Saturday, January 26, 2008


For weeks, we had been both anticipating and dreading the moment when we could finally get the drywall delivered to Mercy Street.  We were eager to get walls up, but nervous about getting a truck like this:

down a street like this:

As it turns out, you can't.  So we called all the strong young men we knew, ordered the drywall for Saturday morning, and hoped for the best.  They told us the delivery would take place between 9 am and noon, so, having waited for the cable guy many times in the past, we expected them around 2.  However, Greg called early Saturday morning and they said they would be there by 9, so we got dressed quickly, called our volunteers, picked up donuts and coffee, and set off.  As we crossed the Walt Whitman Bridge from New Jersey to Philadelphia, Greg wondered aloud when the truck would actually arrive.  I glanced around and saw a truck carrying a load of drywall sitting right next to us, waiting to go through the toll.  Yes, it was ours.  We sped ahead and managed to set up the coffee and donuts before he arrived.  He parked at the end of our street.  Here's what the process looked like:

Unload the drywall from the truck (as demonstrated by Dennis and Michael)

Carry the drywall down the street (as demonstrated by Jim, Dave, and Mike)

Lean the drywall against our steps

Pose for a picture (as demonstrated by Erica and Dustin)

Wait while the others get a sheet up the stairs (Dustin, Michael, Dennis, Greg, Dave)

Maneuver the stairs (Greg, Dave, Mike)


It was hard work (or so I hear; I didn't actually carry any drywall myself) and there were over 50 sheets at lengths up to 16 feet, so we owe a big thanks to all who helped.  We'll call you when we paint an move our stuff!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Long day, long post

On Monday, Greg, Dennis and I loaded up in the Big Smooth-mobile at around 8:30, planning to stop at Home Depot to grab a couple buckets of "mud"--joint compound--a box of caulk and a box of drywall adhesive.  Roger was meeting us at the house, and the main goal for the day was to get moving on the electrical work.  We thought this mean tracing the wires to the fuse box and replacing some outlets.  How wrong we were.

Shortly after arriving, I realized that I really needed coffee, so I set off for Starbucks.  While I was gone a fairly dramatic event occurred that will now be described by a special guest blogger, Greg Cesare:

"I resent being called guest blogger, I mean, how can you be a guest in your own home?  Anyhow, way back on day one or two we noticed that some of the main hotwires coming from the basement right up alongside the copper pipes supplying hot water for our baseboard heat.  Now, I'm not a plumber or an electrician, but even social workers know that water and electricity don't mix very well.  At the time we figured that when the wall was redone the wires and pipes would be separated.  When we arrived today, Roger was just starting to ask me how much rewiring we wanted done.  He showed how the section of wires along the copper pipe was a fire hazard and as he did, there was a loud gunshot-like sound and a bunch of sparks, followed by water spraying like crazy from the pipe.  My dad ran to the basement to turn off the electric and water while Roger grabbed the pipe to stop it from spraying all over the wires, among other things.  Meanwhile I ran red Solo cups back and forth to catch the overflow, which would otherwise drip right onto the circuit breakers in the basement (the space was too small for a bucket).  Then I took my turn holding my finger over the hole in the pipe while things began to be sorted out.  Even though the electric was turned off at that point, I was still certain that my death was imminent.  Basically what happened is that a current from one of the wires easily bypassed a shoddy tape job and blew a hole in the copper pipe.

A neat byproduct of the whole event was that the wet carpet now smells like wet dog butt, and the event served as a reminder of the previous owner's penchant for shoddy craftsmanship as well as a disdain for spring cleaning.  As the day went on, things were sorted out and our house is much safer now than it was this morning, but let's just say if I was there alone when the incident occurred there would have been more than just water on the floor."

When I got back from my coffee run, things were under control, but as they filled me in on the story, I sensed an unusually grave tone.  The message was this: your entire house is a fire hazard.  Fixing it is going to take a good amount longer than planned.  I gave my permission to do whatever it took--pull up floorboards, spend a small fortune on wire, whatever.  Then I let the experts get to work and I worked on my own little project, putting shelf liner in the kitchen cabinets.  As I worked, I tried to ignore the philosophical question that kept nagging at me: if beautifully lined cabinets burn up in an electrical fire, does anybody hear them?

Here's what the main floor looked like in the middle of all the electrical work.

We broke for lunch when Barb showed up, our supplier of sandwiches and potato salad.  Roger and Dennis didn't stop working, but I was keeping my distance, not wanting to get in the way or be asked to make any more decisions about where I wanted outlets.  I don't know!  I've never had to decide that before!

