The rental house I lived in when I moved to San Angelo in 1985 had these damn space heaters in it. Still had them, fifty years after the house itself should have been condemned. Only the ones in the bathroom and living room worked, and when I say worked I mean the gas could be turned on and lit, and there were enough heating elements in them to radiate heat out into the room. I don’t mean that they kept the house, much less the room they were in, warm.
When I moved into the place in the Spring of that year, my new roommate had been living there alone for quite some time. A recent divorcee, he was living in a bachelor’s paradise. The kitchen sink had a motorcycle engine in it. Under the engine was the rotting remains of a summer feast that he hadn’t bothered to clean up before taking the engine apart on top of it. The bathtub had the engine from his truck in it. He had been showering off with a garden hose outside, or going home to his parents house on lake Nasworthy to get cleaned up. Had been driving several miles out to their lake house on a pretty regular basis, before the motorcycle broke down and after the truck broke down. When the motorcycle quit working he was kind of stuck in a rut, until I showed up.
I slept on the floor in the bedroom, on a mattress we salvaged from somewhere. He had his bed in the former sitting room. It had its own front door that we never used. A second front door that let onto the front porch, the nice entrance to the nicest part of the house, the one that still had the best finishes in it for those long-gone guests of the poor people who had probably assembled the building out of the spare trash that they had cobbled together from another construction project somewhere in town.
How we got through that year is a mystery shrouded in clouds of Ganja smoke. What I can say is we made the place livable in pretty short order. We put the truck back together with twine and bailing wire, and he rebuilt the engine for his motorcycle, which let him go back to riding motocross in his spare time, and we managed to live there for most of the rest of that year until the freeze hit. when it got cold, the downside of the shabby and time-worn construction of the house showed itself.
The house was made of pasteboard. What’s that, you ask? Paper? Not paper no, but it might as well have been paper for all the good that it did. To assemble a pasteboard house you put up corner posts and frame the doors and windows. They are generally square houses with four rooms, one in each quadrant of the structure. As I mentioned, ours still had two front doors. One door for the sitting room that you invited your guests into, and the other door was for the living room, where the family spent their time, back in the 19o0’s when it was built. In the center of the structure, where the four interior walls would meet, you put the main structural post to hold up the peak of the roof, which slopes down to just about head height at the eaves. The roof was usually made of tin, and was definitely the most durable part of that house.
After you have your doors and windows framed up, you run lap siding from the corner posts to the door and window frames. There are no studs in the walls outside of the studs required to hold the windows and doors in place. The interior walls could be made of almost anything. Anything that would hold up to what came next. On the inside face of the exterior siding you then staple chicken wire or plaster lathe (if you could afford that) and then you plastered the chicken wire and the backside of the siding to make the inside face of the exterior wall of your house. You would then carefully plaster the interior walls so as to make them look like walls, too.
The resulting interior surface is markedly strange-looking, with accentuated bulges all around the doors and windows, where the only framing in the walls actually existed. You have now created your pasteboard house. It is paste applied directly to the boards that the rain runs off of on the outside of your house, and the interior walls are so thin as to make privacy largely a figment of your imagination.
There is no insulation value in the walls of a pasteboard house. The temperature outside the house is the temperature inside the house. Those little space heaters were like candles in the wind, the drafts through the cracks in the wall were that bad. We had to prop our feet up right in front of the fire to feel the heat at all. The less said about the intolerable heat in the Texas summers, the better. The swamp cooler had mosquitos living in it, just to add to the fun of the oppressive heat. But on those winter nights when it really got cold, it was impossible to get warm anywhere in that house.
The pipes froze, of course. Indoor plumbing was an afterthought, an addition that took up the space where a sleeping porch had been once upon a time. That room had the space heater that could keep the room warm, since it was the smallest room with the lowest ceiling. But the pipes froze routinely because there was no way to keep them warm. We could leave the water trickling over night, but that usually just meant we had icicles hanging from the faucets when we woke up.
The last few weeks we were there, the wooden floors started to bow up, which made sleeping or even walking on the floor an interesting dexterity test, especially when stoned. Clearly the exterior walls were not keeping the moisture out of the house, and the resulting swelling of the floorboards caused them to buckle in several places. We never could figure out how to get them to lay flat again once they started doing that. Which was too bad. The floors were about the nicest thing about the place before they started to buckle.
