Sunday, June 13, 2010

Love Thy Neighbor (14th increment)

Where to begin? Large stores such as Home Depot claim that, sure, you spend a few more dollars with us but you have a dependable, reputable firm to back up all of the work. You have a contractor who will be there when he/she is supposed to be there; you have a huge company standing behind you, ensuring the quality of the work. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But the Home Depots of the world still have to hire contractors and by their very nature, contractors are not the most reliable bunch. Okay, so ours comes over on a Saturday morning after we've done all the demolition. (Did I mention that demolition involved removing all of the old cabinets, sure, but also removing about 4 layers of flooring to expose the hardwood underneath. Good times . . .) He takes one look at the place and asks us if we have a permit. No, HD never told us we needed one. Well, you do, he says. What?! Here I stand with my kitchen completely ripped apart, I've been living without a functioning kitchen for six or seven weeks, and now he's telling me I need a permit? Does he have any idea how long it can take to get a permit, even in a small town?

Okay, he says. Here's what I'll do. Since I don't want any town officials to see my truck in your driveway when we don't have a permit, I'll do your job on the weekend but you'll have to wait until I'm free, a couple more weeks.

And we, of course, play the role he's assigned to us perfectly, and gratefully accept. Somehow he's managed to postpone our kitchen installation by two weeks and we're THANKING him.

So two weeks later he shows up on a Saturday and he's alone. No helper, no teenage boy, not even a German Sheperd, nothing. Just him. He gets to work and he works the entire day. I go get him large Starbucks drinks, I offer help, I do anything to facilitate the process. He comes back the next day and repeats his effort. By Sunday evening, he's finished the job. We give him a healthy tip, very healthy. We thank him heartily and he takes his leave.

The next day I walk into my almost finished kitchen and I notice something. The large cabinet above the appliance garage is installed upside down. Now the door opens the wrong way. So now we have to change the way the door of the garage opens or it will look ridiculous. But I want the cabinet to open the other way. 'cause I think that makes more sense. The problem, of course, is that in order to accomplish that, the door must be taken off, a new door ordered and new holes drilled into my gorgeous new cherry cabinet. I could insist, of course, that HD reorder both cabinets and take these down and install the new ones but . . . there would be wall damage and since that cabinet was the corner one, it might damage the contiguous cabinets. There was simply no acceptable fix. Then I started noticing other things, such as scratches made with box cutters, scratches made with saws, dents, defective cabinets, glue showing on the side of the long cabinet by the entrance, and the list goes on and on.

I can't give you a breakdown of the events that ensued. First, because it's boring. Second, because it's too painful for me to recount. I will say that we went through another three or four contractors and I finally kicked them all out and called it a day. Do I have perfect cabinets? Not a chance. Was the quartz countertop installed to my satisfaction? No, but I wasn't present the day the installer came so it was my fault. I left it to Dean who is non-confrontational to the max. It has an ugly seam in a very conspicuous place and shouldn't have a seam at all for such a small counter, in my opinion. Still, the quartz countertop had to be worth it since, as the company spokesperson promises, it is impervious to damage—unless of course you hit it with a pot or pan, at which time it chips. But how often do you handle pots and pans in a kitchen, after all? Does it have a lifetime guarantee? Yes, it does, but not for any damage it may suffer during normal usage. I'm serious. I asked the company salesman what exactly did the lifetime warranty cover and he didn't seem to know exactly. Not thermal shock, he said. And not chips or cracks caused by normal use. And not stains caused by hot surfaces. And . . . Are they kidding? How can they say that with a straight face, is what I want to know. And then there's that promise of the Microban . . .

Thursday, April 29, 2010

"First Take My Hand Now Let it Go"

I'm interrupting my Love Thy Neighbor blog to post this homage to my son in honor of Mother's Day. It was written for the Modern Love segment in the NY Times but it was not esoteric enough for it apparently. If I wrote about marrying a serial killer on death row, or about a horny Mormon missionary in China, I'd be in like Flynn (by the way, I'm too young to know if Errol Flynn was really that sexy but if he was, he was probably gay). Here's my piece to my boys, Jackson and Luca.

