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The Curse of the Right Way

September 2, 2010

Let me make it clear that I sympathize with Charlie and his predicament up to a point. Charlie is that rare thing in this slapdash age — a perfectionist, determined to do things right no matter what the cost. This is a noble ambition — the world would be a better place with more such people in it. However, problems can arise when, as in Charlie's case, the thing you are trying to do perfectly is renovate your house, and your house, to start with, is a cruddy hunk of junk. I knew Charlie was in trouble when … well, to be frank, I knew he was in trouble the minute he'd bought the place, but I'd kept that to myself. Now, however, I'd heard that (a)  he'd been cited by the city for allowing waist-high weeds to grow in his back yard, not once but twice, with stern notices stuck on the door, the second threatening legal action; (b) Charlie had then cut down the weeds reluctantly, describing them, possibly in earnest, as wildlife habitat; and (c) — here was the crucial detail — this had occurred in year seven of his project, which was nowhere near done. I knew what this meant: Charlie had succumbed to the Curse of the Right Way. On my next free evening I headed up to his house for a six-pack's worth of consultation. It was time to intervene.

Charlie's house is located on a quiet street in Evanston. It had been an unprepossessing structure when he bought it — I'd call it a bungalow, but that sounds too grand. It was more of a shoebox, really, with a peaked roof and aluminum siding and some doors and windows stuck on. From the street the house still looked that way. This was deceiving, because Charlie had invested a formidable amount of time and effort in improvements; it was just that none of it showed. Some will say that's not perfectionism, that's nuts. Bear with me — all will become clear.

When I knocked on the door, Charlie was inside dozing on the couch in the living room, although here you'd be more accurate to call it the eking-out-a-minimal-existence-one-step-above-plankton room. It was illuminated by a single bulb on a gooseneck lamp, which Charlie had bent up to shine into the back of the house. This bathed the premises in a hideously harsh light, such as you might expect to see in the basement of a police station, where the cops had just worked over a serial killer with hoses in hopes of getting him to confess.

The room was crammed with what I took to be the larger part of Charlie's material possessions, although it was difficult to take a proper inventory in the murk, and in any event I was distracted by the smell — and mind you, this was prior to the arrival of the skunk. I don't think Charlie had contributed any of the odors personally (although see below); rather, I suspect they were a gift from the previous owner, who from the evidence had shared her quarters with two million cats, or possibly baboons or wildebeest, some of whom may have died. It was hard to tell, and I didn't think wise to explore.

I don't mean to give the impression that Charlie was a slovenly housekeeper; it was just that he had other priorities. His plan was this. He would live in the front of the house, making no more investment than was needed to ensure the roof didn't fall in, while building a magnificent addition in the back. And it was magnificent, no doubt about that — a two-story confection with columns and decks and a crosswise gable, clad in cascades of shingles that would have been the envy of a nineteenth-century lumber baron.

Charlie proudly gave me a tour, pausing in the back yard, where the weeds had now been trimmed back sufficiently to allow us to roam without the aid of specialized equipment. I gazed for a moment in awe. The house was exquisite when viewed from the rear, which, unfortunately, nobody but we and the skunks was ever in a position to do. Charlie, whom I ought to mention is a gifted architect, had designed the entire thing himself and, having hired out the rough framing to a contractor, was now in the process of personally finishing it. He initially thought this might take six months. His timing was off, so far, by six and a half years, with, from the look of it, half a lifetime to go.

Charlie explained what had slowed him down, a complex tale accompanied by much dramatic expostulation. Among other things, he had connected the toilet drain to the catch basin. This is never a good idea. The catch basin normally intercepts the bulkier items from the kitchen drains; if instead you hook it up to the toilet, it'll intercept the bulkier items from that. Charlie knew this, but figured his jerry-rigged plumbing would be only a temporary expedient. Six months later, matters having proceeded more slowly than hoped, the catch basin filled up. This coincided with a wedding Charlie had been invited to, and though I didn't catch all the details, I'm seeing a hot summer's day and a three-piece suit.

