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Francie Latour

The roofer’s song

Tales of blue-collar misadventure in a white-collar world

By Francie Latour
February 9, 2011

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THE KNEE surgery was scheduled for January — that time of year when roofers across New England enter their season of hibernation. In the wild, hibernating brings a slowing of metabolism and breath. In roofing, where pitched heights and exposure to the elements are givens, winter is when my husband Brian’s nail-gun rhythms fall dormant. Time to order new boots and fix busted knees. Time to worry about his best guys jumping to other companies. Time for Brian’s hand-wringing — will there be enough work come spring? — to replace the daily purpose his hands find laying down shingle over shingle.

My husband has been roofing since 1992. His most natural instinct is to think like a drop of water. As one might imagine, I haven’t seen my husband much lately: Our lives were upended by an epidemic of ice dams, and a region-wide panic over the threat of man-made structures caving. Headlines screaming “roof’’ and “collapse’’ startled Brian from his winter slumber. Then came the unholy flood of phone calls. They came by the hundreds, some with bribes of homemade cookies or cash, others with tales of leaks dripping on bedridden relatives.

Since then, he has spent virtually every waking hour with a pick, a shovel, and a sledgehammer, triaging bruised rafters and lacerated fascia board. With every emergency, I’m reminded of the curious perspective on human behavior my husband’s trade illuminates — what I call the roofer’s song.

Up on the roof, Brian likes to say, it’s a little bit closer to God. But a roofer’s vantage point also throws a hard light on the tendencies of man — in this case, men and women in manicured suburbs who have uneasy relationships with the mechanics of their own homes, and with men who don’t wear loafers.

Many a roofing job comes and goes without incident, and the kindness of some customers is legendary. But at the height of the season, I can count on Brian to bring home two things: tar-stained hands, and tales of blue-collar misadventure in a white-collar world.

Stories of homeowners haggling over the contract price from inside their multiple-bay garages, filled with Porsches and Audis. Stories of surgeons who wouldn’t stand to be second-guessed, but feel entitled to second-guess the skilled hands of a tradesman. There was the Wayland man who wrote to explain why he would not pay a $200 bill: “Caulking work is obviously minimum wage work.’’ And the Dover woman who punctuated her complaint with, “I saw them. They were Mexicans. There were Mexicans on my roof.’’ (To that, Brian stated the obvious. “Not everyone who has brown skin is from Mexico.’’) Roofers can be vulgar; my repertoire of expletives has expanded dramatically living with one. But the casual elitism of customers can make a man wonder if, among the well-off and well-educated, there are some who don’t know what shame is.

From a personal standpoint, it’s hard to tell if this season’s roofing microburst was good or bad. The unexpected income was welcome. My husband’s prolonged absence was not. And there are stories yet to unfold, of customers who wanted Brian to stop whatever he was doing this month, and will neglect to pay Brian’s bill next month. I won’t even speak of the danger of his work: The sanity of a roofer’s wife depends on never contemplating the notion of falling.

But there’s something about being in on the roofer’s joke that has undeniable appeal. Early on in the onslaught of requests, Brian adopted a first-come first-serve policy. One recent night, at 10:45 p.m., a Needham caller would not be satisfied. “I want to know how much it will take for you to come to my house, right now.’’ It’s not about the money, Brian explained. It’s about being fair. Yes, yes, the caller replied, “but what would it take? $800? $900? $1,200?’’

Brian didn’t budge, and an appointment was made for three days out. But the conversation was one for the books. “What type of house do you live in?’’ the roofer asked. “Ranch? Cape? Colonial?’’ “I don’t know,’’ the caller replied. “It’s a McMansion.’’

Francie Latour is a writer, editor, and former Globe staff reporter who lives in Sherborn.