"'First Take My Hand, Now Let it Go"

-- Patti Smith, The Jackson Song

The first time I met Jackson was in the new birthing room of St. Joseph's Hospital in Chicago. I had very recently endured five days of grueling labor, a labor that caused me to hallucinate—I was trying to feed my cat Rainy in the hospital room—and continually retch and vomit, though there was nothing in my stomach save a few ice pops. I, who had long before trained myself not to upchuck for I dread it as I dread death, was unable to quell the violence overtaking me. Even when I had gotten some sort of food poisoning from my favorite neighborhood restaurant at twenty weeks gestation (Walker's, by the way), I exerted mind over matter, though getting rid of the offending food would have helped me heal sooner. At that time I was so desperately ill that I was sure I'd lose the pregnancy and the little boy I knew I carried—I felt his male energy right from the start.

I was in Chicago only temporarily. My brand-new husband Dean and I were in flux midway into my pregnancy, and a week after our wedding in January, we moved from Lower Manhattan to Chicago, on our way to Santa Fe. Dean's magazine outfit left the Windy City to relocate to New Mexico in May, but we had to sweat it out (literally, I'm afraid) in the sweltering city until our baby was born in early June. Dean worked from home during that time, and I worked temp assignments until my ninth month. One of my jobs involved opening Michael Jordan's fan mail. He was away at baseball camp at the time, so I never had the honor of meeting him, but his fan mail policies made me admire the man tremendously. His wife Juanita kindly helped me consider middle names for our expected babe.

After suffering most of that unspeakable labor, I finally got my epidural, after begging everyone who entered my room, even the porter, to give me one. Apparently an epidural cannot be introduced until there is 4 centimeters dilation and it took me an eternity to get to that seemingly unattainable condition. Blissfully, it did come on the fifth day. I wasn't even afraid of the epidural needle, for I didn't really care if I died or was paralyzed at that point, and I never felt the long instrument slide into my spine. All I know is that shortly thereafter, my world of mind-altering pain receded and I was lucid again. The experience was wonderful afterward. The back labor (really it was the sharpest of daggers an unknown enemy had plunged into my lower back, right?) vanished almost instantly. Now I wanted that Arizona iced tea in the cooler we had brought from home, but was no longer allowed to have it. The joke is continually on me.

The baby was born with a full shock of black hair, murky dark blue eyes, and a very swollen face from five days of contraction battering. Still, I thought him stunning and now I had answered my very own question: do the parents of ugly babies really think they are beautiful? Yes. I did acknowledge to both Dean and my sister Mariette—who flew in from Manhattan to help with the birth—that my new son was indeed funny looking. My sister promised me that his little monkey face was only temporary and helpfully pointed out that at least he didn't have a cone head as some newborns sport.

Exactly one week after the birth, we set off in a rental van with our infant, two giant dogs, four cats, and three plants, headed for Santa Fe. Thankfully, Dean never told me about the suspicious funnel clouds he'd spot every now and then as we traveled through tornado alley. Each night we'd set up camp in a roadside motel that allowed dogs. We'd sneak in the cats, set up their litterbox, and make up Jackson's bed with a motel room chair turned toward the wall and lined with pillows, placing his tiny body right in the center, on his back and positioned so he couldn't move. Then we'd turn on the television and watch OJ leading the police on a slow, insane televised chase. It was bizarre theatre if ever I witnessed any, but my life had become so surreal that nothing could faze me.

Once we got settled into our tiny but authentic adobe home with our now gorgeous baby, and all the out-of-town visitors had decamped, the postpartum depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder that had hit right after the birth took front and center. Luckily, it was manageable without chemical assistance, for I was nursing. Well, largely without it, for the occasional Margarita certainly assisted my outlook. Mostly, though, I used my writing—mainly poetry—as a means out of it. It was an exercise of personal catharsis so I published none of it.

A few years later I watched as a wave of Gen X mothers poured their inconvenienced maternal hearts out, whining in print about the unexpected downsides to motherhood. I'll admit I felt smug, maybe even a tad superior—I don't know why. Hadn't I felt the same longings, loneliness, and disappointments? Check. Hadn't I written them down in prose or poetry? Yes. For whatever reason, I chose not to attempt to publish those pieces. The only ones that made it into print were those that dealt with sweet maternal worries, anxieties, and inadequacies—none of the ugly stuff. The postpartum poetry, though, scored me some excellent grades in grad school—all good.

So, pleased with myself, I unwittingly entered the onslaught of Jackson's puberty and teenage years. Aye, I'd say it's major comeuppance time. All those self-satisfied years of successfully parenting not only Jackson, but also his younger brother Luca, and now I'm confronted with the loss of my lovely lad and the emergence of a stranger with bad skin, tin teeth, a horrid temper, and a miserable attitude. Who stole my darling little boy? How, why, when did this transformation happen? Could I have stopped it or somehow mitigated it if I were a better parent?

