WHILE work on the cottage is temporarily stalled waiting for permits, etc… I thought I’d show a little back yard project I started shortly before we took on this extreme rehab.
Our current back yard is pleasant enough. But unlike our front yard which is shaded by two mature trees, there’s only a tall pine in the back which provides little cover from the afternoon sun because of where it sits on the lot. The space is a little small for a second tree and I’m too old to wait for one to grow anyway, but I’ve always imagined a covered walkway which would break up the yard, give a little shade and make my morning commute from the kitchen to the garage-office much more pleasurable.
Sheryl is always accusing me of doing things without consulting her, so I took time to explain the benefit of my door-to-door pergola. I might have even drawn a picture — also unusual for me. Part of what sold it was when I explained that I’d be covering up the crooked brick path with a new concrete slab. She hated that path…

Old brick path

I decided to leave the path as a base for the concrete pads. The bricks were not well laid, but they were solidly set in cement and would have been a huge pain-in-the-ass to hammer out. I should mention that these were not original to the house, but were added about 30 years ago by the homeowner, so we weren’t destroying history or anything in case anyone out there was concerned.
An early problem was the potential thickness of the new cement. The garage door was not much higher than the bricks to begin with and I didn’t want to substantially change the grade of the back yard to match the new path height. This was supposed to be a relaxing project, no digging! The solution to the second problem was Quikrete Crack-Resistant Concrete Mix which I thought would let me pour thinner slabs without cracking or chipping — I wouldn’t do it this way in an area that freezes.
I immediately was not crazy about the Crack-Resistant Quikrete. It was full of what looked like strings of fiberglass — no doubt the secret to the crack-resistant formula. It was okay to mix, pour and screed, but was not as easy to trowel (I wanted a smooth surface.) It also seemed to take longer setting up and reaching full-strength. I discovered that the hard way when I pulled my forms off too early and chipped a couple corners. My fault, but I don’t think it would have happened with a typical mix. The Crack-Resistant stuff also dries slightly darker, so if you’re trying to match the color of existing concrete be wary of this stuff. It turned out fairly well, though. I didn’t edge the pads because I wanted to try beveling the edges with a stone grinder. I did a test and it looks pretty cool. Just want to set up a simple 45-degree jig and finish them all soon. I also need to buff the little stone motif that I set in the corners, so they show up better.

New concrete pads. No cracks… yet.

A second selling point for Sheryl was my idea to add a second gate to the backyard fence, making it much easier for her to come into the yard from her car parked in the driveway. This made her very happy. All of the wood I used is Douglas-fir. I knew the pergola would be stained and sealed and also not near dirt or moisture, so I saved a fair amount of money not using redwood.

Posts set, aligned with every second crack on the cement pathway. See, I think ahead sometimes.

I wanted to lighten the look of the slats by feathering them on the sides. At first I thought I’d cut a short slat and a long one, but preferred the simplicity of offsetting equal-length slats. Originally I’d conceived of the pergola to attach to the garage as well as the house, joining the two structures. But along the way, I changed my mind and ended up preferring this sort of end-cap look. The photo makes it look bulkier than it really is. The raised cap mimics the new gate in design.

Here’s a different angle after we finished staining the wood.

This is my morning commute when I’m in CA. That shiny thing is my neglected motorcycle parked in the middle of my “office.”

PART of the pergola project involved repairing and extending our old dog-eared fence. This took longer because we had to wait about three weeks for permits to go through. Anything that can be seen from the street requires a permit in Pasadena and being in the Historic Highlands Landmark District involves another layer of approval. The historic people at the permits office have been great in every instance, though. The holdup tends to be in city planning, who took two weeks to tell me that, contrary to my plans in which I drew the fence at four feet high, our fence has to be no more than four feet high… They did give me good info on requirements for my new gate, though. But, seriously, three weeks? For a fence? It’s probably this way with many cities. I pick because I love.

Permit secured, here we go.

Here’s the inside view of the finished fence extension.

This is where the old fence ended. I left part of it as a privacy screen. Sheryl wanted windows and found some lovely leaded glass panes at Habitat for Humanity. I think they were a couple dollars. One had a crack in it when we bought it but I kind of liked it like that and used them both. The fence boards in this photo were reused and had not yet been repainted.

