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David Bouchier: The elusive handyman

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When anthropologists unearthed the remains of our most ancient ancestor, they named him Homo Habilis, or Handy Man, because he had learned to use tools. If there was a leak at the back of the cave, or a mammoth sat on the barbecue, the man of the family was expected to fix it. Fast forward a couple of million years and you can’t find a handyman anywhere

America in its early days was a 100% do-it-yourself society. Settlers would just choose a place and build a house with their own hands, although it's a mystery where they got the bathroom fittings. But time passed, evolution went into reverse, and we men lost our useful, practical skills. My father, and perhaps yours too, could and did tackle any job that didn’t require heavy equipment. I inherited his tools, but not his talent for fixing things.

None of this worried me until quite recently. Faced with a domestic disaster I would leap energetically out of my armchair and call one of the local handymen. He was always a reassuring gray-haired person called Karl or George, wearing bib overalls and a painter's cap. George or Karl would fix everything in an hour or two, plus several other things I never noticed, and amble off to his truck with a casual wave, saying, "call me if you need anything." And I did.

Where are they now? George and Karl don’t answer their phones, or leave a message saying, “mailbox full.” Recently I spotted a handyman sign hanging outside a house in the neighborhood, but next time I looked it had vanished, like the man himself. Where are all the handymen going? Kidnapped by space aliens, perhaps, removed from this earth for the sake of their protean skills. The local yellow pages list only four names under handyman services — four handymen for a county with a million and a half people. They don’t answer their phones.

The all-knowing Internet is not much use. Most of the businesses that advertise there have decided not to answer their phones either. Our local online bulletin board is full of plaintive cries: “Does anyone know a good handyman?” The stumbling block here is the word “good” — anyone can fix things badly. Even I can fix things badly if it doesn’t involve climbing a high ladder or crawling on the floor. But almost every domestic repair does involve either vertigo or lumbago, and younger hands are needed. Not many handymen seem to have mastered the necessary repertoire of skills. One young man told us that he was unwilling to use a ladder because it was dangerous.

It may be that handymen have all decided to specialize, like doctors. A painter won’t touch a jammed garage door, and a roofer won’t even consider tackling a leak in the basement. This is sensible and fine for them. But what about the myriad of domestic disasters that are, as it were, unclassified — the small things that go wrong in every house but don’t fit into any particular category? That’s when we need the multi-talented Homo Habilis, the handyman from two million years ago. I have read that scientists are trying to clone a wooly mammoth from the ice age, and bring it back to life, which is a very bold and interesting experiment. But a clone of Homo Habilis, the original handyman, would be infinitely more useful.

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.