Ode to Joy

Ziggy came into our lives on a cold December afternoon and left six months later, at the end of June. During that time, he laid waste to our apartment, put it back together, and in the process, upended our lives.

Ziggy was our contractor. A Polish immigrant, he'd been here almost thirty years yet he was the least Americanized person I knew. He had courtly manners, an old-world devotion to craft, and a wartime mentality, even though he was born long after the end of World War II. Technically, we hired him to paint our apartment, but when he came over to give us an estimate, he seemed so capable and erudite that we asked him if he could do a few other things as well. Like freshen up the molding, restore the electrical outlets in the ceiling, and get rid of the ugly air conditioner cabinet that stuck out into the living room.

"Of course. This is very simple," he said in a tone of voice that suggested he thought we were pretty simple too. He told us the job would take six weeks and we could live there the whole time. But by the end of two, the dust and noise were so bad, we moved into a hotel. At first, he hired helpers. I'd go over, hear him speaking torrents of Polish, and notice the beaten-down look on their faces. Eventually he fired them. "It’s simpler if I do it myself," was all he said. By then, the inside of the apartment was demolished. There were heaps of splintered wood, rusty nails, and dusty trash bags on the landing. Wires dangled from the ceiling. Everything was dark. The house plants were dead.

One day when I went over to check on things, he emerged from the gloom of the hallway in a miner's headlamp, pointed to a beam in the ceiling, then nearly toppled over. He looked to be the picture of health—tall and husky, with high cheekbones, a rosy complexion, and sandy hair—but it turned out he had hypertension.

Between his doctor's appointments and city holidays, when contractors weren't allowed in the building, the project slowed to a crawl. I resorted to bribery, bringing him bottles of flavored green tea and low-sodium pretzels from the convenience store on the corner. Instead of motivating him, he was mortified that anyone would spend that much money on an artisanal brand. "I drink Lipton," he said. "Or water."

I tried flattery. Noting the care he took with the woodwork, I said, "You must be a very successful contractor." His response was terse. "I'm not. I worry too much about everything."

So, I just tried to be friendly. "Did you know there’s a very famous person in America who has your first name?"

"Yes," he said sourly. "Zbigniew Brzezinski. I don’t know why he's so famous. He's not that smart." I was stunned—was he truly suggesting he was smarter than Jimmy Carter's national security adviser? Later, a therapist friend of mine said his remark was a symptom of anxiety.

Back at the hotel, my husband was getting as anxious as Ziggy. He developed rashes, couldn't work, and kept asking when we could go home. Another friend, whose ex-husband was a contractor, said I needed to set deadlines and withhold payment if he didn't meet them.

"But he's honorable," I said, feeling the need to defend him because of the exquisite quality of his work and because somehow, I saw him as a tragic figure. "Besides, don't all construction jobs run over schedule?"

"Maybe," she said briskly, "but you're completely dependent on his timetable." She had a point. He was texting me from Home Depot at 9:30 at night, wondering what kind of switch plates to buy. So, I started making frequent trips there myself to buy whatever hardware he needed.

One day, an elderly clerk from the former Yugoslavia told me he'd just watched the Vienna Philharmonic play "Ode to Joy" in Sarajevo to mark the beginning of World War I. "It was beautiful,"" he said, "but really, what was there to commemorate when so many people died?"

My eyes welled with tears. I was exhausted from trying to get along with Ziggy, with his perfectionistic nature and grim, stoic disposition, and here was another mournful European émigré, bearing the scars of a different war.

"Good point," I said politely, pulling myself together. "Now, can you tell me where to find the door knobs?"

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