Personal Essays

How to Hang a Cabinet

Nothing satisifies quite like home improvement, especially after you’ve ripped the wall out of your bathroom. A short guide to avoiding complete catastrophe.

Home improvement is always a rewarding adventure. Nothing beats the warm flush of domestic pride you experience from hanging a plasma-screen television or fishing possum carcasses from your ventilation ducts. Each gesture of do-it-yourself workmanship around your apartment or house elevates your sense of comfort and belonging, and draws you closer to the belief that goes, “Yes, this is truly my home now and not just some abandoned loft in which I’m squatting until the housing board physically removes me.”

I am not especially skilled with tools, but recently I realized I needed a new medicine cabinet for my bathroom. When the salesperson at Medicine Cabinets Party Town Discount Superstore told me how easily I would be able to assemble and hang this piece of furniture, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to do a little bit of home improvement, and then brag about it unrelentingly for the rest of my life.

The salesperson assured me I would be able to assemble and hang the medicine cabinet with a few easy steps, in about 15 minutes. His estimate was off by only 13 weeks, two days, nine hours, and six minutes, but he was right about the few easy steps.

1. Walk into a store that sells furniture seemingly made of brightly colored candy. (Some salespeople will call this style of furniture “mid-century modern.” It’s OK to roll your eyes when they do. It’s not OK to cut the salesperson off in mid-sentence and yell, “Modern, schmodern. Just kindly direct me to the sex hammocks!”)

2. Choose your medicine cabinet, which seems to be readily available, hanging on a wall in the store. Point to it and announce, “Me want.” The store’s lone employee will put down his maki roll and tell you, “That’s a great piece.” (Note: You are probably paying too much for a medicine cabinet if the store’s salesperson refers to it as a “piece.” Umberto Boccioni’s “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” is a piece. Something that hides your Speed Stick is not a piece; it’s a medicine cabinet.)

3. Begin prying the medicine cabinet from the display wall. Really put your shoulder into it. At this point, the salesperson will drop his hand-strengthening flex ball and race over to you. “Oh, no, no. We should have that piece in stock in about six weeks.” He is, of course, talking about that piece you’re standing right in front of. Allow your mind to be blown.

4. Wait six weeks. Call the store. Someone with a crisp European accent will answer and tell you a beautiful story about a shipping container in Sweden, a suspicious piece of cargo, and an over-cautious Swedish government. The moral of the story: Wait seven more weeks.

Approach your bathroom wall warily. This cabinet is extremely heavy, and you have no idea what your wall is made of. Chances are excellent you are about to fail in a tremendously damaging way. Sit with that thought for a moment.5. Wait seven more weeks. Finally, head down to the store, lug the medicine cabinet home and assemble it. The cabinet was designed and manufactured in Sweden but don’t worry: It is refreshingly free of confusing Swedish-language assembly instructions. In fact, it’s free of assembly instructions in any language.

6. After two days of struggle, accept that the cabinet door will always stick, but comfort yourself with the knowledge that, even if the door is not on straight, at least it’s on tight.

7. Satisfied with a job well done, pick yourself up off the floor and notice some leftover parts. A screw. Some nails. Pegs. A door handle. Throw these in the garbage before someone with a more scrutinous eye discovers them. Problem solved.

8. Now, on to installation. Approach your bathroom wall warily. This cabinet is extremely heavy, and you have no idea what your wall is made of. Chances are excellent you are about to fail in a tremendously damaging way. Sit with that thought for a moment.

9. Fearing the worst, and remembering something you once heard from a person wearing a tool belt, run to the hardware store and purchase some strong anchors and a stud finder.

10. Apply the stud finder to the wall. And again. And again. Conclusion: This wall has no studs. Alternate conclusion: This stud finder does not work. (To test against this conclusion, run stud finder over a promotional postcard for Australia’s all-male stripper revue, Thunder From Down Under. When stud finder beeps ecstatically, discard your alternate conclusion and curse your landlord for his shoddy brownstone renovation work.)

11. Drill a test hole. Upon drilling this test hole, which you decide to make nearly half an inch wide for reasons known only to yourself, you discover why your wall has no studs: The wall, which is only about an inch in thickness, with no insulation between it and a concrete foundation wall two feet away, is made of compressed toilet paper, mud, and wet twigs. You’re about to hang a 40-pound cabinet on a wall as sturdy as warm birthday cake.

12. Call someone handy. Ask nonspecific questions and receive very specific answers. Sprinkle your conversation with phrases like “of course, of course” and “definitely—molly or toggle bolts are the way I’d go.” Then hang up and rush to your laptop, where you will Google “bolts + molly” or “toggle + definition.”

