by John Marchese


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Renovations is more than the sum of its parts. It's a sensitive portrait of a father-son relationship. It's a funny, thoughtful account of dealing with the challenges of midlife. It's also an inside look at modern home renovations. And the end result is as rewarding as the most challenging home project (with or without Bob Vila's help).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781573229319
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/07/2002
Edition description: REPRINT
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.13(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.67(d)

About the Author

John Marchese has been a frequent contributor to The New York Times, as well as a contributing editor at Worth magazine and a contributing writer for Philadelphia magazine, where he won a National Magazine Award. His work has appeared in two collections: The Best American Sports Writing and The Wall Street Journal Guide to Executive Style. He divides his time between Narrowsburg, New York, and New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Tearing Down a Wall

                          Tearing down a wall is easy. I mean the standard wall in a modern home—half-inch Sheetrock over two-by-four wooden studs. I have ripped down a few now, and I can outline the procedure.

    First, I poke a hole in the Sheetrock with a short knife, a serrated eight-inch blade that looks as if it could be on display in a museum of horrible felonies. It looks like a bread knife gone bad. The proper name for it is keyhole saw, and I use my father's. Most of the tools I use are his, except for a sixteen-ounce graphite hammer that friends gave me for my thirty-ninth birthday, just before I left New York City to renovate a house in the country.

    After I've cut a small hole with the keyhole saw, I stick my hand inside the wall and feel around for wires to make sure that further cutting doesn't send me flying across the room like an electrified human wrecking ball. If all is clear, I extend the cut through the wall's skin with a regular saw, running as close to a vertical stud as possible. Sheetrock is a sandwich of gypsum and paper. It makes good walls—solid enough to hold family pictures and mirrors—but a person could easily put his fist through it in a fit of rage. Since I've started working on this house I've understood the urge, but never indulged it. With a sharp tool, it cuts easy.

    When I've sawed a channel from floor to ceiling, I start pulling onthe wallboard, trying to make a sheet open out like a door, prying and working it back and forth until it breaks off. As I do all this tugging and twisting, white gypsum dust pours to the floor and piles in small heaps. It fills my throat and nose. It covers every horizontal and some vertical surfaces. There have been times during the months I've spent renovating when I've padded bleary-eyed and hung-over into the kitchen to find a coat of white dust lining the bottom of my coffee pot. This never bothered me because it seemed to illustrate a large and important truth: Renovating anything is a messy business.

    Sometimes the mess is most of the fun. For someone like me, who has spent nearly two decades constructing nothing stronger than sentences, the idea of tearing down a wall and building another is filled with romance and danger. The tools I use—hammers, saws, crowbars, catspaws—seem like an arsenal fit for some swashbuckler. Simply walking around with a tool belt strapped on makes me feel different, more competent and masterful.

    One doesn't need to have a great interest in etymology to appreciate the significance of the word "renovate." The definition is full of the promise of new life and vigor, the notion of something better springing out of the dust and dirt. When, for the first time, I picked up the keyhole saw and jabbed it into a wall, I felt that I held in my hand the key to my own renovation. From an inchoate mess of wood and plaster, nails and wire would come a new and better structure, to be inhabited by a new and better man.

    After all the Sheetrock is off, I attack the studs. I watched my father do this first, in the damp chill of an unheated second floor as we began to gut my house. He approaches demolition as he approaches much of life, with a dogged, impatient stubbornness, hoping that force and perseverance will make up for subtlety and grace. His idea of tearing out a stud is heavy on the tearing, and I've come to believe that he enjoys the demolition process simply because it gives him an excuse to curse.

    He whacks, he hammers, he pounds—great thudding blows. "You bastard," he'll yell. Whack, whack. The doomed wall lets loose a a shrill scream as a sixteen-penny spike, a nail the size of a pencil, is pulled inch by painful inch from the wood that has been its home for four decades. I have seen him in the midst of a frenzy of destruction, unaware that blood is dripping to the floor from a dime-size patch of skin hanging from his finger.

    "You're bleeding," I tell him.

