“It looks funny.”
“Not all the time,” I say.
My daughter is addressing my head. We’re in the kitchen on a Sunday morning. I’ve been shelling fava beans and enjoying the hum coming from the basement, where our Frigidare de-humidifier is keeping us dry. We had water down there a while ago, a crisis. Today the sun is out, and these fava, shucked and blanched and removed from their little jackets, are brilliant green. They will make a fine pasta sauce. She levels her index finger at my ear, making a little statement. I’m getting the point. That I have a fresh haircut, that something’s not quite right in the ear zones.
“It’s the straight edge.” She holds a hand next to her right ear, makes a sawing motion. “It looks chopped.”
“I don’t know why you don’t go to Gemma,” my wife says from the next room.
Gemma cut my hair for 35 years. She knew my head. She gave me long, slow conversational cuts, talking my ears off. Once I quit working, I had to quit Gemma and find someone new. Right now I’m not so sure about my new guy.
“Gemma’s too far,” I say to the next room. It’s thirty minutes to her shop. I have to plan ahead. With haircuts, I’m into just-in-time delivery these days.
“You got whacked,” my daughter says.
So this is a pleasant conversation. From the kitchen I make a stealth move to the bathroom, turn on the light, and consult the mirror. Some haircuts need a week or two before they look right. This one, for example. While I’m in there, the doorbell rings. Through the bathroom window, I see a head of carefully combed black hair on the front porch.
I pull the front door open to a thin guy, medium height, forty-ish. He’s wearing a gray jacket. There’s a clipboard clamped under his left arm. So he’s selling something. On a Sunday morning? From the corner of his mouth, curving down to his chin, he has a thin red scar.
I push the screen door open.
“I’m Alex,” he says. “I cleaned your gutters last year.”
Alex the Russian gutter man. He came out last spring, when my wife got fed up with my antics during rain storms.
He hands me his card. It’s Aleks. Sounds like Alex. A guy at the hardware store gave me his number.
“I looked,” he says. “Your gutters are full. I clean them tomorrow, same price as last year.”
We have dirty trees in the yard, a big maple, a bunch of cottonwoods. The gutters and downspouts get clogged. In a hard rain, when water spills from them, I like to toss on a rain coat, hike up a ladder, and clean the downspout blockage. There’s a sudden rush of water along the gutter, down the spout. It’s instant gratification at its best. But dangerous. According to the Center for Disease Control, ladders account for over 100,000 injuries a year, probably many more go unreported, and 300 deaths. My dad fell off one and bruised some ribs. My wife’s co-worker Lowell fell off one, broke his back and paralyzed himself. I try to be careful, I try to think with my feet climbing up and down, but sometimes your feet don’t pay attention. Please stay off the ladder, my wife says.
Aleks says he’ll see me Monday.
Water comes at us, from above and below. One spring, during a prolonged Michigan monsoon, water leaked into our basement, through the floor. Lots of it. We were getting ready to go away. Two consecutive days, fresh out of bed in the morning, I walked down to the basement in my bare feet, pausing on the bottom step. Outside it rained and rained. In the basement, the water rose. It was a calamity.
What do you do?
It’s hard not to panic. If you panic, and if you’re still a little old school, you take down the Yellow Pages from that shelf in the closet. You pick out some big ads and some little ads. Make a few calls.
The first outfit sent a salesman to give us an estimate. They would bust the floor all the way around the inside perimeter of the basement, install drain tile, gravel, patch the floor. They could fit us in their busy schedule, like, the very next day. Oh, and the repair would cost $12,000. The second outfit sent a salesman to give us an estimate. The dispatcher said the guy would only come when both my wife and I were home. Why’s that? I wondered. They just preferred it that way. We’ll be home tonight, I said, trying hard not to sound desperate.
When the salesman came through the front door that night, he had two notebooks under his arm. Notebooks that were actually photo albums. How-we-fix-your-basement photos, I assumed. The second album he opened was that. The first photo album he opened, the fatter one, was pictures of basements with mold. Black mold. Gray mold. Speckled mold, splotchy mold. Basements with total everywhere. He slid the photo album to the center of the kitchen table and rotated it, aimed ever so slightly in my wife’s direction. With the desired effect.