Of course, I fault myself and my own sinister temper. I made a monster out of my near-perfect son. This self-blame occurs in my finer moments. The rest of the time I throw it all on my husband's genes. He was a miserable teenager and now so is his son. Whether it's his bad or mine, the end result is the same. Where, though, is the real Jackson? The one who sang songs from The Hunchback of Notre Dame before his second birthday? The one who narrated Where the Wild Things Are at age two and a half, to a rapt audience of adults? I miss him so much it physically hurts. I go to the photo albums to assure myself that he did, in fact, exist at one time.

There he is, smiling, happily wearing clothes that I selected for him, entertaining everyone with his incredible intelligence and wit—he recited Hamlet's soliloquy at age three is what I'm talking about. His sunny disposition comes shining right through the pictures. God, but I want my little buddy back. Why does it feel like he died? The sad lines of Patti Smith's ballad "The Jackson Song," written for her own son of the same name, come hurtling back to me. Even when my Jackson was newly born and far from flying away, I cried when I heard Smith's beautiful song (it was on the tape Dean made for my laboring) about a child growing up and away from his mother and father. We used some of its lyrics on the birth announcement.

Don't get me wrong: I love the new Jackson. He has a wicked and sophisticated sense of humor, a hilarious knack for mimicry, and he is the kindest, purest, most sensitive human being I've ever met—not to mention a brilliant mind. He's long and lean, has a black belt in Ju Jutsu, and is learning Japanese—he's always been attracted to that culture. Caveat? He's also becoming egregiously judgmental, way too Goth, impatient, angry, and massively snotty—a true Jekyll and Hyde.

I should have been better prepared for this inevitability of aching change. In the weeks after Jackson was born, I was bitch-slapped with a sudden understanding that I was never again to feel the same peace I did before I became a mother. It occurred to me that having a child was like having my heart take residence outside of my body, fraught with the perils of taking the heart to babysitters and school, and hoping that everyone took good care of my heart so it wouldn't break. Then when I had another little boy, my heart was fragmented so the hazards were greater. The potent maternal hormones infused me with both a strong nurturing inclination and a visceral knowledge that a mother's path is filled with myriad joys, yes, but checkered with many slings and arrows. How many times can a heart be broken and yet go on, by the way?

Last month I had a dream. Jackson and Luca were on swings and I was pushing them and they were laughing babies again. I woke up and started crying. "I want them back," I sobbed to my husband, who, I'm fairly certain, thinks I'm a lunatic. Here's the funny part: when I told Jackson about my dream, he said, "Oh, Mom, that's so sad," and put his arm around me. How can this fifteen-year-old boy have such empathy for something he's never experienced?

When I was a bit younger than my son, my stepmother often used to play the soundtrack to "Fiddler on the Roof." I remember listening to the words of the song Sunrise, Sunset. The subject matter focuses on the passage of time, about children growing up so quickly. I did understand the poignancy on an intellectual level but it didn't make me sad. I wanted to grow up, though I did fear being separated from my father. My mother had died when I was four and the idea of losing my father was literally the stuff of nightmares for me. Still, I'm not sure I had the deep, innate empathy that Jackson naturally possesses, unless it involved a cat or dog, or some type of animal. One thing I know for certain is that those crazy-strong maternal hormones have definitely made an emotional loose cannon of me. That inclination may not serve me well as a parent who must confront letting go in the not too distant future.

Other parents who have made it through the teenage years smile and nod knowingly. This too shall pass, they say. Platitudes never help, do they? Yet I cling to them. I am trying to finish raising Jackson as best I can. The thing that I focus on lately is postponing the hated puberty in my younger son. He's still cuddly and sometimes sweet, and even climbs into our bed during nights after a bad dream. He hasn't yet lost the perfect creamy complexion of young childhood, and has mesmerizing brown eyes, fringed by long and lush dark lashes. That big growth spurt has yet to arrive, but he's now eleven years old and I know it's out there, waiting to greedily grab another of my dewy boys and spit out a teenager.

In moments of mature clarity, I accept that this growing separation is what parents actively nurture. They raise their children to become excellent adults, hopefully—not try to keep them as small children. That is the job we set out to accomplish when we decide to include children in our lives. Why, then, does it hurt so bad, Patti?


