The Home Depot is to many contemporary artists in 2013 what the art supply store was in 1913 â€“ a place to wander aimlessly when ideas arenâ€™t coming, hoping for a Eureka. To this day a Home Depot excursion still raises my heart rate like a dog about to be let out into a new park without a leash. Only, in New York, the excitement is partially offset by the maddening chaos within.
A glance into the parking lot of the Red Hook, Brooklyn Home Depot will tell you just about everything about the routine chaos: shopping carts strewn about its potholed lot and neighboring streets, some overturned, others stripped of their hardware; cars parked without regard for painted spaces, hatchbacks popped open selling everything from tamales to batteries to magazine subscriptions; desperate bands of unemployed laborers swarming for work. If anyone at the Red Hook Home Depot has any patience left after navigating the hazards in the parking lot, that patience will dwindle precipitously while fighting for position inside. Itâ€™s an environment that rewards the strongest and most brazen, and as a result, Red Hook Home Depot has evolved into a place where only the fittest endure. And so goes New York in general â€“ for all that you relish about the diversity of ideas, people, food and culture, who isn’t amazed that the city doesnâ€™t occasionally slip into some kind of Hobbesian free-for-all? When that melee does break out, my money is on the Red Hook Home Depot as ground zero.
My last trip to the Red Hook Home Depot was the final straw. I was there to get a half-inch piece of 4 x 4-inch plywood cut into 16 equal pieces â€“ a job that in the right hands should take 10 minutes. Only, the employee who manned the ripsaw willfully resisted helping me for half-an-hour. When I finally badgered him into cutting the wood he did the job so haphazardly that it was kindling grade when he gave it to me.
Meanwhile, my Home Depot in Grafton, Wisconsin is laid out and maintained with the care and precision of a Prussian military unit. Not a single Toyota Sequoia, or Ford Escape SUV is parked out of place in the parking lot. Even the bags of street salt are stacked by the entryway with OCD attentiveness. Shopping carts have proper alignment, are in one piece, and always sorted into distinctive subsets â€“ carts, separate from lumber trucks, separate from flat beds.
Two weeks ago I decided to head into that temple of a Home Depot for those 16, 12 x 12-inch squares that were mangled by the guy in Red Hook. Music was immediately audible on the PA system. In New York there is only the din of a thousand languages in an angry competitive blender. It was so quiet I could identify the song with Shazam. If youâ€™re curious it was â€œDrops of Jupiter,â€ by the band Train. I grabbed a shopping cart and celebrated the calm by popping some Evil Knievel wheelies down the lighting aisle. Compared to the Red Hook disaster zone, Grafton is the Bonneville salt-flats; open, hazard free sailing.
Hazard-free except that every orange-cloaked employee insisted on helping me until it hurt. For all the Red Hook aloofness and apathy, the Grafton team is a community of customer service fiends, hell-bent on delivering home improvement to its customers. I couldnâ€™t even load a 4 x 8-foot piece of half-inch plywood onto my flatbed before a dutiful employee intervened clumsily, grabbing the bulky slab and insisting on dragging it to the ripper. I told her I needed 16, 12-inch squares and she disappointedly informed me of ‘blade loss.’ I tried to tell her it didnâ€™t matter; that I just wanted something better than an arbitrary Red Hook butchering I got the week prior. With willful altruism, she went on measuring and cutting my wood with the care of lung surgeon. An hour later the simple project had turned into a solipsistic crusade.
â€œYeah, itâ€™s tough given the blade widthâ€¦you get a lot of loss. I’ll go find some scraps and we’ll see what we can do for youâ€
â€œYeah, but for my purposes, what youâ€™re giving me is more than fineâ€¦”
â€œHave you tried Fillingers in Milwaukee?
â€œI donâ€™t need anything that professional for these test panels, really, because I got a guy in New York who makes the real onesâ€¦â€
â€œFillingers is the best, thoughâ€¦let me get you their number.â€
I told her not to worry, but she was gone in a flash and so was most of my afternoon.
Eventually she came back with a slip of paper with a number on it.
â€œA. Fillinger Inc. 414-353-8433″
And before I could finally break her tackle, she launched into a story about her brother, an artist, who paints wildlife, but on canvas, and time passed slowly.
In the end, Grafton took every bit as long as Red Hook, only I got a stack of wood panels. So I had that going for me.
I was driving from Wisconsin to Brooklyn a few weeks later, as I do three or four times a year, panels in the back seat, and I got to daydreaming. I imagined the car cruising along this fake customer service continuum between Wisconsin and New York, kind of like the Griswoldsâ€™ Woody in the original Vacation. It occurred to me that there should be a place in Eastern Ohio equidistant from Grafton, Wisconsin and Red Hook, Brooklyn, with a customer service sweet spot. With all the politeness and personal care of Wisconsin and the naturally selective, catch-as-catch-can rigor of New York.
With the help of an iPhone, I calculated this mythical Arcadian Depot to be in Streetsboro, Ohio: store #3859. As I drove, I imagined I was Francisco Coronado looking for a lost city snow shovels, window glazing and table saws.
As I dreamed further, I could almost see it, a mirage in the distance as I cruised along interstate 80. Yes, there it was: a glowing orange sign signaling a corrugated monstrosity rising from a tower of basalt, knifing through a deep, gorge that somehow managed to cleave a nation, founded equally of helpers and fighters, givers and takers. And inside that warehouse swarmed a team of stoic, but still dutifully conscientiousÂ employees who wanted to help me just the right amount.