    He lifts his hand for a look. "How the hell did I do that?" he wonders. (I have one answer to his question that is not entirely generous, but saying it is another urge I don't indulge. He's working for free.) He sticks the filthy finger into his mouth for a moment and then goes back to work.

    After we have stripped the second floor to the bare rafters, my father tells me, "Okay, now you're a demolition expert."

    I think he is joking.

    But when it comes time to start tearing up the first floor on my own, I decide to try flying my pattern. With the Sheetrock I follow my father's procedures, but my approach to the wood is different. I try to coax the old boards out. I want to remove them intact, as if a videotape of the original carpentry were merely running backward and the hammer head were magically sucking the nails out of the boards with each blow. Working this way, it takes me two entire days to remove a few short bathroom walls and a couple of door frames. But the boards could have gone back into another wall—if they hadn't become so warped and twisted over the years as to be unusable.

    "Why'd you save this shit?" my father asks when he returns to work and sees that my salvaged wood is worthless. He probably has a theory to answer his question about me, but he doesn't offer it.

    This happens nearly a year into my renovation project. Of all the things I'm learning in the process of working on this house, the most complicated, the most frustrating, and the most important thing is finding out about the makeup of the man I call my father.

    As I entered midlife, I realized that my father and I shared a name and just about nothing else. No one has ever told me, "Oh, you're just like your father." We had, each of us, built a wall between us, whether we meant to or not. I tried one day to make a list of things we had in common. It was a short list. One thing leapt out at me: Neither of us had ever owned a house.

    He had built them, though—scores of houses in his decades working in construction. There were churches, too, and schools and hospitals and power plants. His role in building them was small, and usually invisible to the layman. He was often just one of scores of workers on a site. But I think the lasting presence, the matter-of-fact solidity of everything he has built gives him pride. Most of the things he has had a hand in building will long outlast him.

    My father is not a particularly sentimental man, but his relationship with his work, I've come to realize, is strong and complex. A few years ago, when a drive-in theater screen he'd helped put up was torn down, it took him a long time to get over it. Maybe this place was special for him because he'd actually used it—our whole family had watched movies there on summer nights, the gun-metal gray speaker hanging in the window of a car that smelled of cheese curls and Hawaiian Punch. Whatever the reason, after that drive-in was demolished, he spoke about it as if it were a friend who had died.

    There were many other places, other walls and ceilings and floors that he'd helped make square and solid. Many of these were places that my father would never feel comfortable returning to—college classrooms and fancy hotels—places he rarely went back inside after the last nail was driven. He was a construction worker; they were built by him but not for him. I remember that he used to drive past them when he was nearby, conducting a slow survey from the curbside, staying on the outside, looking in.

    For twenty years, he stayed on the outside of my life in much the same way. When I went off to college, a few weeks before I turned eighteen—the first man in the Marchese family to receive higher education—I stepped tentatively into a new world, leaving behind the world that my father knew. The poet Delmore Schwartz used to love the story of the immigrant father who told his son: "Why should I send you to college? Every course you take makes you more of a stranger." If my father ever felt that, he never spoke up.

    We drove to my college in a huge blue Cadillac he borrowed from his brother, the back end so heavy with a trunk-load of my stuff that it nearly scraped the roadway all the way to Texas. He walked around the campus for a day looking at the landscaping and the buildings. He never asked me what courses I was taking. It was the last days of a Texas August, and as we shook hands in the horrific heat outside my dormitory, his parting wisdom, I remember, was practical and grounded in his own experience. "That building will stay a little cooler," he told me. "It's plastered." He was in the plastering trade. On that topic, he remained an expert.

    A few years later I dropped out of school, filled with the notion of reading what are called the Great Books on my own. I sat with him and my mother over dinner at their favorite restaurant—Friendly's—and told them how I wanted to learn ancient Greek and Latin so that I could read the classics in their original versions. My father stared across the table at me. "What the hell do you want to do that for?" he asked.

    It is no wonder that even my haphazard and mediocre education somehow became a wall between us. "You're always reading a book," he said to me a few years ago. "You like that?" He may believe that I'm wasting my time, being dreamy and impractical. Or maybe he suspects he's missing something. Now that he's well into his seventies, what can he do? "I'm as smart as I'll ever be," he said one day. "I guess that's enough."