After lunch, Barb and I kept busy pulling staples upstairs while the gentlemen worked in the basement.  Every half-hour or so I would be called down to wherever they were, showed a particularly rotted and frayed piece of wiring (unfortunately the pictures of this didn't turn out) and told that I was lucky to be alive.

In case you know anything about wiring, I will try to repeat some of the things that the previous owners did, although my lack of understanding may confuse things.  There were very few junction boxes, just groups of wires connected by being twisted together and then taped up.  Instead of capping the ends of wires, they taped them, which isn't safe.  There were yards and yards of wires that were completely useless.  We also discovered that many of the outlets could be pulled out of the wall without any kind of effort.

Around midafternoon, Greg and I ran to Lowe's to pick up some junction boxes, more wires, and switches.  When we got back, the light was failing but progress was evident.  Roger, Barb and Dennis were replacing huge lengths of cracked wire with bright yellow, fully insulated wire, and the antique looking metal gang boxes with bright blue plastic ones.  

It was getting dark, so we switched on flashlights and fed the wires feverishly through the holes in the upstairs sub-floorboards while Roger worked from below in the gaping holes we put in the ceiling for that purpose earlier in the day.
(Bedroom floor.)

(Main floor ceiling.)

When the light was fully gone and the upstairs rewiring was done, we gathered on the main floor for a little powwow about the next steps.  Because there were 5 of us talking at once, things were pretty noisy, but when there was a lull in the conversation, I was pretty sure that I heard the sound of rushing water.  After a few attempts to get everyone's attention, I finally shushed them.  There was definitely the sound of water coming from somewhere.

We rushed to the basement and discovered about an inch of water on the floor in the laundry room.  It came from a pressure valve that had overflowed because we had shut off the water because of the earlier explosion.  We got it turned off quickly, and then started sopping up water with whatever we could find.  Taking advantage of the pitch black, I stepped aside and took off my shirt, donating it to the cause.  Then I put my sweatshirt back on, stuck a flashlight in my mouth, and got down on my hands and knees to work on the puddle.

Working together, it didn't take too long.  So much had already happened that we weren't even fazed.  We just cleaned up, dumped the 8 or so gallons of dirty water down the drain in the back, and went home.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Almost Famous

Here's my embarrassing picture and uninformed quotation in the South Philly Review!

In case you can't read it, my thoughtful and eloquent comment is "I think it's great to get the community's input because I guess any attempt is good."  Also, it was freezing cold out, I was wearing no makeup, and I probably hadn't showered because I didn't plan on getting my picture taken.

The Orphanage

I went to see the movie The Orphanage tonight.  It's a suspense/horror movie from Spain, produced by Guillermo del Toro who did Pan's Labyrinth.  I don't think I've ever seen a horror movie in theaters before--this was more psychological horror than blood and guts horror--and I was on the edge of my seat and creeped out for the entire thing.  

The only reason this is loosely relevant is that the opening credits of the film are shots of children's hands pulling away wallpaper to reveal the names of the actors, directors, etc.  It obviously reminded me of the wallpaper-pulling I had done recently, but there was such an eerie effect to it that I think it will be a while before I do any more.


Friday, January 18, 2008


On my mom's last day in town, I promised her a chance to rest.  We had a slow morning--I got her hooked on "Friday Night Lights" (best show ever!) and then went out to lunch.  However, we couldn't resist stopping by Mercy Street and getting one last project in.  She discovered that the tiles in the kitchen looked much brighter after a quick scrubbing (probably more nicotine stains) so we worked on that for a couple hours.  Then, I dropped her off at the airport with the sincere hope that the next time she sees the house, it won't look like a big old pile of sticks and bricks.

Bathroom Blunder

When my mom and I arrived the next morning, we had a plan: sand the bathroom walls again, put on a coat of primer, take a run to the dump, eat lunch, put on a coat of the paint I had intended for the bathroom walls.  The paint was a mistint that I picked up at Sherwin Williams for $1--a pinky brown, not a color I would have chosen, but it was cheap, and according to the salesperson, was originally an expensive gallon that was self-levelling and would dry "as smooth as a sheet of glass."  I had my doubts, but thought that a good place to use it would be the damaged bathroom walls.  Also, it was a high-gloss paint, which I had been told was good for a bathroom because flat paints are hard to clean and show water damage.

