Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Break-in

A couple of weeks ago I was returning from an errand and as I pulled into the driveway a little Japanese woman ran over to the car to tell me she was locked out of the house. She was pretty upset. She was wearing what seemed to be her workout clothes, microfiber tank-top, tights and athletic shoes; hopping around from one foot to the other and wringing her hands. Her English was probably about as good as my Spanish, but she was certainly capable of letting me in on her dilemma. She had locked herself out of the house. The telephone, her little dog, keys; everything was inside. She seemed most upset that she had to be at work and wasn’t going to make it on time. I got the impression she wanted me to call a locksmith. I brought out a phonebook from the house and started calling but for whatever reason I couldn’t get a response from any of the numbers I was calling. It was also pretty clear that even if I was able to get a locksmith to come out there would be inevitable complications: delay, how could she prove she actually lived in this house?, expense, jimmied doorknobs, etc. I suggested we take a walk round the house and see what we could come up with.

Our neighbor is a very nice man and a bit mysterious – but not at all in an annoying way. His name is John and he is very quiet. A man about my size with a calm face and gentle demeanor, he is the CFO of some local company I don’t believe I was ever told the name of. He is the one who bought the house to the south of us and had it remodeled to his specifications about three years ago. It was through that work that I snagged the guy who eventually became our electrical contractor. John is not, as near as any of us can tell, married. I figured he was gay, as he is easily in his mid-to late forties. Also, when he was first moving in we were talking to a friend of my wife’s who was doing some landscaping for him. She knew him personally and had only the nicest things to say about him. She is probably a lesbian. She said he was pretty well-off financially and involved in some unspecified social causes.

John was present and visible for the first month or two that he lived in the house, but as time passed he was there less and less…and Japanese girls began to appear. By girls I mean young Japanese women between the ages of, say, 23 and 30. The individuals in question change from time to time, but they always fit the same demographic slice and, I am ashamed to admit, all pretty much look alike. For whatever reason that house has always appealed to room-letters. The guy who lived there before was divorced with a sometimes son who stayed there about half the time and he also let out rooms to Asian girls. It most likely has something to do with the college down the street. (Another friend of ours who is Japanese -nisei- has told us that a large percentage of the Asian students at the local two-year College – and who could account for 80% of enrollment - are for the most part “rubbish children” from Japanese homes whose parents are disappointed in them; girls and boys who have been unwilling to adhere to traditional standards of behavior or academic application and are shipped to Los Angeles at substantial expense to get a second chance and do it in a place where they will bring no further embarrassment to their families. This may or may not be the case as our friend is something of a crank.) So anyway, we see less and less of John and more and more of the young Japanese women who actually live there on a day-to-day basis.

So, now we’re back to a couple of weeks ago when I was trying to help one of the women break into her own home.

I began at the front door and worked my way around the house trying each door and window for any crack, wiggle-room or opening that might be exploited to gain entry. Since this place was so newly remodeled it was securely designed and tightly shut; there was no place I could see that gave me the smallest opportunity, except…. On the north side of the house there are two little bathroom windows, one above the other like square portholes and probably no larger than 15” across. They are high on the wall, designed for venting and not for seeing out of and opening, transom-like, from the bottom. One of these was ajar. We both began looking around for something to stand on so that one of us could get at the opening. The woman found a plastic bench near the pool and dragged it over, but it was not nearly tall enough - the window was about six or seven feet off the ground. With a ladder from my garage I was able to get at the window and even put my head and one arm through to see a small dog looking at me from the other side. I suggested that the woman - the very small and light-weight woman - might want to try it herself, so she gamely climbed the ladder and crawled through the window while I maneuvered her legs to keep them from getting hurt against the sharp windowsill. Shortly after her feet disappeared I could hear her shouting excitedly and running around the house. She immediately came out the front door beaming and joyous over finally having gained entry and, one presumes, retaining her employment. Her elation was so great that her English failed her and she was left with an odd variety of hand signs – thumbs up, V for victory, high-five – with which to indicate her happiness and gratitude for what was clearly at least the second-greatest rescue of her life. Gamely, I bowed and mumbled out a lame “do-itashimashita” which only served to elicit animated expressions and another round of curious gestures.
The next day she brought over some very nice sweet-bean cookies.

Neighborhood Watch

Not too long ago a guy down the street decided to do something about his yard. It had always been so bad that I wondered if anyone even lived there; barren patches of dusty dirt, the occasional clutch of low weeds; a discarded toy. It seems that he might have had it in mind to do something along the lines of our front yard, but the job went terribly awry from the first.

