Last Monday afternoon I did a dirty, degrading, disgusting act. I have done it before and doubt that I will be able to stop myself from repeating it in the future. I did it for money. Yet, even as my hands were busy with the foul intricacies of my vile duty; while I crouched on a dusty carpet fiddling with the loathsome thing I had procured of my own free will; for all those long minutes when I would have been embarrassed to have been discovered at the unclean deed I was abetting (I engaged with another man in the wretched business); I was also marvelously entertained at the prospect of just how low one may descend under the press of economic necessity, yet how much the incongruity of our lives can offer the recompense of laughter, even though an observer might not immediately see just what was so hilarious about the unfortunate task I practiced.
I will name the act and the price: I bought, for fifty-seven dollars, a pre-hung, split-jamb luaun plywood hollow-core door and hung it in a bedroom in a development of a hundred-and-some houses, each of which (the houses) is either identical to each of the others or the mirror image of them (except for exterior paint color, of which there are four varieties, depending upon which cluster the house is a part of.)
Oh, you may say you would never descend so far. Maybe so. But these are mean times. And for those of us who have never enjoyed job security, union protection, tenure, a retirement plan, a secure job in a solid corporation or booming industry, the jobs we do to put the macaroni on the dinner table are ours to select only from the jobs we are offered, and this day this family wanted this door and there it hangs and swings, my fingerprints smeared over its surface and in its cracks and my soul, yes, just the smallest bit dirtier for my acquiescence in the foul, evil deed I have done.
A residential interior door is an inch and three-eighths thick. It may be made of pine or douglas-fir or hardwood. Here in New England the six-panel style is popular. But always, where cost is the driver, the possibility of the hollow-core door remains. The thickness is the same, but the frame, rather than a four or five inch wide piece of wood, is reduced to a strip only an inch or so wide-just enough so that the skin of thin plywood may be glued to it. Formerly the bulk of the door was composed of a grid of cardboard cells that held the two faces apart, although that seems not always to be present in newer iterations of the concept-even cardboard costs money, and if you can save fifty cents each over a hundred thousand units....
There used to be a wood block in the area where the bores must be made for the knob and latch. Now this small area is composed of particle board-low density particle board, crumbly stuff. In the particular door I worked on this week it had not been centered precisely on the knob, so the hole broke through one edge of it, leaving a nice view into the vacancy of the interior.
I said the frame was at least real wood. Well, it used to be. Then for many years it was a strip of wood glued up from small, usually very knotty, blocks with a thin veneer of clear (although often cross-grained) wood over the visible edge. Now, It saddens me to tell you (although, too, I cannot help giggling maniacally as I continue my discovery of just how low we can go), the wood is gone; the frame is made wholly of a (still narrow) strip of medium-density fiberboard. This is a soft, dingy brown material you can dig away with a fingernail. Imagine putting a barrelful of used Kleenex into a hydraulic press, heating the cellulose-and-mucous mass until it bakes into a slab, then sawing it into strips.
To this weak frame, the manufacturer applies two sheets of plywood, each about an eight of an inch thick, one to each face. This plywood (which may technically not be a plywood at all, since its core layers may be only compressed wood pulp, not cross-banded layers) is made from one of several species of wood lumped together in the trade as luaun or Philippine mahogany. They are not true mahoganies (members of genus Swietenia). You may remember Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos liquidated much of the forests of his country exporting this lumber so his crazy wife could buy more shoes and he could store more bullion.
The jambs are wood (finger-jointed from smaller pieces), constructed so that when cased they fit together in a tongue-and-groove fashion, allowing them to be pressed together in the opening without the necessity of fitting a solid jamb to the exact size. Unfortunately the split-jamb confers a degree of wobbliness upon the affair, but at least the almost-weightless door puts little strain upon the system.
One word more before I leave this description: the latch. For nine dollars I bought a tulip-pattern knob with the brand name "Defiant". Do not let this appellation mislead you. A more descriptive name would have been Pathetic or Sleazy or maybe just Sad. It was of the thinnest possible metal (I actually entertained the possibility it might be plastic). It did function, although for how long it might do so I will not predict. And apart from its unbearable lightness of being, I have to ask, What exists in any closet that merits a defiant guard, and who wants the crap most Americans store in those rooms anyway? Nevertheless, it stand against all comers, holding its thin door against violation.