Everything went according to plan: sanding, priming, dump, lunch.  We took a look at the newly white walls and were pretty proud of ourselves.  They weren't perfectly smooth, but it was such an improvement.  We were ready to start painting when Roger, who was working on some framing, asked if we planned to spackle.  

After a pause, we chuckled rather ruefully and explained that we thought we had spackled. Roger graciously introduced us to a huge bucket of joint compound and the proper spackling method.  He made it look perfect!  And so easy!  Thus, instead of painting, we spent the afternoon spackling.  The bad news is, we will have to prime again.  The good news is, the walls do look much better.  Also, Roger suggested that we not use the high-gloss paint as it would highlight imperfections, so now I get to choose something besides pinky-brown.

Other good news: frames are going up.  The picture below shows the new wall for the office, looking down at the floor.  This is significant because now there is a 2x4 anchoring the studs, a step the original builders skipped.  Also--and not pictured--where the original builders sawed the top beam in half to allow for electrical wires, leading to a section of the wall completely unanchored and thus--how to describe? bendy? pliable? not-wall-like?--anyway, Roger simply cut a groove in the beam.  

In other words, what had been some loosely connected 90-year-old studs has been replaced with a proper wall frame.  

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Day 2 with Mom

On her second day in Philadelphia, my mom woke up with a black eye.  I would like to say that I gave it to her because she wasn't working hard enough, but the sad truth is that she gave it to herself when she hit her face on the car door.  It's events like this that remind me I am definitely her daughter.

This picture is taken in Lowe's.  We were there to figure out the best way to deal with the bathroom walls, and all their imperfections.  The walls looked like a battle had taken place on them, or maybe like someone had a very inexpert knife fight in the bathroom.

We had been investigating some options, one of which was covering the walls with a paintable paper.  This idea didn't really appeal to me since I spent so much time taking wallpaper down.  The guy at the paint store also seemed skeptical, so we thought we would see how much of the damage we could repair with an electric sander.  However, while at Lowe's buying sandpaper, a helpful employee told us we should try to use patching plaster over some of the most damaged areas.  We picked up some of the plaster and a trowel and headed over to Mercy Street.

We spent the morning sanding and cleaning up all the dust we had loosened.  Then, just for kicks, we tested a bit of paint over a really bad area and concluded that, yes, something had to be done.  We spent the rest of the afternoon trying to patch the walls.

Well, except for a quick Starbucks break.  On our way into the store I was accosted by a reporter and photographer from the South Philly Review and asked to participate in their "Voice on the Street" column.  They asked me to answer the question "What do you think about the new police commissioner's  plan to meet with community leaders about the crime problem in Philadelphia?"  Not really knowing anything about the plan, I sputtered, "Anything that fights crime is good.  Because crime is bad."  Looking back, I'd like to qualify this statement: I do not condone totalitarianism, state-sponsored torture, or the arming of citizens. 

Here are the South Philly Review people with another unsuspecting passerby.

Tune in later for the conclusion of our bathroom wall adventure.

A new victim!

Yesterday my mom flew in from Indianapolis to make her mark on Mercy Street. And she succeeded! After a visit to my school and lunch at the Korean Grill, we painted the laundry room. Our laundry room is basically a dungeon--gray cement walls, no ceiling, no floor. I thought a fresh coat of paint would at least freshen it up a little.

After that, we did some smaller jobs, like continuing to pull staples out of the stairs and clean the air conditioners. My mom gracefully sacrificed her new toothbrush for the good of the effort.

Finally, Barbara brought dinner over and we tucked in: antipasta salad, bread, cherries, and ibuprofen.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Making our mark

Yesterday while using a Sharpie to label a baggie full of screws that belong to various bathroom fixtures, I had a revelation. Before the walls go up, we should totally indulge our graffiti impulse!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Bates Motel Basement

There's a secret in our basement...a secret beauty salon. On our first trip through the house were were a little bewildered by the room in between the laundry room and the rest of the basement. It had a big mirror, a salon chair, some random makeup products strewn about, and a place to hang a blow dryer. While we won't be keeping it quite the same, we now think of it rather fondly. Here, Leah demonstrates, although the exposed wiring in the ceiling kind of ruins the effect.

Eventful Saturday

Our rough plan for today was to meet our friends Jim and Leah at the house for a quick tour, go out for brunch, then return to the house for an afternoon of work. During the tour, Leah commented on the lovely leak in our basement. Wait, what? Yes, we had a leak, which apparently developed when Roger was working on the valves for the washing machine, yeah, I'm not sure. In any case, we had a leak. Luckily, our own personal plumbers, Dennis and Barbara, were on their way. They taped up the leak while we were at brunch, which just goes to show you how fantastic they are.

