Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Seasonal Spackling or: My First and Only College Thanksgiving

There have been only two instances in my life when I have not been at home with my extended family for Thanksgiving. Two years ago, I made the grievous mistake of attending Thanksgiving dinner at my then-girlfriend’s stepfather’s home in Concord, New Hampshire. It was a bad drive topped by one of the more uncomfortably confrontational family dinners I’ve ever been a party to, in which a slice of pumpkin pie was, I kid you not, thrown at someone’s face. That was the last straw for several situations, including that particular relationship, but most of all, it reaffirmed that the only place I really wanted to be on Thanksgiving was upstate with my family, as much as the idea of staying home and doing some freelance NYC handyman work to make some extra dough allures me.

Indeed, the only other time I ever abstained from my annual November trip upstate was my junior year of college, which I have surpassingly fond memories of. Not of the food, mind you: the turkey came out drier than plywood, the mashed potatoes were served as a type of soup essentially, and the stuffing was like gobbling down a plate of salad croutons. The preparation for the meal is what I remember, especially since it put me in contact with a lifelong friend, currently a general contractor for a NYC handyman outfit out of Jackson Heights.

By preparation, I mean less the strewning of festive colored paper and cardboard turkey cutouts, and more the repairs to this particular apartment. See, the apartment we decided to hold it in was very tiny and we had a lot of people who were staying at college, due largely to the clash between slim college-kid budgets and somewhat unreasonable travel costs. So, we had to get a larger table into a living room about the size of a dorm bedroom, and also had to move around furniture. This may have been an easy task if the group of men responsible for this, my NYC handyman friend and myself included, weren’t stone-cold drunk at the time we performed this miraculous move around. 

As you may expect, there were more than a few holes in the drywall by the time we were done wedging the long dinner table, which we had borrowed from a friend of a friend who worked as part of the janitorial staff in the compute science building. The relief that we would indeed be able to feed all 20-odd people was immediately replaced by the burden of having to convincingly repair these holes. We may have been able to wait a few days to make repairs but the girl whose apartment we were using had what might kindly be referred to as a hissy fit. To be fair, she was a few glasses of dirt-cheap white wine in as well but still, her complaints rang louder and more routinely than even those god-forsaken college fire alarms.

So, we walked across campus to my NYC handyman friend’s dorm and picked up some extra spackle he had brought home from the studio, and newspaper for the bigger holes. It turned out to be a simple fix when we returned: most of the holes needed only a little spackle, followed by some sanding a day or two later, and only one of the holes required a layer of newspaper to fill it. What I have a very vivid and happy memory of is the rest of our friends, happy enough to crack a few more beers and relax while we did the work, commentating on our job as if they were announcers for the NFL. Until you have a drunk philosophy major remark that you have “stepped up [your] spackling game since last season” and “must have really worked on [your] sanding during the off season”, you really haven’t lived.

But as much as I have fond memories of these days, this year I’m thankful to be getting home for a few days and getting a breather from city life. I imagine my short time spent at Penn Station tomorrow will be a hell not worth remembering, but it’s worth it in the long run. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.  

Monday, November 21, 2011

Hippy Dippy or: My Trip to the Communal Boiler

The idea of communal living was always something that interested me until I saw it first hand. Coming out of high school, I found myself accepted into a Dramatic Writing conservatory at SUNY Purchase, one of the more left-leaning campuses in the SUNY system. It was there that I came face-to-face with communal living, radical politics (on both ends, oddly enough), and an invigorating culture of craftsman (some of whom eventually became NYC handymen friends of mine) and artists who believed steadfast in the do-it-yourself approach. For most, money was tight, used mainly for booze, gas, and a monthly trip into the city, but materials were plentiful and there was a spirit of invention that still attracts me to this day.

This was not the same sort of spirit I encountered when I found myself giving a ride to a NYC plumber friend early this year while her truck was in the shop.  A call had come in from a house all the way out in Bay Ridge, an area I remembered largely as a community of firemen, police officers, construction workers and other various day laborers. I had lived in an adjacent neighborhood, Sunset Park, for a few years after college and was shocked to find that there was a large house (12 bedrooms!) that served as a sort of commune for a pack of Brooklyn college graduates in the middle of the Ridge.

