Friday, September 23, 2005

Home Improvement, Issue III: Real Life Intrudes

This is what happens when you lose internet access -- stale rage. But I guess stale rage is better than none at all.

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Sept. 4, 2005

It’s easy to lose perspective, especially in our contingent cube and computer-based world where so many of us are disconnected from the phenomena that makes up the real world. That is, of course, until the real world barges its way into the bubble you’ve created for yourself. To paraphrase Leon Trotsky, “you may not be interested in the hurricane, but the hurricane is interested in you.”

The whole world has seen the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast. Its power and the destruction it caused amazes. The internet/news media/blogosphere is full of accounts of what happened there which are far superior to anything I could convey. But what has happened here in Washington, DC over the past week has astounded me more than a Category Five hurricane – and that is something I can say something about.

The measure of a person is taken when the chips are down. The men who drafted the Constitution are rightfully praised because they created a document that protects our essential rights even when the urge to revoke them is greatest – soldiers being quartered in people’s homes doesn’t happen during peacetime, it happens in war, and the Constitutioneers knew that kind of coercion should be outlawed even when some saw the need for it (hear me, Mr. Ashcroft?).

By contrast, I’ve never seen such a staggering failure of character and leadership as I have from the top members of our government as I have in the last week. While New Orleans – the country’s second largest port and way station for billions of dollars worth of oil, gas, farm products and other commodities, not to mention home to almost a million Americans – flooded, the President, Secretary of Homeland Security Chertoff, and FEMA Director Brown did…what, exactly? The President, while suspending the Clean Air Act so refineries could run at full steam so the rest of American could get cheap gas, talked about relief like it was a years-long project instead of an ongoing crisis. Chertoff and Brown offered laundry lists of tents and pounds of ice instead of taking control or offering any creative solution – “hey, let’s parallel park an aircraft carrier to block off the lake” or “we need the Army to ‘invade’ the city to preserve law and order.” I've seen better problem solving in an After School Special.

Meanwhile, we have been subjected to stories alternating from the best we’ve seen in human nature – men and women pushed to the brink in efforts to help total strangers – to phantasmagorical accounts of a Hobbesian war of all-against-all.

The little things get to me the most. I raged at the TV after seeing Chertoff and Brown in neatly pressed suits – a haggard and rumpled Brown would have at least seemed to be doing something. The story of how a rescue crew from Vancouver, BC was able to make it to St. Bernard parish before the National Guard or FEMA brought me as close to crying in public as I’ve been since I was ten.

Crisis management is a bit of an oxymoron. No matter how much we train and plan crises, by their very nature, catch us by surprise. This is why people’s mettle is tested in crises – they either step up or they don’t, and you really get to see where their priorities fall. Would Director Brown picking up a shovel or wading into the lower Ninth Ward to deliver water and food to exhausted disaster workers have made the difference? Only a little, but it would have at least illustrated that he realized how desperate the situation had become. Instead, we got boneheaded comments on how he hadn’t realized that there were over 15,000 refugees stranded at the New Orleans Convention Center until CNN asked him to comment on it.

I believe in government, and I believe that the people who serve in our government can make a difference. But government doesn’t always have the answers. When it doesn’t, the least I expect from our leaders – as I do from everyone – is to do the right thing. Caught without a plan? Pick up a shovel. Is the National Guard stuck in Iraq? Then commandeer every traffic helicopter in the region and throw them into the rescue effort. But do something. Doing nothing in negligent and cowardly. If your response is “I can’t” then you certainly don’t deserve to be heading up a family or a small business, much less the government of the United States of America.

In the weeks to come we’ll likely hear countless stories of individual heroism – of people doing the right thing. We’ve seen some of that already. Governor Rick Perry of Texas, a conservative Republican with whom I agree on almost nothing, did the right thing by accepting refugees and guaranteeing a spot for every Louisiana child in his states’ public schools. Shep Smith of FOX News did the right thing by abandoning any pretense of journalistic detachment to communicate the utter desperation he was witnessing. Anderson Cooper of CNN laid the wood to Sen. Mary Landrieu on the air when she offered empty platitudes of thanks to her Senate colleagues while, according to Cooper, rats were feasting on corpses of bodies left to rot in the streets (how is it that the news media was able to get into the city so easily while the Pentagon acted like it was airlifting the National Guard to Pluto?).

Some of you reading this probably don’t like what I have just said. Maybe you think I’m being political and that is not the time for ad hominem attacks. If you think accountability and character are inherently political ideas, feel free. What would be terribly political, in my mind, is fake comity or a too-well crafted appeal for “unity” or “cooperation” in the hopes of offending no one while fellow Americans – our people – are dying.

Today I’ll do what I can. I’ll gather clothes for New Orleanians headed to the DC Armory. My wife, a native New Orleanian, is working at a phone bank.

What will you do?

