Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Hammered and Nailed -- #9: Kitchen a recipe for disaster


     Bob Schmitt built the suburban tract house where I grew up. It might seem odd to know his name, but Bob Schmitt Builders built everybody's house—all the houses on our cul-de-sac, all the houses for blocks around. The Bob Schmitt houses were all similar, alarmingly so. Modest, rectangular shoeboxes. In later years, Bob Schmitt built fancier developments, with fancier homes, including his own monster tribute to Frank Lloyd Wright, straddling an artificial waterfall. We'd ride our bikes over to goggle at it. 
     But in my neighborhood, it was a constant variation on a theme, and that theme was just-enough-and-no-more. The dining room was a bulge on the living room. The kitchen was a brief hall with appliances--a "galley kitchen." Sometimes the garage was on the left, sometimes on the right, and the rest of the features were reversed, as if Bob Schmitt (somehow, his two names are fused together in my mind) printed his blueprints on clear plastic and, every other house, flipped them over. It was disconcerting to step into a neighbor's house—something I did a lot, as a paperboy—and see your own home, in reverse.      
     My father watched our house being built, on his lunch hour, and at times had to intercede, such as when they put the roof on wrong, and had to tear it off and put it back the right way. This sort of thing instilled in my father a certain disdain for the quality of the construction. "If there's ever a fire," he'd tell us, years later, "kick your way through the wall and run out." The materials certainly weren't fancy—rough cedar boards, outside, set on a concrete slab base. Inside, gray Armstrong tiles and a ceiling of raised white points that would take your skin off if you ran your hand over it. Our closets were lined with pegboard, a joyful thing for a child. I remember sliding open my closet doors to reveal an entire arsenal, artfully displayed on hooks: water pistols and cap guns, rubber knives and my pride and joy, a Winchester Crackfire Rifle. 
     There was not, I recalled this week, a single square inch of Peruvian limestone. Nor jasper. Nor onyx. Nor porphyry. The counters were not a fantastic swirling galaxy of deep green Brazilian granite. They were Formica, white, speckled with flecks of gold—fake gold, I hasten to point out—which struck me at the time as fancy. Yet somehow we survived. I kept reminding myself of that, half despairing, half marveling on the sea change in culture, which somehow infused my wife and me with the conviction that if we didn't order stone for the kitchen, we might as well just cover the floor with sheets of old newspaper. I spent a recent Sunday evening wandering through a variety of showrooms and warehouses, examining enormous slabs that would crush me like an egg.  I admit, at one point I considered doing just that, pulling one of the slabs over on myself and being done with it. It would be faster, and probably less painful, than trying to settle on something for the floor, something for the counters and something for the backsplash. 
     Doesn't the word "backsplash" make your skin crawl? It does mine, and neatly sums up the mincing sense of out-of-scale aesthetics, of opulence gone mad, that afflicted me as I trooped after my wife and our stone man. I didn't know what a backsplash was a year ago (it's the area just above your counter--you want some thing easily wipeable, so that if you cut off your finger with one of your razor sharp Heinkel knives, the blood won't stain the wall).       Our intention, based on previous quests, after dragging home immensely heavy boxes of samples, and placing them here and there and treading over them, discussing and analyzing and agonizing and arguing until our heads were ready to explode, was a light greenish slate floor, dark green granite counters and--well, I had never thought about a backsplash before, but my wife seemed to like tiny stone tiles, about Chiclet-sized. 
     Now that we were at the point of ordering, I began to have doubts. "The slate," I said, "is sort of rough. I'm in my bare feet a lot." "You could hone it," said our stone guy. "But it would get scratched." "I always wear slippers," chimed in my wife. The whole evening passed that way. I'd pause in front of a beautiful swirl of marble, and begin, "Hey, this is nice . . ." and be cut off with, "That's marble--if you spill a Coke on it, it'll eat the finish." Marble, apparently, is only for ceilings.         
     The most common response of our stone expert to my liking something was either to ignore the comment, or squeeze out a curt, "You could do that . . ." the unspoken second part being, I gradually realized, ". . .if you were an idiot."
     Eventually I dropped out of the conversation and busied myself playing with the little stone samples, stacking them up, feeling their roughness against my hands. I felt like I was 9 years old again, fidgeting in the women's lingerie section of Higbee's while my mother yabbered on with the friend she had bumped into. My wife and our stone guy worked everything out, anew. Did we say a light green slate floor? Make that brown sandstone studded with fossils. Dark green granite countertops? Of course not. Try a taupe granite that looks like dirty Wheatena mixed with confetti and sealed in glass. And the backsplash--well, we don't know what we are going to do yet. I pointed hopefully at a broken tile sort of thing with different colors and sizes jumbled together—it was sort of cool. "I like that," I said. My wife at first didn't like it—naturally—then we all talked about it, then took another tour of the enormous warehouse, then returned and discussed it some more, my wife finally admitting that yes, well, perhaps, maybe, it could possibly be OK with her. Then I looked at it again and said, "I'm tired of it already." 
      Hey, no rush. The workmen don't arrive until Dec. 9.
                                 —Originally published Dec. 8, 2002

2 comments:

  1. This birds' going to the world! I like this post in re-print.

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  2. Pop Tarts and Cul' du Versache aint just a zip code in North Shore, it's a demographic way of life, said my boss' focus group. She's aalready into the Hallowwen candy. (Hallmark has a way.)

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