This is episode #7 of "Hammered and Nailed," the 2002 horror story about home remodeling that ran in the Sun-Times.
'Hey Slava, you're fired!" That wasn't so hard, was it? In fact it was easy. And fun. So much fun, I'd like to do it again. "Hey Slava—so long! Dos vedanya, buddy! Go find some other house for your ham-handed greenhorn pals to practice on."
Sure, I can do that here. But in real life? It just doesn't come out. My mouth opens to say the words, and instead "Oh yeah, great, great," tumbles out. Pathetic.
Faithful readers might recall when last we left the bathroom project, at the end of August. Having finally girded what loins I have, I explained to Slava that the cheapie pasteboard shelves they put in were no good and they must do them again—with something called wood, wood that had been primed and painted. I even trotted over to Home Depot and bought $35 worth of fancy trim, to put under the shelves, so they wouldn't have to bother replacing the crudely sawn brackets holding up the shelves. They could hide them! Always considerate—Neil Steinberg, the contractor's pal.
With the shelves on their way, I was emboldened to actually christen the new bathroom. That isn't my way. My way would be to wait until it was absolutely done, finished, complete, then stock it with new towels and pristine soaps and savor some kind of sublime moment of existential joy in perfection before inaugurating the bathroom's 20-year slide into decay, filth and ruin.
But with new shelves coming, I was energized. I figured we're home free. Celebrate! I bought a thick, new, white towel—somehow, taking your inaugural bath with a threadbare Big Bird beach towel doesn't quite do it.
Everything except the shelves looked great. I squinted, happily superimposing in my mind the rotted, ruined, broken apart, mold-ridden, creme yellow shell of a bathroom that had once been there over the sparkling, white tiled splendor. Hmmm, nice. The chrome shower curtain rings, with the little ball bearings, gave a hugely satisfying "shrick" as I pulled the white curtain aside. The shower head—one of those big, saucer-sized shower heads that dribbles down rain--was in an unexpected position: above my head. Until that shower, I had never really noticed that most shower heads are about eye height. You sort of have to do a bunny dip to wash your hair. This is a result, I assume, of the gradual shrinkage of houses, along with 7 1/2-foot ceilings and hollow core doors. Not here, not anymore, no sirree Bob!
My heart was filled with joy. I didn't remember ever telling Slava to put the shower head way up high. But he did! Good old Slava! It wouldn't be long until, guided by my subtle American concern for quality, that all would be set right. Then, on to the kitchen! This was early September. You might recall, all last month, there was no column rejoicing the redone shelves. Instead, I drew the veil. Wrote about sump pumps. Wrote about trees. These were smoke screens. I was ashamed. The truth is: I couldn't bear to think about the bathroom. I still can't. But at some point the truth must be told: Heading toward the fifth month, the bathroom's . . . still . . . not . . . done. Aiiiyeeeeee!!!!!! (Does that convey in print? Think of the undulating scream that warriors waving scimitars make as they plunge into the bottomless pit in those Sunday afternoon "Sinbad" movies).
Sure, I got the Russians to agree to fix the shelves. "No problem," Slava repeated, though not really paying close attention—I realize now--to what he was "no probleming" about. We pestered them to get the shelves done. Hope bloomed. I had forgotten one vital element: These were the same guys who had screwed up the shelves to begin with. And you know what? The second time was screwed up more—my nice, considerately-bought Home Depot maple trim? A slapdash paint job, Old Mr. Wood peeking through. Artlessly hung at nowhere near horizontal, affixed by nails driven right through the facing of the trim. It looked like hell. And the thing of it is, the hot shame that I'll carry to my grave, is when he showed me the second botched job, I mumbled "Oh yeah, great, great," squinting and trying to tell myself it was great. I did not, as I should have, grabbed him by the shirtfront and screamed, spittle flying off my lips, "You bumbling Belarus bastard! You call that improvement? This isn't the john in some crumbling Stalinesque concrete apartment block back in Oostkaminagorsk--this is my HOME!"
But I didn't say that. I waited for my wife to come home and then showed her the bathroom, like a remorseful husband revealing the tattoo he got on a Las Vegas bender with his buddies.
Still we clung, pathetically, to the hope that these guys could still do our kitchen—the plan had been for the bathroom to be a dry run, a test, before they embarked on the kitchen. We didn't really think they were going to fail.
"OK," I said. "So they can't put up woodwork and they can't do plumbing—is that so important in a kitchen? The floor will look nice." But our hearts weren't in it. We knew we'd have to start looking all over again. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.
At least the Russians were gone. Or were they? While this was going on, autumn had arrived. We fired up the radiators. Soon they were hot and radiating away, except—and you saw this coming, didn't you?—the radiator in the bathroom. Cold as a stone. So it seems that Slava will be coming back—at least to fix the radiator, though, if history is any judge, he'll find a way to make it worse ("Yup, oddest thing—this one radiator here removes heat from the room . . .")
And, like exhausted circus ponies returning to the miserable ring, we begin again. The first contractor we got to go through the kitchen was a class act. So classy, in fact, that his bid was exactly twice what we could conceive of paying in our wildest dream of profligacy. I took that as a good sign. When we finally find somebody, he'll be the third person contracted to do our kitchen. Perhaps the third time, as they say, is the charm.
—Originally published Oct. 10, 2002
—Originally published Oct. 10, 2002