Dispatch from New Orleans: The foundation saga, cont.

This old pier is from another house in New Orleans.By Ariane Wiltse

My mom arrived last week with the best of intentions. Like other relatives who have come before her, she came to help with my house in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans. She also came knowing that we’d be working in temperatures hovering around 95 degrees with 95% humidity. And, the air conditioner in the trailer is busted.

Mentally, she had prepared for the heat. But she hadn’t prepared for the mosquitoes and fire ants. They made a buffet of her, leaving her arms and legs a red, swollen mess. After her first night here, she had 50 bites. (Yes, she counted.) I’m sure she’s up to hundreds by now. I, on the other hand, have about five. I don’t know if being better acclimated to summer in New Orleans makes my blood sour to the little suckers. But they sure find hers sweet.

Heat and bug bites aside, we weren’t able to get much done on the house this week. I had hoped that between my mom (“Mama Lin"), my friend Beau, myself and another worker recommended by a friend, we’d be able to knock out the rest of the foundation. But the worker decided that he didn’t want to work this week, leaving me scrambling for another set of hands, and I found those with Andy.

I’m also partly at fault for the delay. When Beau and I and Mama Lin poured the concrete footings and set the piers in the front of the house last week, I hyper-focused on making sure the damn things were level. And in my obsessing, I missed the small detail that the piers weren’t in line with the house. In fact, they set a good six inches too far back, clearly missing the sills.

I didn’t notice this little problem until we were about to install the sills, after the concrete had had a long weekend to cure. Seeing the distance between sill and piers, Beau grabbed the sledgehammer. He said he was preparing for the inevitable. (He’s become an expert, of sorts, at breaking rocks in the hot sun.) I figured there must be some kind of way to fix the piers without going to such extremes. But Beau said to do so would only be doing a “Peanut job.” (See what we mean by a "Peanut job" below.) The piers had to go.

Andy stepped in and found a middle ground. A post-Katrina volunteer and graduate student from the University of Wisconsin, Andy moved here after finishing up at school. I called him the day before, pleading for help after my scheduled worker decided to take the week off. Andy has worked on lots of crews, so he brought a degree of expertise and rationality that was missing from the trifecta of ignorance among me, Mama Lin and Beau.

Speaking with the authority of the anointed, Andy suggested that we wedge a pick (his favorite tool) and a crow bar under the concrete slabs to finagle them forward. This sounded like a fine idea to me, so I grabbed my camera to document the Moving of the Slabs. Beau kept the sledgehammer close. He knew he’d be vindicated.

The first one moved quickly and easily, so quickly that I almost missed the shot. The second one didn’t work out so well. I tried to encourage Beau and Andy from behind the camera: “Heave! Ho!” But it was no use. The damn thing wouldn’t budge. And even if it had, it probably wasn’t the best-made concrete pier. It was our first attempt at pier-building without experienced supervision. And it looked like it too. It might as well have been duct-taped and bubble-gummed together. A real Peanut job. So after much deliberation, I sacrificed the pier to Beau and his sledgehammer.

Because the concrete footings and piers need at least three days to cure before we can put weight on them, losing one pier to the sledgehammer put us back several days. We’ll get the foundation in the front of the house finished this week, but the remaining 24 feet of sill and half a dozen piers on the side of the house will have to wait until I return from vacation. Bummer.

See the story so far

Addendum to the story above:

A Peanut Job

By Ariane Wiltse

Definition: Doing "a Peanut job" means doing something half-way. A duct-taped and bubble-gummed version of a job, especially on areas of great importance, like anything affecting the structural integrity of a home.

This being New Orleans, you can expect there’s a story behind the term, with a real character as the main character:

A few weeks back, I met a man who lives a few blocks from my house. He’s a neighborhood old-timer, so I figured he might have known the people who were living in my house when the storm hit.

“Oh yeah, I knew Peanut,” he says. “He was a real character.”

In typical New Orleans fashion, no one seems to have known his real name. People only knew him as Peanut.

As my neighbor and I got to talking, it became apparent that Peanut was a one of these guys who likes to fiddle around the house. Only problem was, Peanut was more of a visionary than a carpenter, and he didn’t let that stop him from making some pretty drastic changes.

“He used to come by my house every now and then and call me over to see all the work he had done,” my neighbor says. “He’d been working on some job or another for awhile, and he’d be so proud. But I’d take one look at it and just shake my head. I couldn’t say a word. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but the things he was doing, they didn’t make no sense.”

My neighbor doesn’t remember many of the specifics, but he does remember the time Peanut called him over to take a look at his work on the foundation. Peanut had a couple of car jacks holding up the house while he replaced an 8×8 piece of sill with a 4×4 and a 2×4 nailed together. And rather than repair the crumbling brick piers, let alone rebuild them, he put a thin coat of stucco on the exterior, making them look good as new, but doing nothing to increase their structural integrity.

Hearing this story got me to thinking about a couple of strange things I’ve discovered lately around the house. In the back barge-board room, someone cut a 10x10x1-foot cavity into the wall, then extended the floor but neglected to extend the ceiling, so it’s open to all of South Louisiana’s elements. I have no idea what it could have been used for. It’s nowhere near deep enough for a closet. I figured my neighbor might know the reasoning behind it.

“That sounds like something Peanut would do,” he says. “He probably was planning on turning it into a bedroom.”

“But it’s only about a foot deep,” I say.

“That don’t matter none,” he says. “Peanut had lots of kids. Any little bit of space he could find, he’d stick one in there.”

Bedroom or not, the back bump-out is a relatively small thing. I have evidence of another do-it-yourself job that no sane person can understand. After I gutted the house to the studs, scraping off scores of scabs in the process, I discovered that the ceiling joists along a load-bearing wall had been cut. Yeah, you heard me. Peanut cut the ceiling joists. No wonder my house is leaning a good six to eight inches.

The cutting of the ceiling joists makes a big impact on everyone. And the reaction is always the same: “What in the hell would make someone do that?”

To which I always reply, “Peanut was an artist, not a craftsman. We mere mortals cannot begin to understand his vision.”