Hi & welcome to Situation Normal, a weekly newsletter of slice of life humor! Usually, my stories follow a simple three-act structure—setup, confrontation, resolution. But sometimes three acts just aren’t enough to contain the stories life throws at you. Shakespeare knew that, and while I’m no Shakespeare, I’ll put my five-act garage door story up against anything The Bard wrote in the home improvement genre.
Act One: Site Visit / Getting the Lead Out (March)
There’s an ancient Chinese proverb that goes something like this: a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Our journey to a new garage door isn’t as long, but it begins with a single click on the Home Depot website.
Soon after the Home Depot website experience, a woman named Jana comes to our house for a site visit.
“I need to take some measurements and inspect the premises so that everything goes smoothly,” Jana explains. “I’ll be your project manager for the duration.”
I should ask Jana what she means by “the duration,” but I have other questions on my mind. The previous owner removed the motorized opener, added plywood to the door, then sealed the door shut with insulation foam. I worry this is going to be a tough job for Jana’s crew, so I want to flag any potential issues before we begin.
“There’s only one hinge on the current garage door,” I say. “Is removing the door going to be a problem?”
“Not a problem at all,” Jana says.
“Really? Because the door is very heavy with the added plywood, so…”
“I’ve been in the garage door business for several years, and I know my stuff.”
I smile. It’s a relief to work with a pro, so I move onto the next item I want to flag.
“And what about that supporting beam in our garage?” I ask. “It looks like it might be too close to where you’d normally put the door-opener. Is it too close? Will you have enough room?”
“No problem at all. Plenty of room.”
“Do you want to measure? I have a ladder you can use.”
“Nope, I can see there’s tons of room. I just need to measure the door, and I’m all set.”
Jana takes her measurements, then asks when our home was built.
“Nineteen fifty-six. Is that an issue?”
A week later, Jana calls.
“Mr. Estrin, we have a problem. We can’t remove your garage door because your house was built before nineteen seventy-eight.”
“Correct. You asked about that during the site visit, and I told you it was built in the fifties. What’s the issue?”
“Well… under California law, it’s just assumed that there’s lead paint on the door if the house was built before seventy-eight.”
“I doubt the door is more than forty years old.”
“You’d be surprised how long garage doors last.”
“Well, how long do they last?”
“I’m not really sure.”
“What are my options?”
“If we remove it, we have to charge you an extra five thousand dollars because of the lead.”
“There are extra dumping fees for hazardous materials in this state. What can I say? It’s all that environmentalism stuff. You know how crazy this state is.”
“But you don’t know if there’s lead,” I protest.
“Or, you can remove it yourself.”
“Won’t I end up paying the dumping fees?”
Crickets. Then Jana explains in a roundabout sort of way that one guy hauling one garage door to the dump isn’t likely to raise any alarms about hazardous materials, whereas a pro hauling lots of doors to the dump will eventually run into California’s environmental protection laws. I may not know anything about garage doors, but I can read between the lines. Jana’s point is this: a homeowner can save a buck by skirting the law, but as with all illegal ventures, you’re on your own.
“But we paid for you guys to remove the old door,” I insist. “And I told you how old the house was and you said it wasn’t an issue. Now, you’re saying it is an issue.”
“There’s no issue,” she says. “We’ll waive the removal charge.”
That’s lovely to hear, but the reason we paid for the installer to remove the old door and haul it to the dump is that Christina and I lack the strength, expertise, and tools needed to DIY this shit.
“I don’t think it has lead,” I say.
“Well, it’ll cost thousands of dollars to have it tested,” Jana says. “I’m just trying to save you money. Because if you spend three grand to test and it’s positive, then you’ll spend another five grand to remove it. You ever hear the expression, ignorance is bliss? That’s deal here. That’s why most people just do it themselves.”
As a Californian living in a home built in the middle of the twentieth century, I’m familiar with the costs and protocols of testing for hazardous materials like lead and asbestos. I know those materials ain’t nothing to fuck with, but I also know testing a garage door shouldn’t cost three grand.
“If I show you a negative lead test, will you remove the door?”
I phone the company that tested our house for asbestos when we bought it. A technician shows up the next day and tells me he doesn’t think our door has lead. But just to be sure—and because everyone needs to get their beak wet—he takes six samples from the door. As the technician works, he complains that installers like the one we hired “don’t give a shit” about their employees or the environment, and that they’re just “covering their own asses.”
I pay for a rush on the testing. The next day, our bank account is $300 lighter (a tenth of Jana’s estimate). Now, we have the facts. There’s no lead. Hurray!
“We’re good to go,” I tell Jana after emailing her the negative lead test results.
“I’m going to order the door,” she says. “It’ll take about fourteen weeks.”