LAST section of this incredibly long and slightly irrelevant post.
I wanted lights in our new pergola so I wouldn’t stub my toe commuting home from work — I know that joke’s getting kind of old, but I’m running a little empty today. I wanted to find a long light that I could hide between each of the three sets of crossbeams, but after looking for a couple weeks, realized that what I wanted and what I had to spend were incompatible from a retail point of view — welcome to my life. So I made these experimental light boxes that slide between the beams. I wanted the light source to be low-energy. At first I considered a DC system but stumbled upon a possible solution…

My homemade light boxes with removable lens. They’re made from reused wood and haven’t been painted or sealed at this point. The lip running the length of the box keeps them from sliding through the gap between the crossbeams.

The plastic lens clips into grooves on both sides of the box. Looks pretty custom, but I actually used…

This is the stuff that I cut the lenses from. Simple, corrugated plastic.

So my secret light source is LED Christmas lights. They cost 10 bucks a strand at Big Lots, six bucks if you get em on sale in March like I did. Each strand uses about four watts of electricity. Sheryl and I carefully stapled the lights to a board in an attempt to maximize the light coming through the lens. I wired them up and waterproofed the boxes and hardware and we were set. I had to temporarily remove the slats above the pergola crossbeams in order to drop the boxes into place, but you don’t even see them when they’re not lit. The 12 watts of light makes a warm glow on the path. You can see well, but it’s almost like dusk or a very bright full moon. See some pictures below of how they look in the pergola. Hope you enjoyed the break from my cottage of moldy death. Next post maybe I’ll talk about permit woes, or maybe I’ll introduce you to the hardest working man in Pasadena — thank you for saying that, it’s not me.

In Garage We Truss


IF you read the previous post you know that the garage was in pretty bad shape. My goal was to reuse the frame and pad. After making some decisions on the exterior, I also determined to leave the original redwood siding. It’s in bad shape, but I’m going to sheet the whole garage in a board and batten style, leaving the redwood siding underneath. More on that later. The roof was in terrible shape, the rolled asphalt had served about three times longer than it was ever meant to. The planks were rotting and couldn’t be reused and I was not eager to leave the old 2 x 3 rafters to hold up a new, heavier roof.

Years of wet branches and leaves contributed to the rotten condition of the normally-impervious redwood.

Old shingles and debris removed

Shingles removed exposing old planks.

Old roof removed

Before I took the planks off, I attached quick braces to the old, shrunken rafters so they wouldn’t collapse with me on the roof.

Truss template

I drew my simple truss template on a sheet of plywood.

Tools for building trusses

Here are my basic tools for building the trusses. Normally I’d use a power saw, but there is no electricity at the site yet. I’m not an experienced truss builder, I know there are tricks and formulas for doing the slope. But I found my measuring tape, square and protractor pretty effective. I did cheat and use a power miter saw to cut the angles at my house (the one that we live in that’s not moldy and falling down.)

Single truss

I placed the first truss to see how it would look, and to measure the clearance of the design elements. The triple-brace motif was only used for every third truss. For the plainer versions between, I used a single center brace.

Trusses ready to be set

Since I’m working alone, I laid the trussed down on each other like dominos, making it easier for me to set them quickly.

Overlapped trusses

Trusses set

Trusses set up attached to the walls. All are 24″ on center except for the two at the front of the garage which are slightly closer.

Rolling paper

Decking in place.

I wanted skylights because this garage will be more of an office/workshop. This side of the roof faces north, so the light is perfect for most of the day. When I priced the pre-made boxes, I wasn’t very happy with the look, quality or cost of them. To install three, I was looking at $600 on the low end for ugly aluminum, plastic bubble skylights. I built these boxes out of redwood. The most expensive materials were the plexiglass panels which I found pre-cut to the size I needed — actually I adjusted my design a bit to take advantage of the pre-cut dimension. Total cost of three: about $100. You can see the exterior below. I don’t think they look terrible. And they’re very solid and weather tight. My only trepidation was how the plexi would fare in the hot SoCal sun, so I made them so that the panels could be easily replaced if they ever suffered damage.

Skylights exterior

Below you can see one of the simple design motifs from the old house that I plan on using throughout. I’m not sure what it’s called, I’ve been referring to it as pickets or forks. It’s almost like a trident. That sounds kind of impressive… So just below our trident, you can see one application in the new trusses.

Fork motif

Hey! So last post I promised videos. The sexy beach ones came out bad because of overexposure, and I’m not referring to the camera. But these experimental clips did okay. Well, the last one, the camera ran out of juice and so it only caught half of my effort, but you get the idea. I’m a fast worker so I had to slow these down a bit so you can see the work getting done.

Next time: Passion for pergolas, or maybe a story about the assholes at the electric company!

