Saturday, November 16, 2013

So Me And Paul Newman Walk Into A State House

[If you just came in, I'm explaining how I raised my practically-free house six inches with little money and only a teenager to help. It's taking much longer to explain than it did to do the work. That's because a house weighs much less than my ego]

I was, at one time, a general contractor.

They don't call it that, officially, back in Massholechusetts where I earned the credential. You're a "Construction Supervisor." I understand they have differing degrees of construction supervision licenses, but I've never met anyone with anything but the "unrestricted" version, me included. I was licensed to pull a building permit for -- and bang the nails into -- anything from a doghouse to a skyscraper. Whoopty.

I want to share with you, my dear readers, a secret. It's a secret that might do you some good. It's a secret that might make you rethink my approach to living in a house that cost less than a Corolla, and perhaps even give it a go yourself. In the story of the license lies the secret.

I didn't technically need the credential at the time. I thought it would be handy to have. I was rehabbing people's domiciles, and a lot of times a building permit was required, but I was always working for the owner of the house, and the owner of a house can apply for a permit on their own, and hire someone whether they have a license or not. That's how it went for a long time. My expertise; their name on the line that is dotted. The process got unwieldy, so I decided to put a stop to it. I was only doing the work in the first place because the customers had tired of hiring a GC that knew squat and then hiring me to fix everything. They wanted to get rid of the middle man, and so did I, after a while. The middleman was always a rough framing carpenter.

I'm not sure what it's like now, but in the not-too-distant past, all general contractors were framers. It was the traditional way of life for them and the customers. Deal with a framer. The framer had the most to do with producing the house-y like form of the house, so at one time it seemed to make sense, but it really doesn't anymore. A general contractor used to employ all the subcontractors and build a house, soup to nuts. Now everyone, including the framing contractor, is just a subcontractor. The subcontractors have subcontractors at this point. There's no natural center in the general contracting onion anymore.

The framing contractor doesn't know anything about design, he just reads plans. He doesn't know anything about foundations, or plumbing, or electricity, or painting or any other finishes. HVAC is alchemy; masonry is a Dark Art. All he knows is cutting bird's mouths in rafter tails with a skilsaw, and how to get a sheet of plywood onto a roof in a ten-knot breeze. Those are important things to know, but it's only one or two legs of the housing centipede.

I did not come from the world of framing. I didn't even know who or what to see or do to get a license. There were courses offered at various Upstairs Stripmall Truckdriving and Mani-Pedi schools, but I had basically stopped attending school after I turned fifteen, so I wasn't about to submit to sitting at a glorified card table, under a flickering fluorescent tube, with a dull docent reading facts to me off a mimeographed sheet as an adult, either. Give me the book, and butt out, I thought.

Try to find that book. I dare you. This was before the Intertunnel was in high gear, so I had to call and go hither and yon, and no one knew nothing about nothing noplace. Bookstores would try to sell me one stupid International Building Code book after another, everyone else had bupkis. I finally asked a building inspector who was drunk in a bar I was playing music in. Pretty much every third drunk person in a bar is building inspector, anyway. Might as well get some use out of them. He told me I had to go to the State House to get one. It was the only way.

So I went to the same desk in the State House where Paul Newman asks for a phone book in The Verdict, except he's pretending he's in a hospital, and I'm pretending I'm in a bookstore. The person behind the counter was pretending to be working in both cases. Only a state worker in Massholechusetts can pretend you're not there, and avoid eye contact entirely, even though they aren't doing anything and there's only 24 inches of formica between you. It's an astonishing talent.

After they got bored of me, they asked me what I wanted like a forties detective asks a safecracker a question in the movies. I was expecting a hose if I lingered. They sent me away, to another room, to get another non-look from someone for a good long while. I was finally allowed to ask for what I wanted, and wordlessly, the State Senator's good for nothing brother in law, or whatever he was, left the room for two minutes on the clock. I didn't know whether he went to get what I wanted, or if he had decided that today he'd had enough of me, and everyone that reminded him of me, and had quit, and was never coming back, or what. I began to wonder if he was Godot, or I was.

He finally came back, and plopped six hundred pages of  shrink-wrapped drivel on the table, and said, "Fifty bucks." The pages were originally typed on a typewriter, then mimeographed, and then the mimeographs were photocopied, and then each copy was photocopied from the last copy, so I was looking at the Xerox version of The Telephone Game. You were supposed to figure out what it said back when Jack Hynes' secretary first typed the thing back in the depression. There was an enormous light blue three-ring binder that went with it, and he plopped that down next to it. I briefly considered asking why he didn't put the pages in the binder before he handed it out, but I was afraid he'd just say, "Fifty bucks" again, so I left and did it myself on Paul Newman's counter.

(to be continued)


vanderleun said...

Sorry, but as an editor I have to ask, "What was that book again?"

SippicanCottage said...