Hi everyone! Sorry for the delay: been busy grading students' papers and dreaming up plans to become independently wealthy. I'll be posting a new increment soon but I will first post my homage to my son in honor of Mother's Day. See you soon!


Saturday, February 27, 2010

LOVE THY NEIGHBOR (13th Increment)

Hooray indeed. Merely revisiting the kitchen renovation is a painful process. I don't recommend it. Be clever and find a house with a kitchen you could live with for the rest of your life, that's how traumatic a kitchen renovation is to a person's psyche. Why? I guess it's because, well, we all like to eat and when the making-food and eating-room is taken away, we get testy and revert to childish behavior.

But how arduous a process could it be to redo a 12 x 12 room, after all? And since Dean designed the entire layout beforehand (using a cabinet catalog for sizes and options) and we both agree on design elements, why would it be so horrid?

Oh, for a number of reasons, the primary one being that contractors are miserable scum of the earth slobs who don't deserve to draw their next breath. Well, except for Canada's Mike Holmes and that adorable other Canadian guy, Scott, who does people's income-producing basements on HGTV. But when you hire one through, oh, I don't know, let's just say Home Depot, you get royally screwed up and down. But I get ahead of myself here.

First, we went in to speak with a design consultant who told us repeatedly that we were breaking all the design rules. She, however, graciously deigned to work with us design radicals nonetheless. We selected our cabinets, the finish we wanted, and finally the countertops—that last was a hard one since Dean and I did not completely agree—imagine that.

While we waited for the order to process, we went home and began to purchase everything else. First we bought a plain white apron sink. But . . . they sent us a fluted one by mistake, which Dean hated. The company didn't have the one we wanted in the right size so we returned it and I convinced Dean that we really should spend $1200 on a soapstone sink—especially since I didn't get my soapstone countertop and he had won with his choice of an aggregate quartz counter called Silestone. At least I got to select the color and finish; we went with the white leather matte finish with a lifetime Microban. This Microban supposedly inhibits the growth of bacteria. Great, right? But how do we prove that it exists? Unless one has an advanced degree in chemistry, one could not check up on this promise. For all I know, the company just made it up so they could charge fools like us more for a man-made material than it costs for the most expensive granite. Consequently, we got the most marvelously gorgeous sink except that a.) it crumbles into sandy dust whenever anything bangs against it, and b.) it was not graded properly so nothing slides down toward the drain, making clean-up a miserable proposition but I will never admit that deficiency to Dean.

Choosing the faucet was hell on wheels. You just cannot find anything dramatically different from everything else, and the one or two companies that have really remarkably unusual faucets want you to finance their children's college education to have one. Since the faucet is the jewelry of the kitchen, you want to make the right choice. We eventually selected a single-fixture faucet in a pewter finish and it's stunning. Except that the pewter finish began to degrade from the moment we installed it. Now, I'm fully aware that my water is highly corrosive (see bathtub story) but I dry the fixtures after every use, read, obsessively. It must have begun to get damaged when my catsitter was there very shortly after we finished the renovation. She probably didn't dry it after every use and maybe had cat food juice on her hands when she turned it on and off. Damn.

Then there was the backsplash. I can still recall the throbbing headache I had from all the thinking and deciding I had to do. It was around this time I began to fully understand that Dean is a colossal pain in the ass. Okay, I always knew Dean was a pain but it didn't really bother me until now, when I needed to pick backsplash tiles and he was being an artiste about it. Here's an example of what I mean: I wanted to buy these gorgeous recycled glass subway tiles. They were 100 percent post-consumer—fantastic. They were a beautiful shade of green and they were the right size—even better. But when I received a sample, Dean took one look and decided he didn't like the profile. Uh-huh. The profile, of course, is crucially important. Life with an artist can be trying and lawyers on the whole make a lot more money.

So I moved on. I ordered sample after sample. We dismissed many of them because of the price. But get this: we significantly miscalculated how much we'd need because we're complete idiots when it comes to math, pure and simple. So it turns out that many of the original samples we tossed due to expense would have been fine. I think we figured we'd need, like, ten times the amount we actually needed. In the future, I'll ask Luca to do the math for us since, at eleven, he's far exceeded our collective math ability already.

