Chemistry


I’ve been thinking a lot about chemistry lately. Specifically, the chemistry of coatings (like paint) and substrates (like plaster). There’s a lot of chemistry involved, the kind of thing we don’t think about when we paint a room or repair damaged wallboard. There are the restrictions and limitations we’re familiar with: wait 2 hours (or more, or less, depending on the paint) between coats; don’t apply latex paint directly over wet compound. But there are other things most people, other than professional painters and plasterers, don’t know about applying paint, patching plaster, and more. How successful a particular wall repair will be comes down not just to the skill of the workman, but to the chemistry of the products he uses.

This is all front-of-mind for me because we recently moved to a 130-year-old house, with beautiful wood detail and solid plaster walls. Over time, the walls will show cracks that might widen as the house settles and plaster detaches from the wood lath underneath. Sometimes exterior walls have no lath, where plaster was applied directly to the brick. Many of the cracks are new, having appeared when our contractor used a sawzall to restore pocket doors that didn’t operate well, or at all. Opening up a few windows in the wall — to install a modern trolley-track — was a necessary step, but not one I wanted to watch. My mood wasn’t helped when I asked them to please exercise a bit more care and they flatly denied that the cracks had anything to do with the shaking walls.

Other cracks and deteriorating plaster are due to other things: leaks through the front wall or a flood from above, for example. In many cases the crack or blister — where a quarter inch of compound and paint visibly separate from the wall — is an older patch that was poorly applied. Chemistry: absent an application of a bonding agent to the older, drier plaster, the new patch will eventually separate when moisture is wicked out. Two pieces of sandwich bread aren’t going to stick together without a layer of peanut butter in between.

The contractor is gone now, and has been for months. And I’ve been repairing the cracks as I go, fixing each area before painting. I’ve learned a lot, and mostly about the chemistry of plaster: when to apply a bonding agent, which patching compound to use in each situation, where to use caulk instead of compound, and how to reattach plaster to the lath. This is a critical step in repairing cracked walls, because unless the plaster on both sides of the crack is stabilized — rendered immobile — the crack will return. No amount of gauze tape and drywall compound will ever hide it forever. But I’m confident, now, that the cracks near the pocket doors won’t reappear.

The Pagoda Trees of Bed-Stuy

Every neighborhood in Brooklyn has its own architectural style: Bed-Stuy with its three- and four-story townhouses; Brooklyn Heights with its narrow brick facades; Crown Heights with its porches fronting the street.  The area we live in has lovely tree-lined streets, hundred-year-old houses, a changing demographic and a growing number of new businesses: sit-down restaurants, take-out joints, coffee houses and juice bars. There is everything modern life requires: pizza joints, dry cleaners, laundromats, grocery stores. Fresh Direct and Peapod will deliver, too. Free community wifi is available if you don’t need high bandwidth.

Each street has its own character: one block is plain brick row houses, the next is barrel-front brownstones. Some blocks are all brownstone stoops with stone walls instead of railings; on other blocks, cast iron railings in differing states of (dis)repair. Sometimes the railings are wrought iron, a mix of new and old, especially where the rusted-out cast iron has been replaced with its less ornate cousin.

Directly in front of our house is a Japanese pagoda tree — Styphnolobium japonicum — that rises above the roof line and spreads before the neighboring houses, about sixty feet across. It’s a beautiful tree, tall and broad, shading the sidewalk and street, with white flowers that blossom for weeks. The tree flowers through most of the summer, so that every day in June and July — and much of August, too — someone must sweep the sidewalk to clear the carpet that will, if it rains, turn slick and become a slip hazard. Each morning I see my neighbor on one side sweeping in front of his house; sometimes he sweeps ours, too, and sometimes we sweep his. The gutter is thick with the flowers all week, waiting for the Friday morning street sweeping.

The house on the other side — immediately to the east — is vacant. Not abandoned, not derelict, just empty while the owner-siblings decide what to do with it. As a result the sidewalk in front is, for the most part, unswept; occasionally one or another of us will continue down the street to clear the walkway in front of all three houses. But the patio is another story: 225 square feet of wet flowers, now turned brackish and muddy with the rain from seasonal showers and tropical storms. The odor is of wet hay and horse barns, of mown fields and stalls that desperately need mucking-out.

