Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Hammered and nailed #3: A plan of action, of sorts

   This is the third installment in a projected 495-part series on the remodeling of Neil Steinberg's 1905 Queen Anne house.

     The Russians have gone. On to another job, at the home of a more organized couple, while our bathroom upstairs sits, a jumble of wallboard and jutting copper pipe and dust.

    "Don't let them leave," I had begged my wife. "Put them to work doing something else. Get them going on the kitchen." But they didn't want to start the kitchen until all the
appliances and cabinets and such were stored in the garage, and who could blame them? The reason they had to halt work on the upstairs bathroom was because the tile hadn't shown up. Our fault. When we ordered it last April, and the tile guy said it would be in stock within a week, we failed to realize that "a week" is tilespeak for "next July."
     "Why not," I asked my wife, as we sat on the front porch, each staring straight ahead at the sugar maple, "order new tile somewhere else?"
     "My heart is set on that tile," she said, with deep seriousness.
     My own heart sank. I turned to look at her, and opened my mouth to say, "My heart is set on getting that bathroom done."
     But I closed my mouth--a very important skill in remodeling. Because the next sentence would be, "It's white tile, right?" and after that, "How hard could it be to find white tile?" And the fourth: "Unless its some kind of special tile, fancy tile--Blanco del Tile Extraordinaire Supremo, maybe."
     Silence is easier.
     Fact is, I have been surrendering fairly regularly on these disputes. For instance, over the permits. I was dead set against getting permits. That seemed the coward's way. There is an old adage in journalism: it's easier to apologize than to get permission. (Okay, maybe it's not an old adage. Maybe I made it up. Who knows anymore?)
     Of course I was influenced by all the contractors who, in snooping around to make their estimates, always asked, in a dubious tone, if we were thinking of getting permits, exactly the same tone that a parent, looking up at a child, sitting on the roof of the garage with a towel pinned to his shoulders, would say, "You're not thinking of jumping, are you?"
     I wanted to listen to the contractors, the experts. First, permits cost some hideous amount-- I could never bring myself to ask exactly how much. Second, they take time and bureaucracy to acquire. Years maybe. Third—and worst—in my mind, they invite inspectors into the house where they'll find God-knows what and issue God-knows-which kind of fanciful orders costing God-awful sums to comply with.
     "Oh gee, Mr. Steinberg, look at this. An arrowhead. Looks like there's an ancient Indian burial ground right here under your foundation. You'll have to have a team from the University of Chicago in to excavate. Or you could just jack up the house and move it 30 feet south."
     So I urged defiance. Silly me. That wasn't going to get me far. My wife, remember, is the last lawyer in the world who considers herself an officer of the court. Who thinks she has a moral obligation to be upright and honest. She is the one who, when I downloaded my first song off Napster ("Satisfaction" by the Stones. It seemed apt.) stood over me, haranguing that I was committing a crime. Not in a teasing fashion, but frantically, as if I were about to drown a puppy. "Don't!" she said. "That's STEALING!" (It's okay," I answered, "I'll send Mick Jagger a check.") Aware that an appeal to moral scruples wouldn't get far with me, she rather cannily played to my deep strain of pragmatism. We have an old house. If something shorts in the wall it could burn down and kill us. The inspector will check the Russians' work and maybe save our lives. When I seemed reluctant to follow this chain of reason, she pulled out her trump card.
     "We live right next to the Village Hall," she observed. "They're bound to notice trucks, a dumpster, workers going in and out."
      I would have still argued, but I remembered the American Elm. The village had left a note that our elm was sick, and needed to be chopped down. "Wow," I said, impressed that the city would diagnose our tree and take it away. That's service. Turns out, the condemning the tree part was the service—we had to have it removed at our own expense. Still, there was a lesson: If the village noticed a sick tree, it would certainly pick up on work of a scale to rival the pyramid at Cheops.
     We eventually got our permit. It's in the window now, which is cold comfort, since there is no tile and no workers. As the tileless days clicked by, I carefully constructed a question, breathing deeply, measuring my words. "So," I finally ventured. "Honey. How long . . . do you suppose . . . we should wait . . . if the tile doesn't show by July?"
     A pause. I almost added, "Remember, the guy who told us the tile would be here in July is the same guy who said it would be here last April." But I didn't. My point had hit home. My wife contemplated. "If it's not there by July," she said, slowly, "we'll go somewhere else." Triumph! Yes, she felt bad about the prospect of losing her dream tile. But at least now we have a plan of action, of sorts.

                                        —Originally published June 30, 2002


  1. You really should put a caveat here. I don't know about Northbrook, but the City of Chicago is super serious about permits. They'll fine you, stop your work for months, put a lien on the house, and generally make life miserable for you. My adage is, "It's much easier to do it right from the start than to go back and correct mistakes."

    1. Good point, though your adage is the exact opposite of mine, "It's easier to apologize than to get permission," which I've always considered the motto of professional journalism.

    2. No it's not, especially for older single family homes.
      If no one complains, the inspectors never show up, plus they can be bribed.
      Hell, they're basically demanding bribes most of the time.
      You can get a back dated permit in Chicago if you get caught.
      Most never do.

  2. Having gone through a similar remodeling experience (unfortunately, using period-appropriate and actual period materials and fixtures, etc. in a Victorian....$$$OUCH$$$), I am relating to this series both smiling and cringing. The paragraph about your wife feeling she needs to set the moral example for others really struck home. My ex is a CPA who, I'm certain, is the most IRS-edict-abiding CPA on the planet.


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