Heavy Metal


"I hear you're handy," my daughter's kindergarten teacher says. "Is that true?"

Thinking this conversation cannot possibly end well, I respond cautiously: "Maybe by Jewish standards…"

Francine's teacher seems to think that is good enough. She is looking for someone to build a Chanukah menorah for her class; she has no particular design in mind but is hoping I can come up with something.

And so I have a choice: I can reveal my incompetence by taking on the project, or I can reveal my laziness by refusing. I tell her I will think about it, but of course this means I am already committed.

On the way home, I wonder where Francine's teacher got the idea that I was handy. I suspect the source of this rumor was my wife, whose family is impressed by anyone who knows what a Phillips head screwdriver looks like.

When I confront her, she admits that she might have intimated that I knew my way around a tool drawer. But she insists she had no idea that I was about to be roped into menorah construction.

Trying to live the role I have been assigned, I take Francine to Home Depot, because I figure that is where handy people spend their Sundays. She is excited about the outing until I tell her that, unlike Ikea, the hardware megastore does not have a play room filled with hollow plastic balls.

Home Depot's Web site gives seemingly precise directions to the branch in New Rochelle, including instructions such as, "Turn left on W 239th St and go Southeast for about 300 feet. Turn right on Riverdale Ave and go South for about 400 feet." It estimates that the 7.7-mile trip will take approximately 13.51 minutes.

That turns out to be a bit of an underestimate, mainly because Home Depot did not take into account the peculiar geography of Riverdale, where streets stop abruptly for no apparent reason right before the turn you need to make. We drive around the Bronx for half an hour or so, stumbling quite by accident upon what Home Depot calls "US Hwy 1," which the maps and street signs refer to as Boston Road.

After that emasculating experience, I am determined not to get lost in Home Depot itself. I stride confidently up and down the aisles, Francine in tow.

Francine keeps insisting that we have been in this store before. I say no, that was a different Home Depot, in a different town. But look, she says, there are the light bulbs, and the carpet samples, and the spray paint. We go back and forth like this for a while, until I decide that my inability to win the argument is not enhancing the manly image I am trying to project.

Then, in the plumbing aisle, inspiration strikes. Experimenting with short pieces of three-quarter-inch galvanized pipe and various joints, I lay out the shape of a nine-branched candelabra on the Home Depot floor.

Passers-by are giving me the sort of looks that Richard Dreyfuss got in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when he started building a model of Devil's Tower out of chicken wire and dirt. But I don't care. For the first time in a while, I feel like I know what I'm doing.

At the Judaica store where I go to buy glass oil holders for the top of my menorah, the salesman notices that I'm holding a T joint. He tells me he once saw a menorah made entirely of galvanized pipe that sold for $3,000.

Judging from the cost of the materials I bought, that represents a markup of about 6,500 percent. I wonder if I should ask for the menorah back after the school is done with it. Suddenly it seems too valuable to entrust to a bunch of 5-year-olds.

On the morning when I set up my industrial-style menorah in Francine's classroom, the kids gather in a circle and eagerly take turns connecting the joints and pieces of pipe. My proudest moment comes when a boy watches me apply a wrench to a stubborn joint and asks, "Are you a fixer?"

But that notion is short-lived. As the menorah takes shape, the teachers offer compliments. "What a creative idea!" says one. "That is so creative!" says another. I guess if you can't be handy, it's the next best thing.