13. Make a second trip to the hardware store. (Pick a different hardware store this time, because you can’t show your face again at the first one.) Demand to see their collection of molly and toggle bolt anchors. (The clerk will brag about the time he used these anchors to hang a plasma TV with a 3,000-inch screen on a 1/8-inch corrugated cardboard wall.)

14. Back home, drill a hole, though it would probably be just as easy to punch the hole into this wall with your fist. Drill a second hole that looks more or less level with the first one. Then hoist the cabinet up and attempt to screw the bolts through your anchors. Just as you’re gaining confidence, you will discover the bolts are too short to travel through the cabinetry, flange (yes, flange) wall, and anchor. Get your coat on, jerk; looks like you’re going back to the hardware store.

15. Now back to the original hardware store, because you have no choice; you’ve run out of hardware stores. A Puerto Rican dwarf will help you. (A regular-sized Puerto Rican will also attempt to assist you. Do not let him.) Not finding the bolt you require, he will retreat to the stock room, dive into a large, magical tool chest and begin tossing items out over his shoulders—nuts, bolts, screws, lollipops, wooden tops, squeaky toys, chattering plastic teeth, gumdrops, enchanted toads, slingshots. Finally, he’ll emerge with a pair of four-inch bolts over his shoulder, but by now you’ve already found what you need on a shelf. Seeing this, the Puerto Rican dwarf’s expression will droop a little and a single tear (made of gooseberry juice!) will slide down his cheek and settle in his mustache. To console him, explain your precarious bathroom wall situation and ask if he has any recommendations. His eyes will darken and he will point a tiny finger at you. “Heed my warning, all ye who set about this particular undertaking. Your wall is in badly shape, and if your twin holes are not level in a most perfect manner, ye will risk tearing the wall directly from its housing and bring upon your home all manner of ill spirits. Go! Be heavy with care, and do not tarry! And remember well my words: A level hanging it shall be, or else invite catastrophe.”

16. Return home and check the holes you’ve drilled for levelness. Discover they’re about as level as Stephen Colbert’s ears, which is to say, not very.

17. Stare at your bathroom wall, with its lopsided pair of glory holes, and imagine yourself ripping the entire wall out the moment your cabinet is hung. Imagine it in extraordinary, visceral detail. Picture the cabinet’s mirror exploding against the tile wall, with fragments of it lodging into your cornea; the cabinet dropping straight down, hitting the toilet lid as large pieces of ceramic splinter and shatter on the floor; sheaves of wall pulling away from the frame, exposing a cold, empty shaftway large enough to hide a body inside.

18. Mount the cabinet anyway. You will sweat like a surgeon. Remove the bolts from that tiny fifth pocket in your jeans, taking a moment to wonder if bolts and nails were the reason this pocket was built into denim jeans in the first place. Congratulate yourself in this discovery. Then tighten the bolts with a loud grunt; this is the closest you’ll ever come to childbirth. Now take a deep breath—this is your Thelma & Louise moment, idling at the edge of the precipice—then tighten those bolts until they’re flush with the wall, partner!

19. Admire your handiwork. Your cabinet is stuck to the wall. It looks OK, right? You’re probably not going to want to put anything in it for a while—just in case. But if you can stand stock-still staring at the cabinet for about 10 minutes and its position doesn’t shift, you have permission to announce to your very nervous girlfriend who has stood by your side this whole time, “Yup, she’s gonna hold.” Did you know your medicine cabinet was a lady? Well, she is. Now walk away; just walk away. Mission accomplished.

In the weeks afterward, expect a couple of changes in your home. First, you’ve got yourself a great new medicine cabinet that, after a 60-day probationary period, will totally hold your junk! Also, every unaccounted noise in your apartment will be attributed to the chance your newly mounted cabinet is slipping and ripping out large chunks of wall. This irrational fear will cause you to drop whatever it is your doing and run into the bathroom to check on the cabinet, in much the same way a new mother will obsessively inspect her sleeping child for signs of SIDS.

And when you do sleep—and you will sleep only in three-hour shifts for the first month—your dreams will be haunted by the image of a Puerto Rican dwarf’s disembodied head floating in space, with a hypnotic spiral spinning behind him. The dwarf will be laughing maniacally, repeating his warning over and over again: A level hanging it shall be, or else invite catastrophe.

Remind yourself that this is perfectly normal, and that this must be how Bob Vila feels every single day. Congratulations on another job well done.