Sealing the House (February 2006)
Roofs were on everyone’s mind last winter. Without that outer skeleton of domestic protection, we found, life is underlain with surprisingly deep unease. But there were thousands of roofs that had to be repaired in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and only a handful of roofers to do the job. The outsized demand and undersized supply created a bottleneck around everyone's primordial need for shelter. Five months after Katrina the strain was showing. Our home's attic rafters were bathing in daily doses of sun and rain, and my husband and I were desperate to wall ourselves off from the elements.
Most people I talked to dealt with their frustration by uttering the same phrase: “It’s not rocket science.” Unhandy types said it to reassure themselves that the Spanish-speaking men on their housetops, who had showed up that morning in an unmarked flatbed, couldn’t be screwing anything up too badly. My husband said it because he knew exactly how to put a roof on our house, but couldn’t do it with the foot injury he sustained after the storm. For one reason or another, roofing represented a skill that seemed just out of reach, yet absolutely essential.
Another principle everyone agreed on was that the roofers themselves were an odd bunch. One roofer, Toney, worked on our house for a few days when I was still living out of town. According to my husband and other witnesses, he was amazingly skilled and could carry a full piece of 5/8” plywood, even in the wind, carefully placing it on the steep pitch of our roof. He was assiduous too, screwing down each decking sheet in the tightest possible configuration.
My husband had to meet him halfway on a few minor points. Toney had trouble getting started before noon, and a Chihuahua accompanied him to our house each day. To keep Toney focused once he arrived, my husband would provide lunch. Toney insisted that his sandwiches be embellished, either with the pepper sauce he found in our refrigerator, or with balsamic vinegar. He made a speech one day about his need for vinegar that our neighbor two doors down found hilarious, which was an odd snobbism on our neighbor’s part, given that he himself has pointed preferences about food. In exchange for these small accommodations, Toney provided us with half a solidly buttressed crown to our homestead. We would have indulged many a whim for that service.
However, Toney bugged out one day leaving his tool belt behind, and we never saw him again. Rumor had it that there was a woman involved. Or maybe there was so much work that he could afford to abandon jobs in mid-stream. “Oh yes” people said when I told them what had happened, “Roofers are like that. You’re the third person who has told me the story about a tool belt left behind.” How did everyone know so much about roofers all of a sudden? Did acute need somehow give us a window into their souls? Or was our lack of control giving rise to all kinds of stereotypical nonsense? When I asked a few craftsmen about the stereotype, they affirmed it, saying, “Roofers are not high concept people.” When I asked them why, they said, “What they do, you know, it’s not rocket science.”
But it did seem like science to me. There were decking and shingles, soffets and fascia, weatherboards and drip edge that all had to be installed correctly in order to thwart the dreaded “water trap” effect. Water had been our foe since the storm, and I respected its ability to infiltrate seemingly impregnable areas. I dreaded the inexorable puddling, the vain attempts at covering holes with plastic sheeting only to see trickles of rain sliding down the wall. Taming the power of dripping water seemed as high concept as anything else—high concept, and unlike many pursuits in that category—of immediate importance.
A few weeks later we hired a roofing friend of a friend named Angel, and he appeared one Saturday with his crew. Angel and his cohorts spent the day and finished up the decking, even if they did not employ the meticulous standards we were used to. In fact, at one point, someone put a foot through my kitchen ceiling. That night before leaving, sitting in his white pickup with a check in his hand, Angel assured me he would fix the hole. I’m sure he believed it too, for a few minutes.
After the decking was installed, there was a hiatus of about a month while we looked for a roofer to put on the shingles. Angel had not distinguished himself in our eyes, and we were in the market for someone new. In a moment of intuitive certainty, my husband decided that he was simply going to wait for the right person to knock on our door. The very irrationality of this approach, given that every living soul for miles needed a competent roofer, was somehow reassuring. And a roofer did indeed knock on our door one day—a roofer who knew his business, insisted on best practices, and charged a reasonable rate.
Donnie also talked in a fluid, north Florida twang that got right by me unless I paid attention. Even then I usually missed two words in five. He pointed out all kinds of ways to improve on our jerry-rigged structure and seemed excited about eliminating every water trap he could find. He carried around a bright red half-gallon mug emblazoned with the words “Race Trac.” When he wasn’t drinking Coke out of his mug, he was smoking. Although his face was lined like a man of 70, he was only 47, my husband’s age, and they got along from the start.
Donnie worked with his wife Rose. She had blond hair and hazel eyes with spiky black lashes. She drove the couple’s red truck and got on the roof with Donnie to help things along. Her lines of shingles tended to meander, and the nail gun went off at slow intervals when she was in charge of it, but she was a reassuring presence nonetheless.
Donnie and Rose were up on the roof doing a torchdown when I went out in the backyard with my daughter one afternoon. They were unrolling cylinders of rubber onto the flat part of our roof and sealing it with a blowtorch. The work went well, although at one point my husband called for me to get the hose as a fire had broken out. There was a moment of unease, but no harm done in the end. As proof of restored tranquility, a few empty Cheetos bags drifted down into the yard from above.
When work was through for the day, Donnie appeared with treats in hand. He brandished three lollipops, which my daughter was thrilled with, and then brought out a bag of candied orange slices. He pulled out a pocketknife and cut open the bag, talking all the while. He explained about the proper gloves to wear if you are going to be picking lemons all day (leather with a sock lining; the lemon thorns make you bleed, but the sock lining keeps the blood from soaking through), how to trap bats (use a cage that lets them fly out of their lairs but not back in) and why sofa cushions were good to sit on when working on a steep roof (they don’t slip). Meanwhile, I was wondering if I was going to let my three year old eat the fluorescent orange quasi-fruit he was offering. Of course I was. I had one too. It was strangely delicious. More like an orange than I would have given it credit for.
For the rest of the week, Donnie and Rose were atop our house. By coincidence, it turned out that Rose was the mother of Toney, the condiment loving roofer who had gone AWOL. Toney was embarrassed about having left, didn’t want to face my husband, but needed his tool belt back. He asked his mother to get it for him. My husband discussed it with Rose one day up on the newly torch downed roof. At first, he was resistant. “No way. I’m not giving the belt back until Toney comes and gets it himself. A man doesn’t ask his mother to clean up his messes.” Rose looked anguished, Don was noncommittal but smiling, and looking up at them from down on the ground, I wondered why they were suddenly so quiet. Later that night, my husband told me he had relented and given the belt to Rose after all. “I’m principled,” he said, “but I’m not a hard ass.”
Finally, one Sunday night the job was done. Donnie and Rose were heading to Texas to see their grandchildren and had worked past nightfall to finish. I came home and found Rose waiting in the truck, and my husband and Don up on the porch roof working by electric light. “We’re almost done, come up and put in the last shingle!” they called down. So I climbed the ladder in my high-heeled boots and crawled over to them. Don handed me a shingle well smeared with black Mule Hide tar cement. I mashed the shingle down and it was over. Our roof was sealed. Overhead the stars were bright, a slight wind blew, and the air was crisp. It felt good to be standing on top of my house, embracing the outdoors for the first time in a long while, reasonably sure in my heart it could not reach me once I went inside and shut the door.