Sippican Cottage

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How To Lift Your House Six Inches

Well, not your house, probably. It’s likely that you’re smarter than I am, and don’t need to lift your house at all. But if you do, or are just interested in how and why I lifted our house six inches or so, with many digressions, read on.

Way, Way More Than An Hour On The Stage

Shall I sing you the song of my people?

Shall I strut and fret an hour upon the stage? Wait a minute, I don’t take music gigs any more. What I mean to say is, do you want to hear a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying, well, not nothing, but not much, either? 

I said earlier that if I describe my life accurately, no one believes me. If I tell the truth, I’m disbelieved, or excoriated, to taste. People think I’m bragging when I’m expiating my guilt, and they think I’m being modest when I’m thumpin’ my chest. I have some problems explaining that I don’t like explaining jokes, especially if I have to explain that I was joking before explaining the joke. 

But enough about me; what do you think about me? (There. that’s a joke. Drat. I’m doing it.) Should I tell you what I did this summer? Think before you answer. By proxy, you’re asking me a direct question. That’s like making eye contact with panhandlers or people handing out flyers in front of the alternative bookstore. You’re going to have to shoulder some blame if you look me directly in the Intereye and say, Sippican, what did you do this summer? 

If you ask a normal person what they did this summer, you figure they’ll tell you about their tedious trip to Disney World, or whatever normal people do in the summer; how would I know what normal people do? I haven’t talked to a normal person in years. I’ve retreated to my mountain bolthole and only get to espy circus families in the Walmart to gather intel on my fellow citizens. I gather you like NASCAR and Funyuns more than I do. Other than that you’re all a mystery.

So be warned; if you answer in the affirmative, I’m not going to tell you about vacation, because I haven’t had one in fifteen years or so, and I won’t tell you about the interesting things I saw on television, because there is no such thing, and I can’t take pictures of my food in funky restaurants and Instagram the shite out of them because I never leave the house, never mind go to restaurants. 

All I can tell you about is lifting my house six inches with no money and a seventeen-year old to help. If you’re not interested, say so now.

Our $25,000 House

Here she be, just as we found her: Our $25,000 house


noun ˈhə-vəl, ˈhä-
a small, wretched, and often dirty house

OK, OK, we didn’t move to a hovel three years ago. 

Truth be told, it was much worse than a hovel. We aspired to live in a hovel. We thought we might be able to fashion a hovel out of what we’d purchased. We dreamt of wretchedness, and are still doggedly trying to clear away all the debris just to get to the dirty part, so we can live in it and be happy. 

About four years ago, we became Househunters. Unfortunately, the earlier generations of househunters and gatherers, appearing on the far left side of the homeowner’s “walking upright” chart,  had put out a neglect-and-wreck salt lick and jacklighted our house to death long before we could get to it. I’d make a joke about crawling inside the carcass of our dead house to get warm, like a tauntaun, but they’d ruined the heating system and other assorted plumbing by abandoning the house in the winter and letting all the pipes freeze, so it was usually colder inside than outdoors. The weather’s generally balmy two or three days a year here in western Maine, but we are unreasonable, and hell-bent on living in the place for more than one long weekend in late June, so stuff was going to have to get done, and I was going to have to do it myself.  Why would we move to such a place, you ask? We had become instantly broke, and the house was free. That’s a great combination.

OK, not really free, but pretty close. We bought a fairly big, 1901 vintage Queen Anne house for $24,400. I consider any house you can buy for less than a Kia to be “free.” It wasn’t the “Detroit” version of free, either. I know you can buy a crackhouse in the Motor City for a double sawbuck, or trade it for a couple of syphilitic chickens or something, but then you’ve got to try to defend its walls against all comers. And those walls have all their copper pipes ripped out by crackheads to give your new home a proper crackhouse vibe.

No thanks. We moved to what’s considered a nice neighborhood in a quiet little town in western Maine. And in addition to a lack of Mogadishu-level crime, the taxes here are comparatively low, because there’s a huge, stinking paper mill right in the center of town paying half the town’s freight. That means our free house didn’t come with a bent number followed by a vapor trail of zeroes after it for back taxes, or front taxes or sideways taxes. Everyone at the local credit union that was stuck with our White Elephant Victorian, before they stuck us with it, was in their office, more than happy to make a deal, and our new neighbors greeted us like Americans rolling into Paris in 1944. Actually, Paris isn’t too far from here; it’s near Norway, which is just a few miles from Poland. Don’t try liberating Paris by driving there and asking around, though. The Post Office has called the entire town of Paris “South Paris” for so long now that no one in Paris knows exactly where Paris is.

The last time I saw Paris, well, I was buying corrugated cardboard to ship a table, so let’s move on. We got a house for twenty-five large, and no one gives you a house for that kind of money if all it needs is a good dusting and waxing. Generally that $25k sort of house needs an air strike, or if it’s like ours, looks like it’s already had one or two. Our house had a bad roof, where there was a roof instead of informal skylights where the squirrels and rain came and went. It had no heat, and no working plumbing of any kind. Much of the electricity was supplied by the original knob and tube wiring, which was still safer than all the newer stuff that had been installed by a series of inebriated electricians. Why inconvenience any future occupants by requiring them to bring a toaster into the shower just to electrocute themselves, when you can make it possible at most any outlet? The general fabric of the house was sagging and swaying and collapsing like the first twenty people Mike Tyson punched, except where it had already fallen down, of course. And the basement — which is one floor below the other basement, because the place is built on a riverbank and is slanted like a major newspaper — the basement was a horror.

