Sippican Cottage

the down under


A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Interestingly, ‘The Shelftagerie’ Is the Name of My Shocking Blue Tribute Band. But I Digress

So, apparently, after yesterday’s peroration, you can safely assume that we’re not going to be fussy when it comes to fixing the back stairs that lead to our new laundry room. There also will be no handwaving advice to persons lying in a jumble of twisted limbs at the bottom of the stairs. Minimalist architecture demands the occasional blood sacrifice! Don’t be just another prole with a handrail! Suffer for your — er — my art! 

I’m of a more practical nature. Human persons, some who I like, will often need to descend and ascend these stairs while carrying things without becoming a statistic. What do?

We’re not going to “fix” these stairs, exactly. To fix the stairs, I’d have to fix the house, and that’s out of the budget, if not out of the question for practical reasons. I can’t take the house apart and put it back together again from scratch. I’m working mostly alone. To truly fix the house, I’d need a cadre of dedicated carpenter-assassins who would hench for me, and minion around the place while I plotted and schemed and scribbled coffee orders on shingles. I did briefly consider hacking into the Kremlin’s computer system and placing a big X over the map coordinates of my house with the appellation: “ICBM silo in western Maine is preparing to launch.” That might have fixed our house once and for all. But my Dell Optiplex wasn’t up to the task, and henchmen aren’t thick on the ground around here. I’ll have to do the best I can with what I’ve got.

First things first. Let’s get all the wooden carbuncles that block the passage out of the way. They’re dumb in several ways. You have to stand on the stairs to fumble around in them. Don’t do stuff on stairs, I always say, when I always say that. If you stumbled and grabbed for anything to save yourself, you’d be as like to get a can of wax beans as something that would stop your tragic descent.

The shelferie… The shelfatagerie… The cabinelves…

Oh, the hell with it. The wooden stuff on the right-hand wall makes a skinny staircase even skinnier, and throws people descending the stairs away from the safe(r) side of the staircase. The stairs take a winding turn to the left at the bottom, and you don’t want people walking on the inside edge of a winder. The step tapers to nothing on that side. So to get started we nuked the place from orbit, figuratively, anyway.

Sorry, we’re back to fuzzy wife pictures. We did part of the project a while back. There’s the spare heir at the bottom of the stairs pulling off the last of the wall covering. This wall, in addition to the wooden barnacles you saw in the earlier picture, was constructed with a melange of drywall, homasote, wooden slats, and cardboard. No, really. Sections of it were cardboard with masking tape over the seams and paint over the whole mess.

If you examine the fuzzy details in the photo, you can espy one reason why I am reluctant to make many major, structural changes to this house. Look at that timber. We have a Victorian house built in the twentieth century, but it’s partially framed like a barn, with huge post and beam timbers. That beam is something like 6″ x 8″ and runs the length of the back of the house. There’s another, shorter one on the other side of the stair well. I’m not fooling around trying to move structural members like that until my dynamite budget is increased.

That’s me writing a coffee order to myself on a shingle, probably. The staircase is super high, so we had to set up a plank and ladder in there. With everything out of the way, we insulated the walls (they had none), and put drywall over the whole enchilada. By removing all the hazards to navigation, we increased the clear width of the stairwell to 40″, and still ended up with 36″ clear between the very sturdy railing we’ll put on the right side and the wall on the left. That’s borderline safe.

I studied the existing stairs. Every once in a while, I tripped going up the stairs, and studied them very closely indeed. I’m not that clumsy. What gives?

The reason that stair risers have to all be exactly the same height is that human beings are programmed to climb stairs. After one or two steps, what’s left of your mind, after all the Solo cups full of grain alcohol at the frat parties you attended back in the day, processes the distance between steps, and you automatically do it. You do it exactly the same way each step, lifting your feet and putting them down, without thinking or looking. If the step isn’t where your mind thinks it should be, you stumble.

I know this from experience, as well as possessing a library card. I remember way, way back in the mists of time when I was still playing in blues bands to get by. We played in some amazingly off-brand places. There was one joint I recall run by a nice man with narcolepsy. Said he got malaria in the army, and never got over it. Sometimes when you went in the back room to talk to him, he’d be sitting on a cot and his eyes would sort of glaze over and he’d flop onto the cot and that was it. Out like a light. After a while we noticed his attacks were often timed to coincide with any requests for payment for performing there.

The nightclub, if you could call it that, was in the basement of a building that had burnt down. The basement was all that was left of the building. You went down a long, dark flight of stairs to get to the barroom door. It used to be a bowling alley. They knocked together a horseshoe bar in the middle of it. and filled in the gutters, and voila, instant nightclub. Then they filled the place with patrons out of the gutter.

It was about as elegant as it sounds, and was in a state of disrepair that beggars description. The owner did most of the work on the place himself, between bouts of narcolepsy and sobriety, I assume.

So halfway up the stairs outside, one of the treads snapped. Cracked right in the middle and splintered. The owner, who was not named Norm Abram, cut a short piece of framing lumber, a 2″ x 12″ I think, and nailed it on top of the broken tread. That made one step in the middle of the long staircase 1-1/2″ higher than the last one, and 1-1/2″ lower than the next one.

You could always tell who was really drunk leaving that bar, because they were the only ones who could navigate those stairs without falling. When you’re blotto, each stair is one of a kind, and attacked as such. They’re all different, whether only one is or not. Anyone leaving after two drinks or fewer would invariably land flat on their face going up. Anyone who went down the stairs while sober, which was a smaller percentage than you might expect, ended up in a heap at the bottom of the stairs.

The owner slept on, and dreamed of better days, and quinine.

[To be continued]

One Response

  1. two stair comments:
    1) In one house at Colonial Wmsburg, a docent warned that the staircase we were about to climb had a “burglar step” . That is, the top tread was 1″ taller than the others, deliberately so, to trip up the unsuspecting housebreaker and warn the sleeping homeowner that he was being intruded upon. Definitely not a case of the carpenter forgetting to allow for the thickness of the floor on that top riser!
    2) (Also in VA) Ever see a stair composed entirely of winders? Walking down the outer side, plenty of walking space, step off the inside and you get stair poisoning–one drop, and you’re dead.

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