Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Elbow Grease

I still remember it – I was a young child; my grandmother and I were busy cleaning… perhaps a pot. Well, I’m not sure what it was, but we had to scrub it really hard. I remember my grandmother pausing to remark, “Sister, you gotta put some elbow grease into it.” Naturally, I began looking around for the can of elbow grease. I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know where it was. My grandmother cracked up laughing when she discovered I didn’t know WHAT it was. She had a hearty contagious laugh with a dash of cackle. When she finally caught her breath, she explained to me that “putting some elbow grease into it” just means that I need to scrub harder. These past few weeks, I’ve been putting a WHOLE LOT of elbow grease into my work and thinking of Grandmaw throughout. So, this blog entry is dedicated to my late grandmother Leoma Sordelet, who passed away on September 9, 2005 - two weeks after Hurricane Katrina.

Ahh… so much has transpired since my last entry. I am WORKING, y’all. Besides my volunteer work at The Green Project (which has now come to an end), I have picked up another volunteer gig with The St. Bernard Project. So, two Thursdays ago, I helped gut the home of an elderly woman who lost her husband and son recently. Before her son passed, he’d been living in her hurricane-damaged house (while she lived in a FEMA trailer in the front yard) and attempting to fix it up. Unfortunately, his lack of knowledge CAUSED more damage than it fixed, so we had to undo all the work he’d done. I learned then that it is NOT okay to install drywall with roofing nails… which is what Mrs. Keys’ son did. Why we had to take out ALL the drywall on account of that, I do not know. But that is what we did. We first had to remove all the junk in the house. That took a couple hours. Then we ripped out the drywall and removed the nails. It was actually very fulfilling work. And knowing that this woman would soon have a home in which to reside was the icing on the cake.

This past Thursday, I helped install drywall (SKILLS!) in another house in St. Bernard Parish. I worked with a group of Indiana high school students who had taken a class trip to help out in New Orleans. A great group of kids, despite their apparent penchant for raunchy music… but I guess that’s what the young people are into these days. I felt so old in that way. But we worked well together and they taught me a thing or two. Lesson: If you’re going to install flooring, leave about a half inch space between the drywall and the floor. Lesson: Wear safety goggles and a face mask when installing insulation… that stuff gets all in your eyes and nose! Lesson: Work gloves are extremely useful.

Here are some photos from that day:

The interior of the house in St. Bernard Parish

Our work crew... guess which one is me.

The balance of my time during the past two weeks has been filled with cleaning out my mom’s house. Almost every day, we’ve scrubbed, dusted, swept, mopped, and purged. Purging is no easy task for a lifelong packrat, but I’m proud of my mama for getting rid of much of her unused stuff. Alas, we are STILL not finished (much to my chagrin… I like to stay on schedule), BUT we are very close. My mom also purchased a nice sofa set at a Going Out Of Business sale. I think she got a good deal. I bought a bed (headboard and footboard). Once we’re done and everything is in its place, it’ll be the PERFECT crash spot for our volunteers. That’ll be my next project – creating some sort of campaign to draw volunteers down here to help us.

And speaking of volunteers, I already have a couple lined up!! One of my New York friends, Paulette, is coming down next week. Too bad she’s coming in between the Jazz Fest weekends… but I know for sure we’ll find some concerts or something entertaining to relax after a hard day’s work. Also, through pure serendipity, a guy from Chicago read the New Orleans article in The Oregonian and emailed me asking if I needed help. YES, I do, Peris. Thank you. So while he’s here for Jazz Fest, he and his wife (and maybe their German friend) will be helping out. I can’t tell y’all how pleased I am.


Yesterday, my mother and I pulled out almost all the moldy drywall in one of the rooms in my house. The entire time I wondered if it REALLY was necessary. Since New Orleans is such a wet environment, there is ALWAYS gonna be mold. It’s just a matter of how much and how sensitive one is to it. My uncle/contractor advised me not to remove the moldy drywall for that reason. I have another uncle who owns rental property here (but is not a contractor) who advised me to remove it at all costs. And a woman who is a mold specialist with a local historic recovery grant program said “Well, it’s really up to you.” Yes, it is. And therein lies the problem. Needless to say, I decided to be on the safe side and take it down. Then at least I know for sure that there’s no mold (for now) in my house. Also, I’m learning more about my house, how it was built and how to repair/maintain it. In order to remove the baseboards, I had to learn how to “de-wire” (not AT ALL a proper technical term) an electric socket. Deconstructing a shoddy built-in closet proved to be a lesson in building; I had to figure out how it was held together in order to take it apart. This is like a fun amusement park ride, y’all! I’m learning so much. Photos below:

We ripped out the drywall four feet from the floor.
The water came three feet into the house.

