Sunday, March 23, 2008

a windows upgrade

I have the soul of a renter.

When the windows get too dirty, I have to fight an overwhelming urge to pack up and move on. Or maybe not even to pack up, just to move on and leave behind all of the detritus we’ve accumulated over the last 9 years: 21 American Express and Capitol One refrigerator magnets (and one featuring the lovely Alicia Tam, Realtor). 41 houseplants. A decrepit brown corduroy-covered futon couch. An entire library of Chinese take-out menus. 100 pounds of pennies. A cupboard full of jelly jars that we use as drinking glasses.

Have we lived here for 9 years? Holy Moses! How did that happen? That’d explain all this shit

When we moved in, a friend said, "Don’t do anything to the house for at least 2 years. Just live in it as if you were renting the place. Then you’ll know what you want to remodel."

He needn’t have warned us this way. We’ve had no problem doing nothing. No problem at all. Everything’s fine.

I’m still using a stack of Xerox boxes as a bureau; there’s still the shadow of Josephine’s now-absent crucifix above the mantel, even though Josephine’s been dead for over a decade. Everything’s exactly where it was when we moved in

9 years. That’s a long time. I could’ve relived the worst part of elementary school and junior high in that much time and removed the blemishes from my Permanent Record.

And I could’ve just kept going for another 10 years. Really I could’ve. There’s nothing wrong with the house. Oh sure, maybe the paint is peeling where rain leaked in from the light well. Maybe there’s some moss growing on the roof. And maybe the stack of appliances and clothes to bring to the Salvation Army is becoming truly formidable (this is partly because the Salvation Army in San Francisco accepts only Sub Zero or Kitchen Aid appliances and couture clothing in excellent condition, but that’s a story best left for another blog post).

But apart from a few signs of wear and tear, there’s nothing at all wrong with our house. Nothing I couldn’t ignore for another decade or so.

Somehow a startling decision was made when I wasn’t paying attention. Maybe I was watching The Colbert Report. Maybe I was doing a late-in-the-week New York Times crossword puzzle. Whatever it was, I must’ve been distracted from matters at hand: apparently we decided that we’d replace the aluminum windows with real wooden windows, the kind the Sears salesman convinced Josephine to ditch in the heady burst of modernization and streamlining so characteristic of the early 1970s.

Once there was some momentum, it was easy to get behind this course of action; several of the old windows didn’t close any more and others didn’t open. I feared locking myself out on the light well (I normally crawl through the kitchen window to get there) or on front balcony while I was waving to tourists, pretending to be the Pope.

Face it. The house would look much better with nice wooden windows. Much better.

Or, as I’ve learned. Windows: You should upgrade.

You’re still running Windows 1970? You should be running Windows 2008! Don’t you know how buggy Windows 1970 is?

It’s true. Often on summer nights, whole swarms of tiny bugs breach the living room windows to fry themselves on the lamp (purchased at Lamps ‘R’ Us, circa 1988).

Once you decide to do something like that, put in new original-looking windows, the next part is easy. It seems that every other house in San Francisco has been through an extensive remodel during the fat years of subprime second mortgages. Every other house has been gutted and redone. So it’s not hard to get a recommendation for a contractor to address something as simple and ubiquitous as windows.

Windows? Just click here to install.

At first, it seemed like a relatively straightforward proposition. The window guys came out and measured. We chatted briefly. This side needs to open; that window needs to be laminated. The window guys eyed the American Express refrigerator magnets, houseplants, decrepit brown futon, stack of Chinese take-out menus, and collection of jelly jars skeptically. We wrote a big check.

Then they left and all was quiet. I felt good: we’d fixed up the windows.

Of course, we still had the old aluminum windows, but we’d demonstrated our intentions to upgrade. To make the place look a little less like it was inhabited by a nest of particularly messy urban scavengers, squirrels in graduate school or crows on holiday.

Everything was fine.

Every once in a while, I thought about the new windows, especially when I struggled to open or close one of the old windows or when the light hit the nose prints on the living room window just so.

“It’s really a good view” I’d explain to a visitor. “If the windows weren’t so dirty, you could see stuff like City Hall, SFMOMA, the skyline, Candlestick Park. It’s AMAZING.”

“Awesome,” the visitor would agree skeptically, examining the city lights dimly visible through the patina of nose grease. “It’s an awesome view.”

Finally there was no need to feel guilty about not washing these windows. They’d be gone soon.