“Supply chain issues,” Jana explains. “That’s why I told you right away about the lead issue.”
Jana and I have different definitions of the “right away” concept. The way I see it, that information could’ve been shared at the time of the site visit. The way Jana sees it, time is a flat circle. But I let it slide because Jana will be our project manager for the duration, and the duration will now last fourteen weeks.
Act Two: Safety First (May)
Many weeks pass, so many in fact, that I use the old-timey metric known as fortnights to mark the epic passing of time. But eventually, the garage door supply chain issues are un-fucked, and soon after that Jana calls to schedule our installation.
“About how long will it take?” I ask.
“A few hours. After that, you’ll be all set.”
On the scheduled day, Ernie and Kevin show up to install our garage door.
“Why did you seal the old door?” Kevin asks.
“I didn’t. The previous owner did. He used the garage as his office. He was a commercial photographer, and he had one of those giant printers in here.”
I yammer on about how the garage is kind of a shitty office—hot in the summer, cold in the winter, smelly and a tad depressing year-round—when Ernie interrupts.
“We can’t remove the door,” Ernie says. “There’s only one hinge, and it has tension on it.”
“What’s that mean?”
“There’s a lot of energy in that spring—a lot of energy. If we try to remove the door with tension on only one side, the spring could go.”
“It could shoot off the hinge and kill someone,” Kevin says.
“It happened to my father,” Ernie says.
“Your father was killed by a garage door hinge?” I gasp.
“No,” Ernie says. “My dad is still alive. But he used to install garage doors. One time, he got a call to replace a garage door just like this one. The owner of that house tried to remove the spring himself, and it killed him. Very sad.”
It is very sad. But I didn’t know the guy, and so my mind goes to fiction. Killed by a garage door hinge is a shitty way to die in real life, but it’s a fantastic way to kill someone in a book!
“I’m really sorry about this,” Ernie says. “But we’re going to have to reschedule.”
“No, I get it. Safety first, right?”
“Exactly,” Ernie says. “What we do is find a hinge for the other side, put it on, and then we have tension on both sides. Then it’s safe to remove.”
“You don’t have a spare hinge on the truck?”
“Sorry, no. And again, I do apologize for the inconvenience.”
“There’s a Lowe’s around the corner. Can’t you just buy a hinge?”
“Well, we could, but we don’t do that. What we do is take it off another garage door from another job. We do that all the time. We’ll probably see another hinge we can use tomorrow, or the next day. Again, I’m really sorry.”
“That’s OK,” I say. “No need to apologize. Actually, I’m glad you said something. I know it can be really hard to call off a job. But I’d much rather reschedule than get anyone hurt.”
“For sure,” Kevin says. “Some people just don’t understand about safety.”
“Or, they don’t care,” Ernie adds. “They think we’re on the clock, so it doesn’t matter to us. But we get paid for the job, not the driving, so this is a couple hours down the tubes for us.”
I frown. Ernie and Kevin drove here from Palmdale, about ninety minutes away. I’d hate to be in their shoes. A three-hour roundtrip, and not a dollar to show for it.
“But you’re being super cool about it,” Kevin says.
“Hey, let’s all be safe and cool,” I say. “I just think—and I’m not trying to throw anyone under the bus here—but honestly, this should’ve come up on the site visit. I asked about the hinge. You guys drove all the way out here for nothing because the person who did the site visit screwed up.”
“That’s my mom,” Kevin says.
“Jana is his mom,” Ernie says.
I remove my foot from my mouth and cut short my feedback about the failed site visit.
“We’ll be back next week,” Ernie says.
Act Three: Half-Assed (June)
As it turns out, Ernie’s idea of a week is more like three fortnights. But eventually, Ernie and Kevin return with a right-side hinge. It takes them a few hours to install the hinge, remove the old door, then install the new door.
“Sir, I have to apologize again,” Ernie says. “We need to come back.”
I look at the new garage door. It looks great, so I’m not sure what the issue is.
“There’s not enough space for the garage door opener because of the beam.”
I look up at the beam that cuts across the ceiling of our garage. I asked Jana if the beam would be an issue, and she assured me that it would be fine. Then again, Jana, missed the hinge issue and she blew it on the lead paint too. But in her defense, she is consistent.
“We’re going to have to order a different opener,” Ernie says. “It costs more because it’s a fancier unit, but the company is going to pay for it because we messed up. Again, sorry about that.”
For the second time, I accept Ernie’s apology. Then, against my better judgement, I ask, “Is there anything else?”
“Actually, there is,” Ernie says. “We also don’t have the stuff to add the weather stripping around the door, so we’d have to come back anyway.”