There was a crooked man…


WHEN our wayward cat takes a dump it’s a prolonged affair. I know most cats are fastidious but Cozy’s burial rituals would make the builders of Giza blush. Her large plastic box shakes and echoes with banging, digging and scratching. The sounds of construction will stop for just a second only to resume with renewed ferocity. Having scraped every Trader Joe’s pine pellet into a near-perfect pyramid she emerges, City of the Dead complete. How does she collect every granule to the center and exit the box leaving the gravity-defying mound unperturbed? It’s a mystery worthy of an episode of In Search Of… But I will share with you a secret, perhaps discovered by the Mayans or Egyptians and recently rediscovered by a guy named Rusty, on how to single-handedly straighten a frame or wall that’s out of plumb. First, you will need a crooked wall…

Crooked garage. Crooked cat nowhere in sight.

Then, you probably want to know just how crooked that wall is. “Very” is not an acceptable measurement.

Dropping a plumb line

I picked the end of the rafter to anchor my line at the top. I take a measurement of the distance between the wall and the line. I guess you could call this the Eaves Plumb… too obscure? here’s a story of a lovely lady… Okay, moving on then.

Tale of the tape

Take another measurement at the bottom which will tell you how far out of plumb you are. In this case about 2 1/4″ over 8′.
That’s our magic number. I want to more or less move the top of the wall over 2 1/4″ to be vertically level.
There are several ways to do this. I was working by myself so I briefly considered just backing my truck into the garage and gassing it, but ration prevailed. I used a variation of a framer’s method for setting walls.

First, I make a hinge out of two 2x4s. I had a carriage bolt nearby but a strong screw works fine, too. Then I straighten the 2x4s and lock the hinge with a screw. This effectively makes one long support. I should’ve made the two boards overlap a little more than in the picture below, but you get the idea, like a giant scissors <insert terribly-inappropriate Mr. Garrison reference>.

My elbow

Then I anchor the top of the joined boards to the top of the wall, preferably on or near a wall stud or a similarly stiff area. Let the other end of the board rest on the ground. The length of the joined boards should be at least as long as the square root of  2-times your wall height squared. Ha! Caught you sleeping! If that’s too confusing, just make sure when you join your hinged support, the angle at the top is at least 45°, mine’s closer to 60°, the less steep your jointed support is, the easier it will be for you to leverage your wall.
Now you want to find or make a solid anchor at the bottom. For two of my supports, I drove stakes into the ground and the other I took advantage of a nearby concrete structure. In the photo you can see that I moved the anchor block to be tight against the bottom of the hinged support board.

Hinged support attached to anchor block

Now this is the important part, all that other stuff was garbage. THIS is where you really should’ve begun reading. Mark on your block assembly where the end of your support falls.

Then measure a distance toward the offending wall equal to the amount that said wall is out of plumb (2 1/4″ in this case) and make another mark. THAT is roughly where your anchor block should go. To give yourself a little room for the flexing of the support, movement of your block, etc… you should give yourself a little more, so I added a quarter inch to move my mark by 2 1/2″ closer to the wall. Also, if any of you trigonometry nerds out there are about to pounce on me for not realizing that as the wall straightens the hypotenuse lengthens making this trick less than mathematically perfect, I know and don’t care.

Moving the anchor block. Imagine it attached to the top of your wall.

Now I apologize for not having photos of this next part because it is BY FAR the most important step. The preceding information was nonsense meant only for the entertainment of small children and the demented.
Once you’ve reattached your anchor block, you will notice that your angled support is too long to fit; if it is too short to reach, you moved your block the wrong way and I’ve failed as an instructor. Unscrew the second screw that you put in your opened hinge, the one that’s keeping it all from folding in half. It will now fold and allow you to place the end against the block. It’s easier if you allow it to fold upward rather than downward, especially if you’re working alone. Anchor the bottom of your hinge to the block. Now the exciting part: Push down on your hinge, being careful not to pinch your fingers, until it locks straight like an elbow. Replace your second screw to keep it locked, add more screws if you’re a worrier. Check the level of your wall near the support, it should be pretty close to plumb. If need be, unlock your hinge and move your anchor block forward or backward to get it perfect.

“Locked” hinge

I straightened this wall in three steps, doing the center, anchoring from the inside, and then doing the front and back ends, again anchoring as I went. This way I only needed one hinged support, I just kept moving it. But it’s just fine to do multiple supports and just leave them in place until you can stiffen up the structure and remove them.

Straightened walls!