It was boarded up like Hannibal Lecter’s waiting room. It hadn’t had a fire down there. No! Why settle for one fire in your basement when you can have two? The roof above had been neglected so long that you could poke your head right through it (I eventually did, and fixed it) and the rain and snow and rodents had worked their magic throughout the whole back facade, all the way down to the foundation, which wasn’t there anymore.

The former occupants had taken everything with them, including all the light bulbs in the fixtures. They had dragged some sort of corroded and oily apparatus they still coveted up the stairs and through all the rooms, leaving an undulating rusty gulley in the maple floors all the way to the front door, but they couldn’t take the foundation with them, could they?

(to be continued)

[Update: Thanks to the Instapundit, Ace of Spades, American Digest, Maggie’s Farm, Execupundit, and anyone else I’ve overlooked for sending their readers my way this week. Sooper-dooper thanks to everyone that’s hit our assorted tipjars, bought my book, purchased my furniture, supported my children’s musical career, and used my Amazon portal. It’s enormously appreciated. And thanks, period, for reading and commenting. No man writes for no one]

I Got Very Little Foundation And A Case Of The Shingles

Of course the former owners put shingles all over the interior walls instead of over the holes in the roof. Why do you ask?

Please forgive me, but sometimes I lie a little, or play dumb to tell a joke, or point over there and say “look” if you’re watching your spoons too closely. But I’m not a bad person. I just act like one. I featured a video with a jolly fellow Mainer splitting granite into blocks to use for his house foundation on this site last week, and said I had a passing acquaintance with his Fred Flintstone foundation method. That’s a version of fibbing. I know a lot about it.

I’ve seen, and had to monkey around with, more foundations made out of big, granite blocks, big old granite boulders, and just plain rubble than you can shake a stick at. They were built by the low bidders of antiquity, most looking like they were organized by a government webmaster by the time I got a crack at them.  So there’s something I learned a long time ago: If your foundation is assembled in any way, instead of mixed out of four or five ingredients and dumped in a form, your foundation sucks. And my current foundation is no exception to that rule. It sucks. Or it would, if it were still there.

The Granite State is just a short drive from here, and God and Nature didn’t put those dotted lines on the maps, we did, so granite is just as common as earthworms in the ground here in Maine as it is over the border. The men that built my house tried to cadge a benefit from a drawback. They assembled big granite blocks into a foundation under my house. It was easier than hauling away all that granite when they were digging the foundation hole for my fourth-generation money pit in the first place. Strike one. Granite blocks seem really permanent, but they have to be joined together with mortar, and that sort of pointing requires maintenance. Strike Two. And late Victorian builders didn’t like exposing the granite blocks above ground level, so they’d often put courses of bricks on top of the stone for you to look at while you’re gardening. Strike Three, looking. Bricks sitting on rocks make a foundation that wanders from where you put it.

Civilians see a brick wall and see permanence. But brick walls, especially old ones, actually flex and move around quite a bit. The mortar they formerly used to assemble any masonry was made with much more lime than we use now, and was much less rigid than what you buy at Home Despot. You could rake out that mortar and re-point it much easier than modern mortars will allow, and the walls moved around more easily without popping the mortar joints first, or spalling the bricks. The old mortar also used to weather away more easily. In my basement, the one below the other basement, there’s three feet of bricks atop four feet of stone, and on the floor at the foot of the whole assembly, there’s a kind of sandy beachfront for about six inches along the wall. That’s the sand from the mortar that’s shuffled off its mortal coil, the brick wall, and fallen on the ground. On a sunny day, I can see through that brick wall here and there.

Well, in the back of the house, four storeys under the leaky roof, right next to the pavement behind the house, rainwater would splash and soak the bricks and spall the mortar out of the joints. The entire masonry wall that’s supposed to hold up the back of my house was entirely gone. It must have disappeared a tablespoon of mortar at a time at first, then a brick here and a brick there for a decade or three, and then eventually there was nothing. No one fixed it any where along the line, and eventually covered it up inexpertly. I didn’t bother inspecting what was walled up in there very closely before I bought the house, because, why bother? I knew whatever it was wasn’t any good.

That realization, that everything is bad, so no one’s going to try to charge you much for it, is the most appropriate attitude one can have when looking for a house for next-to-no money. You regular people do it all backwards. You ask home inspectors to go look at your prospective two-bedroom ranch in the ‘burbs, which costs a half-a-mil because it’s only an hour and fifteen minutes from your cubicle job, and ask them to find something wrong with it. Me? I go to a closing at the credit union and dare the banker to find anything right with the house he’s selling me. There was a realtor involved too, of course, who was from Central Casting for Realtors.  She tried, wanly at first, to wave her hands around in the house and inform us of all the possibilities the house had, and all its wonderful features, at least until I grunted and scowled a few times and then mentioned that every goddamned particle of this dump was bad and she should feel bad for trying to sell it to me. We got on famously after that. She just unlocked the door and stood like a plastic plant in the corner the second time we went to look at the place. She did make one more cack-handed attempt at realty, a half-hearted effort to convince us that there was a “handyman” interested  in the place, so don’t wait, act now, operators are standing by…

Lady, if you assembled a Prussian army regiment of Norm Abrams they couldn’t get the front door to hang straight in this place. Stop telling me about imaginary people. If I wanted to hear about imaginary people I’d ask you about an honest congressman. Put a sock in it, tell the bank to knock 25 percent off the price before I come to my senses, and I’ll consider it, and let us get back in the car where it’s above zero, will you?

(to be continued)

Real Estate, Red In Tooth And Claw

What do you see out your kitchen window?

I’m a little slow on the uptake from time to time. Occasionally people mistake this form of aphasia, for things right in front of my face, as a kind of aplomb — it isn’t. To coin an aphorism by butchering Kipling quotes: If you seem to be keeping your head because you’re a little dimwitted, while everyone else is smart enough to be losing theirs, they’ll often put you in charge of that pack of panicking headless men, for all the wrong reasons, and then you’ll be a man in a world of trouble, my son.

