One evening not long ago, my wife and I arrived home to find a hole in our kitchen wall and a comet of tiles and white dust sprayed across the floor. We were baffled: Had the cabinet guy hung the cupboards badly? Was our gracious old building on the verge of collapse? What the hell had gone wrong?
As a lifelong apartment-dwelling Manhattanite, I am not what you’d call handy; seeing the busted wall’s inner workings filled me with a degrading sense of helplessness and alarm. We tiptoed around the mess like it was a crime scene. There was, of course, only one thing to do: My wife called the super. Such is my do-it-yourself expertise.
That’s why, when I heard that Home Depot, the great shrine for America’s cult of home improvement, was opening its first Manhattan store, I felt compelled to go. This is what trauma specialists advise their patients to do: Conquer your fear by confronting it. If you’re scared of crossing bridges, do twenty round-trips over the Verrazano. If you’ve never hit the head of a nail more than two times in a row, make friends at the hardware store.
I arrived at the new Home Depot (40 West 23rd Street; 212-929-9571) fully prepared to buy my way into the community of hammer-swinging, power-drilling, non-girlie-men. To my surprise, the ground floor is as elegant as a department store, cleverly baited with lighting, cabinets, and bathroom fixtures—familiar domestic objects to tempt Manhattanites, even if they’d never do the installation themselves. Downstairs is the real action. That’s where they keep the high-torque drills, the combihammers and twelve-volt caulk guns, the jigsaws and orbital sanders, and the semiautomatic drywall-fastening tools. In certain geographical areas, these may be necessities of life. In Manhattan, they make you think “subway mugging.”
Trolling the store, I found a computer console that administers advice on home-improvement projects of every conceivable type, and clicked on a section titled “Patching Large Holes in Wallboard.” According to the rankings, this was considered an “Easy” job—if only I had a framing square, a wallboard knife, and a wallboard screw gun, I could do it in three steps, laid out in idiotproof pictograms. I considered trying to find the aisle for screw guns, but then I saw the line at the register. It was beyond belief. If they opened a Barneys in Iowa, you think a mob like this would turn out? New Yorkers, apparently, wish to be more like the rest of America than the other way around.
I was struck by a powerful desire to flee. The herd seemed mindless, unaware of what they were getting themselves into. This can-do spirit is a contagion. As I hastily exited, declining a $3-off coupon from the unnaturally cheerful clerk at the door, the pictures in my head were not of Home Depot–assisted apartment beautification, but of the misery that awaits if I were ever foolish enough to undertake my own improvement projects.
As for the hole in our wall, don’t worry—it got fixed. It turned out that a contractor working next door had botched the hanging of a sink, which snapped a metal strut that then punctured the plasterboard and sent the tiles spewing across our kitchen floor. In other words, our little disaster had been the handiwork of a trained professional. Which just goes to show . . .
Fortunately, he was a nice guy, and we didn’t have to threaten him with violence to get him to patch our wall. I took the afternoon off from work to watch him do it, and we drank a couple of beers together afterward. Surveying the lovely, unbroken wall, I’m not ashamed to admit feeling as satisfied as if I’d done the job myself.