Well, the feedback is always welcome, but the problem is, I'm not writing a book. I'm writing an epic poem. Here's the rules:

1.Begins in medias res.(I start in the middle and then: Go backwards! See, I'm like a genius)
2.The setting is vast, covering many nations, the world or the universe. (Well, Maine's pretty big, and my house is harder to heat than the universe, so there's that)
3.Begins with an invocation to a muse. (Muse? I'm the Stan Muse-ial of remodeling)
4.Begins with a statement of the theme.(Mine had fourteen dependent clauses, but it was in there)
5.Includes the use of epithets.(F*ck yeah)
6.Contains long lists, called an epic catalogue.(Oh, baby, I'm golden. But all my epic lists are written on a shingle and brought to the lumberyard)
7.Features long and formal speeches.(How'm I doing? I'm on like day six, and haven't gotten to Act I yet)
8.Shows divine intervention on human affairs.(This house is proof God doesn't like me much)
9.Features heroes that embody the values of the civilization.(I whine constantly and have no money. I'm the poster boy for the entire Intertunnel)
10.Often features the tragic hero's descent into the Underworld or hell.(If that office in the Massachusetts State House had a glass ceiling, you could see the soles of Satan's feet on it. Don't talk to me about a descent into the Underworld unless you know what you're talking about)

Matt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt said...

All that space is to keep everybody's toes out of the stuff coming from dat thing dem two got goin on over dere.

Leon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cletus Socrates said...


You are weaving a wonderful story

Leslie said...

8. That house is proof that God loves you. He knows you should be writing...and He has given you endless material about which to write.

Leon said...

no, no you're doing good...i know how to raise a house...when i do it a lot of mud down the front of my shirt is involved. that's cause north texas has clay soil that would eat a basement so we don't have them. nobody here it seems has cracked the code but a few have come close. one customer has a house with piers like an interstate bridge...i kid you not. his sidewalk has moved down 1 1/2" relative to his house since the ground got dry.

this is more interesting keep it up

caught a typo and reposted

unkawill said...


chasmatic said...

Ahem. I'm gonna offer several thoughts, which I will bullet (because I stayed home from school the day they taught transmogrification).

* Lash yourself to the mast, Sipp, the only way to avoid the maelstrom caused by commenters; feedback is not a good thing unless you are Jimi Hendrix;

* I worked as an electrician for 45 years, some of which were in the capacity of "Electrical Contractor". The NFPA doesn't much care if the ceiling joists are 2x4s or all the plumbing runs uphill. They do care about masking tape in lieu of wire nuts or lamp cord supplying a dryer circuit, fussy little details like that. They used to care about pennies in the fuse sockets until circuit breakers were invented. When the electrical inspectors see K & T wiring they pull out their cameras, snap some pix for the museum. When the client wanted to reno a three story brick/frame that hadn't been touched since electricity and gas lighting were pals I would see the lathe and plaster come away from honest-to-God two by four walls and the K & T was still supple. A fourteen inch air gap was OK unless you had a squirrel wanted to span the two, like to his rodent buddies: hey guys, watch this. But alas, no ground wire. Touching an appliance and any other metallic substance was always, well, touch-and-go.

* So, OK, state-approved apprenticeship and a test to get a Journeyman's license. More schooling to get a Master Electrician's license and more schooling to obtain a Contractor's License, including form-filling out, permit applying, eye crossing and t dotting, bonding,(wouldn't want some freezer to go down over a weekend because I didn't tie all my knots, a half mil $ meat gone to dog food and yours truly stuck with the bill. Never happened to me but incidents like that have caused a few tradesmen to live in a cardboard box the rest of their lives, stringing Christmas lights for cash.)

* The usual bureaucratic fol-de-rol; I never had to deal with Workman's Comp, all my guys worked as self employed, they did or didn't do their own taxes, etc. The General Contractors I worked for were the interface twixt me and customers who wanted pot lights over every place they thought they might hang some art (one gal wanted sixteen of 'em in a 12sq room and her art would look better in darkness. If the Gen got approval and money I'd do it, (change orders they called 'em) which put the client's pot- and wine-soaked dreams on paper, price and sig, thank you.

* I did most of my biz sans GC, the middleman, good for nothing but blowing smoke and smoothing ruffled feathers and taking a piece of every dollar that moved. The inspectors got to know my work, most times I'd just phone it in and "yeah, OK, call me when yer done". A few took pictures of my work show some other stooges see, this is how ya do it.

Oops, lashed to the mast though I may be it's ship-to-shore, I can't see the coastline anymore. I can talk good enough, I just cain't write worth a pinch of coon shit.

Sam L. said...

You DO have a heavy duty ego, Mr. Sippi, but as I see it, you have earned it.
Reply #3 to vanderLooney is priceless! to an old Missouri boy. Reply #8--Sometimes you're Job; sometimes you're Mark Twain. As Leslie said, the Job life gives you your Mark Twain life material.