I ultimately found an unusual Indonesian marble that was cut into long, thin strips. I loved it and though Dean initially disagreed with me on the color, he came around when the samples arrived. We ordered one box of similarly sized glass tiles to intersperse among the marble. I knew two things instinctively: one, the finished product would look amazing, and two, that marble was a very poor choice for a backsplash in the kitchen of a messy family. (Marble is porous and will stain. And we make an awful lot of tomato sauce in our house.) Both prophecies came true.

We ordered all of our appliances in fairly short order since we knew what we wanted: Jenn Air to match the range that we already had (Dean loved the elegant handle), and our space limitations required that we purchase the counter-depth refrigerator with the French doors. That was easy, right?

Yeah, except that once the kitchen was done and all the appliances had the same elegant handle, the range we had matched them to went belly up. The door hinge failed, the door dropped so violently that the bottom jammed into the side and cracked the frame. It couldn't be repaired. Jenn Air would do nothing for us—not even a measly percentage off despite the hit we took from their inferior product—so we got even by buying a different brand, a brand called Kitchen Aid that Jenn Air owns. We showed them. So now our appliances, though all stainless steel, didn't quite match anymore. Fuck it.

Selecting the cabinet hardware was another huge torture. One would think it would be fairly easy but there are so many decisions to make too quickly and it gets exhausting and you start to wonder if everything is going to go well together and then you remember you have to also select switchplates and they should go well with the hardware and the lighting and . . . Ultimately we went with Mission style nickel hardware. Problem is the corners are sharper than any knife this vegetarian family owns. I have destroyed my hands just wiping off greasy fingerprints off the stupid cabinets.

At least buying the recessed lighting was supremely easy. The lights we chose looked like little diamonds and they cost, I think, twelve dollars. They are still one of my favorite things in the new kitchen. We still had the beautiful pendant which would now be centered on the moveable island. The recessed lighting, which was originally over the sink, would now be over the table since I relocated the sink. Years before I had purchased a pewter gallery fixture from Pottery Barn for this function and it worked out fantastically and looked so perfect. The lighting was the easiest and most satisfying part of our renovation.

The reason I relocated the sink to an interior wall was so that we could install a bay window with a window seat where the two small contiguous windows were originally sited. The bay window was integral to our design and Dean and Lou (I love Lou!) did a superb job of installing it. Dean even ordered a can of the cabinet stain so the window would match the cabinets. Everything was coming together now. And then came the contractor.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

LOVE THY NEIGHBOR (12th Increment)


Kitchen Renovation 101

Could I finally be getting my new kitchen? For three years I'd point out the window to the bar and say, there's my new kitchen. That's because we used the money earmarked for the kitchen renovation for a down payment on the building. Not that I ever for a moment regretted the decision. After all, how can you put a price tag on peace?

Still, my kitchen was rather revolting. The room we found when we bought the house (not the original 1927 kitchen, of course) was largely gone. Though we didn't do a full-scale renovation, we did do some things to make it better. We tore off the acoustic ceiling tile and replaced the hideous light fixture. That light fixture was so horrid, in fact, that guests would come over and offer to buy us a new one. I kid you not. We'd laugh and tell them thanks, but we really do plan to replace it. I had never even seen such a fixture. It was a square yellowish metal box with four globes sticking out, one from each corner. We replaced it with a beautiful period schoolhouse pendant fixture from Rejuvenation. First, though, we put an unpainted tin ceiling over the black gobs of hardened glue that remained after the acoustic tiles were gone. Then we took off the country apron thingy from over the sink and tore off the faux brick that covered the soffits. (Hilariously, one of the former owners of my house happened along one day and I invited him in since I recognized his name from the deed. He seemed disappointed that the faux brick hadn't held up and I had to tell him that my husband "accidentally" damaged it while checking on something. Which was sort of true since Dean was checking to see what was behind it in order to determine how difficult it would be to banish it from the house forever. So now I knew who the bad-taste culprit was or one of them anyway.) Dean replaced the cardboard brick with sheetrock and we painted the walls a pretty eggplant color to complement the existing brick-colored ceramic floor tile. I regrouted those floor tiles and put a fresh coat of white paint on the cabinets. We purchased new cabinet hardware—brushed nickel—from Restoration Hardware. Finally, we ripped out the country bookcase over the radiator; hell, we just ripped out the radiator too (I don't recommend that to renovators, by the way; there is a reason rooms have radiators and I froze my butt off for winters to come as punishment). It was during this time that I learned that the adjective "country" was merely a euphemism for ugly, outdated shit—just as "cozy" means ridiculously small, and "convenient" means a highway runs through the property.

