Another yuppie bites the dust of home renovation

Essay: When all's said and done, she'll have a nifty Pilgrim Blue nest in which to nurse her scarred legs and bruised arms.

June 30, 1999|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

I have barely slept in months. I rarely change clothes. My legs are scarred. My arms are bruised. I have destroyed five manicures.

Worst of all, I have made a discovery: The 1950s generation, people I scorned as visionless, were actually right on target. Ordering a brand-new suburban cookie-cutter house from the Sears catalog sounds like a great idea.

It's a mystery to me why we massage-loving, goat cheese-eating, cell-phoned yuppies of the 1990s feel the drive to buy and renovate houses. We abandon our obsession with the good life and pay contractors to rip down Sheetrock, yank out sinks and let us live in rubble.

Perhaps our impulse is spurred by a lingering hangover from the 1980s, when fast living meant a house was just a place to sleep. Maybe it's because we feel a primordial urge to make ourselves a home, albeit out of ceramic tile and paint in hues like Pilgrim Blue rather than sticks and mud.

Or maybe it's just low interest rates that fuel our desire to escape nasty landlords and a bull market that makes us feel like we have disposable income -- even if we really don't.

I still can't imagine what I was thinking when I bought a 100-year-old house on South Charles Street. I own one set of tools -- and all of them are pink, right down to the measuring tape.

So the past two months have been like a military crash course. "Tomorrow, we are tackling lighting, troops. Prepare yourselves." Oh, man, recessed lighting vs. track lighting. What's wrong with good old table lamps? White trim. Black trim. Bronze?

Oh -- oops! -- you have to find the wiring in the ceiling first? I thought lights just kind of, you know, plugged in.

Some relentless refurbishers actually do the work themselves (a heroic group, but they generally screw up a lot). Others, trying to save money and feel a part of the process, buy the materials and then give them to the contractors to install.

That's basically what I did. (See bruise on left leg from hauling 50 pounds of kitchen tile.)

My only comfort is that I am not alone. In my neighborhood, I have found a cadre of people with paint on their elbows who just want to talk about errant contractors and the trouble with installing windows. My boyfriend, choked by the dust from his own renovation, actually scribbled "Call 911" in the dust on one of his mirrors.

He and I have gone on dates to Home Depot.

When I walk into these home improvement stores, I see people just like me stumbling around, eyes glazed over. They stand slack-jawed in the electrical section, trying to figure out exactly what is the difference between a three-way switch and a regular one.

Every five minutes, a bell-like voice rings through the store, reminding us all we are nothing but novices. Call it the yuppie homeowner refrain.

"Ding. Special assistance needed -- ceramic tile," the voice chirps. "Ding. Special assistance needed -- vanities."

Outside, Jeep Cherokees and Nissan Pathfinders sit, hatchbacks opened and waiting, as overwhelmed customers try to navigate overloaded warehouse-style carts filled with 6-foot bi-fold doors, to-be-assembled 7-foot-bookcases, vanity tops and 60 pounds of rose-tinted tile.

You can see them in their cars staring at 2-foot-long receipts, hoping they got what they needed, but knowing deep in their hearts they are going to have to come back. They forgot something. And nothing is the right size. Ever. Even if you measure it four times with a pink measuring tape.

This is why I came to truly love my contractors. They wore measuring tapes on their belts and could tell me exactly what I needed to buy. And they could do everything. Hole in the wall? Gone like magic. Toilet paper holder that took my stepfather three hours to put up? Done in 20 minutes.

The only problem was they got to leave at the end of the day. I had to live at the construction site, coming home every night to a furniture-less house so dusty I could barely breathe and with nowhere to sit but on the stairs.

For 30 days and 30 nights I cried a lot. I drank a lot. I hid out at the local pub, eating the shrimp Caesar salad for the umpteenth time. I begged my boyfriend to let me just come watch television at his house. Anything to be away from my home-sweet-hellhole.

Not that my friends would ever know this. When they come over, I show the house off with pride, pointing out the pistachio accent wall and the hand-painted tiles I found that look just like Georgia O'Keeffe paintings. I talk endlessly about how the floors were carefully sanded to make sure the century-old pine was not hurt.

Yes, those are scars on my legs, I say, but have you seen the detailing on the stairs?

As close as I can figure, I've got at least another month of renovating before I'm done. In the end, though, it will all be worth it, I'm sure.

It had better be, because I am never leaving. I can't. Between my mortgage, the Pilgrim Blue paint and all those Caesar salads, I'll be broke for the next 30 years.

Pub Date: 6/30/99

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