Anyhoo, I read the Instapundit, but it wasn’t until Sunday that I realized he’s got comments on his webpage. When did this happen? I didn’t get the memo. Someone must have forgotten to put a cover sheet on my TPS report again. Ah, well, comment sections have comment sections now, and there are aggregators of aggregators all over the place on the Intertunnels, so I guess it was inevitable.

After the Instapundit’s latest link to this page, someone left an interesting comment. Well, it was interesting to me. I’ll let you make up your own mind. Of course we’re discussing my entry about buying my house for twenty-five grand, and then fixing it in a desultory and substandard way. Here’s what Jack had to say about our little scheme to shiver and hit our thumbs with hammers in Maine:

Not to be a buzz kill, but that’s not a $25,000 house. Sounds very much
like is needs around $50,000 of work to make it livable (though less if
completely DIY) and probably another $25,000 – $50,000 to make it

Could you. Please. Excuse me. For. A. Moment…

OK, I’m back. I, bwah hah ha… ouch… snort… ouch… I went to the local hospital to get  an estimate to have my ribs glued and various organs stuffed back in where they belong, because I busted my gut over that. Jack, put your hand on your forehead and tell me if you’re feverish. Check carefully, because if it’s cool, you’re nuts, and the co-pay for that is much higher.

It’s not Jack’s fault. It’s wise to be a skeptic on the Intertunnel, otherwise you might end up with carbon taxes out the wazoo, or perhaps with fully immunized children. Can’t believe everything you read. The world might not be run by lizard people. It prolly is, but there’s a scant chance they’re just regular jerks, not lizards.

It’s also not Jack’s fault that everyone’s forgotten what a house is supposed to be, and what it’s for, and what would make one more habitable than another. He says it’s not a house until I dump a hundred gees or so into it. (Ow, ow, ow –snorting coffee out your nose with your ribs in disarray hurts like the dickens) So I disagree with Jack. It’s ipso facto “a house” if my wife, two children, and I move into it and live in it. Because that’s exactly what we did, a month or two after I took that picture. A house is shelter, first and foremost. Almost everything else is gravy, or more likely, beside the point altogether.

If I had a hundred grand…

Sorry, I passed out with pain and laughter again. Me, with a hundred grand to throw around in the foreseeable future? And then dumping it into this place? Just for a place to live?

Here’s an experiment: Stuff that hundred grand we’re going to need into an attache case. Don’t worry about where we’ll get it, I’ll poop out the hundred grand later, out by the magic money tree in the back yard, right after we re-elect Warren G. Harding and there’s an economy again. Now take that attache case to any address in my town, ring the doorbell, stand there for an hour, realize that there hasn’t been a working doorbell in western Maine since Eisenhower, then knock. Any door. I guarantee you that every single person you encounter will take that case from you and walk right past you, leaving their steaming bowl of gruel on their kitchen table, and let you have their house. Hell, they’ll give you their funeral parlor, or the library, or maybe the fire station for a hunny large. Most people in western Maine are leery of anything too good to be true, and would probably count out twenty-five thousand, hand it back to you, and run away laughing with what’s left.

Housing here is red in tooth and claw. There are no Joneses to keep up with. People compare shotguns and four-wheelers, maybe, to see who’s fly and who’s a dork, but they don’t know Martha Stewart from Jimmy Stewart. I knew that. I wanted that. I did a very detailed search for a liveable place that had real estate I’d be interested in that I could afford. That’s what I got.

See, what didn’t happen to me was this: no one got to my house before I did, and took $100,000, went to Home Depot, then destroyed this house with what they bought, and then tried to charge me for what they did. To me, everything the average person wants in and on their house nowadays is an abomination, or a waste of money, or both. To make me pay for it on top of having to live with it is like charging more to use a public toilet because a hobo filled the bowl just before you showed up.  My house might be a toilet, but it’s an empty toilet, by gad.

This house has been a nice place for us to live, although life here has been very challenging. We know that if  your life’s too easy, you can end up sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber with a pet monkey and the Elephant Man’s bones, breathing through a gelded nose, so we don’t mind the privations as much as others might. They haven’t done us any harm. My children sleep quietly and contentedly in their beds. There are four rooms on my ground floor that are sixteen feet square each, with nine foot ceilings. My office is big, has faceted walls filled with giant windows that look out on a greensward. Many of the windows in the house look out upon things a normal human would want to see, and let in sunshine and fresh air where I want it. What would I do to this house with a hundred grand? Buy granite counters, as gaudy as Liberace’s Christmas tree, and place them atop Chinese kitchen cabinets made from equal parts sawdust, formaldehyde, and lead? Buy a jacuzzi? If I wanted to get in a shabby, flimsy fiberglass tub half full of water that goes WUB WUB WUB at flight-deck volume, I’d be a lobster fisherman. I don’t want vinyl siding and plastic floors that look almost woodlike. I don’t want a water heater that costs more than a car, which produces water ten degrees below hot, but saves enough energy in a year to heat my left foot for fifteen minutes on one day in October.

I wouldn’t want to blow a hundred grand on this house even if I could. This is not the parable of the sour grapes. I’m fixing it, which costs a little money and a lot of effort, it’s true, but when I’m done, someone will give me a hundred grand for it instead of the other way around. Let them put granite countertops in it. I’m with the people that built the house in the first place, and used the granite for the foundation, like a sensible person would.

(to be continued)

What’s a lupin worth?


I’m Fixing A Hole Where The Intertunnel Gets In

I fear I must go back to the beginning.

