I have more embarrassing moments than your average bear. It’s the defining feature of my life, the essence of my core, ever propelling me to new frontiers of personal humiliation. On a scale of one to ten, the magnitude of my blunders can fall anywhere between three and forty-six. Some are easily forgotten. Others shoehorn their way into my thoughts at random, hum-drum moments: stopped at red lights, put on hold, moisturizing my cuticles. When especially bored, I relive entire scenarios. In high definition. With surround sound.
Heat wave, summer of 2007. I needed someone to put my air conditioner into my window. Thing was, I didn’t know who to ask. I was single. My guy friends weren’t from the area. And the super in my building had already had three heart attacks. I didn’t want to be the causal factor in his fourth.
There was, however, one possibility. The twenty-some-odd year old kid who did handy work around my building. I was daunted by the prospect of asking him, though. Never once had I seen him smile or say an audible “hello” to anyone. With that kind of aversion to human interaction, I couldn’t fathom how he’d respond to a request for a favor. Of course I’d throw him a couple of bucks; that was a given. But how much was appropriate? Five dollars? Ten? Fifteen? Either way, should I make it clear that I’d compensate him for his time?
It all seemed so complicated.
This, I thought, was exactly the kind of situation that drove happily single women into ill-advised relationships with men in toolbelts.
Waking up in soaking sheets one morning, I finally buckled. As I was leaving for work, I spotted the kid pruning a hedge, his back to me. “You can do this,” I told myself. “It’s no big deal.” Smoothing my skirt, I took a deep breath and sallied forth.
“Excuse me,” I said.
I cleared my throat. “Excuse me,” I said again, this time a little louder.
The kid turned, looked at me and muttered, “Yeah?”
“Could you. . .” My voice cracked; I paused. Then, “Could you possibly help me get an air conditioner in my window?”
The kid murmured something. I thought it was yes, but couldn’t be sure.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Was that a yes?”
“Yeah. I guess,” he mumbled. He shifted his weight to his other leg.
Great, I thought. He doesn’t want to do it, but can’t bring himself to refuse an old broad with no men in her life. How much more awkward could this be? And what the hell should I say now?
“Well, thank you,” I said. Then, “I’ll make it worth your while.”
The kid averted his eyes. Visibly fighting a smile, he said, “Uh. . .okay.”
As I replayed my words, “I’ll make it worth your while,” a series of shocks detonated, one by one, up my spine, coalescing into a burning fireball of shame. I couldn’t flee. I’d worn my beloved, high-heeled, Joan and David sandals. I was certain to trip on the stairs and go airborne, arms and legs akimbo. Best case, I’d end up in traction. Worst, I’d see myself in an episode of “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” or a similar show with an equally annoying host.
I was forced to try and fake dignity.
“Alright, then,” I said falteringly. “I’ll be home tomorrow. Come by in the late morning or early afternoon.”
The end to this story isn’t cataclysmic. The kid put in my air conditioner. I gave him ten bucks. Still, this kid, emblematic of every stupid thing I’ve ever done or said, has chores that place him all over the building. In the laundry room, by the mailboxes, on the front lawn: I see him everywhere. When I leave my apartment, there’s always a chance he’ll be scrubbing the hallway outside my door and I’ll have to step over him.
Did ten dollars make it worth this kid’s while? I can’t say. All it bought me was a world of pain.