For the past few weeks, we’ve had the hammers flying at our place as our trusty handyman and an excavator have been doing some work on the back of our 1930s-era stone farmhouse, installing new French doors, filling a ravine, and pouring a patio. I love watching them make progress — but I also brace myself for the inevitable disaster. While our house has tons of character, it also has a pesky personality that almost flagrantly defies handymen, carpenters, electricians, and plumbers.
It was built in the 1930s, and then was added on to several times over the next 20 years. Consequently, the top floor doesn’t really match the first floor, and the basement is shorter than the upper floors of the house. There are several short hallways marking where the pre-1950s version of the house ended, and in some rooms, you can see the plaster outline of a removed door — ghostly remnants of the old floorplan. The first floor in particular twists and turns itself into several nooks and crannies, and we’ve seen more than one carpenter come up the basement steps, take three steps into the downstairs hall, and have no idea where the front door is.
The wiring is purely old school (though apparently incredibly safe and insulated), and the plumbing can often be cobbled together — ironic, considering the town plumber owned our house for fifty years. All we can figure is he used whatever was left over in his truck to plumb his own house, resulting in the plumbing spiralling its way unnaturally through the walls and floor like a cast iron spiderweb.
In fact, once you’re inside the walls, chaos rules. We once found a bucket sealed up inside a wall, where it had been used to catch water from a slow leak in a pipe . . . a pipe that had continued to leak for 30 years, until we moved in, found the pool of water and had the problem fixed and the bucket removed. While redoing another room, we discovered that the previous owners hadn’t bothered to actually run power down one side of the room — instead, they had plugged an extension cord into one corner, ran it along the inside of the wall for ten feet, sealed up the cord inside the wall, then poked it out a hole, creating — in their minds at least — an instant power socket.
Given all this, we’re used to carpenters, plumbers and contractors giving us what we call The Look.
The Look usually shows up when (1) what should be a routine job suddenly becomes unnecessarily difficult due to a previously unseen bizarre jerry-rigging in the house (see the plumbing example above), or (2) an unbelievably dopey fix is discovered (cross reference: The Bucket In The Wall Solution). Usually I’ll catch the contractor emerging from the attic or down off a ladder with The Look on his face, shaking his head quizzically, mouth open, ready to ask, “What in the hell?” All I can do at that point is shake my head in exasperation. “Don’t even ask,” I say, “just fix it.”
For example, several years ago we had a plugged drain in our upstairs shower. We had lamely snaked it and run gallons of Drain-O down its throat, but it never got much better, so we called a plumber to carry out what we thought would be a routine power-snaking. The plumber dutifully arrived and squatted over our tub, trying to cram his high-tech snake down the drain, only to find it buckling and bending after about three feet. Puzzled, he wanted a closer look . . . and couldn’t find any access to the pipes. A flash of The Look crossed his face, but he calmly decided cut a hole in the ceiling just below the bathroom so he could stand on a ladder and tinker with the pipes.
Crisis averted? Not even close. Once he got a look at the pipes, he discovered that a series of L-shaped pieces of pipe had been welded together, creating an impossible maze of right angles for the snake to negotiate, rather than the sloping U-shaped curves that are normally installed. To fix the problem and get our water moving down the drain again, then, the plumber was going to have to remove the mess of L-shaped pipes.
Making things even worse — and here’s where we finally got the full-blown Look — the pipes that had been used in that portion of the house were apparently only available between the years 1951 and 1953, making it nearly impossible to attach any modern pipes into the system. As a result, he had to remove and replumb about sixteen feet of plumbing. So much for a routine snaking.
Another time, we hired a contractor to come and do something fairly easy: install new insulation in the crawl space that runs along the side of the top floor of the house. He and his crew stooped and tromped around for a while in our crawl space before emerging moments later with The Look clouding their faces. Apparently the previous owners had applied insulation not to the kneeling wall, where it actually works, but against the sloping walls of the inside of the roof, where it succeeded only in holding cold air in a pocket against the walls of the house. Which is pretty much the opposite of what you want to do. “Don’t even ask,” I told the perplexed crew. “Just fix it.”
We ran into another odd problem during our current slate of projects — we discovered, after removing a bay window, that there was no supporting concrete beneath the structure, resulting in the need to repour an entire patio — but this particular quirk was discovered by our regular handyman, who’s used to such things. He doesn’t give us The Look any more. He just points and laughs.