No Holds Barred: When things fall apart

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Sunshine and me with our Coleman camping stove. We can do this! (Hopefully).

I keep hearing the expression “when things fall apart” a lot lately describing our current cultural upheaval. But when demolition hits your living room — as it has mine in my current house renovation — it becomes all too “up close and personal.”

I was warned by a contractor friend, “It is one thing to renovate and check into a hotel or rental while you refurbish. But when you live on the premises during the process …  you are experiencing it on a whole other level.  Good luck!!”  I didn’t know what he meant. Now? I do.

I am looking at my second month of a home “refresh” and I get that the honeymoon is over.  Don’t get me wrong — my contracting cast and crew have been phenomenal. I listened to a builder tell me, “The best way to create a good contractor relationship is simple ethics; say ‘thank you’ constantly, make sure you don’t say ‘I need this done right now’, respectfully say ‘please at every turn, and most of all, pay the moment you get the bill.”

Contractor Aaron Bishop (Aaron Bishop Construction and Design) talking Sunshine and me down off our “sanity ledge.”

Those rules are clearly the contractor’s holy grail and if you follow that you’re much less likely to have delays, no shows, or at worst the 1997 “tell all” incident of Hollywood electrician Rand Gauthier.  He was the notorious contractor on the Pam and Tommy Lee Beverly Hills mansion (currently being played by Seth Rogan in Hulu’s Pam and Tommy series) who got stiffed $20,000 and abused by Tommy Lee. So, he broke into Lee’s home safe and found the famous sex tape and sold it to a porn distributor, and the rest (including many defamation of character lawsuits) is history.

A lot has happened to the jobs of contractors since those days of ill repute. Rarely are they drug addicts or part-time schlubs and lost losers. They are now licensed rockstars with luxe homes of their own and “subs” galore. You can partially thank Mr. Gauthier for that upgrade.

Seth Rogen as Rand Gauthier in Pam & Tommy. Photo: Erica Parise

But renovations are a two-way street as your house and life gets dismantled daily. Everyone is walking on eggshells trying to please and accommodate — and it gets stressful. Patience begins to evaporate. No wonder my contractor tried talking me off my sanity ledge by saying kindly, “I feel your pain, but this is why most people only do one major renovation in a lifetime.” I get it.

To be fair, I am living in the “guest house” (small suite — no kitchen) right next to the main two-bedroom house.  The plan was to redo (no real remodeling, just “restoring”) the main house and garage then attack my “hut” and I could move up to the main house. Seemed easier than moving to a Marriott for a month. How hard could it be living “on-site” during the process?

My guest house: safe haven for now!

Luckily, I get up at 5 a.m. — as does my dog Sunshine — so the 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. construction hours work just fine for me. Nobody really “chats” beyond “good morning.” Good contractors get to work and stay in mode all day. Great contractors also now vacuum and clean up before they go. Every day.

My guest house at sunset.

But here in Arizona, since Covid, the demand for real estate and especially home improvement has exploded. Most contractors are beyond booked and now overworked. But the labor force is spotty. You have to expect cancellations and skipped days now more than ever. After all, there are four houses being completed in front of you and five houses being started behind you. Scheduling is tight, and delays and problems (inevitable) cause a domino effect down the line. When there’s a problem on one site, it all slides off the rails for the rest of us, too.

My neighbors recently moved out of their house for a projected six-month remodeling job. It ended up taking the full Covid two-year slot.  They rented a second home for the duration. Upon their return to the brand-new digs, they decided they could now make a fortune and just sold it. The market is that hot! It has become renovation and real estate roulette.

But I’m not looking for that high-end resale experience. I’m trying to just survive as the “on site” owner and (hopefully) live happily ever after.

It takes a lot. For instance, an owner has to watch his/her attire.  It sends an instant message. This is not the time to swan about in a bathing suit or sloppy loungewear. Crews are watching while they hammer. Everything I wear nowadays looks like pajamas (but not sweats!). The buttons are buttoned up and the pants are crisp and ironed. No flip flops because of the inevitable debris throughout the day.

Ahh … the good ol’ days.

