‘Not My Problem,’ by Bruce Chaffin

Editor’s note: Congratulations to Bruce Chaffin, the winner of our True Tales of Woodworking Contest, and a $100 gift certificate to Lost Art Press! Thanks to everyone who entered in celebration of the release of Nancy Hiller’s new edition of “Making Things Work: Tales of a Cabinetmaker’s Life.” We enjoyed reading every one of the entries – and will run a few more of our top choices next week. Nancy will also be sharing some of the entries on her Making Things Work blog, so be sure to tune in there, too!
Fitz

edited boxMaybe you’ve built something that went exactly to plan or came out better than you had hoped.

Maybe your project started out as, say, a bed frame and ended up a bench.

Maybe the partially assembled parts gathered dust for years.

Or maybe it was doomed from the start.

In 2014, a contractor I worked with contacted me with a commission – his client, a tough-as-nails restaurateur in Center City, Philadelphia, got her landlord to pay for a planter box to be installed in the tree pit outside her upscale establishment. As a sign of defiance, she wanted it to be expensive. I liked the sound of this. For once, cost was not my problem.

She wanted the box built out of clear cedar, painted white, in keeping with the restaurant’s black-and-white color scheme. To match the interior woodwork, it was to be V-panels, which translated into $150 for the router bit set. Not my problem, the client would pay for it. She also wanted the box filled with dirt and planted, so I needed to build a small interior box to go around the tree trunk. My wife (repeatedly) insisted that this was going to kill the tree. My response? Not my problem.

I went to the site to take measurements and discovered that the tree pit was cut out of the sidewalk right next to the curb. Then and there, I knew that someday a car, truck, or the #12 or #17 bus was going to hit this box. Not my problem.

The contractor and I met again to agree on construction details and to come up with a plan — the four sides and inner box would be built off-site and assembled (Dominos, pocket screws, and glue) around the tree. With the chances of getting good miter joints for the rail cap on-site being slim to none and Slim just rode out of town, the rail cap was also going to be constructed off-site and hoisted over the young tree. We also agreed that someday this box was going to get hit.

Milling the boards where I rented shop time went without incident, as did construction at the builder’s shop space. Much as I hated seeing beautiful wood being painted, I enjoyed the luxury of having someone else do it.

Installation day saw the contractor, three helpers and I descend with the unassembled boxes and necessary paraphernalia, which we scattered over the sidewalk. As we dodged traffic, I was thankful that my strategy called for placing the bar clamps parallel to 20th Street and that the tree was not centered in the pit, so we could check diagonals for square. I handed the No. 2 guy a drill and screws and he said, “Don’t you want to do it? You built it.” I said, “Nope, you’re good.” Minutes later, he climbed out of the box and said, “Man, that really sucked.” I replied, “That’s why I wanted you to do it.” The rail cap, lifted over the tree by someone younger and taller than me, was screwed to the box, and the inner box was screwed together. As we admired our work, we pondered taking bets about how long the box would last before a car, truck or the #12 or #17 bus demolished it.

My travels in town often took me by my box, and I would express amazement to my companions that it had survived. Then sure enough, this January, a little more than 4 ½ years after the box was installed, I saw that it had finally met with a car, truck, or either the #12 or #17 bus. I didn’t feel anger or sadness. I simply said to myself, “Not my problem.”

ruined box

— Bruce Chaffin

About fitz

Woodworker, writer, editor, teacher, ailurophile, Shakespearean. Will write for air-dried walnut.
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9 Responses to ‘Not My Problem,’ by Bruce Chaffin

  1. Paul B. says:

    I’ve been self-employed (commissions and/or my own boss) for most of my working lifetime. The most difficult challenge I faced, regardless of the product or service I was offering at any given time, was allowing the client to have it ‘their way’ when it wasn’t the best or proper way. Only in my twilight years now, wizened and grizzled into geriatrics, could I offer Bruce Chaffin a knowing smile, a wink, and two thumbs up, saying: “Good for you.”