What was not so much of a surprise was that none of them knew anything about boilers and what exactly they do, though, to be perfectly frank, neither did I until a different NYC plumber friend of mine gave me a shot-in-the-arm tutorial about the whole shindig. We arrived at the house and my friend immediately followed the ringleader of the outfit to the basement, where their gas boiler was clearly malfunctioning. The house itself was freezing and at every corner of the house, I could see a blanket or a quilt being used as a heating alternative, either being wrapped around some being or being pinned up to cover a window. In fact, there was a young woman wrapped in a quilt, working on knitting another quilt.

My friend came up and informed me that it was a simple blown fuse and that we would be done within the hour. Seeing as it was frigid outside, I graciously took up an offer to hang out with other members of the household as my friend did her work. It turns out that most boiler problems go back to tripped circuit breakers, blown fuses, an unlit pilot light or, in rarer cases, a problem with the thermostat. A blown fuse is, in fact, something that should be left to a professional. The others are easy enough to learn, but are hugely dependent on brands and models, thus why I must sadly decline a quick tutorial.

Anyway, as I was saying, my memories of living with metal and wood workers at SUNY Purchase was not exactly matched by the group of people (most of them were about three years my junior) I came into contact with at this house. There was a silence to the house that not even the seemingly on-loop recordings of Bob Dylan and Fleet Foxes that echoed through the rooms seemed to help. I attribute this to the fact that many artists, especially writers and graphic artists, do their work online and it is not my intention to say that this band of communal believers aren’t as ambitious and unique as the people I knew, who are now, as I said, NYC handymen, plumbers, stagehands, furniture makers or old-fashioned artists. I guess I miss the sound of activity, which has been replaced with the tapping of keyboards, for better or worse. (If I’m being totally honest, it’s probably for the better.)

Soon enough, me and my friend left and I dropped her back off at her shop in Dumbo. I told my girlfriend at the time about the house and similar ideas as the ones I have expressed here and she, perhaps rightly, figured me as an “old fuddy duddy.” It’s not as if I’m expecting everyone to go out there and learn how to perfectly maintain a boiler or hot water heaters or anything else of the sort, though I hardly see the harm in that being an ambition. My business, and others, might suffer but I can hardly contain a grin when my younger cousin tells me that he learned how to relight a pilot light or reset a thermostat on his own.       

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Lamp Lady or: The Virtues of CFL and LED Bulbs

Sometimes, you can’t help but be amazed by the unique idiosyncrasies of people, especially when you’re in a business that involves visiting homes often. The holidays are coming up so heating and electric bills have been on my mind these last few weeks and it led me to think about one of the better projects I came across in September, when this blog was just starting. I’m not a NYC electrician but some of my friends are and one of them asked me to be a second pair of eyes for him on a design project for an elderly woman living in Tarrytown.

When we arrived, she showed us in and I was stunned: Lamps! In the living room alone, there were eight (that I counted) lamps on various surfaces, each with a unique style; one was in the shape of a lighthouse, another one had the bulb coming out of an elephant’s trunk. It was like being in the best antique store in the world but the problem was also plainly there: We needed to consolidate her energy use. She told my NYC electrician friend that she usually had three or four of these lamps on as soon as it turned dark, as well as one or two in the dining room and an overhead light in the kitchen. What’s worse? They were all old-school, incandescent bulbs, from a stockpile she had in her basement.

Incandescent bulbs are energy killers, plain and simple, and with the energy bills rising these days, I told her that she should not only cut down on the amount of lamps but toss out most, if not all of her incandescent bulbs. It took some convincing, over two cups of the strongest Russian tea I’ve ever had in my life, but she finally agreed and me any my friend got to work. Over the next week or so, we helped design a system of recessed lights in her living room, dining room and bedroom (which had at least five lamps, including one in the bathroom) and ran new electric lines and dimmer switches in all three rooms. We also ran a line and a new dimmer switch in her kitchen.

The biggest change-up was that we installed CFL bulbs in all the fixtures, including the lamps that she decided to keep out. (It’s worth noting that she agreed to sell me one lamp I particularly liked, the base of which was a suited man who looked a lot like Peter Lorre.) CFL bulbs are commonplace for most people but I feel the need to remind people of them constantly. They are the simplest of all energy savers and most NYC electricians will be the first to sing their praises; there are also LED lamps and lights, which are essentially Christmas lights but used in new designs and compacted to boost the concentrated light emitted. In fact, the drive back to Queens consisted of a long talk about the burdens of hanging exterior Christmas lights, though ultimately, this year, I have something bigger to dread: Hauling a tree up three flights of stairs. Does Santa know a good chiropractor?     

