When a man buys a house, certain things are incumbent upon him. For example, he must become “handy.” He must familiarize himself with the structure of his home from top to bottom. He mustn’t let on if he doesn’t know the in’s and out’s of, say, the toilet system. He must affect a knowing smile at the mere mention of roofing tar. And electrical wiring? Why, it’s child’s play: “I studied circuitry in Grade 10,” he might say. “Now hand me those pliers…”
These are manly things, but there is no greater expression of masculine “do-it-yourself” savvy than ordering a load of gravel. When a homeowner receives the dump truck’s noble payload on his driveway, he can bristle with pride as the whole neighbourhood awakens to his gumption. A man who orders gravel is a man who knows a thing or two, and is not afraid to do a sweaty afternoon’s worth of man’s work.
Recently I became a homeowner and came of age, asserting my manhood by ordering a load of gravel. At least, I tried to. I was full of confidence when I picked up the phone to place the order, but things soon went awry.
“Hello, B & S Building Materials,” said a gruff, world-weary voice at the other end of the phone.
“Yes, I’d like to order some gravel,” I said. “I’m afraid I’ve never done this before and I’m not sure about…”
“What’s your address?” the voice interrupted. It occurred to me that this call was probably not being monitored for quality-assurance purposes. I proceeded to give my particulars, including my credit card number, all the while wondering if I’d ever get the chance to explain my situation, discuss my gravel needs, and get some advice before making any definite commitments.
That chance did not come. After taking down my credit card number and address, the voice abruptly barked: “What do you need?”
“I need some gravel. It’s for my driveway.”
“What size of stone?”
I was taken aback. It had never occurred to me that there were different sizes of stone. Then it dawned on me: of course there were! Suddenly I could remember seeing gravel that was nothing more than little pebbles, but on the other hand I’d seen it come in large rocky fragments too. Dammit, I said to myself, I wish I’d thought this through before phoning.
“I’m not sure what size of stone,” I said feebly. “Do you have any specials on?”
“Okay. What sizes of stone do you carry?”
“We have the standard sizes,” said the voice, with an unmistakable whiff of scorn. “We’ve got quarter-inch up to two-and-a-half.”
“I’ll take two-and-a-half,” I said arbitrarily.
The voice erupted into a malicious spurt of laughter. “Two-and-a-half for a driveway? Okay. Whatever.”
“Actually no,” I said. “I’m not quite sure. Would be too big?”
“You can get whatever you want, pal, it’s your nickel. But nobody gets two-and-a-half for a driveway.”
A long, painful silence followed. I broke it by asking what size of stone would be right.
“Most people get one-and-a-quarter.”
“Okay, I’ll take one-and-a-quarter.”
“How much gravel do you want?”
Again I was rendered speechless. Again, I hadn’t the faintest clue. One thing I knew for sure was that I wanted a dump truck, preferably a masculine-coloured dump truck adorned with mud, to come and deposit onto my driveway a respectable mound of gravel. The heap should be neither to big nor too small. Preferably it should be large enough to convey to my neighbours that I was involved in a substantial and manly project, not some piddling garden job. Yet, I didn’t want to overplay my hand.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“What are the dimensions of your driveway?”
“About 10 by 30,” I said, praying this would be the final question, and the emasculating questioning would come to an end. However, I wasn’t out of the woods yet.
“How deep do you want the gravel?”
Oh God, I thought. Again I was caught with my pants down. Yes, I really should have sat down in advance and figured out how deep I wanted my gravel. As much as I didn’t want to broach that subject now, at the eleventh hour, there was no way around it. “What do you recommend?” I muttered pitifully.
“It’s a matter of personal preference,” snapped the voice. “I can’t make that decision for you. You’ve got to live your own life.”
It was here that I lost all sense of self. I felt ashamed. I knew there must be a standard depth of gravel, a desirable depth of gravel, but this miserable voice would never tell me what it was. I was on my own. I panicked. “I’ll take a couple of cubic yards,” I said, and hung up.
Of course I have no idea if that’s the right amount of gravel. One thing’s for sure, though: when it arrives, I’ll be waiting in my driveway, clad in manly boots and perhaps a bandana, with shovel in hand. I will gesticulate with the shovel in a masculine way and guide the dump truck to exactly the right spot where it can deposit its payload. If the resulting gravel mound is too big or too small, I’ll explain to anyone who’ll listen that it’s a matter of personal preference. No one can tell me how to live my life.
published in Me magazine, Fall 2001; illustration by Atilla Szanyi