After brunch, Dennis took me down to the basement to show me what they had done, when we heard the distinct sound of dripping water. This time, it was the...uh...release valve from the boiler? I'm not sure, but it was a different pipe and it was dripping pretty steadily. Dennis called Roger for advice, and while they were talking, I fiddled with a few valves, leading to a gushing waterfall spraying sort of effect. Fortunately, Roger managed to pinpoint the source of the leak, so we managed to shut off the valve for a temporary fix. A quick mop, and we were ready to move on with our day.

Tasks included: another trip to the dump, removing the bathroom mirror and light fixture to get at the wallpaper behind said mirror and light fixture, another trip to Lowe's for lumber, removing staple from the stairs, nailing more ferring strips to the ceiling, and cutting the paneling that was stuck behind the radiators. Which is what Greg and Jim are doing in this picture, although it's hard to tell.

Also, I finished cleaning the office air conditioner and moved on to the bedroom air conditioner, which is mounted about six feet high on the bedroom wall. I had to stand on a ladder, and in order to keep the Q-tips easily accessible, I stuck them in my hair.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Glamorous Jobs

Last week, I was singlehandedly ripping walls apart and pulling down ceilings.  I was armed with a hammer, a crowbar, safety goggles and a dusk mask.  This week, with the demo done and the drywall not yet installed, we're doing smaller jobs, like cleaning the grit out of the air conditioners.  Tools?  Q-tips.  It feels futile to spend hours on this kind of work, but I know it has to be done.

Q-tips before and after.  

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Something to look forward to

Whenever we begin to get discouraged about the amount of work to be done, the cost of said work, or the time it will take, we try to remember the things we're really excited about, like the location or the fact that we don't have to buy any appliances.  Another source of excitement: the beautiful hard wood floor currently being "protected" by the nasty, stained carpeting.  The wood covers the living/dining area, the stairs, and the upstairs hallway.  After we get the walls up and paint, we'll get rid of the gross carpet and make the wood shine.  

Like picking a scab

This is what happened when everyone else was working on a project and I had nothing to do: I accidentally pulled down all the wallpaper in the bathroom.  We had originally planned to paint over it because we were worried that if we tried to get it down, we'd just reveal more paneling, which might lead to gutting the bathroom, which is definitely not something we can afford to do.  Thus, we were willing to do a cover-up job.  However, we did want to try to get the border down to cut down on the number of seams that would show.

When I started to work on the border, I realized that it wasn't actually paneling behind the paper, it was a real live wall!  I felt compelled to honor this wall, one of the only ones in the house, by getting all the wallpaper off.  Then, I reasoned to myself, we could just paint the walls.  The paper had been applied shoddily, full of bubbles and peeling sections, so painting the wall seemed preferable.

However, the wall itself had been scored, meaning it looked like someone had taken a knife and tried to hack it to pieces.  In many places it's uneven and full of ridges.  In other words, a coat of paint is not going to look as great as I'd hoped.  We might put another kind of wallpaper up, or we might just paint and deal with a goofily-textured wall.  But personally, I enjoyed my frenzied hour of ripping.

Signs of Progress

This morning, Dave offered to take us down the paint store where he works and advise us on primer and ceiling paint.  He also helped us get a good discount.  Dave got this job right around the time that our house search began in earnest, which is a pretty happy coincidence.  Although it will still be a while until we put any paint on the walls, and although we didn't pick any fun colors yet, it felt like progress.

Also a sign of progress: the first genuine act of construction rather than demolition.  Dave and Dennis began nailing ferring strips to the ceiling which will be used to anchor the drywall.  Unfortunately, they had trouble with the nail gun and didn't get too far.  Still, it was a beautiful moment.

And finally, Dennis and Greg picked up some fresh, clean, non-rotting 2-x-4s that will be used to frame some closets and walls.  They're so shiny and pretty.

Saturday, January 5, 2008


This is our backyard--it's pink.  And the backside of our house is pink, too.  Both stories.  I'd love to paint it a different color, but it's certainly not a priority.

Local Flavor

Yesterday I spent the afternoon scrubbing walls and removing staples and nails from the bedroom and office floors.  Greg and Dennis came over after work and the three of us decided to take a walk to local sandwich place for dinner.  Here are some of the conversations we overheard while we waited for our cheesesteaks:


[Elderly man enters.]

