Homeownership sucks. Responsibility sucks. Nothing like homeownership — particularly in a market with declining real-estate values — to make one yearn for the simpler days of an apartment, a mailbox with everyone else’s by the front entrance, a community pool and a call to Maintenance when things went wrong.
A little history: In true Detroit style, a previous owner of our house was enamored of gas-hungry machines, specifically recreational vehicles. In what may be a metaphor for the relationship between motor vehicles and the natural world, they used this enthusiasm to ruin the back yard. They picked up the garage and rotated it 90 degrees, plunking it in the goddamn middle of the yard. In between the garage and the house, they installed a deck. This is nice. In between the garage and the back of the property, they poured another parking slab, and in the thin stretch left before the property line, they poured gravel. (In the sales listing for the house, this was described as a “play area,” the same way “squalid shithole” becomes “handyman’s special.”) Everything else was paved.
For the first two years we lived here, we regarded this arrangement with contempt. Alan in particular was fond of referring to “the automotive engineer” who dreamed it up, even though he had no evidence that the person in question was an automotive engineer; this was just the part of him that knew sooner or later we were going to have to right the wrong, venting its entirely justified disgust. It would have been so much easier, and likely cheaper, to keep the stupid RV in a storage facility.
Well. We don’t have the tens of thousands of dollars required to either move the garage back or, better yet, tear it down and build a new one where the garage should be, break up and remove all the concrete and reclaim the back yard for the forces of good. But we had enough to get an estimate on hauling out all the gravel from the “play area” and replacing it with topsoil. The estimate was what we expected, so we told Mr. Landscaper to get a crew over here and git ‘er done. Which he did. The Bobcat had been working for an hour when they hit the surprise. “A body?” I asked hopefully. No, Alan said; they’d found giant heaps of broken-up concrete. The neighbor ambled over and explained that when the garage was removed from its original foundation, they’d broken up the slab and used it to underlay the gravel in the back corner of the lot, to support parking for yet another very heavy recreational vehicle. Mr. Landscaper said this would complicate things, that they’d need another man and a lot more dirt, but I said, “Let’s just do it the way it should be done,” and OK’d the cost overrun, which I was informed could increase the bill by as much as 100 percent.
The job got done and a good job it was. We added a couple hundred square feet of arable land to what had been weed-pocked gravel. When the bill came, I swallowed hard and opened it.
It was more than triple the estimate.
After I picked myself off the floor, I told myself all the things you tell yourself: All home-improvement projects go over budget, or It’s a real improvement, and you knew that wouldn’t be cheap and Would you rather be looking at weed-pocked gravel for a third summer? Each one of these platitudes was like a strong drink for my buyer’s remorse, and after I settled accounts with Mr. Landscaper, Alan went to the nursery and started planting. It took him the weekend, but now we have a small herb garden, two raspberry bushes, some climbing roses, a butterfly bush, some dead-nettle groundcover, new hostas and a birdbath. What had been impervious landscape is now nice and pervious again, and we’re putting oxygen into the air, plus growing raspberries. Which is more than you can say for those RVs, I hope.
Those birds better appreciate that damn birdbath, is all I can say.
At times like this, it’s important to not think like a renter. Otherwise you’d start thinking dangerous thoughts about how you might have spent that $2,000 if you didn’t have a house. In days gone by, you’d say, “Ah, but the house will be worth 4 percent more at the end of this year whether I do anything or not, so it’s just gravy.” Around here, though, that’s not the case. This just in: The auto industry is imploding. Blame the engineers.
So. The Brooklyn crew got 2/3 of the Jersey crew’s power structure last night, and at episode’s end, Tony was all alone with his machine gun in a bedroom with bad wallpaper, lying on a bare mattress in the dark, waiting for next Sunday and the last episode. I think that’s where I’m going to spend this week, too. The show is ending both the way we’ve always known it will, but not, if that makes any sense. Tony said, over and over and over in the last seven years, “Guys like me, we only end up dead or in the can,” and we keep telling ourselves, “Please, not for another season.” Well, it’s almost over, and I don’t see it ending any way but dead or in the can. I’ve been rooting for dead, but lately I’m thinking it would be amusing to see Carmela’s house sold to another family in the final montage, perhaps one of a non-white persuasion. I’m not going to be happy unless Blondie is appropriately punished, too. And I think, for her, that would be a fate worse than death.
Fave moment: When all the strippers and customers come out of the Bing to see what the excitement’s about. Was that a priest in the crowd?
If someone asked for a show of hands of all the people who’ve heard “Respect” enough times that they never, ever want to hear it again, well, I’m reaching for the ceiling. Still. Make room in your head for one more, as it’s heard in Kelley Carter’s video package on Aretha Franklin’s greatest hit, “40 Years of Respect,” on Freep.com. A really nice job, with some great archival photos and interviews from people who knew Detroit’s daughter then and now. My favorite nugget: When Franklin’s son reveals that mom had a cold during the recording of the vocal, and points out the line where you can hear her falter. Roy Peter Clark, who teaches writing through the Poynter Institute, uses the Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin recordings of “Respect” to illustrate the concept of “voice.” (Yes, how sad that people choose to become writers and then have to learn what voice is.) One more note: A very old-school TV guy told me once that you could teach a word person TV skills a lot easier than you could teach a TV person word skills, and boy do you ever see it here. If more TV journalists worked like this, I might watch more TV.