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Living and Loving

Kindness, Rudeness and Contractors

March 24, 1985|LEO F. BUSCAGLIA

The time had come to add another room to my house. I can't say that I wasn't repeatedly warned but, of course, it's only human to say, "It won't happen to me."

My family and friends advised me to forget the project. They tried to assure me that I wouldn't have the time, energy or patience to work with contractors. They told me horror stories of their experiences, which should have been enough to frighten off any sane individual. I ignored their advice and found a contractor who seemed reliable, honest, attentive, efficient, experienced and able--in fact, a man who had all the attributes I was warned I'd never find in a contractor.

The plans were drawn and, in a few weeks, the work commenced. I recall the starting date because it coincided with the construction of the Security Pacific Bank Towers in downtown Los Angeles.

For the first few weeks, it appeared that the job was progressing so smoothly it would be completed in a month or so. Five or six workers were constantly pounding, digging, drilling and measuring. But it was not long before I noted that there were fewer workers arriving, and it became more and more difficult to find what was accomplished at the end of a day.

During this time I had to step lightly over stray nails and tools, which were scattered everywhere, along with sacks of plaster and cement, and dust. With walls open to the great outdoors, I was treated to chilling winds, drafts and all sorts of night sounds, which I had never before experienced.

Through it all, I remained a model of patience and understanding. I could not believe that the contractor held anything against me. There was no reason why he should deliberately cause me discomfort. I, therefore, said nothing when, one evening, I found that the electricity had been disconnected without my knowledge. I did not complain when temporary boards broke and I fell through a hole in the floor. I even kept my silence when the wind and rain blew down a makeshift wall and stained artwork and carpets.

In the meantime, months passed. I had only to look at the Security Pacific Bank Towers rising steadily over the skyline of Los Angeles to suspect that there was something very wrong about all of this. I felt my frustration mounting. I finally reached the breaking point when I returned to the house late one evening, after a tiring lecture tour, to find that my front porch had been removed. That did it! I had had enough. I went straight for the telephone and called my contractor. Very much out of character, I heard myself shouting threats, accusations and unleashing months of pent-up anger. I threatened to withhold payment, sue, call the Better Business Bureau and the local TV consumer advocate. I think I even suggested violence.

It gave me a wonderful sense of instantaneous relief and a feeling of triumph to slam the receiver into place. But, afterward, I was predictably overwhelmed with feelings of guilt. What could I have been unthinking to have insulted another human being in such an unforgivable manner?

I decided, after cooling off, to apologize the next day. At dawn the following morning, a full crew of workers descended on my house, apparently instructed to finish the project. (By this time, of course, the Security Pacific Towers were ready for occupancy!)

When the job was at last completed, I sat down with my contractor. For both our sakes, I felt we needed to clear the air. "I would like to understand something," I told him. "Why was it that as long as I was kind, patient and understanding, you neglected me, and as soon as I behaved like an animal--shouting, threatening--you immediately responded and did your job? I'd really like to know because it's a sad phenomenon I've found in my other human transactions as well."

He was silent for a while, then he smiled and said, "You're really something!" Then he left. Certainly human behavior is unpredictable and strange. But why kindness is so often taken for naivete, while rudeness gets a response, remains a great mystery.

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