Owner:  Hey, buddy how you doin'?  Where's your brother?

Man:  He's working on my car...did you hear I got a new car?

Owner:  Oh yeah.  Did you have a good New Year?  Of course you did, you're a Mummer*. Mummers always enjoy New Year.


[Delivery Woman returns.]

Delivery Woman:  Anything ready?

Cashier:  Nah.

DW:  Did you hear about the weather this week?  60 degrees on Wednesday.

Cashier:  Crazy.

DW:  Did they send a shuttle up to space again?  Every time they do they mess with the ozone layer and it screws up the temperature.  I wish they'd stop sending people up to space.


[Dennis introduces himself to the owner and explains that we are new to the neighborhood.]

Owner:  Where ya from?

Dennis:  South Jersey.

Owner:  Oh yeah, where?

Dennis:  Magnolia, it's not far from Deptford.

Owner:  [Silence.]  What diners?

Dennis:  Philly Diner, Geets Diner.

Owner:  Oh yeah, Geets.  Right.

And then we got our sandwiches and headed back.

*A Mummer, as far as I can tell, is someone who participates in Philly's Mummer's Day Parade on New Year.  Apparently this is the country's largest folk parade, which means rather than elaborate floats financed by corporations, you have groups of families and friends parading around.  The parade is divided into the comics, the fancies, the string bands, and the fancy brigades.  Each of these groups is more lavish than the next.  The comics (at least from what I saw this year, my first encountering this very unusual tradition) seem to be mainly drunk men in goofy costumes, sometimes organized around a theme, but usually pretty loosely.  The fancies have slightly more exaggerated costumes, using the three main ingredients (sequins, feathers, and parasols) liberally.  The string bands have fairly complex acts and are judged based on musicality, choreography, theme, etc.  Their themes might be "Hot Nights in the Jungle" or "The Old West."  Finally, the Fancy Brigades, which focus mainly on the staging and choreography.    It is really bizarre to watch straight men prance around in sequins and feathers for twelve hours, but it's apparently at the heart of what makes South Philly and environs so community-oriented.  If you have a second to google Mummers, you'll get a much better idea of what I'm trying to describe.

Electrical Hazard or Modern Art?

There are scenes like this all over the house, the result of removing walls and ceilings but needing to keep the lighting fixtures in place.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008


Today was the first day I was alone in Mercy Street--everyone else had to go back to work, but my semester is still a couple weeks from starting.  I worked on scrubbing the walls in the bedroom, one of the rooms we aren't tearing apart.  I spent almost an hour on each wall, and I'm not sure how visible the results are, but it felt good.  A good scrub of the ceiling and this room will be ready for primer!  

Why South Philly?

Ever since Greg and I decided to leave our apartment in Media, PA (Everybody's Hometown and America's First Fair Trade Town), we've been answering the question: Why South Philly?  My family asks because they're not from around here and all South Philly means to them is Rocky and cheesesteaks.  Greg's family asks because they are from around here, and many of their relatives left this very part of the city one or two generations ago.    

Because people ask for different reasons, we give them different answers.  We tell people who aren't from the area that South Philly is much more than Rocky and cheesesteaks: it's the Italian market, the close-knit neighborhoods, the red-brick rowhomes, and the sense of history and tradition.  We tell those who live in the suburbs that we want to experience living in a city--sure, parking will be a hassle, and there's that city wage tax, but we're young and energetic and love the movement, the diversity, the fact that we won't have to worry about mowing the lawn or finding something to do on a Friday night.  Our realtor, who has lived in South Philly his whole life, told us incredulously that when he visits his brother in the Jersey burbs, the streets are quiet by 9 PM!  

As someone who grew up in apartment buildings and condos, the idea of living in a stand-alone home is unsettling.  I spent a few years during elementary school in a house in Southern California, and I was often scared going to sleep at night, having watched the news and knowing that my bedroom window was pretty penetrable.  Later, living in a high-rise apartment building in a big city, I found a lot of comfort in the knowledge that there were people above me, below me, on either side of me.  That's not the only reason I want to live in the city, but it's a definite perk.

On Andrea's last day in town, I let her off demo duty.  We drove around the neighborhood and had a tasty lunch at the Royal Tavern.  All these pictures, which Andrea took, are of locations within walking distance of our place, and hopefully give an idea of why we chose to live here.