21 Oct When Things Fall Apart

I’ve been working on our porch for a few weeks. Three stories, made of wood, and enclosed with large mullioned windows on two levels, it demands ongoing maintenance. Eight years ago, when I first bought this old house, all I could do was stabilize the porch — patch the worst of it, mend the big windows, then paint it quickly, covering scabrous expanses of fifty-year-old paint.


Last year, finally, I stripped and seriously repaired the first level. Now I’m doing the second. Next year I’ll do the third. That’s how big a job it is. Our porch, which faces west, gets the worst of the weather. I’m not sure what the builders were thinking when they put it up. It was used as a sleeping porch for those insufferable Baltimore summer nights. But, clearly, it was never meant to be waterproof.

It’s not the flaking paint I have to worry about, I’ve realized, it’s the things I can’t see under the paint. Rain gets into cracks smaller than I can see. Moisture rots wood fast. The paint may look fine until you touch it with a scraper. Then – surprise – the wood gives way like tissue. I’ve found several surprising pockets of wood rot on my porch. Here’s the irony of it all: rain compromises nails faster than wood. So the nails rust and give way first, then, as they corrode, they let water get at the wood. In other words, the things that hold your house together — nails and screws – are the very things that undermine it. The ideal building, therefore, should have no nails or screws on its exterior.

I couldn’t do this work without a helper. Not if I expect to keep my job or my health. I’ve hired many helpers over the years, usually guys who see me at a task and ask for work. None of them was serious about it, except Will. He arrives when he says he will, works hard every hour, learns quickly, and keeps his humor no matter how messy the chore. Three years ago, he showed up when I had four tons of dirt to dig from the backyard — work that would have discouraged a lesser man. I consider myself lucky to have made his acquaintance.

Will’s story is a classic inner-city tale. His mother is an addict. He didn’t graduate from high school. He’s been on his own since he was a teenager. But he’s self-possessed, well-spoken, and well-mannered. He’s working nights polishing floors for an office-cleaning company. A few days a week he comes over to help me. I’ve taught him some stuff, but he doesn’t like working with power tools. And I never ask him to work from a ladder. If he’s too tired to work, he’ll tell me. At one point, he was holding two jobs and working for me as well. But it’s not like he can save any money. He doesn’t make enough for that. (Is anybody saving money?)

Last week Will mentioned that he’s been having frequent headaches and a bad taste in his mouth. “Could it be my broken tooth?” he asked. He revealed that he’s had a broken tooth for five years – a molar that broke off at the gum. Jill called the Maryland dental school clinic. I advanced him some cash for the appointment yesterday. When he arrived today he announced that he’d overslept and missed his appointment. Later, he told me he’s scared of the dentist. That’s natural, I said. But taking care of teeth is something like taking care of an old wooden porch. You can’t ignore it when things start falling apart.

So I gave Will another advance today and some extra in case the clinic can extract the tooth on the spot. “Just think,” I said. “By this time tomorrow, you’ll be done — and healthy.” He smiled and nodded his agreement. But, then, Will’s always polite.