Valley Voices

The strangers we hire carry stories in their toolboxes

John G. Taylor
John G. Taylor

We invite scarcely vetted visitors into our house to revive air conditioners, exterminate critters. Expectation: Do the job right, right away and go away.

Some of us detest needs we can’t self-satisfy and revile waiting for the likes of a plumber’s snake. And thus, we shortchange ourselves from being a partner in our own material repairs and personal growth.

During a recent relocation, I decided to seize every chance to ask over-the-fence questions of haulers, installers, Lowe’s hardware staff, and customer service reps at Fresno and Clovis utilities.

No scripted secret shopper here, I’d chat sports, weather and then descend into silences long enough to watch corn grow. The hobnobbing positively refreshed my rationale as to why, although moving six times in nearly 40 years, I stay planted in the same Fresno bull’s-eye.

For one thing, I’m persuaded customer service is no longer a YouTube loop about what happens when stupid whacks a golf ball while standing on thin ice.

My wisdom came from vendors in their 20s to 60s, almost all men, of diverse ethnicity. Several started with a script, mostly from heavy-hitter outfits like AT&T. Smaller shops were more focused on tackling a task rather than replying to “but, what-if”?

And I discovered that the only people gifted enough to either instantly fix or irretrievably break something were handymen impaled on their cell phones. No asking them anything.

Virtually all were happy to call Fresno home, though some were surrendering hopes of snaring a decent home in the $150,000 to $200,000 range.

The visitors told of honor-winning children who were on track for college scholarships. They also shared frustrated shrugs for kids who behaved like junkyard dogs. At the doorstep, some would slip shoes into protective booties. Others stifled sneezes employing the batwing technique.

One claimed he’d fallen from a multi-story roof. Two blamed workplace injuries for lost jobs and pain relievers. Mideast veterans talked around and sometimes through their PTSD.

One man’s big dream: Opening a downtown Fresno coffee shop offering Christian speakers and computer repairs. A sales rep said daily job satisfaction was critical because she carried home all unresolved stresses. A utility worker anxiously awaited news of a corrections job.

I was stunned that a window repairman commuted weekly to a Fresno job from his Monterey home until he persuaded his wife to move to the Valley. He liked the community’s ethics and friendliness, something the Central Coast lost to housing flight.

Fresno is already souring, other vendors remarked. The same San Francisco and Los Angeles investments that are fueling steady work are fattening the ranks of obnoxious customers.

Not all vendors were civilized. One Monday dawned with a visitor’s eyes shot full of red, ill will and bad intent. Two evaluators should consider the role of Fagin in any Oliver Twist remake.

More often, we crossed paths with ethical home inspectors and Realtors, making a new friend and imposing red circles around toxins.

Other rewards included tapping handymen for techniques and tricks to avoid bonehead troubles. And, especially, the encounters with phone/online reps who were lubricated with courtesy and occasionally heroic in problem-solving, while sharing a rich stew of “still-checking,” time-killing exchanges about Chinese family relationships, how aliens are watching and why Hershey, Pennsylvania, has lost its mystique.

Fact is, nobody wants strangers eyeballing their home or pawing possessions. But investing your time may address that anxiety. So, inspect the ID and invoice, but also consider reaching out to the stranger who’s trying to straighten your cockeyed world.

Consider the immortal Ferris Bueller: Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

John G. Taylor, a former Fresno Bee reporter and editor, is owner of JT Communications Company. Write to him at