December 14 - December 20, 1995

Stress Test

Smith Continues To Build A Homestead.

B y  J e f f  S m i t h 


INSOFAR AS CARBON-based life forms are outfitted by nature for it, I am as close as you'll find to God's own little pressure cooker. As my little girl Liza observed last week, during a particularly stressful series of negotiations with the lads from the city building codes police, "You were built for this sort of thing."

Better I should have been built for a bidet.

Still, it is a satisfied man who hears his calling and heeds it. I was constructed to take stress...and to give it...and to attempt to hide from it would be to deny my destiny.

Thus it was inevitable that the building inspectors and I should have had our innings: They are designed by their creator to give stress to those who otherwise might live out their days in blissful ignorance.

Faithful followers of this serial will recall that Liza and I have for the past three months or more been involved in sprucing up and making habitable an old hovel of an adobe in the Elysian Grove neighborhood. This barrio is also known as El Hoyo to the regulars and Barrio Historico to the more recent flood of lawyers and yuppies who've been gentrifying the joint.

For the most part the project has been big fun. Liza and I are pretty tight, and we both love getting our hands into dirt and sawdust and PVC cement. The less-delightful aspects of the project involved a persistent burglar who relieved me of a lot of my tools and considerable materials I'd bought for the house. That ceased and desisted after I welded security bars for all the windows and installed steel screen doors.

From that low ebb everything began looking up, and it was blue skies and green lights until we got the electric company out to hot up the wiring. Guy says, We can't hook you up till you get the city to sign off the electrical part of your building permit.

Say what?

As you can probably guess, life from this point onward got very complicated.

It had seemed such a simple project before. Logic told me, hey, it's an existing house--been there 100 years--what would you need a permit for? Little stucco and plaster, tin on the roof, new plumbing and wiring, heating and cooling, paint here, tile there...We don' need no stinking permit.

Hey, I'm from Santa Cruz County. We do things a little differently down there. Come to find out, here in Tucson, if the lights or the gas have been off six months or more, you've got to start all over at square one, get a building permit, bring your wiring and such up to code, and get the city to come inspect it and approve it before the utility companies will hook you back up.

Altogether a nosebleed and a waste of time and money, if you ask me, but then I've been known to be something of a minimalist when it comes to fussy detail work. And of course to have this almost unconscious sense of finding the maximum opportunity for confrontation and stress.

I was not disappointed.

Of course I'm not so naive as to assume that having founded my project with Liza on an invalid assumption of innocence, it was all going to work out quick and easy. So I went straight to the top with my problem and spoke to the department head and his building codes administrator, and was muchly relieved to hear them say this sort of thing is nothing new to them and we could work it all out.

The operative word here is work.

About a month's worth--with all the teeth-gnashing, stomach churning, acid-indigestifying stress you might expect from the Franz Kafka ride at Euro-Disney.

It's all been a revelatory experience for me, and I plan to share it with you in detail. Just as soon as my blood pressure gets back into the triple digits. We've got the initials on our permit for electricity and gas, so Liza can get a hot bath and make a cup of coffee. And I'm gathering my thoughts and my notes to put together a lengthy and constructive suggestion for revamping building codes policy that would allow somebody with fewer fiscal resources than a slick lawyer or a real estate-rich Californian to fix up one of these historic adobes and stay in it. Somebody, say, like a fourth-generation child of the family that actually built the house. Somebody without political clout or deep pockets, with nothing more than the desire to preserve the old homestead.

I think positive things can emerge from what seemed, while it was going on, like a bad Russian novel.

Stay tuned.

Meanwhile have a swell holiday season, love everybody, eat a bunch of fruitcake, and don't get stressed out.

That's my job.

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December 14 - December 20, 1995

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