As most of our facebook friends know, Phyllis and I have spent quite a bit of time in Puerto Rico of late. Of course we wanted to escape Winter, and both of us were anxious to get a close-up view of the aftereffects of the hurricane that devastated the island. We own an apartment a half hour drive from San Juan. It serves as our base of operations whenever we go to the island.
As all of you know, nobody had power after the hurricane. We were told not to worry; for sure by January, when we planned to fly in, our apartment would be connected to the network.
Weeks passed, then months, and we were told that there was still no electricity or water in our apartment complex. But for sure by January… Two weeks before our scheduled flight I had had enough of reassurances. I needed a backup.
Fortunately, the Garriga clan was at one point very fertile. I called a few of my cousins, those that I was able to reach (no cell phone service for the others), to find out if they could help me find an alternative place with power. My cousin Zaira came up with the perfect solution: her and her husband had an apartment in San Juan that we’d be able to use until our own became livable.
“One warning,” she said. “The oven doesn’t work. The second Monday in January, at noon, a technician is coming to fix it.” The demand for skilled technicians is so great these days that appointments have to be made weeks in advance.
I assured her that we were not planning to do any baking, and that of course we’d be in the apartment at the scheduled time.
We loved the place. Beautiful building; great view; several scenic biking and hiking trails at our doorstep. The assigned Monday we made sure that we had nothing scheduled for noon. That morning I opened a door to a cabinet in the kitchen to reach for a trash bag. It came off its hinges. Phyllis is one of these people who, after she’s done using something that she has borrowed from you, will spend hours making it look better than it was when she received it. And now I had broken something. Our empty nest household went into crisis mode.
“It’s not our place! What are we going to do?”
I tend not to worry as much about my image, particularly when it comes to family. They’ve known me for decades. Either they love me by now, or there’s no way that I can make things worse.
It’s OK. This is a big building; for sure that they have a handyman on staff. I’ll go downstairs to see if we can get him over here.
The building manager said yes; they do have a handyman. He’s only supposed to work on building issues.
It’s a simple thing. I’d be willing to compensate him for his time if he could help us out.
“As soon as I see him I’ll send him up.”
In the meantime, my sister called: could we help with some issues that she had with her place. Noon was fast approaching, but we had some time. We went downstairs, got into our rented car, and told the building manager not to send the handyman up until 2PM. We were done with our errand and back at our new apartment before noon.
I had set a lunch date with a couple of my high school classmates. I still find it hard to believe that we keep in touch fifty plus years later. Everything being under control I took off; I told Phyllis that I’d be back before the handyman got there.
It turns out that the manager forgot to tell the handyman to delay his service call to us. Soon after I left, exactly at noon, he knocked on the apartment door. Phyllis opened the door, and in her rapidly improving Spanish told him that the oven didn’t work. She led him right to the kitchen and showed him the oven.
The overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans are very courteous and polite. They want to help. You ask for directions to get anywhere: they’ll drop whatever they’re doing and spend ten minutes explaining how to get there (99% of the time the directions will be impossible to understand and wrong, but that’s a subject for a different blog). Of course the handyman opened the oven and started to fiddle with it. Never did he say he was supposed to be looking at a door.
He asked how old the oven was (brand new); what was the problem (doesn’t turn on); was there a booklet of instructions that came with it (Phyllis began to scramble to look for it). After a few futile moves on his part, Phyllis called my cousin Zaira. She spoke to the handyman about the issue, and how upset she was that a new oven would not work. The handyman bore her ire with grace.
Right in the middle of this Phyllis got a call from the security guard downstairs.
“The oven technician is here,” he said.
“I know. I’m looking right at him,” is her answer. Our balcony doesn’t look down at the building entrance. The security guard knows this. But you have to be courteous, and if the lady says that she’s looking down at you, well, maybe she has some way to see through walls. He hung up.
Two minutes later the oven man knocks at the apartment door. Phyllis runs to answer.
“Oh! You’re early!” she says. “My husband is not here yet, but it’s a minor thing. Here, let me show you.” She leads him to the door that’s hanging lopsided.
Again, courtesy is paramount. This man knows that he came here to fix an oven, but obviously this woman needs help with the door. He’s going to give it a try. He notices that there’s another man in the kitchen, kind of fooling around with the oven, but he figures that maybe it’s a relative, or a neighbor, or someone who wants to buy a similar appliance. He gets on his hands and knees and moves the broken door about.
It takes a few minutes, but finally the two guys begin to talk to each other. Phyllis knows enough Spanish to realize that maybe their roles are reversed.
“Oh Lord!” she says. Then, in typical Phyllis fashion, she begins to laugh uncontrollably. The guys get the point, immediately. The oven guy stands up and begins to fiddle with the oven. It took the handyman three minutes to fix the door.
Phyllis tips the handyman and apologizes for the tenth time. It takes the oven guy a bit longer. A part has to be ordered. In Puerto Rico these days, a box of nails will take four weeks. An oven part… We won’t have a working oven while we’re here, which is fine with us.
Good intentions. Definitely not the road to Hell. Courtesy, patience and good will are essential to human discourse. Sometimes things don’t go as expected, but this shouldn’t deter us from being nice to our neighbors. At worst we can laugh about it when the problems are solved.