Sean Joyner learns a lesson in the aisles of Home Depot

On Doors and Redemption

Sean Joyner learns a lesson in the aisles of Home Depot

(Courtesy Sean Joyner)

Even though I was angry, I did not slam the door. I closed it slowly and quietly because I did not want to discover what repercussions a slammed door might bring upon me. My mother had just had the final word. She had exercised her authority as ultimate judge and arbiter of our household, which flared up in me a fire of frustration and fed-up-ness familiar to most adolescents. I can’t recall the exact content of the argument, only that it left us at odds, at opposite ends of what we each believed an 18-year-old high school senior should and shouldn’t be allowed to do. I left her, furious, huffing and puffing, and stomped up the stairs to my room, where I did not slam the door.

I squeezed the knob with all my might and pressed it motionlessly, as hard as I could, into the jamb. That wasn’t enough. I wanted to strike something, lash out, dislodge the pestering irritation that electrified my bones. Moping and morose, I threw myself onto my futon. From the mirror across the room my forlorn face looked back at me. You’re not a person who strikes things, it said. But, ruminating on the argument, I grew even angrier. I felt compelled to commit some act of retribution, to bring justice upon the physical world for the wrong that had been done to me.

I made a tight fist, like I was squeezing the juice out of an uncut lemon, stood up, and marched over to my door, meditating on all that irked me about my predicament. Yes, I was 18, but I was an adult, a grown man. I shouldn’t have to listen to my mother anymore. My heart knocked, encouraging me to raise that tight fist, drenched in that lemon juice. I squeezed harder, paused, then plunged my hand through the door. For a moment, I felt powerful, formidable, like a superhero from the movies. Then I was filled with terror. It was only a matter of time before I would hear the drum of my mother’s steps coming up the stairs. But I heard no thumps through the mangled hole in my door.

A surge of embarrassment overcame any kind of outrage I’d had a few moments prior. What had I done? I studied the white powder the door left on my hand and wrist. Blood streaked across my knuckles. Now, I had to go back down the stairs—repentant and contrite—to confront my mother, reveal what I’d done, and hope she might show me mercy.

“I don’t know what you were thinking,” she said as I stood sheepishly before her, clasping one of my dangling arms, “but you’re going to replace it.”

I tried to explain that I didn’t know how I was going to do that, that I had no way of getting a new door to the house since my car was too small to transport it. She interrupted my plea and told me that I’d better figure out a way. It was time for me to stop talking and start acting.

Higher Learning in Store

In my senior year, an architect from the local community college visited my high school to speak about a career path in architecture, something I was only vaguely interested in at the time. He shared in detail his professional work and expertise. But it was the architectural models he brought that captivated me. I’d never seen anything like them. During his talk, the architect—who later became one of my college professors—suggested Home Depot or Lowe’s as good companies for young people to earn money and gain practical knowledge relevant to architecture. I applied to Home Depot the same day and was hired a few weeks later.

When I thought of working there, I imagined myself in the lumber department, driving forklifts and flipping through construction documents with contractors, so I was dismayed to learn I was being hired as a cashier. But management assured me this was just a way to “get my foot in the door.”

Since cashiers stood at the front of the store, customers would always ask us where things were. It mortified me not to have an answer. What felt like over a hundred times a day, I was peppered with endless queries:
“Where can I get a brass gas valve, 3/8 inch to 1/2 inch?”

“I’m looking for a single-pole circuit breaker.”

“Buddy, point me to your stock molding.”

“Kid, you guys sell epoxy? I want J-B Weld, specifically.”

I had not the slightest clue what any of these things were. There was no reason for me to. What the hell was a gas valve, and did they come in different sizes? A circuit breaker? Was molding some kind of clay? And epoxy?

“Let me find out,” was my stock answer. As I got more familiar with the store, I’d walk customers to the location of the item they sought, or I’d find an associate in one of the departments to answer the customer’s questions. If I could, I’d stay to hear the solution. On my break, I took notes in a little notebook I kept in the orange apron we all wore, transcribing the location of an item and what it was used for. The next time someone had a similar question, I was able to help them.

