It’s one thing to walk into something with no freaking idea what lies in store, with only a notion you’ve dreamed up of what it might be like. It’s something altogether different to walk into a scene you know well, painfully aware of what’s ahead.
Sitting at the little table in our third floor garret apartment last weekend over Thanksgiving leftovers and beer, I was was suddenly overcome with wry amusement at how little we knew what we were getting into. “Six bedrooms, two kitchens, two baths, two dining rooms, two living rooms, a basement, a back yard — and a full attic apartment,” I said to Brian, shaking my head at how ludicrous it sounds for two people with no renovation experience to have undertaken a rehab of a 4,000 square foot, nearly 100 year old home. “We had NO idea what we were getting into!”
The saying goes better the devil you know than the one you don’t, but whoever coined that phrase never renovated a multi-flat building. We went into the work wide eyed and excited this summer, blissfully ignorant. On the other side of that work, first floor finished and rented, third floor ready for Airbnb, basement gutted, we were no longer ignorant — or blissful. And the time to get to work on the second floor came quickly — too quickly — on the heels of driving away at the end of September, the house “done” for the time.
When the second floor renter — on a month to month lease — moved out mid-October, I wanted to be excited at the prospect of fixing up that floor for our own use. I’d fallen in love with the original built-in kitchen cabinets, the huge living room and balcony, the high ceilings (or the promise of them, anyway). But still reeling with exhaustion from the summer of work and contractor stress I wanted to sit down and cry at the thought of picking up a paint brush or tool or cleaning rag.
We didn’t make it up to the house until early in Thanksgiving week (Brian having earned and burned all his vacation time this summer), and walked in on gray, frigid day. We used the front stairs — in what we like to call the vestibule when we’re pretending to be fancy — for the first time, and managed to unlock the door with the second of our ridiculous, jangling collection of unmarked keys. And stepped into the ghost of years of indoor, windows-closed smoking. The stale, smothering odor was so bad we almost didn’t notice the temperature. Every radiator was stone cold. We stood amidst the rubbish and discarded televisions looking at each other in the stingy, grey light of late afternoon in a Michigan winter. After 17 years of marriage and the first round of work on the house, we could say a lot with a look.
In a stark contrast to our excited, nervous skipping through the house in June, this we paced through each room, eyeing the filthy windows and brown-stained blinds, the peeling ceilings and exposed wood lath that a drop ceiling had hidden until recently, the stained carpet and walls, the bathroom that begged nothing more than to close the door and never look at it again. Garbage littered the floors — broken egg shells, a package of unidentifiable meat, lottery tickets, empty Kool menthol packets. Our shoes stuck to the caked-on grease on the kitchen floor, coming up with a sort of velcro sound as we stepped around the abandoned air conditioning unit in the middle of the room. Those built-in cabinets still had promise, but breathing shallowly to not take in the stale smoke, and fingers numb with cold, it was hard to see it under the nicotine stains and embedded dirt. There was nothing to do but get to work.
We went to the car to retrieve the dogs. Alba lunged ahead up the back stairs, splaying onto the steps repeatedly in her frantic attempts to scale them. As we stood in the third floor kitchen — oh, so blissfully clean — debating what to do about the radiators, Truffle christened the rug in the living room with a vile-smelling pile that told us in no uncertain terms what he thought about being back here. Brian cleaned it up while I headed back to 2 (we refer to the floors as if it’s a big commercial building to save time in conversation — there’s too much work to be done to take the time to say ‘the second floor’ when 2 will do).
Over the weekend I was sore and stiff and my knees and back screamed, and parting words from my trainer (a barter arrangement — I build her website, she works disaster clean-up to rehab my body from the punishment I’ve subjected it to in pursuit of extreme fitness) haunted me: “You’re going down if you keep going.” And always in the back of my mind where I try to keep it closeted, worries of our ongoing issue with the contractor plagued me. But despite all this, I actually, really, truly enjoyed the work. I scrubbed and painted and threw out garbage and pried up tack strip, and ate pizza and drank beer, and we got the radiators working and we made the decision to use most of what remains in our bank account to hire out the ceiling work (a marriage saver, Brian called it) to a guy I met in line at the Home Depot on 7 Mile. We hired a young woman from the neighborhood who worked her butt off alongside us, and Brian’s parents visited to see the house for the first time, and we took a break for Thanksgiving. And by Sunday noon when we left, we had made measurable progress.
We talked on the way home about all the projects to be done, and though we’re worried about the money side of it, we’re excited again. But this time it’s a different excitement. On round 2 we know what’s ahead of us (work-wise anyway) and we relish the challenge, because this time, though we know how hard it is, we also know the feeling that comes with seeing your work come together. And when I get frustrated, as I’m sure to do, I’ll let that thought sustain me. We took on this huge project that we truly had no business doing, and have somehow made it through this far. We can keep going.