05 Jul The Mutant Nipple & Household Maintenance

To read about Ron’s four months in Micronesia, go to the archive to your left and click on “Marshall Islands Story Project.”

Since my return from Micronesia, I’ve been doing a lot of housework. You can’t leave a big, old house like this unattended for long. Most of us live with the illusion that, at some point, we will get our houses so ship-shape that we will thereafter enjoy a life of minimal maintenance. I myself continue to believe that soon I’ll complete the last of our big projects and then—then—our old house will be less work This summer I have to replace the front portion of the garage roof, which is caving in because one of its twenty-foot joists snapped (years before we got the house). Jill and I also plan to restore the butler’s pantry to its original glory. In other words, the house isn’t done. And we’re eight years into the project. “We’ll never be done,” Jill says. “We’re close,” I insist. “And getting closer every day.”

Our most immediate task upon my return was to take care of PJ, our aged pit-bull. He has long had a protuberant growth on his stomach—a skin tag—that Jill named the “mutant nipple.” When we got him back from the kennel, the mutant nipple looked like a small udder: a swollen, veiny pendulous sack of skin. We took PJ to the vet, who said, “You might want to take care of that.” That’s why we’re here! we told him. I imagine the vet is accustomed to seeing all kinds of unfortunate growths and mutations that oblivious pet-owners seem happy to live with. BTW: “Mutant Nipple” would be a good name for a rock bad.

The back of our garage got drug-tagged last week, as did most of the neighborhood. If you’re an urbanite, you’re familiar with drug and gang tags—graffiti’d signatures that demarcate a dealer’s territory. The tagger will paint them everywhere, across street signs, fences, garage doors, and the side of your house. We’ve got a drug market in Remington, the down-trodden neighborhood to the west, and another near Greenmount Avenue, to the east. They’re not exactly like farmers’ markets but they are open-air and offer a variety of goods. The key to creating a good drug tag is to make it fast and fluid—something you can do while on the run. It’s not exactly a signature, though it aspires to that kind of clarity. Most tags are ugly and indecipherable. I think they could do better.

The day after a tagging spree, you’ll see homeowners—like me—outside trying to undo the damage. I got lucky. I only had to repaint one portion of the brick at the back of our garage. While I was painting, an elderly gentleman paused across the street and danced around a lamp post for about five minutes. The music he heard was wholly his own. He wasn’t plugged into anything. He was wearing a sailor’s billed cap and a navy-blue vest that matched his shirt and trousers. And he carried an old doctor’s satchel. He could have been one of the eccentric homeless. He could have been an hallucination. Whatever the case, he seemed to embody a notion of bliss.

Right now, Will, my helper, is painting our cast-iron fence out front. A lanky man in his twenties, Will used to live down the street, but now he’s across town. He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever hired. He helped me dig out five tons of dirt from the back yard two years ago, a task that might have put me in an early grave had I not had his help. Jobless men often ask me for work when they see me working on the house. Though I’ve given some of them a chance, most I can’t accommodate. Two summers ago, when Will stopped by, I was impressed by how earnest and well-spoken he was. For a man who’s had a tough life (his mother’s an addict), he’s remarkably even-tempered and good humored. To his credit, he’s chosen to work as many as three jobs at a time rather than find an easier way to make ends meet. Still, I worry about him.

Jill said our bathouse was listing, so I climbed out the trap door of the attic and onto the roof. We used to get bats flying inside our house on a regular basis and were never quite sure how they got in. They are an endangered and thoroughly helpful creature. So I erected the bathouse on the roof two years ago. It’s mounted on six-foot-high pilings and is attached to one of the chimneys. I don’t know if any bats have found it yet. They may not like being so close to the roof. Bat houses must be made to particular specifications. If we get no bats this year, I’ll have to relocate the house to a more suitable site, probably off the third-floor porch.

While on the roof I looked for swifts. They arrive in May and soar and circle over our rooftops all summer and into fall, catching pounds of insects a day. They make their nests in our open chimneys (one pair per). We hear their twittering chatter at dusk and dawn mostly. I continue to be surprised by the wildlife we find in so urban an environment. When we first put in the garden out back, for instance, I wasn’t convinced we’d get butterflies and hummingbirds, but they come. Fortunately, we’re not far from the Jones Falls greenway, which is something of a sanctuary for urban wildlife. One afternoon as I was working on the roof, I saw a great blue heron winging that way.

From the roof, we can see Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. It’s a good place to watch July 4th fireworks. Firecrackers were popping off throughout the neighborhood until the early hours last night. Don’t forget that, when Baltimoreans view fireworks showering the Inner Harbor, they are replicating Baltimore’s triumphant resistance to the British naval attack of 1814. Fort McHenry, at the mouth of the harbor, refused to raise the white flag and—for 25 hours of bombardment—American troops hunkered down and took the beating. Francis Scott Key (Franky K to friends) happened to be in the harbor at the time (negotiating the release of an American from the Brits). Frank was opposed to the war but, ever a team player, supported American efforts as best he could. When the bombardment stopped and the Brits raised anchor, Frank was elated to the see Fort McHenry’s tattered flag still aflutter as the smoke cleared at dawn. You know the rest.