I caught pneumonia that winter in that rental house on Adams Street. I caught pneumonia and had to beg a space to stay at a friend’s house. A friend’s house that seemed like a palace in comparison to the rental we had on Adams. A palace with insulated walls and central heat and air. It even had indoor plumbing that wasn’t an afterthought tacked onto the back, a bathroom taking up what had been the best place to sleep in the house during the summer. Instead the bathroom was inside the house, like a bathroom should be.
That was my last experience with space heaters. I got lucky. I didn’t asphyxiate because the rooms were so drafty there was always enough oxygen to feed the gas fires and the living, breathing people, and I didn’t set myself on fire sleeping with my feet in the grate. Also? The friend I bummed some crash space off of was generous enough to let me keep living in that comparative palace that her parents had entrusted to her, let me keep living there until I found an apartment in a completely different part of town. An apartment that wouldn’t kill me. Which was a step up, for me.
So I’m finally feeling almost normal after our trip to Chicago. The day after we returned home, the sore throat that had been bugging me in Illinois turned into a full-blown sinus infection complete with glaring red pink-eye. This prompted a hasty trip to my immunologist and a series of antibiotics. I finished the ten day course of antibiotics on Wednesday, and had my first physical therapy session in three weeks on Thursday. I was bushed after the PT, but that was only part of the problems that surfaced this week.
Monday morning was the follow-up for the 90 day Betahistine (Serc) test that my ENT and I had been running. The results looked promising, and so I’m going to try upping the dose for a year and see what that gets me in the way of relief from Meniere’s symptoms. I’ve noticed that I seem to start exhibiting symptoms again before the next dose of Betahistine is due, so I’m going to take the same dosage three times a day. If you are a Meniere’s sufferer and you have triggers similar to mine, you probably should get your ENT to trial you on Betahistine and see if it helps you or not. I am curious to know if there is a sub-group of Menierians who benefit more from Betahistine than others. This data would clarify whether there is a benefit to Betahistine treatment or not. Comments on this subject are not only welcome but I’ll beg for them if I have to.
I’m feeling better, I thought. I should have known this was a prequel to the hell life had in store for me later in the week. On Wednesday the air conditioning dropped dead on us. It had been acting a little squirrely for awhile now and the system is nineteen years old. Several times over the last few years I had noticed that the thermostat didn’t seem to control the system like it should. It would sporadically fail to come on when it got too hot in the house, and would fail to turn off when it got cold. Sometimes the interior spaces got chilly enough that I thought seriously about wearing more clothing. On Monday, the system’s lackluster cooling performance lead me to do some basic troubleshooting and I noticed that it was well past time for a filter change. Changing the filter did seem to improve cooling and airflow, but Tuesday evening the fan wouldn’t start if we set the thermostat to cool, and Wednesday the fan said fuck it, I’m outta here and refused to start in any position. On or auto. Heat, cool or off. No dice and no air conditioning.
Ah, Texas in the summertime with no air conditioning! Back in the days before that invention every building in the region had ten or twelve foot ceilings and floor to ceiling windows that allowed cool air to enter the building from the lower sash, while simultaneously allowing the heat to escape the building from the upper sash (this is the origin of the term double-hung for the architecturally curious. Windows which can be opened from both top and bottom) and even then you slept outside on what was referred to as a sleeping porch because it was too hot to sleep indoors at all. Air conditioning changed architecture radically and not necessarily for the better. With the ability to alter indoor temperatures builders could ignore long-held rules of thumb that governed Southern construction, putting large glass facades on South-facing walls and lowering ceilings to the now-common eight foot height. Which is all just fine, as long as the air conditioning works.
So we called our handyman, but he was out of town for a week. Deeming it time to bite the bullet, we called a contractor we have dealt with successfully before, and they sent a guy out on Friday. Based on his estimation we had to replace parts just to see if the system could be revived or not. I’ve been down this road a few times. Replacing one part leads to replacing another part, which leads to replacing a third part until at some point you’ve rebuilt the entire system. As I mentioned previously, it’s a nineteen year old system. I can’t even get refrigerant for it anymore, legally. Spending money on this dinosaur is throwing good money after bad.
