California Seething:Yiddish Folktales, Home Renovation and A Gratuitous Jets Reference Thrown in for Good Measure
The rantings of a non-driving theatre professional living in altogether the wrong city
There are 3 types of Yiddish folktales (bear with me, this is going somewhere):
- Be nice to smelly beggars when they come to your door — not out of love or compassion, but because God might be testing you, and you could win a free chicken dinner and slammin’ new candlesticks.
- Look at the wily little Jew trick the big, bad Goy and save his village from certain destruction for at least a week.
- Life is terrible. Enjoy it before it gets worse.
This third category includes stories related to home improvement- of which the best one is:
A little Jewish couple live with their many children in a tiny run-down house in a quaint Eastern-European Jewish village that hasn’t yet been burned to the ground by Cossacks. The man, Shmulik is always being hassled by his wife, Tiffany, because the house is so small, loud and crowded. Finally, at his wits’ end he goes to the Rabbi.
“Rabbi,” he says “my life is miserable because my house is so small, loud and crowded and I’m afraid if I don’t do something soon, my wife will leave me.”
The Rabbi listens and strokes his beard thoughtfully. Finally he says “Bring the goats into the house.”
Shmulik does this. A week later, he returns to the Rabbi.
“Rabbi, I did what you told me, but now things are worse! What should I do?”
The Rabbi listens and thoughtfully sucks herring juice from his moustache. Finally, he says. “Bring the chickens into the house”
Shmulik does this, and returns to the Rabbi to complain a week later. This process goes on for several weeks, with Shmulik complaining and the Rabbi giving helpful suggestions re. housing the animals. Finally, as Shmulik and Tiffany are on the brink of utter despair — the Rabbi comes to visit. After listening to the couple rant and rave, the Rabbi says in the calm tone of a man who hasn’t been sharing his house with livestock “Take all the animals out of the house.”
Shmulik and Tiffany do this and suddenly, their house suddenly seems quiet, empty and spacious.
“You see,” says the Rabbi “Now your house doesn’t feel small, loud and crowded anymore.” He smiles upon them with great wisdom and walks away satisfied … then Tiffany stabs him in the back of the neck with an ice-pick and marries a Lutheran.
The moral of the story is clear — never ask a Jew for renovation advice, but there is another useful lesson for those ambitious and foolish enough to dabble in home improvement.
Case in point: A while ago, my wife and I were feeling like our historic Westside hovel seemed too old and run-down so we decided to replace the hardwood floors in the living room and bedroom. We did this with mixed emotions, knowing that the original floors had been cherished and enjoyed by generations of termites but, with a little help from the Lumber Liquidators Deferred Usury Plan we bought 300 square feet of beautiful new hardwood floors. As the flooring sat in the living room acclimating like a foster child, we realized that before we put it in, we’d have to get the old floor out which meant that we would have to move all our stuff out of the living room and bedroom. Because our whole house is the size of a small order of Apple Dippers in a McMansion Happy Meal, we would have to store a lot of stuff outside, which meant building a shed in the backyard, so we bought a shed. After the disassembled shed was delivered, though, we realized that we would need to assemble it on a level surface, so we would have to pour a concrete patio in the backyard. Before we could do that, though, we would need to grind out the roots from the old dead tree in the yard so we could dig out the area where we would pour the concrete, so we could build the shed, so we could move our stuff into it, so we could take out the old floors and put in the new ones. Before we could do that, though, we would need to get rid of all the busted old paving stones in the yard, so that we could grind out the roots, so we could pour the concrete, so we could build the shed, so we could move all our stuff into it, so we could redo the floors. Before we could do that, though, we would need to get rid of the small old rusty shed in the yard, so we had to bring everything from the old shed into the house, so we could get rid of the pavers, so we could grind out the roots, so we could pour the concrete, so we could build the new shed, so we could move all our stuff into it, so we could redo the floors. Before we could do any of this, we would need to chop down the old dead tree in the yard, which we did back in September of 2009.
Since I hire Mexicans when I play with Legos all the tricky stuff (i.e. everything) would be done by contractors. I would be the “client” (or, as they say in Spanish, “el sucker”) which would mostly involve moving furniture, spending money and waking up screaming.
