Dressed to Drill
Great moments in building history: How donning hideous purses and frilly dresses turned out to be quite handy in a renovating project
I’ve got an expensive habit. I buy house-shaped debris piles and attempt to convert them into nice, pretty homes. Naturally, when I saw an old ranch high in the Rockies, I was intrigued and smitten, even though it had been on the market for more than a year.
A few weeks later, I owned the place. Despite the house’s multicolored shingles and the loads of junk scattered in the yard, I was thrilled beyond belief. I owned a potentially beautiful but currently dilapidated ranch with a house, a three-car garage, and million-dollar views of 14,000-ft. peaks.
Although there were countless places for me to begin renovation work, I decided to tackle the plumbing first. At least then I’d be able to take a shower after I’d finished up a hard day’s work. My first Skil-saw-enabled foray into the crawlspace revealed my biggest fear: a wet, dark space that rivaled the tightest of navigable caves. The smell of old sewage was overwhelming. Pipes crumbled into dust when tapped with a screwdriver. I knew I was going to spend many days under the floors crawling in damp dirt accompanied by no less than 2 million or so black-widow spiders. In I went. By the third day, my burliest Carhartts ran away on their own. I was destroying work clothes faster than I could replace them. I needed a solution, and quick.
The answer came from the master-bedroom closet. The home’s previous owner, a rather stout woman in her 60s, had left nearly 100 full-length dresses and pantsuits that could’ve provided the wardrobe for the entire female cast of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. No more work clothes? No problem. These outfits would be my disposable coveralls. When one outfit got too dirty to wear, I’d tear it off and throw on another dress. I’d pull on some musty old lavender and yellow lace-collared dress with a matching belt and descend into the spider den, a fresh piece of copper tubing in hand.
It was mid-January, and because it was cold outside, it was cold inside. The windows and doors had so many cracks that the curtains rustled when the breeze picked up. The only way to keep the house warm was to keep the woodstove going full throttle. I had to run outside hourly to gather firewood, which was strewn over 7 acres of land. It was tedious work at best, and I began to consider more-efficient methods of wood-gathering.
Then I remembered a huge cache of handbags in the same closet providing me with my stylish coveralls. I pulled out a bag from the bottom of the dress closet and poured out ten of the ugliest purses ever created. I grabbed the biggest one I could find—a large red-vinyl bag with a gold buckle—and sliced it down the sides, creating the perfect wood sling. Now I could fill the sling with wood and save my arms for plumbing demo. Wood collection became quick and painless as I ran out with the retooled purse in hand.
I hadn’t met any neighbors yet, but my chance would come the last day of the big plumbing project while I was out collecting more wood.
“Hi! I’m Jerry,” shouted a neighbor, walking my way. “Place is looking good! Let me know if I can help.”
“Hi, I’m Scott,” I said, straightening up. “I’ve got my work cut out for me, as you can see.” At that moment, the wind picked up a bit, and my eye caught a glimpse of the edge of my current coveralls: a lime-green dress with red and purple flowers. I was a sight to behold. Rayon dress, Kong-size vinyl purse, and so many spiderwebs in my hair that my head resembled cotton candy.
“I’ve seen that outfit before,” Jerry said. “Was that left in the house?”
“This old thing?” I asked, brushing at a splotch of pipe flux on the sleeve. “I’ve been doing some plumbing in the crawlspace, but I just can’t keep it clean.”
We both laughed. I think he got the joke, but I wasn’t sure. Jerry began to walk home, but he turned back my way as he walked backward. “Got any more of those big purses? My wife loves tacky stuff like that from the ’70’s.”
“Whole closetful,” I replied. “I’ll trade ’em all for a five-pack of reciprocating-saw blades. You know, the demolition kind.”
“I’ll send my wife over,” and off he went.
Drawing by Jackie Rogers