Next post: Replacing the garage roof NAKED. That’s a lie, there won’t be much nudity. KIM KARDASHIAN I’m just trying to get more hits. ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION. It’s a shame what semi-legitimate bloggers have to do to survive. JESSE JAMES BRANGELINA. Did I mention there will be videos?

I Am the Lorax


HELLO! I’m back. I’m sorry if the site has seemed a little dead. I should’ve mentioned in the last post that I was going to hold off on updating for a few weeks to let our friends at Hometown Pasadena — who are mirroring our endeavor — catch up a little. Sheryl and I have been making progress, but it seemed like a good time to pause as we worked out our floor and site plans to begin the permits process. More on that later. Our architect, a talented friend who shall go unnamed for now (her firm discourages outside work) is nearly done with the drawings.

But those trees! Those trees!
Those Truffula Trees!
All my life I’d been searching
for trees such as these.
The touch of their tufts
was much softer than silk.
And they had the sweet smell
of fresh butterfly milk.

(from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax)

Part of the offer we made on our dream cabin regarded preserving the two large deodar cedars on the property. One resides peacefully toward the front of the long lot. The other lives just a little closer to the house than I’d like. There’s not much we can do about that. When we disassemble the interior, I’ll check the foundation for level and we’ll do our best to compensate for any damage the roots have done to the structure. First priority, though, seemed to be freeing the tree from its concrete coffin.

Cool Hand Dave bustin’ rocks. Actually I don’t recall Luke busting rocks, I think they mostly worked on clearing brush. But Dave does claim to be able to eat 50 hard-boiled eggs at one sitting.

Early in the liberation of the tree, Dave sculpts what he believes to resemble a profile of the 37th president. More of Dave’s mild Nixonian obsession can be seen here.

We removed all of the concrete around the tree. I placed much of the debris in a dumpster but then thought that we could reuse it in a creative way. I’ll be honest and admit that the “creative way” hasn’t come to me yet, but in the meantime, we started to stack the old concrete chunks in a pile for later. I remember the previous owner Mark explaining that his dad was good friends with a guy who worked at the local cement plant. When he had remnants from a job in his mixer, he’d roll over to the house, where Mark’s dad would have forms ready to take advantage of the free surplus. Short story: There is a lot of concrete on the property. We have about 500 square feet around the house that will eventually be broken up and dumped or repurposed — preferably the latter.

This is a chain that I believe was used to work on engines. It’s wrapped around one of the larger branches of the tree nearest the house. I’ve got to remove it, but it’s just a little high for any of my ladders, but think I can reach it if I put my extension ladder in the back of the pickup.

A view of the smaller deodar.

In the photo above you can see the beginnings of the characteristic top and drooping branches of the species. The deodar cedar is not native to our area, It actually originated in Asia and is also called the Himalayan Cedar, but the tree is now protected here and is a really beautiful and unique evergreen that blends well with the landscape. You can find more info on Wikipedia and some interesting practical comments here. I like the info on this page, too.

That’s all for now. In the next post I will use ancient framers’ secret to straighten a badly-leaning garage.

Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care.
Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.
Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.

Bring Out Your Shed!


Roll away your trash today.

Early trash collectors

WE had to dispose of a few tons of concrete and drywall to get our project started. Sheryl had informed me that Pasadena only allowed certain haulers to work in the city. This came as a surprise to me because Pasadena is usually so easy-going about those things. It’s hard to tell in text, but that was sarcasm. In actuality if they had the inspectors to spare, I think Pasadena would tell you that your piss is the wrong shade of yellow and doesn’t match the Batchelder tile above the toilet; the really annoying thing is that they’d probably be right. I Googled something like “Pasadena dumpster” and got the little map with a list down the left-hand side. Started calling from nearest to farthest for estimates, always asking if they were able to service Pasadena. After about the fifth “no” I started to get a little annoyed. I checked the city site and found no information. (It’s only fair to say that later I went back to the site and found the information immediately.) I tried one more number. Bingo. The nice guy on the line told me they could leave a 30-yard roll-away to us Friday morning.
Days pass and Sheryl, our friend Dave and I have the coal car-sized container about half full. I walk up to the house on Wednesday to start working and find a notice about my “non-permitted trash collection company” attached to the business card of the Department of Public Works Street Maintenance and Integrated Waste Management Program Coordinator. Uh oh. A phone call to the Coordinator, heretofore referred to as Ms. Rubio, yielded the information that the dumpster company I was using was NOT, in fact, a franchised Pasadena hauler. Also, that they had been busted before for dropping non-permitted roll-aways in town. I told my story to Ms. Rubio, who was very understanding. I suffered no penalty, but promised to have the dumpster removed as soon as possible. She was also kind enough to provide a list of Pasadena-approved solid-waste franchise haulers, linked here as a PDF.
After contacting my dumpster guy, he promised to have it removed in the morning. We had the rest of the day to add more debris so we started furiously busting concrete and rolling wheelbarrows of plaster that I had kicked down from the ceilings. At the end of the day, I was glad to see the container go, because it meant a break from swinging a sledge hammer.

