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Dispatch from New Orleans: From the ground up

Beau and Papa Joe hold the new sill in place while Markey (not shown) moves the jacks under her.

By Ariane Wiltse

As the big day approached, the day when we'd jack up the house, cut out the old sills and rebuild the piers, I began to take great joy in watching my good friend Beau squirm (he's standing while watching my dad Joe).

"What's the matter Beau?" I asked as he paced incessantly, stealing peeks at my crumbling brick piers. "Afraid we'll drop the house and squash you?"

Now, I don't want to come across as too bold, and Lord knows I don't want to jinx the job -- we still have a good little bit to do. But so far, we've replaced all the sills and piers along one long side of the house without so much as a stubbed toe, let alone a squashed Beau.

And for that, I have my dad and cousin to thank. My 60-year-old "Papa Joe" and 50-year-old cousin Markey spent five hot, humid and hard days here recently working from dawn to Miller time (4:30ish) rebuilding my disintegrating foundation.

In that short period, they replaced 46 feet of 6-inch-by-6-inch sills, poured 24-inch-by-24-inch footings with 4,000 pounds of concrete and rebuilt 22 concrete block piers, setting footlong steel rebar and pouring more concrete inside each cavity. Then we added termite shields, shims where necessary, and leveled the old gal.

Had I been forced to hire a contractor to do the same work, it would have cost, according to estimates, from $10,875 to $13,400.

While my family and I worked on the foundation, Beau busted up the front concrete porch. (Visions of his feet jutting out from underneath a flattened house, Wicked Witch of the East-style, had become problematic.)

Sledgehammer in hand, Beau chipped away at the solid, steel-reinforced structure for a solid two days. (You heard me -- Beau the computer geek was breaking rocks in the hot sun.) I asked him to sing us a little ditty while he swung the sledgehammer, perhaps a Woody Guthrie chain-gang tune, or at least "I've been working on the railroad, all the live-long day," but he refused. Instead he stuck iPod plugs in his ears and turned up the volume to some political podcast. He didn't seem amused, but he never complained.

On their last night in town, and as a small gesture of my gratitude for all their help and hard work, I treated Papa Joe and Markey (Beau didn't return my call in time) to dinner at Commander's Palace, one of the best and most highfalutin' restaurants in New Orleans.

After dropping my family off at the airport, I got to thinking: I don't know many people with as large and close-knit a family as mine. Although we have our disagreements (we are a passionate and proud people prone to stubborn arguments), I know I can count on a crew of kinfolk, as they can count on me. Few people in our fast-paced, cross-country modern world can pick up a phone and ask parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles (living thousands of miles away) to put their lives on hold and come help with a big, nasty and hard job, especially in the New Orleans summer heat.

For that, and so much more, I am truly blessed.

See the whole story in pictures

(Photo: Ariane Wiltse)

Papa Joe inspects a termite-infested sill Papa Joe inspects a termite-infested sill. Markey and Pereaux (my dog) supervise while Papa Joe makes The First Cut. Markey and Pereaux (my dog) supervise while Papa Joe makes The First Cut. Markey rips out the old sill while jacks hold her steady. Markey rips out the old sill while jacks hold her steady. After cutting the lap joints, Markey, Beau and Papa Joe, from right, carry a new 6-inch-by-6-inch treated sill. After cutting the lap joints, Markey, Beau and Papa Joe, from right, carry a new 6-inch-by-6-inch treated sill. The gang carries the sill to the house. The gang carries the sill to the house. With Russel the contractor watching from inside my house, the gang fits the new sill under my house. With Russel the contractor watching from inside my house, the gang fits the new sill under my house. I take a much-earned break from the back-breaking work of documenting the job to mix a little concrete. I take a much-earned break from the back-breaking work of documenting the job to mix a little concrete. Markey takes the tirst whack at my former, and very ugly, 1940s concrete porch. Markey takes the tirst whack at my former, and very ugly, 1940s concrete porch. Beau busting rocks in the hot sun, and refusing to sing about it. Beau busting rocks in the hot sun, and refusing to sing about it. A posed photo of me pretending to be braking rocks in the hot sun. A posed photo of me pretending to be braking rocks in the hot sun. Miller time with contractor Michael Gomez and his crew. Miller time with contractor Michael Gomez and his crew. Middle-aged Mighty Men flex in front of my house. Middle-aged Mighty Men flex in front of my house. Papa Joe and Markey pose in front of some of their handy work, as well as their Lazy Y brand made in the freshly poured concrete. (Markey uses the historic and prestigious Lazy Y brand to mark his horses in Montana.) Papa Joe and Markey pose in front of some of their handy work, as well as their Lazy Y brand made in the freshly poured concrete. (Markey uses the historic and prestigious Lazy Y brand to mark his horses in Montana.) Markey, me and my dad in front of my house, sans porch, on their last day in town. Markey, me and my dad in front of my house, sans porch, on their last day in town.

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