That was the best part of our Windows Upgrade: the part after we’d paid the first big lump sum and before the workmen showed up to begin installing the first window, that period when anything was possible and you knew it would just get better. It was a great excuse for sloth and indecision.

“Go through that pile of stuff on my desk? No. I’ll just wait ‘til the new windows are in.”

“Get rid of those ugly metal venetian blinds? No point until they’re done with the windows.”

“Wash the dishes. Nah. They’ll just mess things up when they’re doing the windows.”

But then the honeymoon was over. The window guys scheduled a week in early March to come out and install our new windows.

“It probably won’t take all week.” That’s what Dawn said when we settled on a date for the work to begin.

Yep. Less than a week. Just backup the files, click on setup, and give it a couple of hours. And voila! New Windows.

It turns out that it’s not like that for real windows. Not like that at all.

I didn’t understand how disruptive installing windows would be, really. I mean, windows are more or less on the edge of a room, in the walls. That shouldn’t have anything to do with the middle of the room, right?

How naïve I am! Mark knew that was not the case. Not at all. So the night before the workmen were due to arrive, I found myself packing stuff into boxes and moving it away from the wall.

It’s surprising how much junk is in the periphery of our house. The houseplants, for example, seemed to be near the windows. What little furniture we have was clustered under windows. And we didn’t just have to move the furniture. I’d forgotten that all that furniture offered untold horizontal real-estate upon which to pile things. Magazines. Credit card receipts. Old laptops. Paper clips and rubber bands. Reminders of hobbies gone bad. Shredder oil. Shoe laces.

You know: stuff. The million quotidian things we accumulate in the name of everyday life.

Darn that furniture! Darn it!

How many magazines could possibly have been published between 1999 and now?

The trouble with going through old magazines is that it’s almost impossible to not start reading them. And if they’re old enough, I guarantee you that the articles will be just as good as they were when they were fresh, especially if you’re like me and avoid news magazines. New Yorker cartoons? No matter how funny they were then, it’s likely you won’t remember them and will be able to enjoy them afresh. I can’t throw away old magazines without taking a second look at them. And after I take a second look, I’m sucked in for hours.

Just how disruptive could it be to move everything into the middle of each room, away from the windows?

Oh, it doesn’t sound bad, but figure it out. Let’s say we pack everything up that’s five feet or less from the windows. If a window is 6 feet wide, we lose the 30 square feet in front of the window, plus the 5 foot penumbra radiating out to the side; let’s say that’s 2 quarter circles with a 5 foot radius, or 3.14*5*5*2/4. Which is another 39.25 square feet per room (although, of course, some of that falls outside of the wall, but I’m going to ignore that nicety; that’d make the numbers much less dramatic).

That’s 69.25 square feet per room. And there are 7 windows that are going to be replaced. 7.

Are you following me? That’s 484.75 square feet of crap that needs to be packed up and dragged into the center of the room, a zone that’s not exactly empty to start with.

484.75 square feet.

484.75 square feet of dreck to be dealt with.

Now the house looks as you’d expect. The interior walls are piled high with stuff and there’s nothing anywhere near the windows.

“It’s just for a week,” I reminded myself as I banged the shit out of my shins trying to get into bed that first Sunday night. “It’s just a week,” I said, stubbing my toe as I rushed to be ready for the workmen’s early arrival on Monday morning. “Just a week.”

Then we confronted the oldest dilemma in homeowner-ing: when the workmen are there, do you stay or do you go? I think songs have been written about it.

Should I stay or should I go…”

If you stay, you’re kind of in the way. No—scratch that. You’re very much in the way. You’re underfoot. You’re a nuisance in your own house. You’re a first-class pain in the ass. But if you go, you can’t answer questions –this latch or that? Does the house get locked up while everyone goes to fetch lunch? Does this minor glitch need to be fixed or not? And, of course, does some drugstore cowboy get into your stash?

You know what we did: we stayed. Of course we stayed. We stayed and were in the way. We stayed and watched the unfolding drama. We stayed and tried to ignore the pounding and scraping and whirring and grinding and the smelly dump one of the workmen took after lunch.

One afternoon during that first week, Lumpy and I were napping on the futon downstairs while the workmen finished up the day’s work upstairs. Lumpy’s a cat who knows how to nap. He’s the king of naps, a napper of supreme confidence, competence, grace, and style. I don’t usually nap, but I’m an insomniac and accommodating the window installers’ harsh early-morning schedule made me sleep-deprived and nap-hungry right from the start. So there we were, Lump and me, snoozing away on the futon, ignoring the noise upstairs.