What was still disgusting? Well, the cabinets were old if not original to the house and the wood used was crappy to say the least. Consequently, the wood was splintering, the doors didn't close, the paint was peeling from too many coats applied amateurishly over the decades, the bottom cabinets had no bottom as old cabinets don't—the bottom is the floor! I find that really icky. The drawer fronts were separating from the drawers and none of the drawers were on tracks, which is always fun when they fall out and all of your shit scatters everywhere. When they don't fall out, the friction from opening and closing the drawer salts everything below with a generous spray of sawdust a.k.a disintegrating cabinet drawers. And then there was the counter. When it was new it was ugly but now it was old and ugly AND falling apart. It was a faux butcher block laminate and the edges were peeling off and you could pull it and it would snap back into place more or less. Some parts of it were missing since I pulled them off outright. Eventually I removed all the hardware from the cabinets in a bid to "encourage" Dean to start the renovation. I told him that it didn't pay for me to put it back on since I had to continually repaint the cabinets since they were white and there were disgusting male persons living in my house. Dean held fast, though. He took the passive aggression for a good two years before finally caving. We started planning our new and wonderful kitchen. Hooray for me.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

LOVE THY NEIGHBOR (11th Increment)

What Dean had already gotten done was impressive. First, he had to figure out a drainage system to deal with the water that seeped into the rear foundation wall whenever it rained. He ingeniously developed a French drain-type system but it eventually required removing age-old linoleum tile, and jackhammering the cement floor underneath. First, though, Dean had lots of planning—and by planning I mean standing for hours in Home Depot staring at the various items on the shelf to figure out how they all worked. And if he didn't, well, then, he would jury-rig what he needed. That's how Dean rolls. In fact, he wants to start his own HGTV show called HALF-ASS IT, but that's another story for another time.

Then he set about replacing all of the insulation (I helped with that; I'm not a total laze-about), designing the wall configurations and framing them, replacing all of the doors and windows, and finally laying a special subfloor that allowed water to drain underneath, should the drainage system fail. Fortuitously, our next-door neighbor, Lou (he bought the house next door from Steve—goodbye Steve! Don't forget your catamaran!), is a retired contractor. He helped install the French doors in the front and informed us that the wall had absolutely no support, held up by nothing but prayer and a bit of luck. This tidbit I learned whilst I was cheerfully coming over, Starbucks coffee for them in hand, to see the progress. As I was about to enter through the enlarged opening, Lou shouted at me, DON'T COME IN!!! It was too dangerous! All those other times that I walked in—not to mention all those drunken bar patrons over five decades—not knowing that the whole front of the building could come crashing on my head . . . well, what's done is done. But now Lou could prevent a tragedy. He helped Dean shore up the wall and correctly install the frame to accommodate the new doors.

The list of our accomplishments was growing long, and it did bring a deep sense of satisfaction to see the old building transform from what my sister called Depression-era chic to a really pretty little structure. In addition to renovating the entire apartment, we had had the septic redone, replaced the roof, and had a wooden porch built under the newly revamped overhang (after we got the variance). As I already mentioned, we replaced all of the windows and doors on the ground floor (the windows in the upstairs apartment were decent, if not great). We put standard Andersen windows and builder-grade doors on the sides of the building but in the front we put beautiful divided-light coffee colored windows (the trim was coffee colored that is) and matching French doors. We painted the exterior a sort of soft buttery beige on the upper story and a dark café au lait on the ground level (Noticing a coffee pattern here?). We installed cedar shutters and painted them a dark red. The shutter dogs were black wrought iron. I wanted to put Smith and Hawken window boxes up but the overhang prevented any flower boxes on the upper level, at least in front. All of these projects sucked up our entire budget of a hundred Gs.

Now what? Well, now was the time for the housing market to completely tank. Not that we didn't see it coming. Apparently Dean and I, right brainers and money-stupid all the way, were able to see what seasoned Wall Streeters and bankers could not—that housing prices could not go up forever (what goes up must come down, etc.). Also, most Americans would probably figure—if they knew what these numbskulls were up to—that something as retarded as selling mortgage-backed securities and at the same time betting that they would fail (credit default swaps) might be a tad illegal. BUT IT WASN'T! Wall Street should be renamed Greedy Boneheads with Ill-Gotten Money Street. So the market tanked the second week we put dear old Dad's Florida house up for sale. Did I mention that the Florida market crapped out so badly that properties were difficult to even give away? Alas, we were stuck with Dad's shitty little house instead of the bucks we needed to finish our renovations. We could, however, take some solace that our New York properties pretty much held most of their value as long as we didn't try to sell them during this lifetime. So much for trying to get back to Los Angeles.