What I am learning is that we are a “makeover” culture. We love “before and after” pictures. But we never really want to see, nor do we want to know of, the blood, sweat, and tears it takes to get from A to Z. It doesn’t fit with our HGTV/Kardashian glam results. All those elaborate outdoor “entertaining areas” with firepits, changing lights, huge TVs, billiard tables, and kitchens. Not to mention display case closets and bathrooms with “pedicure stations” look quick, easy, and glitzy. How much drilling and rage and delays did it take to create that deluxe insanity? And for a select few. Then again, those owners “checked out” to a Dubai hotel and returned to a whole new “baby.” They didn’t have to go through the natural childbirth hell of reboot.

Remember the innocent days of “This Old House” with Bob Villa. He started the Home Improvement movement with his wonderful show from 1979-1989.  He made us all feel we could redo it all ourselves with our own glue gun and a hammer and a heartfelt soul about it all. Now he is happily retired and selling his own line of tools on the Home Shopping Network. But shouldn’t Home Depot have given him an acknowledgment as THE father of Home Improvement — his red-checkered flannel work shirt even became iconic.

So far, my “in the throes” process has been slow but steady and no periods of regret — but plenty of meltdowns. I was lucky to score the right color of white paint (there are over 750 whites) called “White Chocolate.” I couldn’t stand the idea of using a white called “Blast Off Cloud” or “Mayonnaise.”

Determining the “right white.”

It was when we got to the kitchen “takedown” that I sank and felt I had to put my head in the oven. I was surprised as I don’t really cook. Luckily all the appliances and the kitchen floor are new as of the last two years or so, and I am keeping them. How bad could new sinks, cabinets, countertops, and a tile backsplash be?

I was unprepared for the leveling of everything in one day — from the walls to the island in the center.  The noise of drilling, jackhammering, grinding, crashing, ripping, blasting, and total collapse got to me as I hid in my guest house.  It resounded in every joint of my body. Talk about a “smash and grab.”

Packing up “the before.”

It was fast and furious but left me a recovering zombie walking around for four days looking at this strange, empty, echoing shell. What the hell just happened? By the way, the demolition crew was amazing to watch. Five gator-masked guys in solid shape hanging by rafters with one arm and machine gunning with the other.  It was like watching Cirque du Soleil despite the soundtrack — throwing my kitchen in a heap with the flip of a wrist.

It makes me think of my dad – who couldn’t even change a lightbulb but loved to watch contractors do anything.  He had the greatest respect for anybody who worked hard via the skill of their hands and seemed to problem solve on their feet.  He would take his wheelchair and roll up to any site or even sit with a TV repair man or plumber and be thoroughly entertained by their expertise at a particular skill he could never master.

The beginning of the breakdown.
Dismantling the stainless steel countertop.
STILL dismantling the kitchen countertop.

But demolition crews are unique, and they were very polite to me in the end. It must have been the “shock and awe” look on my face as they grabbed their equipment and Red Bulls and sped off to the next takedown.

My refrigerator, freezer, cabinet contents and whole house is now stacked up all over my living room. I can’t get used to searching where everything was put. Change is inevitable, but for many of us it is maddening. I get upset when I can’t find my eyedrops on my nightstand. It’s the ultimate in loss of control.

There goes the kitchen sink.
Dismantling the island counter without damage for re-use.
And now for the damage …
Dazed and confused.
My kitchen being hauled away.

I am living off a Coleman stove to boil my tea water and microwaving in my computer area. It takes me an hour to make tea and toast in the morning. This is not fun. It is not “camping out” — not even glamping. Sunshine can’t find his food bowl. We both are aimlessly wandering around the rubbled living room looking and feeling homeless. The problem with living “on site” is there is NO ESCAPE. Believe me … I know … I know … this is an “uptown problem,” especially when you consider the visuals from the Ukraine; and in the end who cares about the food? I just have to keep my eye on the finished product, but who can even see anything amidst all this?

Coming to accept my temporary kitchen — complete with microwave, water, and matzah.

Well then, there is always “take-out.” So off I went to Whole Foods for a vegetarian wrap to get through my first night on rough-out patrol. I awoke the following morning with severe food poisoning. It’s been four days and I still haven’t gotten my appetite back. I can’t even look at my desk of “emergency rations” of chips, dried fruit, and ginger ale.

It might be a blessing. This has become the ultimate in a “renovation cleanse.” But this morning as I looked at Sunshine gobbling his bowl of hard dark brown dried balls, I felt my first twinge of hunger and acceptance of this self-induced catastrophe.

Besides, it’s Passover — how perfect.

Dayenu! (“It would have been enough!”)

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