Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Love Thy Neighbor (fourth increment)

While we were hard at work planning and carrying out various renovations, shit didn't take a break and continued to happen. For example, in September, 1999, Hurricane Floyd hit the northeastern seaboard. It was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it mauled us but that didn't make a difference to our basement. Now, I've always wanted a swimming pool, but not in my basement and not filled with filthy, murky water, which is what I got. Three feet or so of inky black fluid—or so it appeared to my horrified eyes—flowed into the basement and ruined whatever was not raised off the ground by more than three feet. To me it was just a slap in the face--par for the course in my life. To quote my friend Peter Kirk, when faced with all the scary things that life outside of the city offers, "My God, in the city all you have to do is be a little leery on the subway!" Here there are biblical events to deal with such as floods and lightning strikes that burn your house down (not terribly up on my Bible--were there lightning strikes?).

It is especially terrible to look down into one's basement and see deep water—very traumatizing. But a particularly nervy friend (she returned a toilet bowl to Home Depot after using it for the better part of a year) told me to apply to FEMA for relief, since our region was declared a disaster area. FEMA sent over a nice man—pleasant looking in a nondescript way—who had a cup of coffee with me and surveyed the damage. All I expected was an offer of a low-cost loan but instead we got a check to cover all of our damages—so great. The coffee must have come out okay that day. That money went to upgrade the septic system that was compromised in the flood. I know, I'm spoiled rotten.

Chapter Two

Farewell to Orange

Summer, 2000

We finally had enough cash on hand to hire painters to eradicate the neon yellow-orange paint my poor house had suffered with for God knows how long. I like to think the house was embarrassed about its condition and thrilled when we moved in to restore its dignity and reputation. Dean, however, thinks differently. He often says that the house has fought him every step of the way. Well, maybe it's ambivalent? Or maybe just maybe Dean isn't as easy to get along with as he thinks he is. Perhaps the house is female and is tired of him nailing, screwing, and banging her, with no regard to the pain he's causing. Who knows?

Did I mention that though most of the house was the neon yellow, the part just under the apex of the roof was still a dirty, neglected white? Steve—our neighbor—told us that our friend Joe had painted the house himself, rappelling from the roof to paint the upper story. He either couldn't reach that one spot or he realized how stupid a method of painting it was. The thought of someone rappelling with a bucket of sloshing paint is almost unbelievable. One begins to understand why Mrs. Joe may have been . . . what's the politically correct way to say it? Oh right, out of her mind crazy.

We had spent the previous two years gleefully planning the colors we would use to give our little gem its woefully needed makeover. We loved the color of the Restoration Hardware shopping bags so whenever we went to look at paint chips the little bag came along. As it turned out, we weren’t the only ones who liked this color, called Silver Sage, and RH decided to sell the shade of paint in their stores. Since they only carried interior paint, we matched the color in a Benjamin Moore color catalog and set about choosing accent colors. Dean’s suave and handsome uncle Tony—who lives in craftsmen-dotted Los Angeles—suggested a shade of red for under the eaves. We both liked the idea so we found a nice hue—sort of a brick red with a titch more pink in it. The trim color we went with was a creamy off-white and the trio of hues looked so beautiful on the swatches that we couldn’t wait to make it happen.

You would think that if you needed to hire a contractor of some sort, a painter, a plumber, or an electrician, you would be the one in control, right? After all, you are the one writing the check. But in 2000 when we were looking for a painter, the housing market was yawing into the stratosphere and people were renovating everything that stood still long enough. Finding a painter proved very tricky and finding a good one close to impossible. The best way, I found, was through recommendation. Nosiness will tell you which houses have been recently painted and you can ask the owners about their painters. I happened upon an excellent one by talking to a parent of my son’s friend. The little boy's father worked with a painter from Connecticut and he promised me that he'd take on the house, because hiring a painter during that time was like going on a job interview. They had more than enough work so they were choosy.

My situation was also more complicated, because I didn’t want my house power washed; I wanted it prepped by hand. There was method to my madness: I was concerned about contaminating the soil with old lead paint. Any house built before 1979 almost certainly has a layer or two of lead paint on interior and exterior walls and power washing is not good (and not legal in some states. I soon learned that painters, like the military, have a don't ask, don't tell sort of policy when it comes to lead paint. As long as you don't mention the word lead, they'll just assume there is none, regardless of the age of the house. Why? Abatement is obscenely expensive as I was soon to discover).

When I look back at my naiveté, I arch one eyebrow and smile knowingly. Back then, I was a purist—didn't want to change the windows, the doors, the nothing. Restore, refurbish, reuse were words I tried to live by. Now I bask in the glow of gleaming new Marvin windows, new glass-paned front, back, and side doors, new anything I can replace. It's so much easier and it looks better too. My windows weren't original to the house anyway, as far as I could tell, and the doors were cheaply made and so deteriorated they would have required extensive lumber purchases and probably an entire summer to make them whole. I did leave intact the wavy-glass windows and transoms in the porch, for they were special and irreplaceable.