Friday, January 15, 2010

LOVE THY NEIGHBOR (10th increment)

Nothing is ever easily done when one is dealing with government agencies. And that holds true even when the government is a motley collection of a few small-town pols. In our town, in order to do anything to one's own real estate property, one needs a permit. Most of the time, you cannot get that permit without a variance if your building is over thirty years old, or about how long the town has had a zoning code. The process can quickly become ridiculous and unnavigable by all but the most determined engineers and architects. Having lived through it, I think I finally understand why people become crazed anti-government wackos who live in compounds and shoot at FBI agents. Government red tape really blows and can make a maniac out of a Buddhist monk in no time.

We were incorrectly advised by the town's zoning code enforcement officer at the time we bought the bar. He told us that we would have to open a bar that served liquor, within six months of the bar's closing or lose the grandfather status. Buildings that predate the zoning codes are "grandfathered" in, meaning that what is currently in operation (business-wise, usually) is allowed but anything new would then have to conform to current zoning requirements. Obviously we weren't going to sell liquor but when I asked him if we could open a coffee bar, he looked at me sternly (over the phone) and told me unequivocally no. How about a wine bar? Not only did he say no, but he was clearly getting pissed. I gave up at that point for I knew I needed to keep him on my side or at least not despising me.

I believed what he said, since who else would know about the zoning code but the zoning code enforcement officer. Right? So we let the six-month deadline elapse since there was no way we were going to keep the liquor flowing. A year or two later, this particular fellow retired from his post. It was only when we hired our engineer a few years after that I learned I was given entirely incorrect information. It turned out that in our town, bars are not permitted. Restaurants, however, are allowed to serve alcoholic beverages but food must also be served. Ah, it then became clear why there was the most revolting "kitchen" behind the bar that I ever was unlucky enough to see (and I've lived in various NYC apartments). I hope anyone who ate—or drank for that matter—in that bar was up on his or her tetanus shots.

So, in effect, we could easily have ditched the liquor and kept the business open selling food, thereby saving thousands of dollars, dozens of hours, and mountains of grief to get the permit we'd need to open our general store. For fuck's sake, you can't even depend on the freaking zoning code enforcement officer to give you correct zoning information. How can he enforce the zoning code if he doesn't know it? I guess he just made it up as he went along. He owes us thousands at this point.

Oh, right, the general store—it's what Dean and I always wanted to have when we visited places like Cape Cod, where his father used to live. Our favorite one was fittingly in a town named Brewster and it was an old-fashioned store, with sawdust on the floor, a vintage peanut-roasting machine, penny candy, and dusty antiques for sale. Having a store like that was Dean's dream.

My idea of our eventual store was cleaner, with more of a Starbucks sensibility—Italian espresso machines, and Murano glass light pendants. Still, I thought we could meet somewhere in the middle and produce a charming little shop. And it would have to be very little, since we only had about 600 square feet or so on the main floor.

Luckily, Dean and I agree on interior design. The floor, for example: hardwood with a dark rustic finish. The ceiling? Probably copper-plated tin tiles. We'd use the old bar as a counter and we'd try to find antique—preferably tiger oak—display cases. Dean usually lets me choose the paint colors (smart man), so there'd be no issue there. Our design inclinations are the same 99 percent of the time.

But before we could start appointing the place, there were piddling things to do, such as rewiring and replumbing the entire space, and electricians and plumbers have this pesky habit of wanting to be paid—and handsomely—for their services. This job was going to be pricey. My septic guy had cut off the water supply to the first floor, in an attempt to save us money at the time we addressed the septic failures of the previous owners, an open litigation when we purchased the property. That would have to be dealt with. But the biggest problem for us remained the commercial building status in a residential zone.

That obstacle seemed to go away when the town decided to rezone what they called their "gateway" areas—areas that were close to the town's borders. Since our property was in such a region, we were rezoned to a commercial status. But as always in our lives, there was a catch. Retail was not one of the permitted uses. Ironically, restaurants were a zoned use but the health department would not allow us to open one since we had limited septic capability and we were across from a DEP reservoir. Okay, so we just needed a variance for retail, no biggie.