Part of me wonders if Kevin and Ernie will end up losing money because of all the fuck-ups on this job. Another part of me wonders if we’ll ever finish the garage door install. But the optimist inside me tells the skeptic to mind his own business.
“Well, third times the charm, right?”
Act Four: You’re Not Going to Believe This (July)
Another couple of fortnights pass before Ernie returns, only this time he’s alone. The first order of business is to install the garage door opener. That part goes well. Maybe the third time really is the charm. But then we hit a snag.
“You’re probably going to think we’re the worst company and that we’re a bunch of bozos because we’ve been to your house three times just to install a dang garage door.”
Actually, this is the fourth visit, but I guess Ernie isn’t counting the site visit, when I, a neophyte to the garage door game, raised a series of red flags, each of which proved to be on point.
“I’m guessing you’re going to have to come back,” I say.
“Yeah, I forgot the weather stripping,” Ernie says. “It was supposed to be on the truck, but it’s not. Again, I’m really sorry. And I don’t blame you if you think we’re morons.”
I sidestep the moron question. There’s no sense kicking a man when he’s down, and I can tell that Ernie’s morale is Limbo-time low.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” I say, “but may I ask how many visits it takes to install a garage door? I don’t mean that as a joke, you know, like those lightbulb jokes. I just really want to know if our situation is typical or atypical.”
“Usually, it only takes one visit. Your situation is messed up, but again, I’m really sorry that we screwed this up. Honestly, we totally suck. That’s the issue. We’re a really disorganized company, and everyone is quitting. We’re supposed to have eight technicians, but we only have two. The guy who came with me last time, Kevin, quit and moved to Texas.”
“Kevin quit? You’re telling me that he walked out on his mom and moved to Texas? It’s that bad?”
“What’s he going to do in Texas?”
“Install garage doors.”
“Yeah, he said he just wanted to work for a better company.”
“But his mom is the project manager,” I say.
“Yeah, that’s how he knows how shitty this company is. Honestly, I don’t know why people hire us.”
“We didn’t hire you guys,” I say. “We went with Home Depot. They assigned the installation job to you guys.”
“Fuck, that makes sense.”
Actually, it doesn’t make any sense at all. But here we are, two men trapped inside the unaccountable—and let’s be frank, incompetent—garage door industrial complex.
“Yeah, the boss is super-stressed, and he’s stressing everyone else out, and that’s why everyone is quitting. It’s like a vicious cycle. Before COVID, we had high turnover, but nobody quit during the pandemic because everyone was afraid to out of work, but then everyone got vaccinated, and they were like, this company sucks, so to hell with it.”
There’s a lot of that going around these days. People are quitting because they put off quitting a shitty job for more than a year, or they’re exhausted, or they realized that life is short and they have better shit to do, or in Kevin’s case, they got tired of being hung out to dry by their mom. But I’m not here to talk about labor issues, or life priorities, or even Kevin’s mom, Jana, who cocked up the site visit and set this boondoggle in motion. I’m just a man standing in front of another man asking him if he can finish the garage door installation in time for the Act Five curtain. Which brings me to a pressing question.
“Are you going to quit?” I ask. “Because after everything we’ve been through, I want to see this thing through with you, Ernie.”
“Actually… I’m thinking of moving to Washington.”
My heart stops.
“Next year, maybe the year after.”
“You promise you’ll finish this job before you move?”
Act Five: The Final Visit?
“Isn’t the garage guy supposed to show up today and finish?” Christina asks.
“He’s supposed to show up today, but whether he finishes or not is anyone’s guess.”
Around noon, Ernie arrives. This time, he brought the weather stripping. The whole process takes about fifteen minutes.
“Do you want to inspect it?” Ernie asks after he’s done.
I inspect the weather stripping, not that I know what I’m doing. This is my first garage door, I failed out of stripper college, and contrary to what Mr. Bob Dylan has to say on the matter, I do need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
“Looks good to me.”
Ernie once again apologizes for his shitty company, then thanks me for being cool. After a spring and summer together, it’s time to say our goodbyes. Or, maybe not.
“Well, just remember the garage door is under warranty,” Ernie says. “If anything goes wrong, we’ll come out and fix it.”
“How long is the warranty?” I ask in a nervous voice.
Ten years. A decade. The thought of it sends a chill down my spine. Team Jana will be with us for the duration, which as it turns out, will last until 2031.
Thanks for reading! I’ll be back next Sunday with a new story. Meantime, there are two easy ways to support this newsletter. First, you can share Situation Normal. Just email your friends a link, post it on social media, or click the green button 👇
Second, you can purchase my book, Ride / Share: Micro Stories of Soul, Wit, and Wisdom from the Backseat. That would make my day, and I promise it’ll make you smile. 🙏📚