It wasn’t my intention. I started writing about fixing the foundation I keep under my money pit in western Maine, because that’s what I did this summer, but one thing led to another, and people got interested in the birth of the baby, even though I was trying to talk about junior high school, as it were. The public is demanding the bathwater, too.

I’m familiar with one thing leading to another. After all, I have two children. House purchases and babies often happen under the same kinds of circumstances. Bad lighting, slightly inebriated, running up tabs you really can’t afford, being shown strange people’s bedrooms, that sort of thing. Well, if it wasn’t for bad judgment, I’d have no judgment at all, so why should a house be any different? We were supposed to live in Turner.

Turner’s over an hour closer to, well, everything. We’d gone on Zillow and Google Earth and MLS night after night, looking for the cheapest nearly habitable place we could find. We thought we found it in Turner. I talked a few times with the realtor, and they were as helpful as realtors usually are: not helpful. They couldn’t answer any important questions for me, because realtors don’t know anything important about the properties they sell. Well, that’s not entirely true. They often know very important things about the properties they sell. Those are invariably the things they’re hiding from you, hoping to entice you into standing in the decrepit shack they’re listing while they perform their Svengali perorations about its potential. Weave a tapestry of possibilities in the air that’ll have you frisking yourself in no time, looking for your checkbook before that handyman that’s interested in the property snatches it from under your nose.

Oh, I know that handyman. That guy gets around. I never learned his name, but he seemed to be interested in every property I was interested in Maine. No matter where I went — Turner, Cornish, Peru, Livermore Falls, Norway, Rumford…

Anyway, that polymath handyman with the lead foot and the nose for diamonds in the rough was always one step ahead of us, ready to stuff our defeat into the jaws of his victory. He was very interested in Turner, I hear.

I had one request for the realtor on the phone, and by email, and then by the phone again, and by email some more, unrequited. Go to the house. Stand outside. Take four photos: North, South, East, and West. Show them to me. That’s it. I’d researched the house to a fare-thee-well already, knew every owner it had ever had, what the taxes were. Hell, I even had the septic plan for it on my desk. Just take the the pictures, willya?

Well, that realtor must have been the most notable realtor since the Algonquin Century16 office did that handshake deal with the Dutch. She was always too busy to travel the 5,000 yards from her office to the house and take the pictures. My, how busy some people get.

We drove the four hours to get there on a weekend. We had an appointment with the realtor at 10:00 AM, which I gather is considered 3AM on Christmas in realtor time. We decided to go early and drive by the house alone first. It was a three-bedroom, end entry, Greek Revival farmhouse, with an attached ell and a barn attached to that. It looked like Dresden, 1945, but nearer a fire hydrant. And about fifteen feet from one side of it was another house, which appeared as if someone with the decorating chops of Ed Gein owned it, but rented it out. On the front porch, which was really just some crumbling concrete steps, was a man that looked like he had just cooked and eaten his entire family, and was still hungry. He was smoking a cigarette, standing outside in the snow — in his socks.

My wife told me to keep driving, because my wife likes to tell me to do things I’m already doing. It’s like a hobby with her.

We kept driving, following signs to one strange place after another, until we found the house we live in now, with a For Sale sign standing drunkenly on the lawn. We stopped and stood on the Queen Anne porch, and peered in the windows. The house looked like it had been picked up six inches and dropped. It had been decorated by someone that didn’t like their customer, or human beings in general, very much. There was ice — not frost; ice — on the inside of the windows. We were looking as best we could into a triptych of windows in a bay, under a sort of turret, and my wife said, “That’s where our Christmas tree will go.”

The rest was conversation. We bought the house that winter, snatching it from under the very nose of that handyman, the dastard, but the For Sale sign stayed out front until June, because it was frozen solid into the ground. Now I’m the only thing that stands drunkenly on the lawn, and that’s the way we like it.

(to be continued)


Praying For Anti-Freeze

Our bathroom, just as we found it. I think that’s anti-freeze in the toilet. I mean, I pray that’s anti-freeze in it.

I’m a fairly effective forensic carpenter.

There, I lied again. I’m a really good forensic renovator. I’ve had as much experience with old homes as four Bob Vilas. I’ve also spent an inordinate amount of time reading about old homes, especially American versions of old homes, because I’m profoundly strange, so it’s hard to spring anything new on me. I’m a little sketchy below the Waffle Hut/IHOP line, it’s true. But then again, there wasn’t much down there in the first place to miss out on. It took air conditioning to get people living down there in big numbers, and air conditioning for the masses is a recent development. Besides, Sherman burned everything else down, anyway.

By “forensic renovation,” I mean that by taking a house apart, or better still, looking at the benighted surfaces visible to the naked eye after generations of neglect and visits to Home Despot, I can usually tell what used to be there, or at least make an educated guess at it. My current house in western Maine was really easy in this regard, and really hard at the same time. It was really easy to tell what the original roofing from 1901 was, because it was still on the roof. It wasn’t doing anything rooflike up there on the roof, but I could look at it if I wanted to. The original service entry for the electricity was there, the original electrical wiring, flooring, door and window trim, window sashes — where they weren’t removed entirely and boarded up, anyway. Hell, when I repaired the central stairwell and upstairs hallway, every single layer of wallpaper going back to William McKinley was still on the wall. The original was beautiful. It was a rich green, flecked with a bronze-y tone in metallic ink. The layer over it was a less fine but still nice 1940’s block print in a sort of classical revival motif. There was a fifties chinoiserie attempt on there after that –not bad. There were two or three more layers of meh. The room got bigger just by removing the wallpaper.