The heat and the humidity were threatening to send me spiraling back down into vertigo hell, but the salesman (comfort adviser) who showed up to pitch us on a new system came bearing gifts of window units. Consequently we were open to the idea of looking into replacing the ancient HVAC system. This was a theoretical possibility on Friday, a possibility that is rapidly jelling into a reality for Monday. So I’m taking this opportunity to start some renovations of my own that I’ve been wanting to get done since the first day we toured the place before buying it.
I won’t be raising the floor in the former garage yet, that project is a bit too ambitious even if it is desperately needed. The attic fan that has hulked above my head every time I climb the stairs is going away though. I’ve wanted that thing gone from the time we moved in. I can’t use it. It draws outside air into the house unfiltered. Everything outside wants to kill me with allergies. The last thing I need is something that pulls even more allergens into my breathing space. The window units alone are making my symptoms worse, I can feel vertigo perched above my head like an unwelcome avian visitor. Removing the attic fan means the upstairs HVAC will finally be properly balanced without the thing taking up attic real estate and letting attic heat into the living space.
Who knows, maybe other repairs and modification are following fast on the heels of the new HVAC system? Hope springs eternal, even for those cursed with chronic illness.
Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor. “Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore; Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!” Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
I got what I wanted out of the project, but it took a herculean effort to get it done. A lot more work than it should have been just to get satisfaction out of the project. I wanted the Wife to try her hand at managing a construction renovation with outside contractors, she’s been dabbling in renovations with some of her starving artists and actors as hired hands. Not making money, not enough to talk about anyway, but being productive and getting things done for friends. So I let her supervise. We picked the contractor, made sure what we wanted was in writing before work began, and waited for the work to start.
As the saying goes no plan survives first contact with the enemy, the enemy in this case being the existing broken HVAC system, and that pretty much sums up how this project went. The HVAC crew showed up, punched holes in every surface available, or so it seemed, and I did my best to calm the Wife down. Holes in sheetrock make dollar signs roll across her eyelids in a frightening hurry. They did seem to be punching a lot of holes. A lot more holes than I probably would have, but then that’s me. I knew they’d have to patch the holes they made, eventually.
The upstairs system was replaced first. The Daughter and Son were planning on staying in the house through the entire construction process, so their A/C had to be in place as soon as possible. The contractor refused, however, to remove the attic fan. While we had discussed it, he said he would not actually do the work of removing it. So we got some of the hands that the Wife has worked with before to get the giant thing out of the ceiling over the stairs and then put a sheetrock patch up to cover the gaping hole sixteen feet in the air. Twenty year goal finally achieved! With that out of the way, the rest of the upstairs was finished in a day or so (or so we thought) and the contractor moved on to the bigger project, getting the downstairs system updated.
The downstairs system had to be completely removed. This was the agreement before the contractor was signed on. Little did I know just how involved removing the system was going to be. I had wondered to myself for the better part of twenty years just where all the ductwork was hidden in this house. That was a question that was quickly answered for me. It was hidden in the kitchen ceiling. Hidden in the bedroom ceiling. It was clear from the planning stages onward that I was not going to be able to stay in the house with the ongoing construction, this was the second reason the Wife was supervising. I was dizzy within minutes of this phase of the work starting. So we left to find the first of several long-stay hotels that have popped up in the last decade around Austin, while the crew continued to gut the interior of our house.
The HVAC system itself went in pretty quickly. The vertical unit and it’s closet would be removed, the closet abandoned and used for storage, with a new horizontal unit located over the master bedroom, closer to where air conditioning should be in the first place. After the HVAC crew worked out how to get A/C to the now remote rooms in the structure, back where the old unit was, it became relatively short work to get the new ducts in place. That was when the real fun started. The plumbing crew arrived.
