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First Person My midlife career crisis: white collar by day, tool belt by night (and occasional weekends)

ILLUSTRATION BY DREW SHANNON

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I was installing some quarter-round in a neighbor’s condo unit this week and was thinking about how much I enjoyed this type of work. Working with my hands after many years of working behind a desk.

By day, I’m engaged in an occupation that is complex and ambiguous, full of uncertainly and anxiety punctuated by occasional moments of insight. By night, my handyman work is simple, straightforward and satisfying.

It turns out I garner much more enjoyment from my part-time gig than my full-time job. I’ve been ruminating on this realization for some time now – six months to be exact. It was a half a year ago, when I hung out my shingle in the condo mailroom. Well, it wasn’t much of a shingle, simply one of those notices that advertised my services as “Ron the Handyman” with tear-off tabs at the bottom that had my name, phone number and e-mail. The e-mail was a modern-day touch on the pull-off tab. A little something for the younger condo residents, as most of our small condo seems to be filled with retired folks.

What led me, a professional engineer with a master’s degree in management and a career-long white-collar professional to a baseball-hat, tool-belt slinging and greasy dungarees-clad handyman? I have no clue, but in LinkedIn business speak parlance it could be described as opportunity-meets-experience, or follow your passion or [insert pithy business quote here]. I’d rather think that I just fell into it, or I was simply being nice to my neighbors and meeting a very local need. How local? Ron the Handyman has no transportation costs. All I need to do is walk down the hallway or ride the elevator to my customers. I even get new business just walking down the hallway or riding the elevator whilst wearing my tool belt.

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Everyone seems to know me now. It did help that I was condo president for several years, a position I resigned from some time ago, as it would be a tremendous conflict and against multiple condo bylaws to have the condo president also be a resident handyman. I’m not in it for the money (minimum wage), but rather more altruistic reasons, I tell myself. I can’t believe the trades charge outrageous amounts to unclog a toilet or replace a switch. I understand their costs; believe me I do. All I’m doing is filling a void in the market. Why should seniors, the mechanically inept and the lazy have to pony up hundreds of dollars for a $40 job? I don’t take on anything too serious, but make full use of my engineering education, personable nature, tool familiarity and hardware-store savviness to ease the frustration of your average condo dweller. While I work, I engage in great, sometimes sad but mostly poignant life-affirming confabs with my customers. The retired seniors fill me in on their kids, grandkids, past careers and their bridge games. The young couples chastise each other because they are so inept at some of life’s simple chores. This boggles me a little, too, but that’s another story and I don’t want to sound too much like Andy Rooney. Andy who?

It’s amazing what you see in other people’s condos. You get a sense of their decorating tastes, their hobbies and habits, and their varied takes on good housekeeping. The stories I could tell, but alas I am bound by the Handyman Code of Conduct. Handyman Code of Conduct, you say? Google it. It exists, but only in Britain. Those Brits think of everything.

I had one customer/neighbour who is advanced in years and was lamenting the state of her storage locker. She dreaded the thought of passing on and someone having to clean out her locker and it being in the state it was in. She asked for my help in organizing her locker and perhaps sending some items to needy charities. I intrepidly agreed to the job. What was I going to find and help her sift through? Was I going to uncover some of her deeply buried family secrets? A trove of slightly chipped Royal Dalton figurines? Old preserves? Alas, it was none of those, but rather 15 years worth of unopened, tags-still-on clothing. Everything from fall scarves to winter boots. An array of beautiful blouses and unopened small appliances. It appeared to my untrained eye she had a bit of a shopping problem, was keenly aware of it and finally wanted to do something about it; and wanted it kept on the down low. Geez, I hope she doesn’t read this article. Even if she does get wind of this missive, she can rest easy in that Ron the Handyman will abide by the Handyman Code of Conduct and no one will be the wiser.

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My clients are always grateful. They even tell me so, straight to my face. No e-mails, no likes, no social-media chatter – just a sincere thank you as they hand over their $20 instead of $100. It’s a win-win. They can now flush their toilet or have enough light in their kitchen or admire a painting that is no longer hanging askew. What do I get? A little beer money, but more importantly a sense of accomplishment, a new friend, a connection and that handyman tool-belt swagger.

Ron Clarkin lives in Toronto.

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