Three of the bedroom ceilings still displayed their original coatings on the ceiling, two of the three completely untouched, the third on patchwork display after sleeping under a 1970s attempt to put textured paint over calsomine. Calsomine paint — isn’t. It isn’t paint. It’s paste, like something Tom Sawyer would con you into painting Aunt Polly’s fence with. People tried painting over calsomine paint for decades back in the day, and it would peel forevermore, because it’s essentially a coat of chalk, and everyone got disgusted with trying, some putting in asbestos tiles, others drop ceilings, desperately trying to keep the lead paint chips out of their Wheaties. That usually worked until they were able to solve the problem once and for all by burning their house to the ground. They often accomplished this by plugging in their leg lamp and their Christmas tree at the same time, using that socket that already had the radio, four other lamps, and an extension cord for a toaster in the next room. The lamp was a major award, so you just had to plug it in. It wasn’t their fault.

Just because I’ve been tasked with (unsuccessfully) repairing calsomine ceilings a couple hundred times in the past, doesn’t mean I was ready to see one essentially fresh off the brush. It wasn’t like unearthing a triceratops skull — it was like finding an actual triceratops rummaging through your trash cans. It was a wonder to me. The ceiling in what’s now my older son’s room, the nicest room in the house, was a lovely canary yellow color. In the Spare Heir’s room the ceiling was a delicate robin’s egg blue. The decrepit room where the kids play music had a yellow ceiling too, slowly exposing itself like a hobo in the library as the crust of pointless attempts to cover it up sloughs off.

All the woodwork in the public rooms is oak. Big, blocky, oak. Barbarous oak. Ropy, solid, Arts and Crafts oak. Like so many houses built early in the twentieth century, it straddled the line between Victorian and Arts and Crafts. Most of the houses in my neighborhood are like that, or were, before the owners decided they’d prefer to straddle the line between Home Depot and Lowe’s instead. My neighbor across the street lives in a four-square house that would look at home in the midwest, if it wasn’t half taken with old Yankee Victorianism, too. He keeps his house in good repair, which is not easy. He’s a hell of a guy, and a great neighbor.

He was born and raised here, and his father worked in the big mill that squats over the river in the center of town. He moved away, then came back and bought the family homestead back. I told you you could buy any house in town any time you wanted to, but you didn’t believe me. Anyway, wonder of wonders, he was poking around his house and found pictures of mine — in 1968. Awesome!

Before you go off on a jag, making fun of me for living in an arctic wasteland, I’d like to double down and point out that these pictures are taken in the autumn, at least a month before winter even begins. Snerk. But there’s my house, halfway between being built and having us infest it. My neighbor Rich pointed out everyone in the photo by name. They all still live around here. The dog is dead, though.

This is Rich’s brother, standing on his lawn, looking down on ours. Rich still looks down on us, every which way, and with good reason. And to give you some of the local flavor, Maine in the sixties, let me point out that Rich’s brother is casually holding a hatchet.

If you look at the first picture, you can see a catwalk with a railing that led to a screened-in kitchen entry at the back of the house, which was a 16 foot plunge to your death without a railing when we moved here. Don’t worry, I instructed my children to play in the street, where it’s safe, and stay out of the yard. We’re devoted parents in such matters.

Look even closer, and you’ll see a Zenith sign on the front roof. A previous owner fixed and sold televisions and radios out of the basement here. I work down there now, and find evidence of his labors here and there from time to time. There’s a basement under that basement, too, about the size of a two-car garage. The fellow had a nifty Dodge delivery van parked out front.

When I said the forensic carpentry was both easy and hard at the same time here, I told you all the easy stuff. Hell, nothing’s easier than looking at pictures of it. Now the hard part: Everyone destroyed everything else. Ripped it out, tore it up. Sold it into slavery, I think. Hell, down in the basement basement (that’s not a typo) they tried to burn it to a cinder to put me off the scent. There were at least five doors gone from the first floor alone, and I counted eleven (eleven!) windows that had been removed and boarded up. In the infinite wisdom of people who board up windows, all those windows faced South. They boarded them up because someone told them that windows leak heat, so they took out the ones facing the sun, their only hope of any real comfort in this climate, and installed ceiling fans in every room, figuring the heat must be in this house somewhere. Maybe it’s up by the ceiling, refusing to cavort with us down on the floor.

We moved into the house without any central heat in it, and not even any decentralized heat for the first week. Trust me, if there was any heat in there, I would have found it.

(to be continued)

I Think I’m Supposed To Pony Up Before And After Photos

Maybe it’s just me, but perhaps instead of painting bizarre hedrons on the walls, maybe they should have opened that little door and noticed that rodents had eaten all the insulation off the wiring for that electric radiator, like I did

Ah, beloved of shelter shows, fave of DIY videos, the inamorata of second wives that just shooed the last disreputable contractor off their property after the granite countertop/laminate flooring/stainless steel appliance remuddling orgy was over in their snouthouse kitchen: Before and After Photos.

But I’ve already shown you before and after photos. You just weren’t paying attention. It’s not your fault. I’m weird and broke, so my After photos are really all During photos. There is nothing permanent in your house. Your house is a direction, or more accurately, it’s one of two directions. Getting better or getting worse. There is no stasis in houses. Nothing is “modern,” or “updated.” Newly installed, maybe. But the hideous stuff you ripped out, usually barely a decade old, was all modern and updated when they put it in, too. What it really was, was a fad.

Fads rule in everything in American public life. There used to be fewer choices for everything you used or owned. There were only three TV channels when I was young, and yet people had a more varied outlook than they do now, even though basic cable has three hundred. Everyone had to have Corian counters when Clinton was President. Everyone had to have granite counters when Bush was President. Everyone wants repossessed granite countertops in Obama’s second term, which is almost continuity, but my point stands. In two years every one will sniff at your granite and say quartz is where it’s at, dahling, and you’ll tear it all out again.