“Oh,” she said.
“Mold,” he said. “I can’t emphasize it enough: You have to move fast on this.” He turned a page. More photos, more mold.
She looked at me.
He said, “It happens every time.”
He said, “It’s probably already gotten a head start on us.”
He said, “Do you have allergies?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Laundry room is in the basement?”
“Yes,” she said.
You are the devil, I thought.
Then he opened the how-we-fix-your-basement book. He talked about the water table (high) and hydrostatic pressure (intense). He said their approach was to bust the floor all the way around the inside perimeter of the basement, install drain tile, gravel, patch the floor. Outside the house they would dig down to the footing, waterproof the basement walls, replace the outside drain tile, freshen the gravel, and backfill. We’d never have water again, guaranteed.
My wife was still looking at the mold.
Total cost of the repair: $24,000.
I said we needed time to think about it. We still had to talk to a few more people. Thanks for coming. He left us a written estimate, reminding us as I was pushing him out the door of the all important issue, mold.
My wife and I sat at the kitchen table, looking at each other. It was a lot of money. The water down there didn’t seem to be going anywhere. We’d pulled out carpet, taken it to the road. We’d rearranged stuff, getting our valuable basement junk off the wet floor. It was a mess.
In fact, we didn’t have a few more people to see. All the ads in the Yellow Pages looked more or less alike. Surely, I said to my wife, there was someone who knew about these things, someone smart, someone we could trust. Then I remembered.
Her cousin Walt is in the poured wall business. He’s made basements for people for fifty years. Hundreds of basements. No, thousands of basements. He must have fielded a few water-in-the-basement complaints.
“Yeah, I got a guy,” he said when I got him on the phone. “He’s a genius.”
“He’s a wizard.”
“What’s his number?”
“He understands water. He just gets it.”
“What’s his number?”
“He’ll come,” Walt said. “But you gotta bug him.”
His name was Ivan Bogner. Walt gave me a phone number, adding that it might not be the right number because Ivan Bogner had to change phones all the time. His cell phone regularly fell out of his pocket and into pools of muddy water. I pictured a basement full of water, a guy in scuba gear, holding an underwater flashlight, diving under basement floors and getting to the source of the problem.
I bugged Ivan Bogner for two days. I left too many messages, apologizing in every one of them for calling again, for needing his help so bad, needing it as soon as he could possibly come, and did I mention that Walt was my wife’s cousin?
On the afternoon of the third day, a white van pulled up in front of the house. A little guy, probably in his sixties, climbed out of the vehicle. He was muscular. He wore white painter’s pants and a white t-shirt. His hair was cut close to his head. The white van and his clothes were spotless. He looked like he could be an actor in a TV commercial for Mr. Clean or the Man from Glad. He loped up the driveway, shoved through the open door, and asked me to show him to the basement.
“Block,” he said.
“It’s a cement block basement. Does that matter?”
I told him the guys we’d talked to so far said we needed all new drain tile.
“Who are they?”
“I found them in the Yellow Pages.”
He shook his head. “I’ll get my tools.”
“Right now?” I thought I should ask, What about an estimate? How much is this going to cost? He was already on the stairway.
Ivan Bogner carried in a large power drill and an electric jackhammer. He pointed at the corner of the basement and said he would drill a hole through the wall into the drain tile. He told me he needed garden hose. He drilled. I fetched a hose, one end of which he connected to the laundry tub faucet. The other end he fed through the hole he had drilled in the wall.
“Now turn on the water,” he said.
We were standing in an inch of water in my basement, and he wanted me to turn on the water. He wanted to introduce more water to an already very bad water situation. It seemed like throwing gas on a fire to put it out.
“I need to know if your drain tile is blocked,” he said. “Turn on the water.”
We let it run 3-4 minutes.
“Good,” he said.
He told me shut it off, pulled out the hose, and said he would patch the hole later.