As far as lead paint was concerned, I was worried about it when we moved in. Any paint that alligators (i.e. when peeling, the paint resembles alligator skin) when it begins to deteriorate is lead-based paint. Back then I worried about poisoning my young children with lead dust from the layers of old paint—ha! I fondly remember our bank balance before the lead abatement team came a-calling to remove the peeling lead paint in the porch and remove the money in our account, not too long after we moved in.

Years later, I find myself occasionally getting dizzy and nauseous from sanding and scraping paint in the bedrooms. That clues me in that it must be lead paint; I shrug and get the HEPA vacuum. A few years ago this scenario would never have happened. Never. I would have had the house roped off by men in Tyvec suits and no one would enter until all traces of the lead paint were abated and hermetically sealed for disposal. Now, though, my children's brains are already formed, for good or for bad. And, by the way, if lead paint is in good condition it poses no health hazard. It's only when it is deteriorating, creating flakes and dust that it becomes unhealthy.

Anyway, stubborn tenacity helped me find a house painter from Connecticut who would comply with my wishes. He started priming the house in June. By the second week he had lost his crew—his crew being one other guy and a part-time helper— and it was just one lonely guy working on the house. Day after day, he showed up to paint through the long, hot summer. I plied him with iced tea, cold water, and conversation during breaks. He pet my dogs and told me stories. We talked about our dog Egg and how crippled he was becoming.

That summer was particularly hard on Egg as things started going wrong in some sick Domino chain of events. Fran (short for Francis) commiserated with me on Egg’s decline. Dean had built a ramp for the dog to get up and down the porch steps and Fran had to adjust it as he was painting that part of the house. Egg kept getting worse and his veterinarian was stymied. Climbing any stairs became impossible for him. Eventually, Dean began to sleep on the living-room couch because Egg couldn’t get upstairs to the bedroom and he’d be beside himself if he couldn’t sleep with one of us.

So I’d sit with the painter during his breaks and we’d talk about lots of things—dogs, his unfaithful crew who deserted him, and his wife and child who didn't. I knew I should shut up or my house would never be finished. But long conversations and all, by the beginning of August it was done. And when Fran was done painting, he washed the windows. I don’t know how he did it—he merely used Windex and my own paper towels—but those windows gleamed for months afterward. I’ve never been able to duplicate his success and I have happily stopped trying. (Dirty windows have become my friends. Think of the benefits: no one can look into your home, would-be robbers become discouraged by the lackluster glass and rob someone else, and your fabrics don't fade as fast for the sun's rays cannot penetrate the grime. When we bought the new windows, the rooms looked so different with the clean transparent glass—it was almost like a new house! Alas, they are becoming dirty again and Fran is no longer around. The best I can do is wipe away the nose smears from the dogs looking out to bark at anything making noise.)

The good news was that our house was now smoking hot, basking in the craftsmen colors that suited it to a tee. The new silvery green color complemented the gorgeous stone foundation so perfectly and I put up sheer ivory panels in the porch windows, leaving the translucent transoms unadorned. Finally, our 1927 Arts & Crafts colonial looked the way it was meant to look: charming, cozy and inviting.

Ah, but there was so much more work to be done: it begged, nay pleaded, for a new kitchen; there was woodwork galore that required refinishing; we needed to somehow squeeze a powder room in somewhere; soon we’d need a new roof . . . the list went on so long it made me weary. Whenever I would survey all that needed to be done, I'd usually take a nap. It was too much heat on the brain to stay conscious.


  1. Hello Lisa, my name is Joyce and I have known Babette and Tony for a very long time. Babette designed a copper tube bookcase for me years ago when I lived in NYC. Now I live in France and recently moved to Lyon. Your blog has given me confidence to start my own about life here.

    Your comments about house renovation are brilliant. I am an architect and have experienced it on "both sides of the table" as they say. I would love to know the secret of the clean windows - here I have windows 3 meters tall!!!! And your wall paper story took me back to 7 years ago when we renovated out apartment in Paris.

    Please keep writing, it is wonderful knowing someone else it going through the same things.
    Joyce Voltz Matthew

  2. Oh, and Joyce, I'm thrilled that my blog inspired you to write one. Please let me know when it's available online so I can share your miseries as you share mine!

  3. Hi Lisa: This is Kit from class. Thanks for the blog address. I've enjoyed reading it! Your description of the flooded basement i.e. inground pool of sort is a bit close to my heart as I was an evacuee from Hurricane Katrina. Fortunately, our New Orleans Warehouse District condo escaped flood waters, and I may add theives, but we did not know this for several months after the storm. We were not permitted back to the district until it was "safe." Our condo was very close to Canal Street, which if you saw the news had waist high water and not far from the ever looted Walmart. Once the water subsided we were left to discover the damage. That is another story for another time. But anyway, keep writing and I will keep reading! See you next week in class! Kit