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,