The largest and most senior of the window installers, Murph, rapped on the door by way of warning and came in to tell me that the crew was knocking off for the day.

Lumpy sprang into action.

He arched his back and roared like a lion. Like a large, ferocious lion. You’d never have known that seconds earlier he was curled in a compact half-circle, snoring softly, doing a pretty convincing impression of a housecat napping in a sunny spot.

I’ve never seen a housecat so delusionally fierce.

Murph said, “He’s trying to protect you.”

Protect me? Protect me from what? Maybe Lumpy knew something I didn’t. Perhaps he was protecting me from the rather obvious observation that the workmen weren’t done and wouldn’t be when Friday afternoon rolled around.

That the job would drag on and on. The way people had warned me that remodeling tasks do.

By Friday, I’d grown weary of being in the way and had gone to work. But Mark was still home. And after his one outburst, Lumpy was at home too, safely hidden under the futon. Way under the futon, in a place so dusty that he’d emerge in the evening with little bits of cobweb and dust bunny clinging to his luxuriant whiskers and eyebrows. Hardly the guy who’d roared so convincingly earlier in the week.

Around 4:30 Mark called me in my office. “I lost it,” he said. “I lost it at the workmen.”

“What do you mean, you lost it?” I asked him. “Did they finish?”


“Well, what’s left for them to do? Are they close?”

“You’ll see.” He said this in a tone so ominous that I decided it might be a good day to work extra-late.

I’d wondered about the measurements the two men had made a few months ago, before they had built the windows; they seemed so, well, CASUAL. Sure, they used a tape measure. But they didn’t do what I would’ve done, checking and re-checking. Saying “Here. You try it and tell me what you get.” It was almost as if they could eyeball these distances, make wild-ass guesses, and the numbers would come out just right.

That’s why they’re experienced professionals, I reassured myself. They can really estimate distances well. They’re like surgeons: you wouldn’t want them to be pulling out copies of Gray’s Anatomy when they’re making the cuts, right? Of course you’re anesthetized at that point. Perhaps surgeons do pull out copies of Gray’s Anatomy. That’s why they give you anesthetic early on: so you won’t see them consulting the textbook.

Maybe these guys needed to give us some anesthetic. That way they could’ve been more careful without us knowing.

But by the time I’d worked through that, the two men had finished their measurements, talked to us about latches and hinges and that sort of stuff, gotten in their white panel van with the company’s name on the side, and left.

That was three months ago.

When I got home, I saw why Mark had lost it: The new French doors in the back bedroom ended considerably before the wall began again. It wasn’t the workmen’s fault either; they weren’t the ones who’d done the measuring. Their boss had measured. Their boss had measured, and now they were stuck at the job site with a psychotic homeowner and French doors that ended considerably before the wall started back up again. There was no denying it: The French doors were almost two inches too short. They took some photos of the problem and slunk back to their workshop in the East Bay, another perfectly good Friday afternoon shot to shit.

It’s just like installing Windows ™. It is. Better wipe that C: drive and start again.

Me, I’m sulking because my cymbidium was about to flower and the flower stalk has been knocked off in the process of installing the new kitchen window. My fault, really, since it wasn’t moved out of the way. But still I’ll sulk. The orchid hasn’t bloomed in the two-and-a-half years I’ve had it and I was looking forward to the flowers. I try to focus on the two inch gap at the top of the French doors and a few other window infelicities instead; I know that this is the time—the interregnum between the putative end of the major installation work and the writing of the final check—to mention gaps, latches, and divots in the wooden frames.

I’m not a very good homeowner; I just wish it was over. Although, after a week, I have grown accustomed to living in the center of all the rooms, well away from the walls.

I’m not yet quite used to living in a fishbowl; we cannot put up new shades or curtains until they’re finished with the work. I tell myself that there aren’t very many vantage points from which you can actually see into the house; yet I know this to be patently false. That to all our neighbors up the hill—including the man who looks suspiciously like Mr. Roper on Three’s Company—we’re a reality show. A reality show that’s too dull to go on into the next season, but a reality show nonetheless.