Why do I tell you this? Because I think there's more to it than just one man, one door, one day in May. See, I have been relatively lucky in my forty years of building and repairing. For the most part I do interesting jobs with better materials. For every cheesy luaun hollow-core split-jamb creation I've handled, there've been fifty six-panel pine or solid-core birch or one-of-a-kind custom-built doors on solid jambs. But my partner and I choose our customers carefully; most carpenters in America just move from house to house in the muddy developments under construction everywhere, doing the bidding of the go-getter in the golf shirt and the Mercedes who hired them. I fear the cheap affair I struggle with infrequently may have become the standard door in America.
And if so it may not cause much harm (except to the ravaged Philippine forests). But as we accept a sixty dollar piece of crap because we are unwilling to go a hundred and ten for something decent, might this false economy not also infect other decisions? I contend that we are so accustomed to decisions and choices that would have appalled and shocked and disgusted our grandparents that we may no longer collectively be capable of separating the good from the bad, the right from wrong, a solid policy from a film of flim-flam. The American culture may be more veneer than substance, just a hollow core.
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Consider Congress. Now anyone can easily enough see that by the time a man or woman has worked his or her way up through the two-party structure to national office the creature that takes the oath and the check and the benefits will have compromised so thoroughly so often that corporations and con-men, banks and bag-men will be daily associates, the voters in the home district necessary only periodically to renew the lease on the (perhaps true mahogany) desk.
It's true the Republicans are somewhat more naturally attracted to money, but Democrats soon acquire the taste. So when the bankers and insurance companies cry, Congress delivers billions and trillions of dollars of salve to their self-inflicted wounds, enjoying in return the campaign contributions, speaking fees, board appointments and bribes that are their due for such attentive service.
Foreign policy? Money. Who contributes more, more often. So, since weapons contractors and oil companies and AIPAC pony up, we need bombs and bullets to unload on Israel's neighbors in the part of the world where the most oil may be most easily extracted by American companies. Simplistic? A little. True? You know it is.
So forget Congress. The Republicans are a lost party of fools, chasing every nutty religious or anti-scientific or misogynistic or racist or xenophobic vapor the AM radio audience can dream up, protecting the sanctity of "Traditional Marriage" against the seeping stain of wedded queers. The Democrats will soon have that filibuster-proof sixty-seat Senate majority they've said prevented their taking any action against eight years of Bush-Cheney malfeasance, and I predict they will continue to send your tax dollars straight to the corporations and your boys into foreign wars. Arlen Specter is as easily a Democrat as a Republican.
But we have a new president who has promised change. Hope and Change. And we desperately wanted both, believed what the candidate and a mostly adoring and almost entirely uncritical press promised us, and have not much troubled ourselves to peel back the veneer and look at the construction that props up that message.
A week before my little door job, United States warplanes bombed and killed scores of civilians in Afghanistan, perhaps as many as a hundred and fifty. You can find pictures of the dead and injured with little effort if you're willing to look. Many of them were horribly burned: babies, children, whole families. Some witnesses say the attack included use of the incendiary white phosphorus. This has been a regular, continuing, inherent part of our escalation of the war in that country. The president orders it, Congress funds it, the press does little to investigate it, the public accepts it.
If the sums of money President Obama has pumped into war in Iraq and Afghanistan had been requested by George Bush, Harry Reid would have questioned it (then voted for it); Nancy Pelosi would have called in reporters to express her outrage, promising to fight it every step of the way (and then doing little to nothing) . If we had been bombing and burning civilians at this rate (even our puppet government in Kabul is now complaining), sending this many thousands of soldiers into these pointless, futile, ghastly wars when Dick Cheney was pulling the strings, the liberal old ladies would have manned every bridge in Maine every weekend demanding peace.
But we have Hope. We have Change. Geitner says the banks are solid. It's baseball and barbeque and boating season. My boy didn't get blown up on the road to Basra. No fire fell from the skies over Head Tide or Sheepscot last week. It's only been a hundred days. Give Change a chance. The first lady is planting a garden and there's a puppy on the White House lawn. Don't ask too many questions or you'll undermine Hope. Don't scratch the veneer too hard or you'll expose the hollow core.
But what do I know? I've been prostituting myself in the developments.
While the quality of the cheesy doors above described has likely not fallen much since he wrote this essay Tuesday morning, the Obama presidency continues to deteriorate at a brisk pace. Although his more conventionally liberal friends continue to assure him that it is too soon to judge, Cooper will tell you he is disgusted with the fact that in the few days since this piece was committed to his editor at the newspaper and its submission to CommonDreams Mr. Obama has made clear he has more in common with Richard Nixon and George Bush than those of us looking for the elusive, evaporating change can stand: suppress the pictures of our brutality; look to the future, not the past; change generals and keep the war machine humming. Feel free to remind the author that his negativity is unproductive and unwarranted.