I didn’t do anything in particular to my $25,000 house, though I’m always doing something. A Home Depot brochure didn’t explode in there. I really only did one thing: I reversed its direction. The period before 1968 is shrouded in mystery, but I know pretty much what’s been going on here since then. It was all bad. Everyone had their own version of  bad to visit on the sticks and bricks, but like most people, they were all human termites. They ate at the fabric of the house, and pooped in it. The poop of a human termite isn’t sawdust. It’s ceiling fans and wallpaper borders and sheets of paneling and dozens of tin barnacles on the window headers for curtain rods and shutters and shades and drapes and sheets of plastic and venetian blinds.  I began to suspect that this house has only had one direction since it was built, and then, in a moment of inspiration, looking at some substandard thing or another, I wondered if it was going down the shitter even before it was finished. Did the original occupants move in before it was completely built and start the cavalcade of entropy before the paint was even dry?

It’s very likely. The house was built in a very unusual way for 1901. It’s timber framed. The outside is standard-issue Queen Anne, with wrap-around porch, a curved and a turreted roof, a mix of siding textures, big windows, public rooms enfilade. But it’s framed like a barn: big timbers socketed into one another, and not enough framing between them. I would have expected balloon framing, maybe, and there is some mixed in, but this house wasn’t a palace, ever. It was for regular folks, or the just slightly better off than regular folks, and it was built by people that were used to having horses for customers. It’s a testament to their innate good sense and the quality of even below-average building materials and methods from the turn of the twentieth century that the house is still standing after a century of people trying to wreck it.

When we moved here, I think I spent over two hundred dollars on window glass. Window glass is cheap. If I gave you a bag of baseballs and a half an hour, I doubt you could break two hundred dollars-worth of window glass. But when the direction of a house is south for a century, all sorts of tabs can be rung up. All I did was stop this Lusitania of linoleum and turn it around. I try not to make anything worse, and if my wife and I ever lay our hands on twenty-five dollars and thirty minutes, we can improve our lives in a demonstrable way, just by pushing the shingled rock up the entropy hill one more inch.

So here’s a picture of our dreary living room, leading into our shabby dining room, just as we found it, replete with a moronic ceiling fan where a light should be, purchased with money that might have fixed — oh, I don’t know, a broken window– in a room that faces north in a climate that has shown me twenty below zero in recent memory:

But you’ve all already seen the After, er, I mean During photo. It’s a video, though. The Heir and The Spare are in it:

Remodel your house in the only meaningful way possible. Turn that ship around. Turn that frown upside down. Find a mate and have some kids and put some life back in your house. But Just between you and me, I’d skip the trombone. It’s like brass bagpipes.

(You can see more Unorganized Hancock videos here. The drummer’s only nine years old in that video. He’s ten now, and a lot better. No, really)

 (to be continued)

So Me And Paul Newman Walk Into The State House


[If you just came in, I’m explaining how I raised my practically-free house six inches with little money and only a teenager to help. It’s taking much longer to explain than it did to do the work. That’s because a house weighs much less than my ego]

I was, at one time, a general contractor.

They don’t call it that, officially, back in Massholechusetts where I earned the credential. You’re a “Construction Supervisor.” I understand they have differing degrees of construction supervision licenses, but I’ve never met anyone with anything but the “unrestricted” version, me included. I was licensed to pull a building permit for — and bang the nails into — anything from a doghouse to a skyscraper. Whoopty.

I want to share with you, my dear readers, a secret. It’s a secret that might do you some good. It’s a secret that might make you rethink my approach to living in a house that cost less than a Corolla, and perhaps even give it a go yourself. In the story of the license lies the secret.

I didn’t technically need the credential at the time. I thought it would be handy to have. I was rehabbing people’s domiciles, and a lot of times a building permit was required, but I was always working for the owner of the house. The owner of a house can apply for a permit on their own, and then hire someone to do the work whether they have a license or not. That’s how it went for a long time. My expertise, their name on the line that is dotted. The process got unwieldy, so I decided to put a stop to it. I was only doing the work in the first place because the customers had tired of hiring a GC that knew squat and then hiring me to fix everything. They wanted to get rid of the middle man, and so did I, after a while. The middleman was always a rough framing carpenter.

I’m not sure what it’s like now, but in the not-too-distant past, all general contractors were framers. It was the traditional way of life for them and the customers. Deal with a framer. The framer had the most to do with producing the house-y like form of the house, so at one time it seemed to make sense, but it really doesn’t anymore. A general contractor used to employ all the subcontractors and build a house, soup to nuts. Now everyone, including the framing contractor, is just a subcontractor. The subcontractors have subcontractors at this point. There’s no natural center in the general contracting onion anymore.

The framing contractor doesn’t know anything about design, he just reads plans. He doesn’t know anything about foundations, or plumbing, or electricity, or painting or any other finishes. HVAC is alchemy; masonry is a Dark Art. All he knows is cutting bird’s mouths in rafter tails with a skilsaw, and how to get a sheet of plywood onto a roof in a ten-knot breeze. Those are important things to know, but it’s only one or two legs of the housing centipede.

I did not come from the world of framing. I didn’t even know who or what to see or do to get a license. There were courses offered at various Upstairs Stripmall Truckdriving and Mani-Pedi schools, but I had basically stopped attending school after I turned fifteen, so I wasn’t about to submit to sitting at a glorified card table, under a flickering fluorescent tube, with a dull docent reading facts to me off a mimeographed sheet as an adult, either. Give me the book, and butt out, I thought.