Not-So Heavy Metal

A note about a dumpster parked on the curb in the city. After a short while, every free-loading loser with garbage in the area will find you and take advantage of your unwitting generosity. I’d like to find the idiot who left the queen-sized mattress and beat about $30 worth of container space out of him. Anyway, my ears quickly became attuned to the sound of old pickup trucks idling on the street outside my house. The morning that the dumpster was to be returned, I heard what I thought was someone tossing junk into the container. You might be wondering, “Why do you care? You’re done with the dumpster anyway.” Good point, except that I was paying additional fees based on weight and it was pretty heavy already. And, furthermore… it’s the goddam principle of the thing. So I run out in the street and growl, “What the hell you think you’re doing?” The startled guy on the side of my container was holding up a big oval of rusty pipe, pointing repeatedly with his free hand at the object. Turns out he wasn’t leaving garbage, he was taking it. He didn’t speak a lick of English, and my Spanish is so bad that it would’ve demeaned us both for me to try. But we communicated with gestures, nouns and disconnected verbs. He handed me a card that read “Scrap Metal Recycling.” I learned his name was Rodolfo, and it seemed like this could be a lucky day for both of us. I beckoned him to follow saying, “want more?” He secured his salvaged pipe, parked his truck and walked to the back of the house with me where my nuisance became his income opportunity. On the property was an old, crooked metal shed. I just wanted it gone so we could bust up the uneven slab of concrete beneath and reclaim a chunk of yard. The shed was relatively large, and not in terrible condition. With some paint and doors, it might’ve even been useful to someone, for that reason I think, he was concerned that he was misunderstanding me. “If you can use it, please take it. It’s yours, free,” I said. Rodolfo pulled a cell phone from his pocket and asked me to wait. He greeted the person on the other end and handed the phone to me saying, “my lady.” Rodolfo’s lady and metal recycling business partner was Elsy who spoke fluent English. I explained about the shed, thanked Elsy and handed the phone back to Rodolfo, who talked with her and nodded to me. I motioned to Rodolfo to bring his truck up the long drive and into the back yard to make loading the pieces of the shed easier. We thanked each other and I saw him grab a large hammer from his truck. I left a heavy crowbar with him, but he didn’t need it as he seemed to be expert at hammer-assisted disassembly. I left him and the shed to go back to work. About a half hour later I stepped outside just in time to see Rodolfo backing his truck out of my driveway. The walls and roof of the shed were folded and stacked, filling the back of his pickup with hopefully valuable metal. As he turned to head up the street, another larger truck going the opposite way pulled beside him. For a second, I thought a salvage turf war would ensue, but Rodolfo waved big at me, pointed at the other driver and shouted, “my lady!”

If you’re in the Pasadena area and need some metal scrap taken away, call Rodolfo (Spanish speaking) 626-421-2080, or Elsy (English & Spanish) 818-915-8036.

Lost my shed

Transformers: Revenge of the Useful


WE’VE been tied up getting elevations and site plans drawn, taking measurements and reading books. I’ll actually do a post in the next week about the books that Sheryl and I have found the most useful and inspirational in this first step of our little home-building journey. But wanted to keep posting, so here’s one about trucks, wheelbarrows, roll-offs and a dude who will take your scrap metal away for free. If you’re pressed for time, you can probably skip this one, but don’t go crying if someone at a party asks you where to get the cheapest wheelbarrow in Pasadena or if you know anyone who will pick up rusty pipes so they don’t end up in a landfill. Seriously, this knowledge can make you popular. But, like I said, feel free to skip this one.


IF you’re building, demolishing, restoring or improving, the first and most useful tool you should consider is a pickup. (If you already own a pickup, please proceed to the next section.) There is no investment that will save you more money in a DIY building project than a used truck. My first truck in California was a beat-up salvaged Chevy Luv. My friends still talk about it because it was uglier than the economy and carved into its doors were the phrases “Check Yo Self” and “Pump Yo Breaks”, which might seem frivolous, but was actually great advice when driving a 20-year-old pickup that came from the dump. It cost $900 plus a new fuel pump and ran trouble-free for years. It probably paid for itself three or four times over and when I thought I no longer needed it, I sold it for almost as much as I paid. Last I heard, it was hauling surfboards in Ventura. My “new” truck is a step up. A 17-year-old Ford F-150 complete with extended cab, alloy wheels and a funky smell that I’m sure will go away. All that for about two grand. I also have an old Dodge Dakota 4×4 in Pennsylvania. Point is that it doesn’t have to be pretty and it doesn’t have to be expensive, but you will need a truck.