The flowers have all fallen, now, and Henri last week cleaned up some of the mess; Ida promises to do more. Hercules redirected two rivers and cleansed the Augean stables in a day. Here in Brooklyn, the same cleansing requires at least two tropical storms and a wait in between.

Contractor Hall of Shame

The master bathroom door was originally hinged left. I asked the contractor to “please hinge it on the other side” — make it a right-hand inswing, so the door would swing against the wall and not into the glass shower stall.

I ended up firing them for other reasons but not before they moved the door, following my instructions to the letter. (See the photo.) Sure, it is now a right-hand inswing; but how am I supposed to open and close it?

Hall of shame
don’t let this happen to you

The Unexpected Benefit of Bumper to Bumper Traffic

I am stuck in traffic on the West Side Highway. They are fixing potholes up ahead and so two lanes are closed, backing things up for what seems like miles but is really no more than three or four furlongs. Nothing to do but sit; I look around and see the cherry blossoms along the riverfront (to my left) and in the parkland (to my right). Other trees are starting to bud; cyclists enjoy the riverside trail on this first warm day of spring.

In the distance is a tugboat pushing a barge upriver, framed by the George Washington Bridge but not, I know, nearly there yet. I am at 86th Street: the trees don’t yet obscure the prewar buildings up on Riverside Drive, and the Normandy is unmistakable: its Art Deco line takes up the whole block. I think of Nick and Nora, swilling too much gin and having too much fun while they sort out the identity of the Thin Man.

As suddenly as traffic stopped, it starts again: I have arrived at the pothole brigade and make my way past, reluctantly now: eyes on the road instead of on my surroundings, this grand pocket of nature (one of many) tucked alongside the concrete and the steel, the granite and the glass.

Context

My last post (“The Drill of Victory”) demonstrates the hazards of the topical bon mot in a virtual medium that lasts, well, virtually forever. To look at it now must engender some head-scratching; at the time, it was a reaction — a riposte — to Senator McCain and others. Perhaps it’s not quite so out-of-context: the rallying cry of the Republican ticket was, after all, “Drill, Baby, Drill!” when it wasn’t “Drill here, drill now, drill more!”

But I do stand by what I said back in June; and, perhaps, it was prescient: the rallying cry didn’t augur well for McCain, after all.

Nation Building

On a visit last year to Maryland, I had the opportunity to revisit (or visit) some of the monuments around Washington, DC. While my seven-year-old happily snapped pictures to show her class, I read the inscriptions on the walls. Several, in the Jefferson and FDR Memorials, struck me as particularly apposite.

Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Samuel Kercheval dated 12 July 1816, wrote:

I am certainly not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

Take that, SCOTUS! So much for “original intent”: the interpretation of our laws (and our standards) must be consistent with our time, not Jefferson’s. (Anybody want to argue that Jefferson couldn’t know the framers’ intent far better than anyone on today’s Supreme Court?)

For just one clear example, consider Jefferson’s immortal words in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” All men? Our laws recognize (even if some of our people do not) that this includes not only white men, but women, too, and both genders in rainbow hues: in a word, all humankind. The delivery on that promise, though considerably advanced from two centuries ago, still has not been fulfilled: though all men are created equal, it is still only citizens who can claim the basic rights guaranteed under the Constitution — a situation that has, sadly, deteriorated substantially since 2001.

Moving around the Tidal Basin to the FDR Memorial, I found that the words of Franklin Roosevelt are as true today as they were seventy-odd years ago:

No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources. Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order.

Second Fireside Chat on Government and Modern Capitalism, September 30, 1934.

We might update this for today: underemployment is as bad as unemployment, surely; and the frenzy for “outsourcing” and shipping jobs overseas might be good for the corporate bottom line, but only if the displaced employees (and their counterparts at other companies) can still afford the products and services they once produced themselves.

I never forget that I live in a house owned by all the American people and that I have been given their trust.

Fireside Chat on Economic Conditions, April 14, 1938

This is the essence of “good government,” isn’t it? Remembering, always, that you are a public servant and answerable to the people of the United States; too often, those in high office invert the relationship, believing instead that the people are answerable to them.

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