A job less odd, though disconcerting

A story of demolition and leaky pipes.

In the early ’80s, Linda and I took on a contracting job together. The only time. With my temper (and even without it), I’m not much fun to work with. 

Bob, a social radical we knew from living in Powelton Village, bought a house in nearby University City (the area around Baltimore Ave. to the west of UPenn). In the ’30s, Bob would have been a leftist unionist. Still was, in spirit. 

At his place, Linda and I tore down walls and replaced them with… other walls. Bob wanted to install an apartment on his second floor, which would entail erecting a new staircase partitioned off from his living quarters, installing a kitchen and bathroom, and opening up spaces. It was the most ambitious reconstruction project (other than our own Baring St. house) I’d been involved in. I was delighted that Linda wanted to be part of it. It would be great to work together.

As we surveyed the work, we saw that Bob had done just about nothing to anticipate our intervention. He had removed nary a picture from the walls nor sequestered a single piece of furniture. Since we were being paid an hourly rate, it was no loss, but it rankled for lack of foresight.

He had hired a Powelton architect we knew to sketch the renovations. She came up with a neat plan that included puzzling details. What was this full-height wallboard zigzag down by the corner of the stairs? It would require a multitude of additional 2x4s, narrow wallboard strips, corner beads, plus hours of taping and sanding. I estimated the extra cost of this artsy doodad as at least $300 – a non-negligible sum back then. We talked to the architect. She was not delighted by our reservations but graciously cancelled the zigzags in favor of a simple 90-degree corner.

Upstairs, ripping out the wall between the hallway and what would become the kitchen – in order to create an unimpeded visual flow – we encountered a nest of rather important gas and waste piping. Back to the architect. Could we, perhaps, interrupt the visual flow with a two-foot-deep drop, rather than relocate half the world’s plumbing?

Grumble. Granted.

For the plumbing work, we relied on Morris, who’d spent many hours working on and swearing at the Baring St. house. Morris was 80 years old, ill-tempered, ham-fisted and terminally addled by 60 years of inhaling lead fumes. He scattered his tools like the after-effects of Hiroshima, then, lying flat on his back under a basin, bellowed expletive vexation when he could not locate a particular wrench.

Morris was cheap, though, even in those cheap days, and the work he did was decent if not top-drawer. And since he never brought an assistant (who could work with the man?), I earned carpentorial wages for ferreting out his hacksaws and pipe dope.

Morris installed the copper tubing by notching into the joists beneath the floorboards: It’s true if it works. The next day, Bob called to say that “the place is a zoo,” with a slow leak dribbling through the ceiling. Up came the floorboards, revealing a nail penetrating a copper feed. Patch, test, replace the floorboard, moving the nail location two inches to the right.

The next day, same complaint from Bob. Unlikely as it seemed, my replacement nail had hit a knot, turned almost 90 degrees to the left and gone through the pipe. Again. 

Among other lessons at Bob’s, I learned one way not to erect a flight of stairs. Once I’d cut through the joists and properly reinforced the opening (skills I had almost perfected from re-aligning our segment of the Baring St. house), we’d had the stringers fascinated at a lumber yard, a great time-saver. (“Stringers,” for the uninitiated, are the inclined supports, with notched cutouts, that nestle the stair treads.)

I decided it would be simpler to assemble the whole shebang on the first floor, then raise it into place as a unit. From this decision emerged another excellent, if limited, learning experience.

I tied a rope around the upper end of the assembly, stood on the second floor, at the receiving end of the opening and heaved. Up the assembled staircase came – a good six inches. A full set of steps weighs a sizable amount. 

This heaving and hauling went on for awhile, with Linda propping from below. Changing my approach, I looped the rope over my shoulders and used my full body for the last haul. I did get it up there but suffered an extensive rope burn from the weight expanding the rope across my back.

UPenn’s radio station, WXPN, operated in those days as a continuing musical experiment. I found most of their off-the-cuff (if not off-the-musical-radar) programming exhilarating, but “Diaspar,” which came one around 3 pm, drove me to distraction, in large part because of the snot-nosed duo who ran it.

But while you and your wife are demolishing walls, you’re not in a comfortable position to change the station. Day after day, as our bodies were starting to tire, ”Diaspar” blared all manner of insane shit while I roiled and muttered at them. But along the way, I began to get a feeling that slowly blossomed into appreciation. There were aural things out there I needed to know more about. I doubt anyone’s had a less intentional music lesson.

Linda had one scary encounter. Standing on a milk crate upstairs, she flipped back and slammed her head into a brick wall. For a moment she was not only stunned but lost her power of speech. She couldn’t call out to me, and I had no idea anything had happened. Yet, as usual, the gods of chance smiled on us. Her only after-effect is that she can no longer pronounce “Schenectady” without a stutter.

As often noted, when I perform physical labor, I lash into torrential rages directed at my own blundering incompetence. That depresses Linda, which I think was the major reason our interior-terraforming partnership dissolved. She went home to work on her pottery; I stayed on to complete the detail work.

Hers was the better idea.

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