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Brief History of Clogs: Part 1

For several reasons that I don’t care to go through right now, there is no clear history of clogs in the United States, nor in any other country. This is a problem I thought the Internet would have solved, but as it turns out, the Internet has slacked off big time. I asked a NYC plumber that I routinely work with about it and all he could give me is remembrances of jobs he went on with his father to dormitories and military bases, where clogs were a weekly ordeal. But there was no talk about what must have been epic clogs in the 19th century—just look at the facial hair from that day and age and tell me the constant trimmings didn’t cause some doozies.

I’ve been dealing with a rash of clogs in both my bathroom and my kitchen recently, the result, I suspect, of a not all that wise attempt to grow my hair and beard out a bit.  Most of them were fixed with chemicals, but Monday night, I found myself struggling with what I would politely call a ravenous beast of a clog in my shower. I called up a NYC plumber friend (my aforementioned colleague, in fact) and he talked me through the process, beginning with a homemade version of a clog dissolvent with baking powder and white vinegar, that ended up not working.

So, taking my friends advice, I popped open the drain with a screwdriver, straightened a metal hanger and got a plunger. I plunged the drain for what had to be ten minutes (my arms still hurt!) and lo and behold, when I took the plunger off, I could clearly see the clog some three feet or so down the drain. I then made a hook with the wire hanger, snaked it down the drain and with only a little bit of maneuvering was able to get the culprit, a wet wad of mess that I will spare detailed definition of, for your benefit.

This was the end of my nightmare but my friend was quick to point out that this is a 50/50 fix, meaning that the other half the time you will have to hire an actual NYC plumber and get a professional snaking job done, or at least get them to inspect the clog firsthand. But there is an easy fix: A simple two-dollar strainer that can be picked up at any hardware store and often cuts most clogs in half. Still, it’s a relief to have these moments when you can just ask a friend for some advice and put your own elbow into it. That’s old news but the feeling rarely feels old or tired. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My Hallway Dilemma

I’ve been writing a lot about the importance of organization on here, especially when it comes to saving space and attaining some semblance of a clean, clear aesthetic in your space. Well, the chicken came home to roost for me a few weekends ago when a friend of mine, a NYC handyman who works around Dumbo, pointed out that my hallway closet was literally bulging due to overstuffing.
 The hallway closet has been, for all intents and purposes, the junk drawer of my home, where I cram sleeping bags, summer/winter clothes, plastic bins for moving, blankets…the list goes on. And for awhile, I was gleefully unaware that it looked like it was going to burst forth, unleashing an avalanche of clothing and trinkets that would likely put me out for good. My NYC handyman friend urged me to take care of this mess sooner than later.

We began by tossing a great deal of the plastic bins. Most of them ended up at my mother’s house, whose junk drawer has spread to include an entire garage at this point. The rest of them went to my downstairs neighbor and the local recycling center. When I inevitably move, I will likely partake in those super-cheap fold-up boxes that most movers offer. We then inventoried what I needed to put in the closet and what I could store elsewhere. We decided to put shelves in and make it something like a linen closet for all manner of useful things.

There was already a top shelf build into the closet and that’s where I put my luggage: Gym bags, duffel bags, suitcases, backpacks, messenger bags and roller cases. We measured each following shelf two feet from the previous, giving space to fold things and store blankets, jackets and clothing easily. As it turned out, my NYC handyman friend was also a laundry expert and he instructed me the proper way to fold jackets for storage; I have, after many years of struggle, learned how to fold a t-shirt and a pair of jeans.

At the end of the day, I had two entire shelves left empty. (I have since used them to store old video game consoles and piles of old New Yorkers and Film Comments that I don’t have the heart to toss quite yet.) This was a marginally simple project to handle with my friend, and most NYC handymen can do this for relatively cheap. It’s something worth looking into, lest you enjoy looking like you’re trying to store an entire department store in your hallway closet.     