Oh, but it was indeed a tortuous route (and torturous, for that matter), as our engineer/architect explained to us. First, we had to go to the town board and have it deny us; then, it was on to the planning board, to get its refusal. Finally, to the zoning board to get the last denial we needed before we had to begin the process again. And this multiple-denial process is perfectly acceptable as the normal required channel. I mean, none of them find anything wrong with making property owners go through ridiculous, costly and duplicative measures to obtain a permit. I would better deal with these constraints if the codes prevented the big guys from really violating the community. BUT THEY DON'T!! The big developers automatically get variances from the towns, and if it's too circuitous a route, well then the town will simply alter the code to suit their favorite sons. Consequently, the only ones who suffer from these absurd zoning regs are the very people they are ostensibly trying to protect—the regular Joes. Like us.

My behavior at the board meetings left much to be desired. I mean, it would be excellent behavior if my intention was to piss people off and make them dislike me. But we needed something from them. At the first one, I got up to speak when our request was presented. My voice, though starting out politely, became more strident as the minutes wore on. These board members were so idiotic and infuriating, I couldn't stand it and began to just vent about everything that frustrated me about the town. Dean and James, our architect, realized instinctively that yelling at people is not a good way to ingratiate yourself into their good graces. I knew I had lost my cool, though. Without even being told to do so, I willingly banished myself from further hearings and allowed Dean to take over. He has the inexplicable ability to tolerate stupidity much more calmly than I. How does he do it? Maybe he employs his husbandly talent of not listening to a word they say. However he did it, I'm proud of him, for he was able to see the process through to the end. James was being paid to suffer the fools, and in any case, he is of a very serene nature which no doubt serves him well in this circus of morons.

In short, we spent nearly two years and about seven thousand dollars, first to get permission to fix a corroded overhang that threatened to fall on someone's head (but didn't meet setback requirements), and then the prized retail permit. By the time we completed the process , we were flat-out broke and couldn't finish the work needed to open the freaking store.

With not even a shoe-string budget to go on, we had an enormous amount of work left to complete. Even if we were flush with funds, it would be a challenge, as the to-do list was daunting. All of the plumbing and HVAC had yet to be done. The wiring had to be replaced throughout the space. The firebox in the fireplace was broken and needed replacement, in addition to other maintenance. One of the workers that we hired for something or other was a bar patron and told us the drunken customers broke it one cold night when they tried to shove something very large into it to start a fire. How nice, I wish I could kill them all right about now. The bar was around so long and was so mystifyingly popular that every worker we hired for whatever usually had a few stories to tell of the glory days. Yeah, yeah, get a life already, people.

And the kitchen I mentioned a few paragraphs ago? There were drawers held together with old, curling duct tape. The duct tape was generously slathered with skins of greased dust. Things were hanging by splintered wood and there was a thick and viscous coat of decades of cooking slime on every surface. There was a single stove, the kind you find in a cheap studio apartment, a refrigerator that doubled as a laboratory, growing all kinds of life one might generally find in a petri dish, and a few decrepit shelves housing some dry goods, long past their expiration dates. Everywhere were brownish yellow stains from years of tobacco smoke. It literally took a year to eradicate the nasty smell of the place. Until we did, I continually felt as if I were on enemy territory. Only once the odor was gone and new materials were in, did I feel at peace and didn't have to shower immediately upon leaving.

We ripped out the kitchen right away, and by we I mean Dean. He also removed all of the fire-damaged joists and insulation. Right smack in the middle of the place, dead center actually, was an elevated platform, about 4x4, that housed the ladies' room, and I use the term ladies loosely obviously. This room was as disgusting as you might imagine but there was one interesting aspect about it that Dean noticed right away. The rear wall of it was the original exterior wall of the building. Apparently when it was first built, the footprint of the building was much smaller. At some point, it was expanded and a second floor was added, as evidenced by the chimney, which starts out as stone and turns into brick a couple of feet above the roofline. We thought about leaving the old wall for historic purposes but in the end, simply could not make it work and it was demolished.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


Hi all,

I took a holiday break and will be picking up the thread of the blog very soon. I'm almost at the point where I stopped writing, to first see if there was interest. I've decided to keep going since the blog is sort of a deadline that keeps me writing, if not deeply motivated. Since the new teaching semester doesn't start till mid January, I have the time! Of course, I plan to finish my YA novel and refinish all the wood molding in my living room, as well. We'll see how that goes. Stay tuned. The new increment will be posted within a few days.

Peace out,