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Home Improvement, Issue II: Marcellus Gets Medieval


You know you’re in bad shape when your new neighbor greets you with a gift of rat poison and it’s a good thing. Juan, a native Vera Cruzeño with an immaculate front yard, spiked our front plot with poison to get rid of the rat colony that no doubt has, over the years, reached Secret of NIMH -sized proportions. In his zeal to clean the place, Juan also got rid of the beloved Chupacabra – a free form sculpture made out of bicycle wheels, a toaster, and various household detritus that was so ugly it had to be kept – although maybe only on the roof. Luckily, our house’s former canine, feline, and ferret-ish residents seem to have kept the rats out of the house proper (wish I could say as much for its human residents).

After we found out about the rats, things went downhill.

The rest of our first week of renovation – which we had originally hoped to be a mostly cosmetic and cleaning type operation – has devolved into full-scale destruction. Most all the plaster in the house (in other words, all the walls and the ceilings) is rotted, eroded, stained, or otherwise funky. That is, it used to be in the house, now it’s either piled up on the floors or dissolving in the DC city dump. Instead of walls we now have exposed lathes (the strips of wood the wet plaster is stuck to), just the joists (a.k.a. beams) or, in the case of the kitchen, no walls at all.

The only bright side of week one is that I got to meet Marcellus – a seven pound, 18-inch pipe wrench left in our basement when the Wild Things moved out. Marcellus is my muscle. Marcellus gets shit done. Need a wall taken down? Use Marcellus. Need to snap a couple of two-by-fours? Marcellus is your man. I’ve taken to carrying Marcellus around the house for no good reason, although I have the sneaking suspicion it makes me look like an extra in a Madonna video.

Other weird stuff about a house built in 1908.

While digging through the wall between the bathroom and the bedroom, I found a razor blade, one of those double-ended jobs your father used to shave with back in the 70s (that is if he was square enough to shave in that hirsute decade). Then I found another, and another, and then about 200 more. While I initially thought this was another link in the chain of my serial killer theory, I later found out that older houses had slots built into the wall behind the medicine chest where one could deposit old razor blades when they dulled. While I’m sure a number of shavers thought some sort of razor fairy carted these away, they just rusted there waiting to be found some day and carted to the dump.

We narrowly averted disaster in week two, when Beth’s dad found the remnants of the house’s original gas lighting. When the owners switched to electric, they simply sawed the gas pipes off at the ceiling and plugged the ends for good measure. Assuming that the feed for these pipes had also been cut off in the basement, Rick yanked one of the plugs off only to find a nice healthy flow of gas pumped into his face – the whole system was still hooked up at the source. Not only was the live electrical conduit wrapped around the live gas lines enough to worry about, but during this charming little discovery I happed to be standing on the front porch talking to the roofers (more on them later) who were dragging on their Camel Lights. Fun.

Next issue: Our excellent neighbors, and jihad on the gutter guys.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Home Improvement, Issue I: “It Puts the Lotion in the Basket…” or, “Son, You Can’t Polish A Turd”



Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
se non etterne, e io etterno duro.
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate.


(Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.
All hope abandon ye who enter here.)

The Inferno, Canto III

This summer has marked our immersion into the insanity that is the Washington, DC housing market (the two worst things about passing thirty: tendonitis and becoming one of those people who talk about real estate at parties). Pity us, dear people.

In an effort to keep up with our smarter friends, who wisely cashed-in their twin condos or starter homes before the market reached tulip mania proportions, we have purchased the house that served as the serial killer’s home base in The Silence of the Lambs. A brightly hued rowhouse, Number 1364 served as home to three or seven or nine people and upwards of twenty pets. Their effluvia – hair, skin, smells, excrement – is tattooed into every molecule of the place.

The smell that pours out of this building beats my previous worst -- the odor generated by Lewiston, Idaho when the paper mill and sugar beet factory are running at full tilt and the Columbia River is drawn down, exposing six months of river mud infused with whatever has floated down from the country’s largest SuperFund site. This smell must be scourged from the premises. Bring me a bottle of Clorox, a young priest and an old priest.

No matter. We’ve gulled Beth’s father into driving his tools northward to help us clean, scrape, paint, and destruct. We have two and a half weeks to make the thing habitable before our beloved postage stamp of an apartment turns into a pumpkin and we’re out on the street – or even worse, forced to live in our new home.

I suppose there are a number of heartbreaking things that can happen when you remodel a house. Maybe the joint isn't cable-ready, or maybe that Viking Range you coveted didn’t convey. I was personally devastated that the shadow-boxed photo of Al Pacino as "Scarface," resplendent in gold chains and a bubble bath, lovingly framed between two real bullets and the biggest cigar this side of Monica Lewinsky, was removed from the front hall. You can argue about what exactly constitutes art, but this piece was a must have – appreciating its singular kitchiness (there’s no way its owners did) is just gravy.

So what’s my favorite part about my new home? Is it the transom windows glued shut with gold-glitter paint? Is it the upstairs carpet that has enough mold in it to have a pulse? The fridge in the basement kitted out with a padlock? Hardly. It is the utterly cosmic “fuck you” represented by the lonely piece of cat crap that sits smack-dab in the middle of the master bedroom (see Fig. 1). After the closing today, I wonder if one of the favorite sayings of a former co-worker applies to our new place: “son, you can’t polish a turd.”