Initially I saw him digging in the front for a few days. He turned over some soil and tried to contour the land somewhat. Lacking a clear vision and a sense of proportion his efforts yielded nothing more than a yard with “irregularities”, creases and bumps rather than anything that might have suggested a natural landscape. Next, with no real soil preparation he went out and bought some plants – not nearly enough – and stuck them around the yard. The spacing was unnatural. There were no groupings or attempts to combine sizes, colors or textures; just a plant here and a plant way over there and another one over there. The very next day I awoke to find his driveway heaped, filled with broken bits of wood. These were not the kinds of bark nuggets or shavings you ordinarily use for landscaping, these were big; anywhere from the size of a hot dog to a fist. He started throwing shovelsful of this stuff around the yard. It went on for a couple of days. The overall effect, when he was finished, was that of a pine grove having imploded on his front yard. And of course the teenie little plants had all but disappeared amid the rubble, too insignificant to matter. Eventually he had spread about 6 to 8 inches of this broken wood around. And that was it. So now, instead of having a neighbor whose yard screams “PUT WRECKED CAR AND OLD REFRIGERATOR HERE!” we have one whose yard resembles a diorama of Mt. St. Helens.


After the holidays were over I decided it was time to try and get the last of my city inspections taken care of. Unfortunately, when I tried I wasn’t able to get into the computer system because my building permit had expired; you only get a year. I didn’t know that one needed a valid permit to get final inspections; I assumed that once the construction was complete a permit was no longer needed. So, I had to go down to the city and arrange for an extension on the permit.

While I was down at our charming and historic art deco city hall I was told that I could, if I was able, take advantage of a five day grace period during which I might be able to complete the inspection process without having to file (and pay for) an extension to my original permit. However, I was also told that l could not get any final inspections without first checking with various city agencies to make sure I had received their approvals. I needed to call the Office of Environmental Whatever to make sure I had not been cited for damage to trees, parkways, etc., I had to contact the fire department to ensure that I had complied with regulations regarding smoke detectors and if sprinklers were required they had been properly installed, and I had to check with the Business Licensing Division to make sure that all of my sub-contractors were properly licensed. Had I known about this last one I think I’d have listed fewer sub-contractors; as owner/builder I can claim to have done all of the work myself if I wish. But it was too late. The form had already been filed with the city. In checking they discovered that my electrician was behind in his business license payments and my plumber had no Santa Monica Business License whatsoever. Given that the amount of money involved was not huge – a couple hundred dollars – and I was in a hurry I opted to pay the money owed out of my own pocket and try to collect from the electrician and plumber later.

The fire department and outdoor environmental people signed me off quickly and I was able to arrange an inspection the next afternoon. When the guy got there he was somewhat surprised to find that I had called for a Final Inspection as it was not printed on his paperwork, but inasmuch as he was in a good mood and had a relatively light schedule I agreed to look around and see what he could see. All in all I didn’t do too badly. He found about a dozen things that weren’t quite right and most of them were minor. I needed to secure a length of wire in the attic, fix additional grounding to the water heater, install the ground-wire on the Jacuzzi motor, run a bead of sealant around the base of all toilets, repair some broken screens on the attic vents and build screened covers for each of the crawlspace entries. Stuff like that. The bigger jobs involved relocating the water heater behind my office – it seems to be about eight inches too high on the wall – enlarging one of my crawlspace entry point – mine was three inches to narrow from top to bottom - and putting in real steps for the rear exit.
I decided that as long as I had to put in regulation steps (not more than seven and three-quarter inches rise per step) at the back doors I might as well put in a deck, so over the next few days I built a redwood platform that goes from one side of the patio area to the other and creates a downstep for both of the doors. After that was in I just needed one additional step to get to ground level. It was slow, methodical work; the weather was warm and the wood gave off a summery scent. After I finished, my aged mother-in-law found that she liked to sit out there on warm afternoons and of course Scout, our dog, immediately took it over as his sunning area as well.

I scheduled another inspection for the following weeks. I wanted to ask some questions about the repositioning of the water heater before I actually did it, and I wanted to see if there was any way I could wheedle out of enlarging the crawlspace access hole which would necessitate cutting either stucco or concrete and was bound to get ugly.