The next week the boss is out to mollify us. He seems used to all this and it occurs to me that he must go through this disgruntled customer routine all of the time. He’s good. Very good. He even seems to be enjoying himself. He jokes. We’re sheepish. Lists are drawn up. The sales guy, Matt, who has come out to make the rounds with the boss is defensive, but the boss is self-assured. Before it’s over, I half expect us to admit it’s our fault and to volunteer to do the work ourselves.
We show him that the balcony door doesn’t open all of the way.

Matt can’t hide his irritation, “I remember what you said. I have it written down. You said, ‘if someone can’t fit through a 21 inch door, the balcony can’t hold him anyway.’”

I tell him that I remember what I said too, and that he should think about it more carefully: that 21 inches refers to the opening, and that we were discussing whether it should be wider (and thus admit a bigger person), not narrower. That if anything, at the time I was trying to convince him of the wisdom of making the door narrower so that it would open all of the way. Now it does not open all of the way. They did not calculate the width taken up by the hinge’s geometrical offset.

I can see Matt getting hot. He’d like to shout at me, smack me with his clipboard.

I’d rather the door opened all the way, but I’m not going to get into a real lather over this. I already know they can’t fix it without making a new window, and that they have no intention of doing that.

The boss is smooth though, and seems to know I’ll give way on this issue. He smiles and we move on to the next window, which does have a fixable problem. Promises are made and the two men leave.

I’m anticipating that the workmen will be back soon. But they aren’t. We wake up early several mornings expecting a crew, but there’s no-one at the door. I’m getting black rings around my eyes and starting to feel progressively more sleep-deprived.

They finally show up one morning, two workmen we haven’t seen before. Soon the senior one abandons the junior one, who is Hispanic and shy and nice, to do most of the touch up work alone. He tells him that he’ll pick him up at the end of the day.

I watch him pounding on the new window. It is supposed to go back to the shop because one of the edges has been knocked off during the installation process. They did not mention this to us, but Mark caught the gaffe. It is the window we inspected with the boss immediately after the one that doesn’t open all of the way; this one we have been more adamant about after giving way on the other one.

The young workman pounds and pounds. “This will be noisy,” he tells me after he’s been pounding for a while.

“I can tell.”

He takes a different tack and asks me what kind of motorcycle I think he should buy. He has seen all of the bikes in the garage and doesn’t realize that the only one that is mine is the tiny Honda dirt bike, that I don’t ride the big street bikes.

“Have you ridden much?” I ask him.

“No. Not so much. Just a dirt bike when I was a kid.”

“Get a small bike then, a 250 or something. It’ll make you a better rider.” I’m watching him horse the window out of the frame and hope he’s not going to drop the thing. It makes me nervous to picture him on a motorcycle.

Installing windows is loud business. Although to-date our policy has been to be here with the workmen, I’m guessing this young guy’d be a lot happier if I disappeared and went off to work.

At about 3pm, Mark calls me in my office, wondering about my lack of judgment leaving the young workman alone in the house. And he’s right. When I come back, Lumpy is locked in downstairs and is yowling pitifully at my approach. There’s evidence that something’s gone wrong—a clump of wet paper towels, some weather stripping on the floor, a hunk of broken glass (which looks to be part of one of the jelly jars)—but it’s nothing important. And there is no narrative that I can invent out of these elements to weave together a story of what has happened, but the window the workman had been pounding on is gone, replaced by a hunk of pressed board and not much else has happened.

THE GAP is still there, looming as large as ever. But now it has tape over it.

There is a subsequent visit by two of the senior crew members. They have been sent to do something about THE GAP. Although they do something—and it looks credible—they don’t have time to finish and they leave a huge sheet of flapping plastic covering the outside of the French doors.

As if to give us a consolation prize, this time they leave behind an industrial vacuum cleaner, which sits in the corner of the dining room like a watchful space alien.

At least we know they’ll be back. Eventually.

Next Friday, Dawn says when she talks to our answering machine. Next Friday they’ll come back and finish.

I’m looking at the giant sheet of plastic covering the French doors in the back bedroom and the board filling in the dining room window. I’m looking at the missing stops and weather stripping yet to be installed. There’s a lot of work left to do. And I’m reminded of every remodeling story I’ve ever heard.

“It shouldn’t even be a whole day’s work,” Dawn tells us on the phone. For some reason, we still harbor fresh credulity.

“Next Friday,” we echo. “At 7:30. We’ll be ready.”

I’ll be happy when I can plug in my shredder again. When I can reclaim the 484.75 square feet at the edges of our house. When I can sleep ‘til 8am.

Seeing out the windows? Honestly, that’ll be a bonus.