Sometime between bringing everything into the house and pouring the new patio, the unthinkable happened. For several days, water fell from the sky rapidly in small pieces (I think it’s called “rain”), leaving us to share our 450 square foot house over the holidays with 300 square feet of stacked up flooring, 25 square feet of stuff from the old shed, 49 square feet of disassembled new shed, 10 square feet of terrified and confused Labrador Retriever and 5 square feet of each other. It was like we were entombed in a pyramid of our modest aspirations for a slightly better life.
Eventually, the sun came out, the pavers were taken out, roots ground down, concrete poured, and shed built. We crammed as much as we could into the new shed and shoved the rest into the bathroom and kitchen. This meant, among other things, sticking the mattress in the shower — which is a bit like giving birth in reverse, and relocating every single book we own into the shed (HELPFUL RENOVATION HINT #1: Buy a Kindle NOW.)
We moved ourselves and our deeply confused and terrified dog in with friends in Long Beach, where it is currently summertime and the water drains clockwise. While we truly appreciated the free place to stay, the distant location turned my typical 15 minute stroll to work into a two hour Trail of Tears with more road rage and less smallpox. I began arriving at work with all the joie de vivre of Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Though I tried to hide the impact from my co-workers, I think they figured out something was up when I changed my email signature from “Respectfully Yours,” to “Eat Shit and Die, Fuckface”
As soon as we moved ourselves out, the house was fully occupied by the contractors working on the floors. At this point, I was as welcome in my home as I used to be in my dorm room when my roommate’s girlfriend was visiting from Poughkeepsie, only, in this case, I was the one getting fucked. Like the Iraqi people, I had mixed feelings about my occupiers. I was glad to see them rip out all the rotten old stuff, but as soon as they were done with that, I just wanted to see them put down something solid with a reliable police force and get the hell out as quickly as possible. (HELPFUL RENOVATION HINT #2: Your contractors will leave faster if you don’t keep trying to kill them. I’m looking at you, Afghanistan.)
I hit rock bottom the first time I came home and saw the exposed slats which formed my subfloor and the ground below visible between them. It was like the first time I saw my mother naked, only without the pool boy. I intellectually knew what to expect once the comfortable surface was torn away but was emotionally unprepared for what I would confront underneath (NOTE: I am, of course, joking about the pool boy. I wish we could have had a pool growing up. Hell, I would have fucked the pool boy myself if it would have helped get one. Especially if he had beer — but not Genessee Cream Ale, good beer like Molson or maybe LaBatt Blue. And maybe also a nickel bag and a really nice butt.) In an effort to disprove the notion that things were built better in the good old days the illiterate yahoos that built our house in the 20’s got blind drunk (literally) on bathtub gin, painstakingly chose the worst boards they could find, threw them down as far apart as they could and clog-danced on them for hours until they were nice and lumpy. Once our contractors discovered the uneven surface they would be working with, they carefully explained that before putting down our new floors they would need to create a level, even surface by laying down a bed of money and plywood. Since our only other choice at this point was to commit Hari Kari and my Samurai sword was all the way in the back of the shed, I pulled out my trusty Lumber Liquidators card and paid the ransom to get my house back.
After a week of disturbing visits home, enduring the forced death march up the 405 and spending money like a cokehead with a residual check, we finally returned home last Friday to discover that everything was finally done. The old dead tree was gone, pavers removed, old shed out, roots ground down, concrete poured, new shed in, old floors gone and the new floors in. And, sure, the new floors looked great but, more importantly, there were no stacks of flooring in the living room, no piles of stuff to take outside, no pieces of shed to put together and best of all no contractors occupying the space. There were just the two of us and a dog, who now had more space than he knew what to do with — which of course, left him deeply confused and terrified. It was like moving into a brand new house with a remarkably shitty kitchen. We were able to calmly unpack, pull the mattress out of the shower and bask in the satisfaction of a job well done by somebody else.
So, the next time you’re feeling bad about your house, your life or your useless drunk dad of a football team who falls off the victory wagon in Pittsburgh, and subjects you to another pointless Super Bowl between two teams you don’t give a crap about, the best thing you can do is go out and make your life even worse for a while. Doesn’t matter what you do — join a cult, give up gluten, contract dysentery, date an actor, adopt a chimp, become a teacher — whatever it is, so long as, by comparison, it makes you appreciate how good your life truly is. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be able to take a deep breath, relax and count your blessings. That is, of course, until you decide to remodel the kitchen. Then things get really bad.
featured image credit: Micah Taylor