The subsequent visit from the building inspector started out badly and ended only slightly better. The guy – who I’d never seen before - walked in angry. He asked me what he was supposed to do there and when I told him I wanted a final inspection he looked apoplectic. He’d never been to the house before; had never seen any phase of construction, was new on the job and had recently moved out here from Denver. He couldn’t believe they would send him out to do a final inspection on a project he’d had no experience with at all. Oh, was he disturbed. “What do I look at?” he asked. “I mean, where do I start? I don’t know what’s new construction here and what’s old. How do they expect me to…?” Air rushed in and out of his nose like tides. He barely spoke. He spent the first minute or so just standing there looking up at …nothing. He’d take a couple of steps one way, then pause and take a couple steps another way, then mumble, “What are they thinking?” Then he’d go stick his tester into an electrical outlet, then stand up and walk to another electrical outlet and do the same thing. Now, even if you don’t have as much experience with inspectors as I do you don’t have to be psychic to see that there was virtually no way the situation was going to work out well for me. Very likely this guy was going to begin charging around like a wounded bear ripping away at everything he could find out of sheer frustration and pique. He’d find just one thing out of compliance and from then on I’d be a dead duck. I’d get dinged for a mirror hanging one-quarter inch out of plumb; I’d be written up for using the wrong shade of green in the guest bath and having the toilet paper rolling backwards; I’d be ordered to remove the dog’s soiled bedding from what would eventually be the laundry area. He’d hate everything he saw, or he was going to throw up his hands and walk away. The latter being the better choice of the two I adopted my usual approach when dealing with upset people, I was very sympathetic, understanding; undemanding and most of all on-his-side. “Oh, this is a very bad spot those people have put you in”, I said, shaking my head slowly from side to side. “How can they expect you to….” and “I don’t really know what you can do what with the circumstances and all.” I took on a pained, deeply sympathetic expression. I reflected just how deeply troubled I was by this grave injustice that had been inflicted upon him. I called upon his expertise, “What do you think I ought to do right now? What do you think is the best approach to dealing with those people and the mess they’ve created.” That sort of thing. I was good, if I do slay so myself. Not showy or obvious; subtle and realistic You’d have been impressed.

He walked around to the back of the house, opened the electrical panel and commented on the missing ground connection between the hot, cold and gas lines at the rear water heater. I ran before him whisking away dog turds so he wouldn’t accidentally…(oh, aye dios mio, I don’t even want to think about it). Then he’d come back in again, make exasperated sounds and review the ceiling, visible whisps of steam floating off and away from his head. More than once I figured I was a sunk skunk, but eventually I did notice a slight calming. He looked over the plans I showed him and grudgingly remarked that he liked the electrical work. He thought the plumbing looked “OK”. He suggested that I call in for another inspector and try to get “Mechanical”, “Plumbing” and “Electrical” all done on the same day. By the time he left we were no longer combatants, but compatriots struggling against the outrages of “the system”. He didn’t sign anything or approve anything, but that was OK; just having him step out the door was a relief.

So, I gave myself a couple of days to recover from the trauma and then managed to schedule three inspections for one day. This morning when I checked on-line to see when I could expect the inspector to arrive I saw that they had scheduled the same guy who had shown up previously. I’m serious. Really. Imagine! I was a bit edgy awaiting his arrival. I only knew that he’d show up between 8 am and 12, but that is a lot of time to wait for trouble.

Finally he showed up, sneezing; some allergy thing. I was all set to offer chicken soup, coffee – some of the fresh tortillas my mother-in-law had just made or whatever it would take to make him feel better. But, to my surprise, this was a very different version of the same guy. He was smiling, happy to see Scout, animated, conversational; all of the things he had not been on the previous visit. I pulled out a ladder so he could look up in the attic area, he came back down and starting pouring over his sheaf of paperwork. I remembered to bring out my permit and the copy of my approval sheet and when I got there he just started initialing things. Wham. Zip. Just like that he had initialed approvals on Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing. I tentatively, and more than a little nervously, asked, “So, what’s my next step here?” and he scribbled another set of initials next to “Comprehensive Approval” and said, “Nothing. You’re finished. Its done”. I was dumbstruck. Just like that the whole thing was over! I felt as though someone had pulled the rug out from under me, the flooring and the earth’s geographical surface as well. I floated like Major Tom.

Among the remarkable things about having completed this process is the jobs l never had to do. Just two weeks earlier an inspector had told me that I had to lower one of the water heaters eight inches, enlarge one of my crawlspace access openings, and two or three other jobs that were either difficult, time-consuming, expensive or problematic. Now, forget about it. Just like the last day of school there was a whole batch of problems, concerns and worries that never materialized or were attended to and suddenly became completely irrelevant.