I’m no longer working on houses for a living. It was never much of a living, in my case, but for a long time, the greater part of my adult life so far, it was what I did and what I wanted to keep on doing. The trouble, always, or a considerable part of the trouble at least, was that I wanted to do it ‘different’ — and, crucially, didn’t really understand the conditions for doing so. I’ve made some real gains in understanding the conditions, yes, but not in time to sort out along the way how to make effective changes in my approach to the business. And now I’m out of the business. The last slender tie I had to it was a part-time job I held for six months in the kitchen design department at a Home Depot here in Flushing, Queens. I left it in April.
Left it, that is, because it looked like my other work, my self-employed work, was picking up enough steam that I could be done with the second job, and because the sort of employment a Home Depot can offer a person these days — though I’m grateful to have had it when I needed it and grateful for its peculiar part in my getting to know New York — is one a person can only hope to trade up from, one way or another.
I did inwardly cherish, for a little while, some thought of making Home Depot a springboard back to better work in construction. For the most part, though, I’d come to see that the dream — the old dream of coming into my own in the residential building trades somewhere, working (ideally) with architects and ‘building scientists,’ by way of arrival at the right combination of skill-acquisition and circumstance — was dead. Dead may not here mean beyond possibility of resurrection, but for a variety of reasons we’ll have to stipulate that if there’s to be a resurrection, it’s on strict analogy to the Christian idea: bodily, to be sure, but no longer with the old body. I’m well into decomposition now. There’s no simple going back.
Where did I turn the corner? What was the snag that started the unraveling? That’s the point of curiosity this little narrative is leading to. It doesn’t come down to one thing, of course; but one thing certainly critical to this eventual shift in my work was my beginning to notice, a few years ago, that marketplace obstacles (in this country, that is) to adoption of ‘smart’ building practices were really inseparable from a class of problems I’d largely wished to put aside, at least for work purposes, as matters above my pay grade (in Candidate Obama’s unfortunate expression) — problems more purely political and economic than business. I’ve generally preferred to think that I could contribute something to ‘making the world a better place’ and remain, at the same time, a bit of a practical agnostic about money and power. If I’m slow to grasp relation between working life and money or power, though, I’m not much good at maintaining such interior boundaries once I do, even if the boundaries are preferential. It doesn’t help, obviously, that ‘sustainability,’ in building as in other fields, is a minefield of political and economic issues. The greater my effort, perhaps — and it’s been considerable — to establish what I had to bring to this field of business, the more inevitable my running aground in some fashion on complexities ultimately rooted beyond it. Gradually I found it difficult not to be as concerned about the shape of the marketplace as I’d already learned to be about what a conscientious building and design entrant has to deliver in it. My choices about working relationships became more constrained, and at the same time more subject to a certain optimism (Christian, to my way of thinking, but whether ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ I won’t try to conclude here).
When I moved to New York a year and a half ago, it seemed that my exacting criteria had been met in the most remarkable way. I was optimistic about BWP — not unreasonably so, I think, other limiting factors on the decision being taken into account — and threw all my eggs, as far as remaining in construction on terms I could live with goes, into one basket. That was the real beginning of the end. But this isn’t a lament! It’s an attempt to lay some groundwork for new discussion here, that’s all.