That's what I call accomplishment!

My mom releasing all her pent-up anger on that unsuspecting moldy drywall.

Today, I went over to Maela’s for yet another lesson. She’s installing beadboard along the lower third of her first floor walls. So I got to use a table saw and a chop saw. Using power tools makes you feel strong!!! I understand why boys are into them (joke). I remember when I bought my first power drill. I just wanted to drill everything. Being able to make something with one’s own hands creates such a feeling of accomplishment. It’s an ego boost; it’s a rush. Anyway, Maela and I had to figure out how to cut the beadboard slats around a window so that they fit together properly AND were flush against the window frame. Sounds easier than it was. Maela’s house is quite old too, and therefore has a lot of… shall we say “character.” So there are no straight lines; the window is not perfectly perpendicular to the floor. We had to improvise. Well, Maela had to improvise. I humbly took the role of the eager assistant, giving “advice” only when I felt it would be extremely useful. But we figured it out and I got to cut some wood! Ain’t nothin better than that, huh?

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Peeling Back The Layers

In my last post, I told you of my imminent plans to destroy the newly discovered mold growth behind my walls. Well, before beginning the process of gutting the whole interior of my house, I wanted to be sure that there really was mold (the dangerous kind) behind the walls and that I absolutely HAD to gut. (Why create more work if it’s unnecessary?) So, a couple days ago, my mom and I went to the house to peel back the layers and find out what lies beneath.

I was nervous about the process of removing the drywall because the house is so old. Why would that matter?, you ask. Well, in old houses (in New Orleans, at least), after a house was framed, long narrow slats of wood would be placed perpendicular to the studs to close in the space. Then plaster would be applied on top of that. In modern construction, there is a space between the outerwall and the inner drywall (usually filled with insulation), so punching a hole in the wall would result in nothing more than… well, a hole in the wall. But in my early 1900’s house, I’d run the risk of breaking the underlying wood if I drove a sledge hammer through the wall. Construction-savvy readers may guffaw at my perhaps baseless fear, but it was my fear nonetheless… and I’d rather err on the side of caution than ruin what is left of my little investment.

So, we went to the house to crack open those walls. Using a utility knife, I cut a rectangle in one of the bedroom walls and my mom gently tapped on the drywall to break it. We then used our hands to pull the broken drywall out. What we found was interesting (if you’re into history). Yes, there was mold growing in black circles on the back of the drywall. But we also found old wallpaper (pink with flower designs). The original owners just slapped wallpaper right on top of the wood. Even more interesting, there was a layer of burlap underneath the wallpaper. Maybe people used to line their walls with burlap for insulation? Certainly not for aesthetic value… maybe for suicidal masochists. I must find out. Also, now that there’s a big hole in the wall, I may be able to determine if my house is actually constructed from barge boards… or if it’s just constructed in the bargeboard style. Curiouser and curiouser…

Anyway, I emailed these pics to my uncle/contractor to find out if I really REALLY need to take the walls out. If I do, that’s fine. It was actually fun. My mom really wants to get back in there and pull some more out. If not, onto the next project!

So, without further ado, I present photos from this latest mini-adventure:

Our initial rectangular hole in the wall

A close up on the mold

Me pulling out drywall with my (gloved) hands

Old wallpaper beneath the drywall

Old moldy burlap beneath the old wallpaper

The layers of wallpaper and burlap... I think it's pretty.

Since we were also waiting for the Insurance Adjuster to arrive (re: my stolen copper pipes… see previous post), we decided to spend some time pulling up the floor in the kitchen. I’d heard that it was labor intensive because of the adhesive underneath the tile, so of course I wanted to see for myself. Well, it wasn’t really difficult at all (we only pulled up about a 2 foot square area). And we found some old linoleum tile. Actually, directly beneath the tile was a layer of plywood. But under that, we found a layer of yellow and green tile, arranged so that the yellow tiles were grouped in the center and framed by these dirty dark green tiles. Hmmm... apparently the original (or pre-previous) owners were into ugly things. (No offense if you like floral pink wallpaper in your bedroom and yellow and green tile in your kitchen.) Under THAT, there were a few squares of an older tile. And then the floor boards. Maybe I am a geek, but I think that’s fascinating. Makes one wonder who owned the house… and what possessed them to make these strange interior decorating decisions.

Here are a couple pics from that experience:

My mother pulling up floor tile

Oh, the many layers