Try to find that book. I dare you. This was before the Intertunnel was in high gear, so I had to call and go hither and yon, and no one knew nothing about nothing noplace. Bookstores would try to sell me one stupid International Building Code book after another, everyone else had bupkis. I finally asked a building inspector who was drunk in a bar I was playing music in. Pretty much every third drunk person in a bar is building inspector, anyway. Might as well get some use out of them. He told me I had to go to the State House to get one. It was the only way.

So I went to the same desk in the State House where Paul Newman asks for a phone book in The Verdict, except he’s pretending he’s in a hospital, and I’m pretending I’m in a bookstore. The person behind the counter was pretending to be working in both cases. Only a state worker in Massholechusetts can pretend you’re not there, and avoid eye contact entirely, even though they aren’t doing anything and there’s only 24 inches of formica between you. It’s an astonishing talent.

After they got bored of me, they asked me what I wanted like a forties detective asks a safecracker a question in the movies. I was expecting a hose if I lingered. They sent me away, to another room, to get another non-look from someone for a good long while. I was finally allowed to ask for what I wanted, and wordlessly, the state senator’s good for nothing brother in law, or whatever he was, left the room for two minutes on the clock. I didn’t know whether he went to get what I wanted, or if he had decided that he’d had enough of me, and everyone that reminded him of me, and had quit, and was never coming back, or what. I began to wonder if he was Godot, or I was.

He finally came back, and plopped six hundred pages of  shrink-wrapped drivel on the table, and said, “Fifty bucks.” The pages were originally typed on a typewriter, then mimeographed, and then the mimeographs were photocopied, and then each copy was photocopied from the last copy, so I was looking at the Xerox version of The Telephone Game. You were supposed to figure out what it said back when Jack Hynes’ secretary first typed the thing back in the depression. There was an enormous light blue three-ring binder that went with it, and he plopped that down next to it. I briefly considered asking why he didn’t put the pages in the binder before he handed it out, but I was afraid he’d just say, “Fifty bucks” again, so I left and did it myself on Paul Newman’s counter.

(to be continued)


First Comes The Concrete Leper Colony. Then The Framing


[If you just came in, I’m describing the process for fixing the ramshackle house where I currently live in Maine. Just like all actual repair work, I lied to get the job, and it’s taking way longer than the estimate. The Shirk Brothers in The Money Pit are not really fictional. I’ll get to the point in two weeks! I promise]

You might expect the published rules for building a house to resemble some form of instruction book. You’d expect wrong.

This is what it looks like. (it’s a pdf)

That’s just an addendum or notification or supplement or appendix or amendment or notification of pending imminent continuing forthcoming wonderfulness. The actual body of the code is much less straightforward and succinct, and it’s six inches thick. There’s a delightful entry among the gobbletygook atop page two on the linked pdf — don’t miss it, it’s a howler. It asks for an estimate of the fiscal impact of changing and adding a bunch of laws about building every sort of structure in a whole state, and it just says “None.” They double down by asking about any effects on small businesses, and they aver once again, “none.” I guess the rubber stamp that reads: Who Gives A Sh*t was sent back to the print shop to be resoled from overuse, and they had to settle for the None version.

The “CMR” on all such pages stands for Code of Massachusetts Regulations. That’s right, you’re reading legislation if you want to build a house, or more precisely: statutes.The Building Code is part of this CMR, and it’s mired in Dogeared Dewey Decimal Land in the 700s. If you’re curious about whether politicians have decided to cast their laser-like focus on whether gasoline-soaked foam rubber makes good wallpaper in a nightclub, you can look at the amendment of the section about what kind of chair rail  you can use in your basement in a flood zone.

If you’ve ever wondered if ADHD is a real thing, the CMR is the scientific proof for it. It’s a very real condition, or syndrome, or affliction, or whatever you need to call it to get your speed pills paid for without a co-pay. You apparently catch if from touching ballots in state representative elections in Massachusetts. The general public, and even poll workers don’t suffer from it, because they handle so few ballots, but the winners of the elections get the germs all over them by stuffing so many into the ballot boxes when no one’s looking. They should probably wear gloves.

I promised you a big secret on Saturday, like everyone does on the Intertunnel, but here it is Monday, and no secret, and now we have to go to UMASS Dartmouth first. Sorry. Don’t get me wrong, you can’t learn much of anything useful about your house by going to that august seat of learning; but you have to take a test.

UMASS Dartmouth is the perfect place to take a test about building things in Massachusetts, because it is, without question, the ugliest warren of structures of any kind in the world. It’s not uglier than Boston City Hall, because that’s impossible, but it’s built in the exact same brutalist low-bidder concrete-fetish style, and there are dozens of buildings exactly like it at the campus. If Boston City Hall is just one hobo with a giant carbuncle on his nose, bumming money from you as you hurry to work, then UMASS Dartmouth is a leper colony.

So a couple times a year, they’d schedule test for the license at state colleges. I had the “book,” I read it (shudders) and signed up. I walked down a hallway in some Fuhrer bunker masquerading as a classroom building, and as I walked, the bow wave of air from my passage pulled down all the various photocopy fliers kids in college stick on corridor walls with entreaties to Party! or march on Washington or whatever, and they skirled on the vinyl tile behind me like autumn leaves. The heavily textured block wall wouldn’t allow any hook, and were too rough to hold even a duct-taped flyer. I thought to myself, right then, for the first time, that  I was in an insane place, doing a crazy thing, among daft people. It turned out I didn’t know the half of it.

The arena where I was directed was crazier. It was one of those lecture halls that holds hundreds, the chalkboard turning into nothing more than a billboard in a flea circus by the time you reached the back row where I was seated, because the room was full. And there were people taking the test in other halls like this on campus. And on every state college campus at the same time. And they did it multiple times a year. I was agog. I began to wonder if every single person in the state was going to have a Construction Supervisor’s license, and mine would be worthless.