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Eulogy for Beanie

It brings me no pleasure to tell you that my beanbag chair, which I had nicknamed Beanie for many years, was tossed in the trash this past weekend. Beanie had been residing in a particularly mildew-caked and dusty corner of my mother’s humungous garage, having suffered several tears and rips with no hope of repair; there are some wounds even duct tape can’t heal. So, there Beanie sat for years, surviving winters, floods and numerous visits from NYC handymen brought in to fix-up the garage in the two decades since my mother moved into her house.

My mother is an odd duck and so it came as no surprise when she announced to me that she had cleaned out the garage now, in the middle of November, some six months before most homeowners start their annual clear out. What did come as a surprise is when she uttered these words: “Oh, and I tossed out that smelly old beanbag sack.”  I stalled for a moment and let out a chuckle, unable to understand what “sack” she was speaking of. And then it hit me, and for just the smallest fraction of a second, I felt grief for an inanimate object. These are things I will not be sharing with any of my prospective progeny or grandchildren, for that matter.

There are three distinct memories I have of Beanie that came rushing to me when I pieced together what my mother had done:

1.     December, 1996: Sitting on Beanie with a small glass of beer my father had snuck me, playing a Star Wars video game and blaring a mix of Grateful Dead songs a friend had given me.

2.     Summer, 1999: My first kinda-girlfriend and me, attempting to position ourselves comfortable on top of Beanie before watching Caddyshack for approximately the 77th time in my life.

3.     August, 2001: Deciding to not bring Beanie with me to college, seeing as there was about as much personal space in my freshman-year dormroom as there were in those sweatboxes in Cool Hand Luke. Spend the night watching movies with my dog, Bishop, on Beanie, after saying goodbye to local friends.

Bean bag chairs came into prominence some time in the late 1960s and were favorites of hippies and quasi-informed philosophy students around those times, and I certainly wanted to connect to that generation and those people. I remember seeing a character in Richar Linklater’s Dazed and Confused sitting on one and immediately wanting to be that character. The bean bag chair started its slow crawl out somewhere in the mid-to-late 1980s and it essentially shrunk, becoming the much-loved and much-maligned hacky sack in the 1990s, seen on college campuses and high school soccer fields nationwide.

Still, there was a comfort that Beanie gave me that my beat-up futon doesn’t offer. Maybe it was the fragility of it, the fact that it was so prone to dilapidating injuries; the fleetingness of its lifespan. I always thought it was a comfort issue but frankly, my recliner is far more comfortable and I was never nuts about being that low to the ground. So, it remains a bit of mystery why I give half-a-care about Beanie, but I do, whether it is just plain old nostalgia or my intermittent ability to become a complete doodle-brain. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Couch Surfing USA!

Whether you live in New York City or not, the couch is still the central part of the living room. The design and flow of your living room or den is largely decided by the placement, size and color of your couch, not to mention the fact that the couch tends to be where most family members cool out after their workday. Okay, so the function of the couch as nap headquarters, make-out central and the place where your status as King/Queen Couch Potato is solidified is a bit more easy to figure than the design and flow (a term I still grapple with) of your living room but for the more in-the-know home owner, this is a large facet of how your home will look to visiting friends and family. Here are some things to look out for when choosing your next couch.

What Do You Do There? – For many, this is a given. The couch is largely a utility for relaxing and watching your DVR. There are others, however, who think of it like a nook, a small place to read a book with some sunlight; some people don’t even want a TV in their living room. Any NYC handyman will tell you that your television can be positioned nearly anywhere in the living room, so think more about light in this case. If you use it more for naps, try to get it away from the light; if you have kids, keep it away from the center of the room and allow them some room to roll around and play. Also, be aware, most NYC electricians can help you with your lighting to ensure that your space looks exactly how you’d like. 

What Look Are You Going For? – The regular three-cushion look is the most popular and its classic for a good reason. It optimizes your space and is the perfect size for couples with or without kids. There’s also the L-shape one (see below) which makes a cozy piece for the corner of the room and may be a better choice for bigger families and those who entertain more often. Configurations matter a lot here, so take measurements and consider the size of the area before deciding on what you want to pay for.

What’s The Mood of Your Room? – It pains me to write that rooms do indeed have moods. If your walls are a lighter (yellow or white), you’ll want to look for more pronounced, bold colors like reds and greens. If you have darker walls, you can either go darker with a dark brown/chestnut look or perhaps a nice, dark blue. You could also go for something lighter, even white, though I am hesitant to suggest such things as this can be a problem if you eat on your couch often and stains are a real possibility.

