I don’t know squat about mechanical things, but my wife has an affinity for the supposedly male realm of “do it yourself.” This is “feminism in the streets,” believe me—because when we go to a hardware store or home-supply warehouse, it never fails: the guy behind the counter always tries to talk exclusively to me.
The American world of home repair traditionally inclines to a strict separation of the sexes, and even to the “purification” of the male sex—I’ve gotten many a contemptuous look from clerks who clearly deemed my ignorance about carpentry and wiring as unmasculine. Employees of the various suppliers, it seems, incline to split the world into the domains of women and of men. Then they deny reality to hold onto their preconceived notions. My experiences illustrate this tendency.
My wife will say, “I need weather stripping…,” and the clerk will nod, then swing toward me like a baby bird looking for dinner. “What do you need it for?” he’ll ask. Since I didn’t even realize we needed weather stripping to begin with, I can’t contribute much. But he just looks at me, waiting for an answer.
I’ve tried several strategies. The first seemed obvious. “I don’t know anything about this stuff!” I’d say cheerfully. “You’ll have to talk to her.” Sometimes I’d even have to point directly at my spouse.
“Ah,” the guy’d say, turning to her and repeating, “What do you need it for?” (Some, I swear, even say it a little slower).
“I want to seal my garage doors, to keep the rain out…” she’d say. But like iron to magnet, sunflower to sun, he turns again to me. “So we’re talking weather stripping…”
Right back where we started.
Then I tried standing there without saying anything. But this was just too hard on the guys. As I waited out the awkward silence, they’d try to look at her—but their heads kept snapping back to me, as if their necks were rigged with big rubber bands. Sometimes I almost felt sorry for them—they acted confused, like a dog when he sees another dog on TV.
At times I’d even do that old comedy bit, nodding my head surreptitiously in my wife’s direction, rolling my eyes toward her, maybe even pointing behind my other hand...
So my strategies evolved. I’d pretend to look at other things in the store—but then I seemed like an expert checking out the merchandise, so I was still the one to address. For a while I’d actually walk up to the counter and turn my back once my wife began to speak. But as she told me later, they just kept looking desperately at the back of my head.
More than once I was ready to grab a shirt-front and growl, “TALK—TO—HER!” Or scream out, “Didn’t anybody see Marissa Tomei in My Cousin Vinnie?!” My wife fantasized about taking hold of the man’s jaw and actually turning his face toward her—or chanting the kindergarten teacher’s rhyme “One two three—eyes on me!”
So we had to give up our little campaign for social change. Now when we walk into one of those places, she says to me—sometimes a bit curtly—“You just go look around!” But I don’t mind; I’m above the macho stuff.
So I idly inspect hammers and drill bits, then wait for her near the registers. Last time there was another guy waiting too. “What’d you come for?” he asked pleasantly.
Another Tim Allen fan? Or might he be a secret know-nothing like me?
I couldn’t take that chance.
“Weather stripping,” I said in a knowing voice. “You know—seal those garage doors...”