We have gas heat, gas water heater, gas stove. I like gas heat. I like cooking with gas. I like not paying for electric heat. I like not burning food with electric burners. We rarely need heat around here, but when you do need it, it’s a requirement. Gas heat requires plumbers and black iron piping, and even more holes in the ceiling. The two plumbers that we ended up with from the four or five who showed up before they were needed could have just as well been the one apprentice. He did most of the work, and he was the more agreeable of the two to start with. The plumber he was helping refused to go up in attic spaces and so consequently required the additional large holes in the ceiling everywhere he needed to work, and they didn’t bother to cover anything before dropping attic insulation, sheetrock dust and plumbing pooky all over everything underneath them. They even made holes that they really didn’t need, in hindsight, after it became clear where they were going to have to run the gas line from and managed to leave the gas turned off to the other appliances for several days in the process.
The upstairs furnace was the last piece of the puzzle to be solved, even though we planned for it to be done first. The gas line spirals it’s way through this house like water in an Escher print. It shouldn’t go where it goes, and it doesn’t make any sense for it to go there, but it does. Why it is where it is doesn’t matter as much as how to attach to it does, and cutting the line where I wanted it cut would have been several thousand more dollars, probably.
Just getting them to tell me where the gas line came from outside the house to where the A/C system had been before we moved it took several days of hounding. When I finally got an explanation, it was from the master plumber for the contractor. And it only took about ten minutes of talking to him to figure out why the plumber who was assigned to our job was uncommunicative. The master plumber? I’m pretty sure he thought he was god himself. Once we got the misunderstanding about the gas line straightened out and agreed on the plan to get gas to the new systems, he demanded that he be compensated on the spot. He had to come out here, we needed to pay him. He had people he paid to do this kind of work. His appearance on the job meant we owed him money.
He left muttering threats under his breath, without his demanded payment, and no payment would be forthcoming unless it came from his bosses in the company. You want to be paid on a separate contract? Work from a separate contract. This isn’t rocket science. But we did get the gas hooked up, finally.
From July 31st to August 14th we lived out of a slowly rotating group of hotel rooms. I was able to stay at the hotel I wanted for my birthday, at least. I even got to swim in the pool, watch a pay-per-view and get drunk in my own hotel room. The cost of this disaster set us back several thousand dollars, but there are many things that you discover a way to pay for if you really need it to survive. I survived, otherwise I wouldn’t be here to write this all down. But two weeks was twice as long as the project was slated to take, and the cost could have been much higher if the contractor had felt like billing me for all the extra work they made for themselves to do. After the confrontation with the plumbers and the damage to property created by their ham-handed attempts to get the gas line to the new system, the contractor decided that they would just stick with the agreed upon price and call it even.
The destruction of the interior of our house was corrected, just like I knew it would be. The new finishes are better than the ones they replaced. The new paint a better color than what was there originally. Best of all? The stairs are no longer a trip through the bowels of hell. The heat in that area is no longer fed through a grill that lead straight to unconditioned attic space. The bedrooms are (as they should be) the coldest rooms in the house for the first time in twenty years. I can still hear the TV when the A/C fan is running, and that is a major improvement.
I just wish that the confrontation with the plumbers had not been fated to happen. I really like everything about this contractor and would unhesitatingly recommend them to anyone; IF. If. If they don’t need any plumbing work. HVAC work? They do a great job. The comfort adviser who set everything up was an asset that kept the work going in spite of the trouble the plumbing crew caused. But the plumbers? I wouldn’t use them again if you paid me. I have a plumber already, thanks. He’s gruff and speaks plainly and I get straight talk out of him without having to drag it kicking and screaming into the light. That’s the way I want it. Tell me what the problem is. Tell me what the solution is. Tell me what the cost is. I don’t shoot messengers that bring me bad news. That is what twenty years in architecture taught me. You want the bad news as soon as it is known, because that is how you fix the problem faster and more cheaply. Punishing the messenger is how you end up spending more money. The contractor should have listened to the plumbing apprentice on my project. Should have trusted the HVAC crew when they related the problem. Any of their hands could have told them what the problem was four days earlier in the process. Instead I had to get the information third-hand from the plumber’s boss, who quite literally only made things that much worse. So I can’t sing praises for the company which will remain nameless. Because they don’t deserve blame, either. We were made whole and the systems work better than they ever have.
Now to get on with the other projects in the house. Fixing the Master Bathroom which hasn’t functioned for ten years. Raising the floor in the Master Bedroom. You know, the little things.