We now skip ahead. The immediate issue having been dealt with, Charlie bought a stack of plastic pipe and hung a circuitous zigzag in his basement, which, notwithstanding its unorthodox and indeed somewhat half-assed appearance, reliably deposited the waste in the correct collector stack, which, so far as Charlie knew, drained directly to the sewer in the street, at which point it became somebody else's problem. Normal operation of the toilet then resumed for another six months until Charlie noticed a puddle of water in the basement. The next day the puddle was bigger. Charlie called the plumber; nervous exploration ensued, which established that, while pouring a concrete footing, Charlie's contractor years previously had cut the main house drain in half. This meant that Charlie's toilet deposits, instead of draining to the street (good), or collecting in the catch basin (not good, but at least you knew where they were), instead pooled beneath Charlie's house (really, really bad). Charlie had panicky visions of a vast sinkhole of slop swallowing his lifetime accumulation of real property, which in the event didn't occur. However, he did have to dig two coffin-depth holes, one outside in ten-degree cold, the other in a crawl space with three feet of headroom and a four-inch concrete pad, resulting in tinnitus, shooting pains throughout his body, and curvature of the spine. But he got the thing fixed at last.

You understand the above wasn't proof Charlie had fallen victim to the Curse of the Right Way — it was garden-variety mopery. However, it bespoke distraction, and thus deeper issues. It was in the kitchen that the fundamental problem was revealed.

The kitchen looked like one of those rooms in New Orleans photographed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, only without water stains or frogs. Random junk was piled up everywhere — tools, building materials, projects in various stages of completion. Where the kitchen table would one day be there was an enormous joiner's bench, used for woodworking. Near the counters there was a — well, I'm not sure what it was. Some ancient wooden contraption, possibly a wine press, for emergency use in case the Captain Morgan ran out.

On close inspection, however, the kitchen was less of a disaster than it appeared. Charlie showed me the kitchen cabinets, which were close to being finished although, like just about everything else in the house, not quite. He'd built them himself. He pulled out a drawer, a meticulous configuration of rabbets and dadoes and such, then gave it a shove. It rolled back, braked, then eased into place through some miracle of drawer-slide technology. No question, it was cool.  

It was also completely crazy. Nobody made their own cabinets any more. It was like milking your own cows. The whole house was that way. Doors, built-in bookshelves, baseboards — Charlie insisted on doing it all himself, to be certain things were done right. Not one room was finished.

I gazed around the chaotic kitchen and considered how to proceed. "Charlie," I said, "do you ever get women in here?"

Charlie allowed that once in a while he did.

"And they can actually tolerate this place?"

It varied, he said. Most endured the appalling conditions with an attitude of Hindu resignation. Occasionally, though, he encountered a woman who, at some level, understood what he was trying to do.

Here was a promising development. We retired with the six-pack to the screened-in porch for further exploration. I ought to say that Charlie has never been married, and was now … I won't say middle-aged, but definitely in a state of advanced youth. This has been a disappointment to his many friends, because, other than the fact that you'd have to live in a pigsty, Charlie has always seemed like a catch.

"Charlie," I said once we'd reached an appropriately philosophical state. "Not that I'm trying to tell you what to do. But do you ever aspire to getting, you know, permanently hooked up?"

Maybe, said Charlie. But it was hard to mesh the rhythms of your life with somebody else's.

"So you're saying she'd possibly make you pick up your socks?"

Charlie said this manner of looking at the situation lacked nuance.

"Whatever. The main thing is, no woman is going to sit still while you spend the next seventeen years finishing your castle. She's going to make you get it done in six months. That's good, Charlie. That's what needs to happen. I want to put this diplomatically, because you're my friend. Naturally you're going to want somebody who's beautiful, intelligent, sensitive, and all that crap. But the essential criterion, in my opinion, is that, when she sees you're about to embark on some crackbrained project that'll push off the completion date till the glaciers come again, she kicks your dithering butt."

Charlie said he'd give it some thought. I finished up my beer and went home, noticing while walking out the door the unmistakable evidence of a visit by the skunks. Whether Charlie will take my advice I don't know. But speaking as a Brother of the Right Way, maybe I got him off the dime.

— Ed Zotti
Photo by Charlie Friedlander

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