Using the jackhammer, he broke a 10 inch hole in the concrete floor on one side of the basement, revealing a high muddy lake under the floor. He found exactly what he was looking for: tile leading from the footing to a central tile feed that went to the sump hole in the corner of the basement. He broke a hole in the tile. It was full of water.
“Good,” he said.
On the other side of the basement, he broke another 10 inch hole in the concrete floor, finding more tile. There was a high muddy lake. He got down on his hands and knees, reaching down into the water.
“Here’s the problem,” he said. He was dragging his right hand through the water, hauling mud out of the hole. “It’s a broken joint in the tile.” There was a distinct swooshing sound as water started to flow past the blockage while he scooped more mud from the tile. Water gushed toward the sump hole.
“Your pump is going run for the next few hours.” He clawed more muck out of the hole. “Get your de-humidifier going. We’ll get you dried out down here. It will take a couple days.” He stood up. His whites were muddy. The water rushed gloriously through the tile.
“Those companies you talked to,” he said, “what were they going to charge you to fix this problem?”
I told him. He shook his head in disgust. “Some of those people,” he said, “they have no shame.”
A few days later he came back, patched the tile and the holes in the wall and floor. When I asked him what we owed him, he said he would send us the bill. He never sent it. I called, left messages. Then his number went out of service. I got the new one from Walt. Called. No bill. We’ve been dry ever since.
Ever since Ivan Bogner the first thing I do when I get up in the morning is walk downstairs in my bare feet and empty the dehumidifier. Every day it takes two gallons of water out of the air down there, keeping us dry, holding the mold at bay. It could probably do more, , according to the manual, it could do as much as seventy pints a day, but for now, for my own peace of mind, I want to be exact. I want to know. Two gallons a day.
Every morning I pour this water down the laundry tub drain. It’s sort of a ritual; makes me feel actively involved.
Lately my wife has been saying we should put that water to use, if I would just carry it upstairs.
And do what with it? I wonder.
Water plants, she says.
Sure, we could do that. Really, I get it. All that water down the drain: it seems like a shameful waste. But really, carry water up the stairs, every day, walking past how many faucets in the process?
Water is heavy, two gallons is almost 20 pounds.
And of course water in Michigan is plentiful. According to United States Geological Services, out of all the 50 states and the District of Columbia, Michigan ranks number one for the amount of surface area covered with water, 41.5 percent. That’s 40,175 square miles of surface area : lake, strait, bay, river, stream, spring, brook, creek, crick, ditch, pond, pool, marsh, bog, wetland, swamp. That’s a lot of water.
And then there’s the Great Lakes.
Still, I get it. Water is a curse and a blessing. It has a power that will have its way with us, a power we can harness. Some years ago, before our water woes, I was talking to a colleague about making use of water running off the roof. I fantasized about capturing water during rain storms, using it to grow a voluptuous garden in the back yard. He suggested a cistern. And for a day or two, I thought it just might work. Roof, gutters, downspouts, a simple system for transferring and banking water.
Then I wondered: How much water is that?
Turns out, a lot.
One inch of rainfall on 1000 square feet of roof amounts to 620 gallons of water. Our roof is roughly three times that size. The average yearly rainfall in the Detroit area is 33 inches, making for a yearly capture of some 61,000 gallons of rain water.
What on earth would we do with all that water?
Come Monday Aleks climbs up on the roof. He uses a battery-powered blower to blow leaves and junk off the roof. With a putty knife he scraps all the crud out of the gutters. He’s sure-footed up there. And not a hair out of place. I’ve been considering asking who cuts his hair, then decide to let it go. I’ll give my new guy another more chance.
Aleks works fast. He does a better job than I do.
Later, when I write him the check, he points to all our tree cover, wonders if he should come again in the fall.
By all means, I say, see you in the fall. I tell him I’ll pass his name and number to people I know.
Water above, water below, under control.
Some days, during a gentle rain, I stand on the back porch and listen to run-off coursing along the gutters. It has its own distinct music. It’s soothing. For the time being, at least, we have the upper hand.