Adventures in Drywall

Although most of us are paid to accomplish something during the day, few would survive the grind if it weren’t for an occasional belly laugh. Whether or not laughter is a healthy part of a functional work environment has been fodder for endless studies. But if ever there was a need for comic relief, we see the construction industry as center stage. From the private etchings of the elusive porta-potty poets to the guys who can’t keep their personal lives personal, you don’t usually have to wait long between laughs.

One of the most entertaining things to experience on a job site is watching out the window while a leaf-green sales representative drives on to the site in his Geo Metro anxious to peddle his wares. You revel in his first steps from his bucket of bolts as his hushpuppies and argyle socks are awash in mid-March mud. His freshly pressed pleated Dockers are baptized with sludge. The wind whips his blow-dried hair into a Bozo-the-Clown frenzy, while his shoulders hunch forward in an effort to brace himself for his presentation and all the wisecracks that he hoped would stay at the breakfast table with his kids.

As he navigates his way to the plywood-covered entrance, you know he’s wondering how many nails will be buried in his 13-inch Firestones as he exits the site this time around, and if he’s going to sell you enough material to pay for new tires or, possibly, that tow truck to pull him out of the mud.

After the fall

It’s somewhere between five and 10 minutes of him fumbling around the lower floors, trying to talk to guys on the site. Some fear he’s checking green cards; some think he’s an OSHA inspector; others just can’t stand salesmen. Either way, even if he pronounces your name correctly, these guys will pretend they’ve never heard of you.

But he presses on because he knows you’re there somewhere. He walks to a couple of dead ends, tripping over materials and slicing his fingers to the bone on studs he grabs to keep himself from falling. His materials fall to the floor, but he valiantly picks them up and dusts them off again, believing that you’ll actually see more value in what he’s got to show you if it’s clean.

Ambling up the stairs, you hear him call your name. He’s like a lost child at the mall, croaking helplessly for his missing parent. He approaches anybody who won’t immediately turn his or her back on him, shamelessly inquiring as to your whereabouts.

Around this time it ceases to be funny, because he’s getting closer; he’s warm; he’s closing on you. In his hands, he’ll soon tell you, is the best thing you’ve ever seen, no matter what you think.

This is where the whole sequence turns from amusing to annoying. He’ll probably tell you how you’re doing your job all wrong. He’ll point out inefficiencies, sloppiness and waste. And though he’s never gotten his hands dirty in his life, he’s going to save you money, time, make your work easier. Although you’ve spent your entire life perfecting your trade, this guy’s here to tell you how wrong everything you’ve been doing for the past who-knows-how-many-years is. The product he has solves all of this and will help you make more friends and improve your marriage and blah blah blah.

So it’s time to have some fun. You call the guys over. You tell the salesman to show everybody what he’s got, but make it quick because time is money.

“We can’t have these guys standing around all day, you know; they’re more than willing to do that as it is.” Let the show begin.

Suddenly, the distinction becomes clear. More often than not, you’ll have to grab the tool or product from the sales guy to keep him from killing himself and possibly others. You may have to catch him as he falls off the ladder. These episodes can sometimes be worth months of laughter, evolving as they age to gain color and include less-than-truthful detail.

The man who had all the luck?

Yet, some of these guys astonish you with their tradeworthiness. Maybe they blew out their backs somewhere, or they got burned out hanging or finishing. It could be they were less than adequate in their business discipline. They may have actually come to sales because they were truly passionate about something. But whatever the circumstance, you watch them handle the tools, scale the ladder, whatever, and within the first 10 seconds, you just know. It’s kind of a shame, because you may have been hoping to watch some first-class fumbling, but this guy knows what he’s doing.

So you listen. The whole presentation gains credibility by the minute as you start to share previous experiences and talk about how things used to be, how you came into the trade, which parts of your body you wish would work the way they used to. The tool or material he’s showing you seem to take a backseat to the bond that develops from the mutual years of sucking drywall dust and getting ripped off here and there, struggling to pay the bills, etc. It’s no longer a shark in front of you … it’s a brother.

We salute these guys. They usually make the best salespeople because they truly understand what you go through every day, and in the perfect world, every salesperson would have the benefit of real-life trade experience. But we all know that’s not going to happen, so for every other salesperson-contractor encounter, we feel there must be rules of engagement. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to draft some of the parameters for this age-old ritual. For the salesperson:

• Don’t wear make-up.

• Drive something with more than three cylinders to the job site.

• Make sure what you’re selling works and you can make it work.

• Do more listening than talking (for a change).

• Stop saying “revolutionary.”

• Know where your exits are in case things don’t go well.

• Most importantly, don’t talk about things you don’t understand.

These are basic survival skills. We could go on about showing up with coffee, doughnuts, T-shirts, hats, tickets to the ballet(?), but you get the picture. Live by the golden rule, and more often than not, you’ll leave with some degree of dignity.

There are some basic ground rules for the host as well. Although you’re in the luxurious position of being able to lift your guest by the scruff of the neck and gently escort him to the Dumpster, try the following:

• Don’t break anything (bones included) on purpose.

• Give him a chance to embarrass himself first.

• Don’t belch the free doughnuts back in his face.

• Think about how this guy’s wife feels when he comes home.

• Don’t laugh too hard if he asks where to wash his hands.

Hey, we’re not talking about taking all the fun out of these meetings, but there’s an outside chance that you might actually learn something, even from those leaf-green guys. There are many more types of boards, muds, fasteners, glues and tools than there were 20 years ago, and it’s tough to keep up with changes in the industry when you’re working 70 hours a week. Trade shows and magazine articles don’t always fit into your schedule, so take advantage of these guys showing up on your job (if you can tolerate them). Try new stuff, especially when it’s free. You never know what you might learn.

And go easy on the salesman, because like you, it’s not just his job … it’s his life.