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No place for the undecided
Renting, like long-term dating or the decision to stretch out graduate school, is at once pathetic and comforting. It announces to the world simultaneously that you aspire to grow up and move out of your childhood bedroom and that you are not yet ready to be on your own.
My wife, Jenae (rhymes with Renée), and I decide to look for a place to buy, and in Salt Lake City, the best neighborhood we can afford is Sugar House. But the only way we can live here is to fix the house up ourselves. And so we do, despite having no experience or any other reason to believe we can.
We tear out the carpet, imagining at any time we might come across hypodermic needles, charred spoons, or crack vials, and we sand and refinish the old maple floors. We tear down a hideous shack and put up a hammock. We tear off fake wood and refinish the kitchen cabinets to look like what we would have bought new.
Then we turn to the kitchen floor, where we will peel up seven layers of linoleum and put down slate. Only two kinds of slate are readily available: really expensive and really cheap. We place an order for the cheap stuff.
When the truck arrives with our materials, I realize the depth of our folly. It is a tractor-trailer equipped with a forklift. On the flatbed, all shrink-wrapped with BATT written on it in red grease marker, sits a huge lump of boxes, subflooring, and bags of thinset (a flexible, quick-drying mortar). I was expecting a few boxes of tiles and a little stack of drywall-like backerboard—nothing more than would fill the back of my old Land Cruiser. The load on this semi would demolish my truck. The tile alone, we are told, weighs more than 2,000 pounds.
To install the tile, we have to yank up the old flooring. The books we have suggest it will be fairly easy work—just take a spreading shovel and scoop it on up. It is not the job I imagined. The vinyl is glued to itself in the most onerous ways. A big sheet will come off with a tug, but then we spend 45 minutes peeling away a section the size of a ham sandwich. While I am hacking one stubborn piece to smithereens with a box cutter, Jenae tells me to look up.
The light in the kitchen glitters with linoleum motes. “Pretty,” I say. “Wonder what makes the air shimmy like that.” There is a pause. Even the linoleum stops shining for a second.
“There’s no asbestos in this stuff, is there?” Jenae asks. I say I don’t want to know and just keep at it.
Finally we get down to the subfloor: a layer of plywood on top of the joists. Because we’re putting down the mass equivalent of a Nash Rambler in slate tiles, we need to gird things so we don’t end up with a two-story basement kitchen. This is surprisingly quick work. Take a few four-by-eight sheets of three-quarter-inch plywood, and before you know it you’ve got a new, solid floor. Add to that a layer of backer board—essentially a thin board of cement woven with fiberglass—and the floor is prepped for tile.
In the space of a day, we have torn out an old floor—or seven—and put down two new layers of subflooring. We are doing the job fast, and we are doing it right.
And then we rent the diamond-bladed masonry saw.
I am no longer feeling quite so jaunty. After all, you don’t have to be a master of logic or physics to realize that that which can cut through rock can also blithely make its way through bone.
“Don’t put your hand under the blade when it’s running,” the clerk at Home Depot says helpfully. “Or in the bucket of water when it’s on.”
“Bucket of water?”
All I see is a portable tray and a table saw.
“BYO bucket,” he says. “For the water. Gotta keep the blade wet or it’ll seize right up and, you know, fly off or something.”
A blade that is tipped with diamonds. Has potential to fly off. I am taking careful notes.
One reason the slate we bought is so cheap is that it’s only partially finished. The tops of the tiles have been left more or less as they came from the quarry. The sides are cut so they’re uniform, and the bottom is milled so that its surface will take the thinset and dry without air pockets, which could cause a tile to crack over time. In order to successfully install a slate floor—at least according to the perfectionist definition of it—you have to not only lay the tiles out according to (a) the line of sight along which you’ll most often look at the floor once the tiles are down and (b) the overall impression given the slight variation in color from tile to tile, but also (c) the unique surface texture of each tile. In other words, we—make that Jenae—will try to orient the tiles geographically, chromatically, and topographically.
