|Hamid (left) and Jaouad (right) enjoy some coffee before getting started on the day's work.|
Hamid wiped off some snot with a wrinkled forearm and squinted at me through his Coke-bottle glasses, over a bulbous nose and bushy gray mustache. It was hard not to feel sorry for him as he whistled at me through the gummy space where his front teeth once were, now just framed by the odd browned incisor: "Andrew, je suis tres fatigué aujourd'hui. Tu sais, Monsieur Andrew?" Yes, Hamid, I know you're tired today. It was Ramadan, after all, and scorching hot at midday.
As a result, progress on the apartments had slowed to a crawl. The oft-promised "ten more days" slipped further behind us as July wore on. But not to worry, realtor-turned-contractor Reda and his band of merry men were still on the job.
One day I entered the villa's foyer and almost tripped over Hamid, who was standing in the entryway, his pants around his ankles. He yanked them up and refastened his belt. No explanation offered.
Another day, Hamid and Reda chuckled at a fellow worker, Jaouad, who had called to say he was driving to work and ran out of gas. "La panne d'idiots," Hamid giggled. The "breakdown of idiots" indeed.
At the end of the month, I packed my bags for my two-week East Africa vacation. Aziz, Reda, Hamid, and all the others assured me the apartment would be ready upon my return: "Ten more days, no problem. Bon voyage!"
"Oh, we didn't realize you were coming back today," Reda said, grinning nervously. It was a day later than I had told him I would return from my vacation, but I still came back to find a gaping hole where the promised shower stall was supposed to be. A few other minor details were still missing—things like kitchen counters, a refrigerator... you know, the details. But Aziz proudly showed me a massive black and red rug that now covered the living room floor. This, to my landlord, was what progress looked like.
A few days later, I stopped by and discovered that Aziz had hired a painter to coat the once-clean white walls of my living room into a glistening stuccoed disaster. "Tomorrow he'll be back to do the ceiling," Aziz said. "No he won't," I said, standing in the middle of the living room that now looked, in the words of one very amused colleague, like one big shiny, cream-colored wedding gift.
A week after returning to Algiers, having more than overstayed my welcome at my friend's, I finally just decided to move into my apartment anyway, construction be damned.
The next day, I rolled up my sleeves and helped Hamid finish installing the kitchen cabinets and attaching the countertops. That task finished, I stared off into the distance, reminiscing about the construction job I had back in college. "All done, Monsieur Andrew." I came back to reality to find Hamid scrubbing gummy gobs of caulk from his fingers with the clean dish sponge I had just unwrapped.
Later that day, Reda and I were driving back from the hardware store, where we'd found a missing part for the shower drain. "Do you wanna see my bike?" he asked. Trying to remember how long it had been since I had last bathed, I hesitated, eager to return home and install my shower. Before I could answer, Reda whipped his pickup truck around with a screech of tires, and slipped into a narrow alley. Five minutes later I was standing in a dim, grease-stained garage deep in the old colonial downtown, watching as Reda revved the engine on a muscular Kawasaki sport bike. "How did I get here?" was all I could think.
"Ten more days" kept passing, but the more time I spent in the apartment, the more I noticed the corners they had cut and the work that still needed to be done throughout the building. Lucky for me, Hamid was ever on the job.
One day, I came downstairs to use the internet in the building's third apartment—that apartment had it, unlike my own—and found Hamid watching a Chuck Norris movie dubbed in French. He explained how hard it was to sit all day, waiting for the plumber to arrive. "C'est dur, Monsieur Andrew, je te jure que c'est dur..."
But the next afternoon, I returned from work to find him in a particularly cheery mood. He stood up from my bathroom floor, where he was working to install the shower drain, and chuckled, "Monsieur Andrew, tu connais MacGyver?" Yes, Hamid, I know MacGyver, I groaned. "Je suis MacGyver." He promptly dropped the pipe in his hand, sending it skittering across the tiles with an ear-splitting clatter.
In Algeria, a toilet is not a toilet if it is not equipped with a small hose to sprinkle your rear with. One day, eager to show off his handiwork, Hamid turned on the hose he had just installed beside my toilet. With the hose still going full blast, he turned toward me, soaking my work shoes and pants while he continued his explanation. (The hose stopped working the next day, and had to be replaced.)
At the end of the month, Hamid spent a few days sanding God-only-knows-what. Before I left for work each morning, he would ask me to help tie a dishcloth across his face like a bandanna and then, his cowboy outfit complete, he would giggle as he spun around, pretending to shoot me with an invisible revolver.
Forget "ten more days"; at a certain point, I learned to just be happy to come home after work and find nothing broken.
To be continued... [UPDATE: Episode 3, "Is It Over Yet?"]