    Of course, when I bought an old house to renovate, what I needed to learn was everything my father already knew. Forget about books. I had too many books. I needed bookshelves. Simple carpentry seemed like brain surgery to me. My hands were untrained, their skin as soft as the belly of a puppy. I wanted to learn to hammer and saw and frame and insulate and tear things down and replace them with something better.

    I wanted to do what people still call honest work. As we started working—my father and I—the metaphor seemed so appropriate. We would tear down the walls, both literal and figurative. Our time together would turn into the dusty, sweaty, real-life version of one of those beer commercials. I love you, man.

    I had no idea how hard this would be. It turns out ! was equally unarmed with the skills required for the job. For this project, I couldn't go out and buy the tools, and my father had none to lend me.

    When the vertical studs have been hammered away, I start to pull out the plates, boards that attach the studs to the floor and ceiling. For this job I use my favorite tool—the Wonderbar. It is some clever company's improvement on the old crowbar. Like a crowbar, it has nail-pulling teeth on either end, and the same curved shape, like a comma. But with this new tool, the hard steel body is flattened, about the width of a credit card, making it easy to slip under recalcitrant boards and get good leverage for prying. This is the one tool my father actually bought new just for this project.

     I wedge the bar between the top plate and a ceiling joist, wiggle it around as if I'm churning butter. When the board refuses to budge, I push the flat side of the bar deeper and then hang on it, hoping my weight will loosen some nails.

    "What the hell are you doin'?" my father asks.

    My feet are dangling a few inches above the floor. "Trying to get this plate down," I grunt.

    "You're usin' the wrong end of the bar."


Table of Contents

1. Tearing Down a Wall1
2. I Should Have Listened9
3. Where I Lived (If You Call It Living) What I Lived For17
4. Home Again26
5. Dream House39
6. Floyd's House55
7. My House65
8. Working71
9. Woodchucks and Squirrels93
10. There Might Be a Name for It112
11. Sheetrocking Through the Midlife Crisis127
12. They All Fall Down153
13. Scaffold166
14. John and Tully's Excellent Adventure182
15. Chalk Lines199
16. Finish Work218
Epilogue: Another River229

What People are Saying About This

Douglas Brinkley

...this exquisitely written memoir...reverberates with joy, empathy and love.
— (Douglas Brinkley, director of the Eisenhower Center and Professor of History at the University of New Orleans)

Pete Dexter

Renovations is a solid, heartfelt piece of work, and a dead accurate use of the a great book.
— (Pete Dexter, author of The Paperboy and Paris Trout)

Ben Yagoda

The book marks the arrival of a new voice: fresh and funny and wise.
— (Ben Yagoda, author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made)

From the Publisher

"Achingly honest, often funny and always vivid you can hear the hammer's thwack." —Raleigh News & Observer

"[Renovations is] about tearing down walls, first the ones made of Sheetrock, then the walls that had been put up between a 39-year-old son, an urbane freelance writer, and his cranky 73-year-old father, an Italian immigrant and former construction worker...a self-deprecating memoir that tells a larger story." —USA Today

"Full of wisdom and genuine humor... Marchese's honest, uncluttered account lets the emotion emerge quietly, as the nails are being hammered." —David Pitt, Booklist

"With spare elegance, John Marchese leads us on a touching personal odyssey as he sets out to rebuild a house with his stubborn old man, and he manages to create something far more vital and lasting than a shiny new abode. He builds a deep-walled wisdom that we can all learn from." —James Dodson, author of Final Rounds

James Dodson

...Marchese...manages to create something far more vital and lasting than a shiny new abode. He builds a deep-walled wisdom....
— (James Dodson, author of Final Rounds, Faithful Travelers and A Golfer's Life.)

Carol Saline

n this thoughtful, sensitive, funny mid-life odyssey, Marchese has created a new kind of how-to genre.
— (Carol Saline, author of Sisters, Mothers & Daughters, and Best Friends)

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Renovations 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
soam on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One to share with my father. Heartfelt story.