The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It


If you have never embarked on a major renovation of your home or apartment, allow me to share my experience in doing that with you so that you can make an informed decision before you proceed. 

I had always been told that kitchens and bathrooms were the most expensive and complicated of these projects – so I naturally chose to introduce myself to the subject by redoing the kitchen.  It was a major overhaul that involved incorporating a small bedroom off the kitchen, installing quarry tile flooring, updating all the fixtures and purchasing custom made cabinetry.  The key, I realized was designing the new kitchen in such a way that it was functional as well as attractive.

Although I had a good sense of what I wanted I thought that it would be wise to employ the services of a designer and fortunately I had one on whom I could rely.  She was a customer of my mom’s store in New York but she lived about twenty minutes from my apartment in Chicago.  She was very talented.  So I hired her and together we worked out a beautiful plan for a marvelous new kitchen.

Then I had to select a general contractor and one of my friends who was a very particular person recommended the services of a firm that she had hired to redo her own kitchen.  Their specialty was in building custom cabinetry.  I thought if Paulina were satisfied with the job I would use them as well.

Everything was set and we were about to begin demolition.  Since I lived in an apartment built in the 1920’s, the walls were all constructed of lath and plaster and there was going to be a lot of plaster dust floating through the air.  I didn’t want to breathe this – but I more particularly didn’t want my two dogs, Tristan and Josh breathing it.  So I made arrangements to board them on a Monday-Friday basis at a pet motel that was a fifty mile drive one way from the apartment.

The contractor gave me an estimate of six weeks from start to finish.  The quarry tile and the new appliances were on order.  The only thing that had to be constructed was the cabinetry in which their firm specialized.  Having heard that contractors had a habit of starting a job and then not showing up for days at a time, I suggested that we double their six week estimate to twelve weeks after which they would pay a daily penalty for not completing the job.  The contractor pooh-poohed that idea and I caved in and agreed to sign the contract as they had presented it.

I had packed away all the pots and pans and dishes and spices and was all set for them to show up the following Monday.  I remember the project was to commence on June 3rd because I had taken our staff out for a festive luncheon the previous Friday to celebrate the best month our firm had ever posted.  I got to the lunch a little late as I had a few things to finish up at the office before joining the staff.  When I got to there I didn’t feel very well.

I sat there trying to maintain the sense of enthusiasm and camaraderie which the lunch was intended to foster but barely touched my meal.  That evening I was at the office late and went into the men’s room to wash my hands before going home.  I was shocked to look at myself in the mirror as I washed up.  My eyes were the color of a very dark legal pad – a sickly shade of brownish-yellow.

I had contracted serum hepatitis (along with four other patients) from an improperly sterilized needle at my new dentist’s office.  The doctor with whom I consulted said that my readings (whatever those were) were off the charts.  His advice was to rest and to avoid any alcohol for a one year period.  I had no problem with either part of his prescription as my body automatically wanted to sleep about twenty hours a day.

But in three days we were going to start on the kitchen.  I got up early that Monday to find that the team of kitchen wreckers had arrived.  I let them go about their business as I piled the dogs into the car.  We got about half way there when I wanted to sleep – but I pressed on turning the air conditioning on full blast to try staying awake.  Finally we got there and I signed them into their room and started back for home.

About halfway home I was so tired that I pulled off the expressway, found a quiet suburban street and parked the car.  I went in the back and lay down, waking three hours later.  I continued the drive back to the apartment and went in to find the workmen were still doing their demolition and, despite the heavy plastic that had been taped over the door to the old kitchen I could see the dust in the air that had been generated from their work.  I went to my bedroom to lie down and when I woke the apartment was silent and night had fallen.

The next morning the workmen returned, demolishing the little bit that they had remaining and continued to haul away the debris.  They finished the job mid-afternoon and the apartment was silent.  One of my friends who lived down the street had invited me to join her for dinner.  She made a wonderful meal which I barely touched and I remember trying to stay awake while eating.  I crashed on her couch and she let me sleep until I woke up at two in the morning.  She had gone to bed  and I let myself out of the apartment and went home to my own bed where I slept another six hours.

The sun beamed into my bedroom’s windows.  I was feeling better that morning and the shade of my eyes had improved to the point that they were merely a putrid yellow.  I went into the bathroom to throw some water on my face and wondered what the contractor would be doing today.  I hoped that they would do it quietly since my curiosity about the project was being strongly challenged by my desire to return to bed.  While I waited for them to come to work, I lay back on my bed and when I woke it was noon.

There was still no sound of activity from the kitchen.  I had given the contractor the key so I knew that they could get in – merely that they had not showed up that day.  I was still too ill even to bother calling to find out what was going on.  When the phone rang it was my friend from down the street to find out how I was feeling and to invite me to dinner again that evening.