If you buy used, be realistic, but inspect carefully. In LA County, I noticed a big difference in what you get when you jump from the $1000 range to the $2000+ range. That’s not to say that you can’t find a good truck for $900, they just go fast. I’m no mechanic, but some things I look for beyond the cosmetic:
- Pull the dipstick to check the level and quality of the engine oil. Should be clear, amber to brown, and not sludgy. Feel the oil, should feel smooth, not gritty at all.
- Do the same with the transmission fluid. Should be transparent, usually red, not dark; should not smell burnt.
- Visually check the engine for anything that looks worn or missing — I got screwed once not knowing to check the California smog equipment diagram, usually on a sticker above your radiator. A back-yard mechanic had removed some of the pieces that our state requires and, though the truck ran fine, would not pass smog without some work.
- Feel the belts (seems obvious, but make sure the engine is not running), squeeze the hoses. They should be supple, not cracked or brittle. Same goes for the rubber on the ignition wires that connect to the plugs.
- If you have time and the tool, pull one of the plugs to check for excess carbon or unburnt gas, both could indicate a problem.
- Crawl under the vehicle with a flashlight to check for leaks, holes, etc… a little gunk caked on an old engine is normal, but should not appear wet or excessive.
- I also, with the engine running, hold my hand over the tailpipe. You should feel serious pressure and, if you hold your hand tightly enough, the engine should almost stall. This is a crude way of checking compression and the integrity of your exhaust.
- Finally, of course, test drive it. Listen and feel for squeeks, grinds and shimmies.
Or skip all that and take it to a mechanic. What is this, Cartalk or something? Moving on…


COULDN’T you imagine a Transformer that turned into a wheelbarrow? It’d have skinny, wooden stick legs and a round rubber head, and probably be kind of clumsy with an annoying voice, but when Shia LeBeouf really wanted to get some work done around the house he sure as hell wouldn’t be calling Optimus. So I was running errands in Pasadena and shopping for a second wheelbarrow. My first (above) was pretty beat up from mixing cement and we were going to need at least two to haul moldy drywall and busted-up concrete. I’m pretty cheap, so the idea of paying $80-$120 for a simple wheelbarrow was not sitting well. I was at True Value on Fair Oaks almost ready to plunk down four twenties when I remembered that I hadn’t checked my local Ace Hardware on Woodbury. Well, what do you know, $49 for a new 6-cubic-foot (standard size) wheelbarrow! Plus, unlike several of the other places, theirs were assembled. So, I don’t know if they have many left, but Master’s Building Supply (Ace) on 370 E Woodbury Rd in Altadena has wheelbarrows at 1990 prices. I’ve always found the people at that store to be very friendly and helpful, too. It’s a little dusty and faded, but much more of a neighborhood vibe than your Home Depot or OSH-type places.

Looking for the corporate endorsement.

Man, I’m long-winded. Thought I could wrap all of this up in one post, but will continue tomorrow and tell you about roll-off dumpsters in Pasadena and a door-to-door scrap metal salvager who helped me out.


So spring brings flower, allergies and apparently a new crop of wheelbarrows! Have seen some good sales recently, but the best was a sturdy 6-cubic-foot version at True Value Hardware for forty bucks. May have to grab one.

Poop in a Can


Mold that reminded me of frost on a window.

WE began skinning the interior of the house today. I enjoy this part. It’s fast work if you don’t mind a little dust — and, in our case, quite a bit of mold. Mold can be beautiful to look at. Contrary to what some dishonest mold remediation specialists will lead you to believe, it’s relatively harmless — unless, like my wife, you are allergic to it. While no one wants it in their house, it’s often only skin deep and can be killed easily. The real problem is stopping the source of moisture that inevitably caused the mold. If you don’t patch the leaks, stop the condensation or stop peeing on your walls, you will end up with a situation like we have in our little cottage. In that case, there is very little choice other than tearing out the interior walls. Luckily, this house didn’t have a mote of insulation, so mostly we were dealing with soft, wet sheetrock… gypsum, damp and cleaved… (That was terrible. I apologize — even to Cher fans, who generally deserve no apologies.)

