Monday, August 4, 2014

Hammered and Nailed # 1: Battle rages on home front

   It's August.
   Time for us all to curl up in a hammock somewhere and not obsess over all this "what's happening in the world right now" stuff. The scant percentage of the news that actually matters will still matter in a couple weeks, while the information not really worth knowing, well, we'll have dodged that bullet.
Logo by Jack Higgins
     But rather than leave this space blank for the next fortnight, which would tarnish the solemn promise implicit in "Every goddamn day," I decided to resuscitate a strange and I hope amusing tangent of my newspaper career. 
     A dozen years ago, my wife and I began to remodel our kitchen. It was such a time-consuming, gut-twisting, wallet-wringing experience, that for a year I wrote a bi-weekly column that I dubbed "Hammered and Nailed," chronicling the process.    
      The purpose was selfish, to make the experience less of an ordeal, for me, to turn annoyances into material. This wasn't a disaster, it was humor! Readers liked it, and still sometimes mention the series, even after all these years.
     Anyway, here is the first of 14 of my favorites, selected from the 24 original columns. They'll be running over the next two weeks, since those who enjoyed it the first time might enjoy it again, and those who missed it originally—it ran deep in the paper, in the Sunday Homelife section—can read it for the first time. 
     As with most wars, the epic struggle to remodel our old house began with high spirits and misplaced optimism.
     My wife and I rushed — like college boys whooping to the recruiting station — from the lawyer's office, having just mortgaged the next 30 years of our lives, straight to the gray 1905 Queen Anne on a half-acre lot in the leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook.
Smelled worse than they looked.
     On our knees, in sweaty joy, we took box cutters to the horrible, befouled shag carpets, which were ugly in the 1970s and now, after a quarter century of neglect and dog ownership, were hideous, worn and marinated in dog pee. Gagging, we tore them out and lugged them, as heavy and sickening as corpses, out to the yard. The fight was on!
     That was mid-June 2000, nearly two years ago. Since then, the initial opening campaign—something I actually thought, in stereotypical fashion, would be over by Christmas — has devolved into the kind of brutal trench warfare that I believe is not atypical of remodeling.
     "If it was pristine, we couldn't afford it," I had said, of the rambling 5-bedroom house, with a turret and a spire and a front porch. "It's like buying a mansion on the installment plan." 
     Genius, or stupidity.
     The house did have good qualities: a block from the train station, a block from the school. An enormous sugar maple filling the front yard, not to mention a scotch pine and a black walnut and a scoop magnolia that fills the front windows with fat pink blossoms in April.
     Of course the floors were not exactly level, which made walking through certain areas of the house like hurtling through the corridors of a schooner on the high seas. The basement was a horror show of decay and bulging walls. There were electrical worries and plumbing worries and the kitchen could have been the setting for a Stephen King novel--counters warping away from the peeling walls, a broken stove, a merely decorative dishwasher. The bathrooms, three of them, I thought of as Bad, Worse and the Black Hole of Calcutta.
     But I had a plan: We'd remodel! Having once previously painted and sanded a home we were also living in, which is like having your shoes resoled while you are still wearing them, we vowed to do as much work as we could before actually moving in.
     As is typical in war, we started by committing our crack troops—the Steamway Cleaning Co. (why a company named Steamway in fact strips floors is one of those metaphysical remodeling mysteries). Proven in past campaigns (they had sanded the floors of our condo in the city), they briskly stripped away decades of neglect off the charming oak and maple patterned floors downstairs and solved the dog pee problem upstairs without actually having to cut out parts of the century-old floor, and treated the wide red pine boards so you could actually walk on them without leaving dents.
     After that, our attack bogged down. Dave the Painter took nine weeks to finish the interior, then informed us, as I made out the check for eight thousand bucks and change, that he would have done the job quicker, but we were so nice he shifted focus to nastier, more demanding clients. Then he hinted I might feel like tipping him. I didn't.
     On Labor Day 2000, we actually moved in. An hour after Dave and his crew left, the water heater cracked open. We were consumed with a variety of similar woes, such as electrical outlets so worn that one burst into flame when our 4-year-old sat against it. But we dealt with those problems, keeping our eye on the Grail: to begin work on the kitchen.
     When my wife seemed locked in a sort of paralysis as to how to proceed—Home Depot? architect? contractor? what?—I told her that if work wasn't begun by January, I would take a sledge hammer to it myself. She laughed, and said, I'd be free to. Ridiculous to think we wouldn't begin by then. That was January 2001. We still haven't begun. We have not drunk from our glassware, which my wife kept packed away.
     The delay was partly our fault. Like many generals, like Napoleon riding into Russia, we failed to understand the scope of what we had undertaken. Our first encounter with a kitchen designer will illustrate the problem: We went to his place of business, a small, cheery storefront crammed with cabinet mock-ups and stone countertops. Soft music burbled. The designer glided out to greet us—long hair, twinkling blue eyes, work shirt, a Kris Kristofferson of the kitchen. He spoke of artistry, and smiled warmly. This, I thought, is the guy. Our kitchen is as good as built. Ushering us over to chairs, he folded his powerful, Bridges of Madison County hands and asked about our budget for the job. It was a question I never considered, but my wife had an answer ready. "$25,000," she said.
     Boom. We were back outside in a moment, as if by magic. Kris didn't grab us by the belt and give us the bum's rush out the door, but the result was the same. We stood on the street, blinking at each other.
     So, as with war, a certain escalation was required, a ramping up from peacetime innocence to martial readiness. An architect was finally hired, which would have been a more significant moment had it not taken considerable hounding and whining—I learned my lesson from Dave the Painter—until, three months and $1,800 later, a set of rolled blue prints was delivered. Now all we needed was someone to build it.       