I’d been with Home Depot only a few months when I destroyed my door. I considered going to Lowe’s to get a new one because I didn’t want to reveal to my coworkers that I’d wrecked mine in a childish fit. But after some reflection, I decided to leverage the opportunity to get to know the associates in the doors department at my new place of employment.

Up to that point, the only thing I knew about doors was what aisle they were in. As I roamed back and forth through that aisle, I quickly realized I didn’t know what to buy. Did I want a prehung door or just a slab? With hardware or without? And what size was I looking for? It all seems so straightforward now, but then, in my youthful ignorance, I’d never thought much about something as ordinary as a door.

Seeing through a New Lens

A tall, middle-aged man with bushy brown hair and the lurchy disposition of a Dr. Suess character looked down at me and chuckled after I told him I had not taken measurements.

“Then how do you expect me to help you?” he asked, snickering, both hands stuffed in the front pockets of his orange apron. I laughed, pretending I was in on the joke.

Thankfully, he recognized me as “one of the new kids up front.” He took me back down the main door aisle, explaining each section as we moved through it: the entry doors right at the front, security doors across from them, some sliding door displays in the middle, and, finally, the interiors.

It turned out I needed a slab, just the plain door. Prehung, I learned, were sold inside the frame. “That’s if you’ve got studs showing,” he explained. “You don’t want those.”

Back at his desk, he sketched a door elevation on a piece of paper. “Measure the height, width, and thickness of your door and the locations of all the hardware. Go by this sketch,” he said, handing it to me. “Fill it out and bring it back. I’ll help you out.” I folded the paper and slipped it into my pocket. Later that day I carefully measured my door. I copied everything on the sketch and placed it in my lunch box so I would remember it on my next shift.

Before long, I could not unsee them. As subtle as it was, I found myself labeling basic properties of the doors I encountered in my daily life, their different patterns, materials, and hardware, how they influenced the character of a space. Other aspects of my world that I’d taken for granted also became more vivid: how windows sat in walls, the texture of different kinds of carpet, the fabrics on furniture. Even the way light moved through a room began to feel special and noteworthy. I’d begun to see the world with a more profound sophistication, through a lens I would continue to refine in the coming years.

Backdrops of Life

Toward the end of my three-year tenure with Home Depot, I worked in the doors and windows department. Customers usually came in with a specific request: a red door to “raise the curb appeal” of the house they were selling, a screen door to enjoy the outside air without being pestered by insects, or, one that I still remember vividly, a solid core interior door for a mother who didn’t want to hear her son’s unceasing drum practice.

I found that a door purchase was always a symptom of something bigger, something more significant: Raising curb appeal could be about recalibrating one’s life, a new beginning; a screen door addressed a desire to be more connected to nature; a sound-muffling door gave a frustrated mother some degree of peace and quiet. Whether customers freely divulged information to me or if it was clear from the subtext of their transaction, their door purchases gave me a glimpse into their lives.

A few days after I took my measurements, I returned to the store and purchased the cheapest door I could find: a slab that was primed but not painted. A friend with a truck helped me get it home. Putting it up was easy. I never painted it, but my mom didn’t notice, and I eventually convinced myself that the primer was just matted white paint.

I would get married a few years later and move out, but I’d not yet embraced true adulthood and independence. My mother and I both had our transitional journeys in cultivating the tail end of my adolescent life. My infraction upon her door was one of the rougher episodes of that journey. While we were emotionally reconciled the same day as our argument, I had still destroyed her property. Installing the new door was the final act in my redemptive journey with her.

A door, then, can be much more than a door. It can be a performative prop that one can slam to signal outrage or a bringer of safety that can be locked to provide security. Doors can be backdrops for first kisses or missed invitations inside, sites for eavesdropping or getting caught in the act. There’s a certain dignity in having a door, of being able to open and close one of our own, to have the keys to it, to know that all that we hold dear is guarded by it, keeping away the prying eyes of the outside world.

Or maybe a door is just a thing that slides and swivels and swings.

Sean Joyner is a Los Angeles–based writer. He explores themes in architecture, culture, and everyday life.