Mold in ceiling and walls, growing between moist layers of drywall.

Dave: destroyer of homes

My friend and occasional collaborator Dave Shulman dropped by for the day to help me harvest penicillin. I don’t think he’d ever demolished a house before and seemed, at times, to be genuinely enjoying himself. With every wall we broke into Dave would say “Wonder if we’ll find a box of money.” We’d chuckle, or not, through our dust masks. Dave is an extraordinary writer and editor but the reason he’s got the time to help me today is that the economy sucks and journalism is in a terrible state due in small part to bloggers willing to write for free… [uncomfortable silence]. Anyway, finding a box of money would not be the worst thing. But with every sheet of mildewed drywall would come the muffled report: “No box of money…” Till finally I said, “Could be worse. You could’ve found a can of shit.” My glass-half-full comment prompted Dave to ask, “Is that based on an actual event?” “Well… yeah.”

No box of money.

The first house I remember my dad demolishing was a two-story in the countryside of Jefferson County, Pennsylvania. He was interested in the eight acres beneath the structure. What sat on the land was a filthy obstacle. Weeks passed as my young eyes watched him disassemble the splintery behemoth plank by plank. The house was left as-is (as-was?) by the two old bachelors who had inhabited it. Over the years, as the paint and shingles fell, their rooms filled. They left it all: bottles, books, furniture and, yes, cans of shit. Human. I’ll let you to imagine why two grown men would save their waste in a can let alone leave it behind with the house they sold. But I still remember my mother’s look of disgust and bewilderment as she explained what they had found, no box of money.

The north side of the house skinned to the studs.

Far from a can of poop, we found decades-old mail, a reminder of the family who once lived in the house.

Mold and Mushrooms


SO we haven’t made much physical progress this week because of the rain. We’re also trying to get up to speed with a general plan to submit to the permit office but we’re still working out the basic layout of the house. Our dining room table is deep in books about plumbing, framing, contracting, craftsman homes…

We’re going to start skinning the interior this week, so Sheryl and I did another inspection, and took some measurements and photos. Here are some lovely mushrooms that are growing in one of the bedrooms.

The attic access is from the exterior. I climbed up to see what was going to hit me in the face when I eventually pull the ceiling down. Surprisingly, there was no insulation at all. None in the walls either. Add in louvered windows (probably installed in the ’60s), and that was one cold house in the winter. I also cracked open the crooked garage which was screwed shut with sheets of plywood. Straightening the garage and installing a new door will be done soon as I’ll need a secure area on site to store tools, materials, and also items that we remove from the house. We plan to reuse as much material from the original house as possible, along with architectural salvage from several locations in town. More on that later.

That’s all for tonight. Here’s a parting shot of our little penicillin factory with a camellia bush peeking through the window.

Banks in Sheep’s Clothing 2


I DIDN’T see Mark as much over the summer. He usually didn’t bother me when he was on a binge, and this one was epic. In six months he managed to drink, pop, smoke and plain give away every cent of his sixty grand. He lived like Scarface. Hell, he lived like a banker. But as the money dried up, he dried out, and reality hit Mark like a square of shingles. He finally brought up the subject of his finances to me. It seemed that shortly after mortgaging his house, he managed to lose his government assistance. If I understood correctly, it was because he no longer qualified financially, though I think it may have been that he forgot to fill out his paperwork for the year. In any case, not only was his money gone, but he had none coming in. In addition, he had a $500-a-month mortgage. What kind of fucking bank arranges a $500-a-month mortgage for a person with $800-a-month in income??

I considered it all for a while and tried to give him the best, most appropriate advice. “Sell your house before the bank takes it,” was the nutshell version. I hooked him up with Jackie, my favorite Realtor, who managed to get him an amazing price for the house given the condition and the fact that the market was beginning to teeter. She then proceeded to find Mark several places which he could buy outright and still have enough cash left over to put some aside for his daughter. He dragged his feet, not willing to commit to any of them, living in a motel on the brink of another colossal bender. Then a miracle. His ex-brother-in-law convinced him to buy a modular home in a decent neighborhood which I’d never heard of. He had enough dough, still, to buy a little car and a big TV. I begged him, or at least suggested strongly to put a chunk of the remaining dough into a trust for his girl. He liked the idea, but I didn’t see him much after that, so I’m not sure if he ever saw it through. He lived about an hour away from the neighborhood, and I was spending more time back east working on an old house in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