NEXT: The Quest for Contractors.   
                                    —Originally published June 2, 2002. 


  1. I don't remember how much of your original series I read, but I'm looking forward to the next installment with bated breath. Kris Kristofferson giving you the boot. I love it!


  2. Neil,

    You may be seeing a lot more of EZ's readers over here as well since the move to the Tribune's new commenting system has been an unabashed disaster. I can sympathize with your "adventures" when it comes to renovating the house. There is a certain degree of incompetence that we have learned to live with when it comes to house painters and the like. I'm surprised that the home inspection didn't show up problems as with the outlets.

    1. I welcome all of Eric Zorn's former readers, with a reminder that my toleration for trollishness is not as high as his is. Eric's blog is part of his job; this is just a hobby of mine, ergo less need to let people tell me how much I suck. We can stipulate that, and move on to more interesting matters.

  3. I suspect this entire series will make me want to never, ever purchase a house, while being happily entertained by the madness of it all.

  4. Oh crap. We have a bathroom that has needed serious renovation for about 5 years. Based on where this narrative takes us, I may opt to just sell the house instead!

  5. Was this the first occurrence of the phrase "leafy suburban paradise" in your column?

  6. Funny picture and great cartoon -- the essence of steinbergianism.

  7. I recently read EZ's blog going back to 2004. Interesting yet quite dull compared to Mr. Steinberg's blog. For the record, NS's blog is much better composed, and, I find this blog appeals to broader base. Nothing to be said aloud against EZ. (I've been reading both EZ and NS since the early '90s.)

    As for Mr. Steinberg's "suck"-ness, I don't stipulate that. His candor exudes refresh + authentic -- unlike engrained media types with no known life experience that feed commentary about others into a cursor. (Off Message, I thought Mr. Steinberg was presently taking a much deserved summer "break." NS's work ethic outshines the best in any decade. He's posted new commentary as evidenced today, gratis.)

    David far out West

    1. Here's a spin on that thought. Perhaps it isn't "dull" so much as holds fascination for people not yourself. I think of Eric's blog more "serious" -- paying attention to important political matters, paying attention to documentation, and such. I'm sure there are those who find my blog frivolous and Neil-o-centric. Remember, one man's ceiling is another man's floor. I hear often from people who despise my stuff, and I have to point out to them the rather simple observation that I do it for people who like it.

    2. Thank you for the reply.

      Clearly, there is a market and audiences for both writers -- EZ and NS.
      As for Mr. Steinberg's blog, I find Chicago media types give direct praise to NS's talents: "enormous talent" as EZ once wrote. A Reader critic summed it up, writing his wife's fav columnist is NS. Perhaps being part of unique media petri dish (Chicago media culture) is more Savage than even I can observe/read from a spatial and time distance.

      As a current resident of a one-newspaper town, there's a healthy tension lacking. And any person who says s/he despises your stuff, reads it. Isn't that the point of journalistic celebrity? That, and to make a buck doing something you love?

      David @ the far out Western edge

  8. Should have hired a contractor. I'm sure that could be afforded.

  9. Contractors are just another layer that need to be paid & hard to get hold of...


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