    Like

  2. Jim Blank says:

    Good story Bruce. Some people just won’t listen to reason, but oh well, you got some work out of it and a good story. I have had a similar experience involving a low hanging portico on the front of a funeral home. You know, the thing that shelters the hearse from the weather when the casket is carried out. Not meant for a truck,… or a school bus,… or another truck. You get the idea.
    Not complaining, it has been a nice stream of work for me over the years, fixing it over and over again.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nice tale. I loved the before and after photos.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jeff Simpson says:

    Well at least it looks like the tree’s done pretty well for itself!

    Like

  5. Anthony says:

    Four and a half years is a good run for that box. I would have placed my bet on the snow plow taking it out. Would have been spectacular to see that happen in real time.

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  6. potomacker says:

    It must be geography distance or sufficient passage of time which allow a tradesman to confidently aver: ‘not my problem’. In my experience, regardless of my initial concerns and warnings to a customer, I expect to get called back to a task whenever the customer is unhappy with what he asked me to do. It appears that the same tradesman (or dishwasher with a paintbrush) who touched up the benches with a topcoat decided that the same color would be good enough on the planterbo “in keeping with the restaurant’s black-and-white color scheme”

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  7. Gye Greene says:

    I hesitated (for 24 hours) to leave a comment — but decided that to **not** leave a comment would give tacit approval to this narrative’s thesis.

    To contradict the theme of this story: the situation described **is** the narrator’s problem.

    One of the responsibilities of being a paid expert is to provide advice to a client — even if not asked — and particularly if the client’s intent is inherently flawed. In the above story, the narrator does not advise the client that (1) the design will cause harm (kill the tree), (2) not be a robust design (be struck by a car), and (3) be a source of liability (potentially causing damage to the car that strikes it): instead, money is accepted, and the task is blithely and smugly completed — despite the awareness of multiple potential adverse outcomes.

    If the fair warning did occur, it was not made clear in the story: I am hoping that this warning actually **did** occur, and was simply omitted for the narrative flow.

    If there was, in fact, no advice provided, then the craftsman in this story behaved unethically: imagine (for example) an architect using toxic and structurally improper materials in order to indulge the whims of a client, without at least strongly advising against the requested approach.

    I would propose the opposite to this narrative’s thesis: if there is an opportunity to produce good, rather than poor work (not just the craftmanship, but also the design and suitability of the product), then that **is** “your problem”.

    On a more pragmatic level: implementing a flawed design risks liability, and risks damage to one’s reputation (because for right or for wrong, clients may “blame the contractor” for the bad idea). Both of these **make** it “your problem”.

    The event, however, **is** told in an entertaining manner. So perhaps it has been skewed in the interests of storytelling.

    (If this comment needs to be deleted, I won’t be offended.)

    -GG

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    • Marselle B says:

      If you ask “whose problem is it then?”, what’s really bothered me is that it’s ultimately the pedestrian’s problem. I wish this had been done on someone’s private, secluded property. Sidewalk experience is important in cities. I rely on my feet a lot to get me around and it’s equal parts magical experiences you’d only get that way and disheartening confrontations with the not-my-problem attitude (cars parked on sidewalks, construction trash, broken and forgotten public works signs, etc.). This has at least given me a new appreciation for the thought that’s gone into the long-lasting sidewalk gardens in my city! I now have a fantasy they are so strong they destroy cars that hit them. And yes, spite is funny so I did laugh at the client up front and found the story entertaining.

      Liked by 1 person

    • If you ask “whose problem is it then?”, what’s really bothered me is that it’s ultimately the pedestrian’s problem. I wish this had been done on someone’s private, secluded property. Sidewalk experience is important in cities. I rely on my feet a lot to get me around and it’s equal parts magical experiences you’d only get that way and disheartening confrontations with the not-my-problem attitude (cars parked on sidewalks, construction trash, broken and forgotten public works signs, etc.). This has at least given me a new appreciation for the thought that’s gone into the long-lasting sidewalk gardens in my city! I now have a fantasy they are so strong they destroy cars that hit them. And yes, spite is funny so I did laugh at the client up front and found the story entertaining.
      (edit: also not offended if I get deleted or canceled or whatever.)

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