All’s well, right? Wrong. About a year later, Mark came to visit. His life had taken a bad turn. He’d squandered his remaining money, wrecked his car, took on dishonest roommates and somehow managed to lose his second house in two years. He was basically living on the streets, sleeping in the back of a friend’s camper-bed pickup. Because Pasadena was the only place he ever really knew, he came back to the old neighborhood to be homeless. He had a brother, and a sister, and a nephew, and an ex-wife that he could potentially have stayed with, but preferred to be here, on the streets. He visited a couple more times. Once telling me that he was bleeding out of his ass and that the hospital found polyps. I was in Pennsylvania in early 2009. On returning, I looked for Mark, asked others if they’d seen him. Nothing. I’ve meant to start combing the phone book for his brother. If I get lucky and reach him, maybe he’ll know what’s up. I suspect Mark might be dead. That’s morbid, but he didn’t exactly take care of himself. At 50, he looked every day of 70.

The garage, mid-flip.

The new owners of the house turned out to be amateur developer/flippers who were too blind to see the coming shit storm. After securing permits to demolish, two things happened: The Great Recession, and our neighborhood, the Historic Highlands, became a historical district. The flippers were doubly screwed and the house sat there for two more years before Fannie Mae took it back. And that’s where my wife and I came in.

That’s the shortish version of “The Ballad of Mark’s House.” Hope you enjoyed it. Next post will contain more working and less gabbing, I swear.

Banks in Sheep’s Clothing


For the want of a roof…

ABOUT a week before closing, we were getting hit with heavy rain. The Realtor called me to say she could unlock the house so we could look for leaks and attempt any repairs that would prevent the already-bad condition from getting worse. Along the side of the house, I found a big blue tarp that had blown off months before. It was still in good shape, so I rolled it up and prepared to climb on the roof to reattach it before the sprinkle turned to a downpour.

Mark had bought the tarp about four years earlier. I remember going up on his roof that first time to unfold the giant, blue plastic sheet. The shingles beneath were crumbling, and the soft rain was coating the tarp making it especially slick. Mark, with his stiff plastic leg and liquor-augmented agility climbed onto the roof after me. I talked him into staying on the lower, flat section as images of ambulances and stretchers traveled through my head. When we were done with our makeshift repairs, it resembled a poor-man’s Christo, but it kept the water out.

That roof became Mark’s downfall. Well, the roof and the rapidly ballooning economy. Around 2006, his house was worth close to a half-million dollars. On paper, he was the richest guy on government assistance I knew. In reality, that house was all that stood between Mark and transience. Like everyone in the country who had equity in a home at the time, Mark started to get a substantial amount of mail and even phone solicitations promising cheap loans. After one of these calls or letters, he’d sometimes visit me asking if I’d help him fill out the forms. I’d always say something to the effect of, “Why are you borrowing money?” His answer was always the same, starting out a little defensively, he’d complain about never having money in his pocket, not having a car — in truth, he wasn’t allowed to drive, having been convicted on so many DWIs. Eventually, seeing that he was gaining no traction with me, his argument would always lead to his leaking roof. Each time, I’d try to explain that getting a loan and paying for a loan were two very different things. I’d suggest that he get a checking account to deposit his small government check into, that each month, he could try to set aside $100 or $200, and at the end of the year, he and I would go get tar paper and shingles and put a new roof on his place. Temporarily encouraged, he’d fold up his papers, thank me and leave. A few weeks later, I’d follow up, but he never could gather himself to get a bank account, let alone set aside any bit of the $800 that came in each month. After several months, I stopped hearing about the loans. I took it as a sign that Mark had given up on that idea, and patted myself on the back for having helped him avoid the clutches of our dysfunctional lending system.

You ever have a day, or a moment, when you see the future? Maybe when you look at your child and see them graduating and asking you for money, or you look at your dad’s hairline and see yourself in ten years at Rite Aid buying Rogaine. I had one of those moments the day Mark showed up on my porch asking for a ride. “Sure, where to?” That’s when he told me that he needed a lift to a nearby bank so he could sign his loan papers. I sort of felt the blood drain from my brain. “Loan?” He stammered a bit and began to explain that some guy from some bank kept calling him, and said that he could give Mark $60,000, and he’d have 30 years to pay it off, and it was all to put a new roof on the house. I started to tell him that he just mortgaged his house, and with his non-existent credit history, he just got screwed on the rate. And then I shut up because right there I saw Mark walking around Pasadena homeless and I accepted a little bit that that’s where he’d been headed for decades. I said, “I’ll get my keys.”