Hardware store novice needs to lose the attitude

Tim Requarth Column

Has anyone ever considered why hardware stores mystify so many people? “Men need tools,” reads the broad side of my brother’s Snap-on truck. He is — though surely he hasn’t thought of it this way — fundamentally correct. Without tools the wretched lot of degenerate monkeys we call humans never could have survived. The instinct to look for assistance — be it from tools, plants or animals — has been a defining theme in the development of mankind and perhaps partially explains the stupidity I encounter on a daily basis as an employee of a certain hardware store in downtown Evanston.

I throw no stones at the hardware-store novice. I have been there too many times myself. The lexicon alone is enough to intimidate the most intrepid of do-it-yourselfers. To browse through the inventory of a hardware store is to be assaulted by a cavalcade of preposterous names and inexplicable subdivisions: flanges, grommets, cotter pins. Rivets, tinners and burrs; pawls and phenols. Screws are no longer screws; they divide into cabinet screws, wood screws, drywall screws, furniture screws or machine screws, all with different head styles, thread width and thread gauge. Nuts may be winged and bolts may be toggled. We have a bin for woodruff keys though no one seems to know what a woodruff is and why it needs to be locked. I can think of two distinct items that can properly be called a plunger in addition to the familiar household hero.

But the jargon alone cannot explain the depth of ignorance I witness. All working in a hardware store amounts to, really, is problem-solving. People seem conveniently to abandon their own problem-solving skills at the door. Once inside, the critical-thinking module of the brain is bypassed, and any inane question that flutters into the mind’s eye slips from the lips without hesitation.

They are not stupid people. They are, in part, professors and students of a mid-sized, reputable midwestern university, supposedly some of the sharpest knives in the cutlery set. My fellow employees seem to disagree. “How are these kids so stupid?” my manager asks. “This is supposed to be, like, a top-notch school, right?”

The professors are no better. “I have an embarrassing question,” a middle-aged academic recently confessed to me. My mind erupted with the prospect of terrifying, grandiose follies: Did he lock his baby in the car? Did he drop his wedding ring into a toilet clogged with yesterday’s questionably fresh Chinese buffet? Did he drop his baby into the toilet? “I can’t seem to find reverse in my car,” he peeped. I muffled my laughter with the obsequiousness of consumer-subservience. Would he have asked, for example, his mother-in-law to leave her house and back his Audi from the driveway? In a situation he would have solved himself anywhere else, the aura of compulsory ignorance sent him instead scurrying into the hardware store.

I’m not saying that everyone can be handy. Like any other skill, it takes time and practice to learn, in this case usually by the laborious process of trial and error; and surely the trials of some consistently produce fewer errors. But let this be a warning for those — both students and professors — who prance into Evanston with superior airs: The community of Evanston is watching. And laughing their asses off.

Tim Requarth is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at [email protected]