name was Tom. I hated to break the bad news to her: "He is wonderful, but he's not working any more. Something happened to his eyes." "He's working," she countered. "He was just at my house."

I couldn't believe it. The appliance repairman of my dreams was back. Another miracle. When someone suggested he should have told me when his eyes got better, I was surprised. I wanted to call him up just to say how happy I was to hear the good news, but I felt shy. I wasn't sure I belonged that closely in his life. Maybe he felt the same way about me.

Providentially, within weeks, the dryer stopped working. Now I had the perfect reason to make a call, tell him how glad I was that he was back, ask for his help. When it wasn't clear that I could be there to let him in, I exacted promises from everybody who might answer the door to treat him like royalty. I was deeply disappointed to miss him by minutes when he came to assess the damage, but was there when he came back.

His son had driven him since he wasn't up for night driving any more, and we all hung out in the basement together. I learned about his son's life. He was in computers, but we both agreed that his dad's skill was something to treasure. Tom was as warm and cheerful as ever. Never one to dwell on the negative, he brushed off questions about his health. The problem required only a new switch in the door, but it was tricky to get in. Then he fixed a few little things to make it work even more smoothly - and what he charged was nothing compared to what I got.

A working dryer was the least of it. I got back a man whose skill, friendliness, and commitment to his craft and customers created connections wherever he went. In a world of bureaucratic indifference, interchangeable employees, and profit as the bottom line, I'd gotten back a human being, a friend.

Pamela Haines lives and writes in Philadelphia.

For more kindness, check out the "Tales of Kindness" Web page at http://go.philly.

com/kindness

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