In my idealistic, full-of-youthful-promise twenties, I decided to make the world a better place—by volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. I was determined to help create homes for deserving families. I just needed to learn in exactly what capacity I could best advance humankind. My paid job at the time was teaching English, so all I had to do was figure out how my enviable skill at reading literature and grading compositions was transferable. Constructing a house, constructing an essay—there had to be significant parallels.
When I first showed up to my volunteer job, I was assigned to actual construction work. Since in my teens I had built a two-dog doghouse, I felt pretty confident I could manage driving nails into boards—as long as someone coached me on how many nails and exactly where. The problem was that the supervisor I required obviously could have accomplished more with less frustration had I not been “helping.”
After I’d been hammering for a while, a couple of veteran workers showed up, and that’s when I learned how dangerous a thing it is to volunteer. One had a pistol with a rubber plunger-like contraption at the end of the barrel for shooting bolts into concrete. The other worker had a pneumatic nail gun. There were guns to the left of me and guns to the right. Once, when Mr. Nail Gunner got too close to the edge of a board, a nail zipped past me only a few feet from my head. A few feet’s difference and I’m pretty sure an x-ray of my skull with a nail sticking in it would have ended up on the internet. If you’ve guessed I asked to be reassigned after this close brush with cranial skewering, then you’ve hit the nail right on the head.
So I was moved to demolition. An old house had been donated to Habitat, and it needed to be renovated and moved. I was assigned to tear out a wall with a crow bar. This sounded like a lot of fun. Who doesn’t relish the idea of destroying another person’s hard work? But this was an old house. The walls were not just sheet rock and insulation. They were made of heavy bat board, and I could not pry these boards loose. All I could do was break them into smaller and smaller jagged pieces. After an entire morning’s work, I had made so little progress that the job boss decided to keep the wall after all.
After this house was moved, I was sure I’d finally found my proper niche when I was tasked with cleaning up debris at the original site. I raked and gathered small chunks of concrete and splinters of wood. “This is well within my skill set,” I thought, “and no one’s shooting at me, so it’s absolutely safe.” That’s what I thought—until another volunteer, who’d brought his front-end loader, scooped and then lifted the left-behind multi-ton concrete front steps. He lifted them high over his tractor’s cab and then inched toward a waiting dump truck. The machine strained with the weight, and balance seemed to be an important issue as the driver maneuvered over to the truck. Once there, he had only to tip the steps forward, but whatever he was trying to do, what actually happened was that the massive concrete Sword of Damocles poised over his head began to rock—first rocking back toward him. I saw what was happening with that intense clarity of slow motion. The physicists among you may know the rate at which free-falling objects fall. I don’t. But I knew that if the concrete steps rocked out of the scoop, they’d be this close to becoming a stairway to heaven.
Luckily, the rocking stopped, and finally the concrete death-threat thundered into the dump truck as planned. But I realized that even while voluntarily doing a good deed on your day off, you can be flat killed.
After this, I decided I was probably a painter. With painting, there’d be no guns, no projectiles, no harrowing life-or-death drama. I’d wear goggles and not sniff the paint too much, and I’d be fine. So on a Saturday morning I joined several women painting a bedroom. The soon-to-be homeowner had picked out the paint, so who was I to question the color? Is there even a term for maroon-tinged purple? The artists among you may know. I don’t. But what I do know is that when the homeowner saw our full-day’s work, she said, “Oh, God! That’s not the color I picked. Can we change it?”
There are many competent, handy, fearless altruists who know how to further the admirable mission of Habitat for Humanity. But as you’ve probably deduced by now, I don’t.
Yes, it feels good to make the world a better place. And that’s exactly what I finally figured out how to do—the day I quit volunteering.
Maybe I’ll try my hand as a humorist.
This piece previously appeared in Funny Times.