After demolishing the kitchen the contractors were to be found nowhere during the next four weeks.  During this time I was driving my dogs to the kennel on Monday, picking them up on Friday to protect them from both the dust and the noise I expected that would be going on.  In addition to that cost and paying for gas, I was challenging myself to complete the drive without falling asleep.

But after a month of extensive rest my body was now content with getting only twelve hours of sleep a day.  The whites of my eyes were beginning to look almost normal and the follow up blood tests indicated a great deal of improvement.  I was now strong enough to call the contractor to find out why there had been this delay.

Howard, the contractor’s senior partner could have had a career in Congress rather than woodworking.  When we finished our conversation, I realized that despite the very profound  explanations he had given, he had said absolutely nothing concrete but merely danced around the issue.  Had I been feeling better I would have recognized that but this thought didn’t occur to me until about an hour after we had concluded our chat.

Well, for those of you who were thinking about doing a kitchen remodel let me tell you that six months after starting this project, the cabinets were finally installed.  During this time if it had not been for the charity of friends and the availability of restaurants I would have starved to death.  But there they were, the lovely cabinets which I had ordered.  But as I looked at them I thought they didn’t look as deep as I had expected them to be. 

I went to the box in which I had packed my everyday dinnerware and pulled out a dinner plate.  It was a standard 10” size and I put it in one of the cabinets.  (The doors for the cabinets had still not been installed – that was scheduled for a few days later).  I placed the plate as far in the cabinet as it would go – and discovered that there was about a two inch part of the plate that protruded from the cabinet.

I called the contractor and told him that he had a problem and I needed him to come over so I could show it to him.  He promised to free up his schedule so that he could swing by the next morning.

When Howard came over the next day I had the plate sitting in the cabinet.  I said, “Howard, we have a problem.”  He looked around the kitchen, casting his gaze on and past the plate and said, “Oh, what is that?”  I could feel my blood pressure starting to rise.

I said, “As you can see there is a dinner plate sitting in one of your cabinets.  I checked the original plans and you constructed these with a depth that is three inches shorter than what I specified.  Obviously, when you place the doors on these cabinets, this plate won’t fit.”

His response was, “Well, couldn’t you just lean them up in there?”

I had not yet begun to unpack my kitchen gear – and for that I am truly thankful.  Had I been anywhere near the box containing my kitchen knives I would have been writing this post from a prison cell where I was confined for the balance of my natural life.    I would no doubt have hacked him to death with my finest butcher’s knife.

I remember shouting at him at the top of my lungs (something which anyone who knows me realizes is totally out of character) – but after this six month ordeal I had finally reached the breaking point.  I think he knew I was seriously beyond the point of being angry.  So he said that “in the interest of saving time” rather than reconstruct the cabinets from scratch he could make an extension to bring them up to the original specifications.  He assured me that he could do this quickly and I would finally have my new kitchen..

Well quickly turned out to be yet another two months.  But I finally got my kitchen done, the extension and the doors were installed and as we went over our little punch list of things that needed minor attention. Howard handed me an invoice for $3,500.00 for the “changes” I had made to the plan.

He didn’t know how lucky he was that I had returned to my normal calm demeanor because by that time I knew exactly where my cutlery was.  Rather than discuss it with him I merely turned it over to my attorney to handle.

This experience taught me a valuable lesson.  If I ever have the insane notion of remodeling something in a house again I will sell the old place and find one that meets my artistic needs and desires.  Remodeling is just not worth the aggravation.


Comments on: "HOME IMPROVEMENT" (6)

  1. A few years ago I bought a fixer-upper with my now ex-fiancee, who was a contractor. When we looked at the house, we discussed all the changes we would make over time. Then after the split I started talking to another contractor about some of the alterations we had planned. I was at a loss when I found all of our plans were completely illogical, and to complete most of them I would basically have to tear my house down and start over.
    I’m not sure if the lesson was not to buy a fixer upper or not to break up with your contractor.

  2. LOL. Probably a little of each!

  3. My daughter in the US has remodelled several homes she and her husband purchased and each time had similar experiences with contractors. Obviously there is a need to lift their game. No matter how carefully you plan in advance it does eventually succeed or fail depending on the hands on people you have to employ.

    • Amd isn’t that true of all things? It depends on the integrity of the person doing the job. Mediocrity performance has been elevated into an accepted way of doing things. I know that my grandparents and parents would have been ashamed of themselves if they didn’t try to do everything they could to do their best. I wonder where we lost that attitude?

  4. I know nothing about remodeling, am not interested in remodeling, and probably never will be. But, as usual, once I start on one of your stories, I can’t stop. You are a wonderful story-teller & this one had me cracking up all the way thru!

  5. Since you read the post you now know more than enough to convince you that if you have your choice between a life-threatening disease and re-modeling you will choose the former!

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