I have a habit that goes back to elementary school taught by nuns. They introduced competitive aspects to learning that are now out of favor. They taught us that it wasn’t enough to get an A. If you could get an A, you could get every question right, and should try. If you could get every question right, you should work on your penmanship, and get every question right in perfect, florid cursive. And if every form of competitive testing is already covered, you should try to finish first on top of everything else, too. I was determined to try, because I still flinch when I think of the nuns.

(to be continued, with a secret, I promise)


UMASS Dartmouth, Class Of ’16

We have Sippican on file here somewhere. He’s the guy without tabs, right?

[If you just came in, I’m explaining how to repair a 110-year-old ramshackle house. I’ve gotten as far as my baby pictures. Hang in there]

And so in your hearts you beseech me to lay down my cudgels and finally put lintel atop column or wiggle my spud in some girder holes –something– but I find the need to weave wattle for my mind’s pigpen just outside the jobsite again.

I describe a thing to bring a laugh but it’s not a laughing matter. I’m throwing rice at a funeral. In Massachusetts they examined me to see if  I was worthy to stack one block upon another, to let a dog, or a dog’s minder, get in out of the rain.  They did it in a place that should be taken apart to its component molecules, the bits burned to ashes and smeared on the faces of its patrons and architects, the very ground it squats on like a concrete animal salted to make a Carthaginian blush and a Roman envious. UMASS Dartmouth is the worst place man made. A penance is in order.

They say a bad surgeon buries his mistakes, but a bad architect can only advise his clients to plant vines. UMASS Dartmouth should plant poison ivy over every inch of it. It wouldn’t be landscaping. It would be a warning to the unwary. You think I’m joking? This is what it looks like:






You could dig up whatever bits of Dante Alighieri you could find and plop him at a table and press the quill in his bony hand and say, “Top that, you piker,” and he wouldn’t hesitate a moment, just say he couldn’t raise and dare not call, and throw in.

It’s not a prison. A prison acknowledges the essential humanity of its occupants by trying to thwart their normal urges. It knows what you want, and tries to take it away from you, because you want to live like a human being, at least the kind of human being that goes to prison. But UMASS Dartmouth doesn’t have anything to do with human beings. It is worse than the most devilish panopticon, because every nook and cranny of it is designed to make you repudiate your own humanity. It wishes to deny the existence of humanity itself. If there were corpses hanging from those gibbets with the featureless rags hanging from them in the last picture, it would improve the mood, I think. A corpse used to be a human, after all.

So what does a place that denies the essential essence of humanity produce? What is the end product of a nursery of inhumanity like this concrete dovecote? This:

UMASS Dartmouth, class of ’16. The Boston Marathon bomber

So it’s the weekend, and I’m at UMASS Dartmouth, in the back row of a grim, semicircular intellectual arena, where on weekdays good ideas are slaughtered by intellectual kittens, no lions being available, for the amusement of sleeping students. But today it’s jampacked with people who want to be general contractors. Everyone has already had fourteen cups of coffee, and the room vibrates a bit with it.

As God as my witness, there was no cheating. Everyone would have cheated, I suppose, but it’s not possible to cheat. You are allowed — strike that — you’re required to bring the answers with you. The whole test simply asks you to look things up in that big, powder blue looseleaf foolscap mess they call the building code, and write it down when you find it on the line that is dotted.

As we began, the opening shuffle of papers sounding like the emptying of a dumpster, it dawned on me why everyone attended those classes at the stripmall I mentioned before. Every single one of those classes taught nothing. No one knew anything more at the end than at the beginning. All they did, was to teach the students how to take apart the big, blue book of statutes about building structures, and put it in a different order, one that made a kind of sense: foundation before framing before plaster before skylights and so on. Then they gave their students fifty cents-worth of color-coded binder tabs to tell one section from another, and locate things faster.

It was a long time ago, and one forgets things, but I remember distinctly that each and every person in that room filled with hundreds of people had those color coded tabs on their books — except one person, of course. I began to feel as though I was being looked at by every single person in a very large crowd, which is fine if you’re tap-dancing or singing barbershop or whatever, but is very unsettling if you’re just another schlub in the room. Oh, what ideas you can conjure about other people who are staring at you. That guy is either much smarter than we are, or very, very much dumber.

I’ll leave it to you to decide which was which and who was who. But me, I was in for another shock. The test lasted for two hours, if memory serves, and I dutifully remembered the nuns, and tried to ace that bad boy, and finish first. I plunged headlong into figuring snowloads that would make a ski area blush, and figuring out how to nail off a corner post to withstand a temblor that doesn’t show its face much in New England that I’ve noticed. I flipped furiously back in forth in that big, bad, book, and looked up what needed looking up, and read it, and puked it back up in a cloud of number two pencil lead.

An hour and fifteen minutes in, people started to get up and hand in their papers, while I was still laboring at span charts and live loads and occupancies for a theoretical bowling alley that was being converted to a ballroom for paraplegic arsonists, or some sort of arcane building use that made the rules go topsy-turvy. After a few minutes, the trickle of people leaving became a steady stream. The ghost of parochial schools past appeared at my shoulder rattling their beads like some weird Sister Jacob Marley, the face of the big industrial clock turning to a judge with a black cap, and I thought of my hubris, and the little plastic color-coded tabs, and ended up using every last minute of the allotted time, while wishing for more.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts will not tell you what your score is on such a test. They will not tell you anyone else’s score, either. That would smack of a meritocracy based on, well, merit, and we can’t have that. They mail you something a month later that bluntly tells you if you passed or failed, and that’s it. And that’s where I discovered the big secret.

(to be continued)

Tag: fixing the basement

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