While I set up the saw and hold what I hope will not be the last cigarette between pre-diamond-bladed fingertips, Jenae lays out the floor. She washes each tile with a wet rag so she can better see and understand whatever lessons it has to teach, gauge its ability to fit into the larger community of tiles already down, and either place it in accordance with her principles or toss it outside for me to practice my cuts.
I fill a bucket with water, set up the stand, gingerly position the saw, and prepare to plug it in. I know full well that folks with less supposed education than I have operate these menaces year in and year out and wind up with just as many toes, fingers, and noses as they started with, but I am not prepared to chalk anything up to a learning experience. I double-, triple-, and—what the hell—sextuple-check to make sure I am not suddenly wearing dangly jewelry, a ponytail, or necktie that can get wound up in the saw and reel my face into the blade like an about-to-be-spiral-cut ham. I don my shop-teacher safety glasses, hold my breath, and flip the switch. With an industrial scream, gritty liquid sprays my face. The saw is so loud I can’t be sure that something hasn’t already been severed. I hit the switch and check my fingers, to confirm that what’s spraying is water. With that clarification, I go about my ritual of enumeration, turn the saw back on, and proceed to transform a tile hewn from a multibillion-year-old rock into little Lincoln Logs of slate.
How like a child, how like a god.
Finally it’s time to mortar the tile to the floor. I get a bag of the thinset, read the instructions, and whip up a batch to the consistency of cake frosting.
For a moment Jenae and I kneel on the backer board, the ancient tools of masons in our hands. I think about saying something to commemorate the occasion. Maybe we should write something sweet and sassy on the subfloor. After all, unless things go exponentially wrong, nobody will ever see it again. But we don’t want to jinx things, so, without fanfare, Jenae dips her trowel in the bucket, back-butters some thinset on the first tile, slaps some more on the floor, trowels it as if she’s combing the wet hair of a monstrous child, and eases the tile into place.
“Good job, baby,” I say. “You just rocked.”
She looks at me and then regards the first tile suspiciously. She lays the second tile in the same fashion, but it sits a good half-inch higher than the first.
“Maybe it’ll settle,” I say. “Let’s keep going and we’ll see what happens.”
A flat, incredulous look from Jenae. She butters up another tile, slaps more thinset on the floor, puts the tile down, and voilà! Now we have three different tiles at three different heights.
Jenae repeats the process with two more tiles, with similar results. The difference in height is never more than three-quarters of an inch, but that will be awkward to navigate in dress shoes, if not bare feet.
With what I would call fury, Jenae claws up the five tiles and turns them on their backs like so many hopeless turtles. The tiles in question have dramatically different amounts of thinset on them, but which amount is correct, there’s no telling.
We decide to use more thinset on the floor and less on the tiles. We scoop as much as we can with the trowel, use its edge to comb the thinset into neat little rows, and set the tiles back into place, jiggling them a bit and applying more force than I think we should. The result is good. It looks as if everything is going to be just fine.
There’s something about buying a house that makes the world seem more permanent and worthwhile, but also more tenuous and fragile. You begin to fine-tune your sensibilities and notice more of what’s going on around you because you are now a part of it. It’s your neighborhood. Your yard. Your crack house, by damn. It’s important.
You begin to make investments that more transient folks don’t. You pick up trash on the way to the dog park. You keep an eye on your neighbors’ mail when they go out of town. You glare at cars driving too fast down your street—not because you have kids, but because your neighbors do, and that makes them the neighborhood’s kids too. You stand a decent chance of inheriting them versus some random adoptive family if, you know, it came to that. You begin to see that just because something is the way it is doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed.
Matthew Batt, MA’97, is an assistant professor of English at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. This essay is excerpted from his new book, Sugarhouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House into Our Home Sweet Home. Copyright © 2012 by Matthew Batt. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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