What Makes You Comfortable? – When you’re younger, you suffer with futons, allowing a perfect crash location for your drunk friends or visitors. As you get older, your tastes change (maybe) and you start thinking more about sitting down for a meal with a significant other, a beloved pet, your child or your closest friends. Do you like to sink into your couch or do you like a firm seat? Test out different fillings and see what suits you. Equally important is the choice of fabric. If you like a smoother surface, leather might be the best choice, though then its fickle to weather and makes odd noises. So then, maybe something more textured would be a better fit for you. Talk to your local furniture store salesman and they’ll help you with this as well.

In this particular fashion, I am deeply old-fashioned. Give me a comfortable couch that I can sink into and watch an old movie on TCM with, and it could be a polka dot couch for all I care. That being said, walking into a beautifully laid out living room, as my girlfriend and I did a few weeks ago while visiting relatives, creates its own comfort and atmosphere off the bat. This is all to say, once again, the importance of the stuff above is subjective to your needs as a homeowner. Act accordingly.  

Friday, November 4, 2011

NYC Apartments: Cleaning Out the Clutter

Eliminating clutter in a New York City apartment has always been a matter of organization and preparation, with a handful of perceivably hard decisions that turn out to be simple once you really think about it.  It’s easy to say “I’ll clean it up later” and chill out with some television and a cocktail instead of taking five minutes to put things where they belong. But then a few weeks go by, your office looks like the remnants of a ticker-tape parade, you’d have to put on hiking boots to reach the top of the mountains of dirty clothes, the leftovers from Gino’s gains a pulse and you have to whack at things with a machete to get more than a foot into your closet.

Okay, so maybe I’m employing hyperbole but organization of time, amongst other things, is crucial to having a clear, uncluttered NYC apartment that you can look forward to showing off. Not only does the organization of an apartment create a clean aesthetic for you to live in, but it has also been proven to help one’s psychological outlook and confidence.  Here are some easy tips to keep your apartment clean, neat and well managed.

·          Paper & Bills: In the age of the green movement, this is less of a problem, or at least that’s what you’d hope. The fact of the matter is that a lot of people still receive huge amounts of their mail and bills in physical form on paper. This can lead to a lot of clutter but can be avoided easily with a set of magazine holders, an in & out rack for your desk and a small filing cabinet for copies, forms and other loose papers. Make it a routine of separating your stuff out and filing it away when you get home.

·         Junk & Trinkets: Junk drawers beget apartments full of junk; it’s an attitude that everything will eventually have a use or holds some indeterminable sentimental value. Having a few nostalgic but ostensibly useless trinkets is fine but if you start collecting every little scrap, things could get messy quick. Set a Sunday aside to look through your drawers three or four times a year, to make sure nothing gets out of control.

·         Clothing: I’m expecting some sort of hate mail for this but most people have a good portion of clothes that they never really use, the storage of which takes up a lot of room at times. Take a day by yourself or with your partner to go through your wardrobe and pick out stuff that you simply don’t wear anymore. Get a friend to help: they’ll be able to tell you if you wear certain outfits regularly, if you don’t remember. This will clear out your closets and allow you to get a good sense of how you want to store articles of clothing.

·        Storage: I can’t stress enough how important and beneficial solid system of organized storage is to having a tidy home. Look for furniture that offers storage (coffee tables with drawers, beds with space underneath etc.) and consider getting some shelves put in your living room, bedroom, bathroom and, especially, the kitchen. Use labels, if it helps, but know where things belong and try to find places for loose items. This will all make it easier to attain a sense of open space, something that always garners compliments and fosters a healthy outlook.

As you might have guessed, storage is one of my more passionate issues when it comes to design and organization in the home. I’ll be talking more about how to use storage in a NYC apartment in the future, talking about things you can undertake with one of your local New York City handymen for advance apartment options. All this being said, it’s important to also give yourself time to do all of these things, to have some sort of schedule or routine in each case, which is something many people find rigid and bothersome. Maybe it is, but doing something that you may not find incredibly enthralling is part of owning your own space and being in charge of your adult life. Also, eat your vegetables and call your mother, she worries.