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David Bouchier: Contracted out

Image by fran1 from Pixabay

I was trying and failing to cross a street near my home when I had an epiphany of sorts. In my car I would have missed it. But if you are foolish enough to walk around here you see the world in a whole new light.

The junction where I was standing was at a point where streets leading out of two suburban areas came together, funneling traffic towards the main highway. It was the middle of the day, and I couldn’t get across because of the stream of contractors’ vehicles, mostly white vans and landscaper’s trucks that came rushing past one behind the other, heading for the delis and fast-food emporiums a mile or two away. An occasional SUV was sandwiched in the truck convoy, but essentially the road belonged to the contractors at that moment.

It was obvious that nobody was going to slow down for a mere pedestrian, so I amused myself by identifying the various trades and services represented in this high-speed procession. Electricians, plumbers, builders and lawn services accounted for about half the traffic. The other half covered the whole range of domestic needs and desires: satellite and cable TV companies, carpet professionals, window and glass repair, heating and air conditioning, landscaping, roofing, pool services, tree services and nameless trucks to perform nameless services. Perhaps these last belong to those semi-mythical “handymen” who can fix anything, and who therefore need to keep their identities secret. The convoy seemed never-ending. These are long-established suburbs, not new developments, but they obviously need a lot of work.

We suburban dwellers do seem to require a great deal of maintenance. We’re a long way from colonial self-sufficiency. My father, and probably yours too, could handle most domestic repairs and maintenance while holding a full-time job. Now, it seems, that we can’t do anything for ourselves. It’s all been contracted out.

It’s a pity we don’t have servants anymore. A Victorian family might employ half a dozen servants to maintain a modest household. Now our houses are more complicated, and our needs are more sophisticated, so unless we are willing to do the work ourselves it takes an army of contractors to keep our lives running.

I’m not claiming the moral high ground. I’ve learned to be as incompetent as the next man. When the electrical system fails, I instantly call the electrician, which is all too easy because he lives just across the street. The plumber has been with us so long he’s almost one of the family. There’s something very relaxing about this learned helplessness, like going back to Victorian times and being surrounded by servants. Soon, no doubt, there will be services to fill the bird feeders and change the light bulbs. I can hardly wait.

Back in the domesticated 1950s Levittown became the first true Long Island suburb and its founder, William Levitt, said: “No man who owns his own house and yard can be a communist; he has too much to do.” More than half a century later, it seems that many men have nothing to do but pick up the phone and have all but abandoned their traditional maintenance duties. What are they doing instead? Have they all become communists or, even worse, liberals? The National Security Agency should look into this.

Copyright: David Bouchier


David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.