A Thousand Pebbles
The story I relate is incomplete. I don’t know all the details. I haven’t walked along the stream, so to say. What I know is what Lance told me, and what I could observe myself, when I swung the hammer with him during the summers of 2008, 2009 and 2010.
According to Sal, the neighbor, the house had once been raided by the police on a summer night to rid the neighborhood of a drug dealer’s hideout.
For years, the house remained in a state of neglect. One look in the basement and someone who didn’t have Lance’s vision would have walked away. When he went to ply off old plaster, black soot escaped from the walls because the old furnace used to burn coal. Put a shoulder into it and you got a face-full of Pittsburgh history.
My brother saw what no one else saw. He bought that old house and spent weeks gutting it with a crow bar and a saw-zaw. Out went the plaster. In went drywall. He installed a 4×4 post to level the basement stairs, and shored up a sagging floor with 2×10 joists. The interior doors had swelled so many times during long, lazy summers they were no longer plumb or square. He had to square them himself.
To make sure the renovation would be done in good taste, Lance collected details. For instance, he took a photograph of a marble fireplace frieze in a Warsaw hotel. Or to find inspiration for a box-beam in the living room he clipped one he liked from a home décor magazine. That was the way he did it. One detail at a time.
When I worked with him in the summer of 2008, I didn’t see it, but he did. For my brother was in the imaginary space, and the house on Virginia Avenue was his unpainted canvas, like the rough-hewn marble pulled from a mountainside in Lombardy, into which Michelangelo would carve David. The entrance foyer, covered in plaster, was his stage. The house on 106 Virginia Ave was his New York premiere. Many, including me, doubted his tenacity and resilience. It was like he was working in the side of Christ that year, and I was Thomas.
Lance and I were working together one day, when he recalled a line from the movie Shawshank Redemption. Prisoner Andy Dufrane had just finished tunneling through fifteen feet of solid concrete with a toy hammer when his friend observed:
“Pressure and time, that’s all it takes really. Pressure and time.”
By then, the renovation had acquired a crew:
Brent, the electrician, drove down from Freeport to face challenges typical of 1920s Pittsburgh construction: the interior walls were made of brick and plaster. So Brent had to run his wires through channels he had to chip out one at a time. True to his nature, he ran twice the number of required circuits.
Jim, a muscle-car restorer, came by to help Lance design his kitchen. Talking over marble countertops and counters from a supplier in Ohio, he taught Lance the first lesson of design. Looking good doesn’t mean a damn thing, if you’re wife doesn’t have a place to put her spices. Put function before form, and keep the cook in the kitchen happy.
Ricky stopped by to share stories, and occasionally to walk concrete up two flights of stairs to lay a box of thumb-sized floor tiles in the master shower. “A thousand pebbles,” he told me, “so your brother can feel like he’s walking through a trout stream.”
The people who helped Lance knew this, or should have known this — there is a gap in each of our lives that narrows as we age. It comes only once in a lifetime: an opportunity to remodel a house, or write a book, or love someone well. These opportunities are are spare because they live on the credit of youth.
Later in life, as even Lance would have known, these things can still be had, but they come with greater risk and at much higher cost.
If hope floats like peanuts and pragmatism is a bag of coins, Lance was full of peanuts that year. And those who worked with him could see that. Besides, that was the summer of love.
For it ended on the day he married Francine.
The renovation no longer needed an explanation. The walls spoke for themselves. By now, the people who came to visit Lance could the delicate hand of his work at first glance. It could be ooohed and awwwwed.
The curtains were hung, colored lamps put in place, and the handle of the spatula in the center-right drawer of the kitchen was colored pink. The smell of rosemary drifted through the kitchen. There was no longer paint buckets hanging out in the bedroom. A young couple had arrived.
Already, the home on Virginia Avenue had collected memories and pictures that were just two years old were tinged with nostalgia. (Flip through old college photos and they might be yesterday.) But get back to the start of a renovation, and you’re traveling through time to the very beginning of the world, when the earth’s crust was still molten, and there existed no choice between marble and terra-cotta because the terra of cotta had yet to be firmed.
There is, for instance, a photo of Lance sitting in a room working on his computer atop a piece of plywood up on horses. Or the photo of the oak fireplace mantel. Or the poster-shot of the house itself, immortalized by an art-deco print that hangs in the dining room.
Nostalgia, for that dark brick, in the days before four guys worked for two days to acid wash the soot away behind bright blue tarps that put the whole of Aspinwall into shadow.
There is a detail that comes back to me often…
One day, Lance and I were walking through the second floor and we found glass door knobs had been broken off. Like a ghost moving through the house, each had popped off its handle and splintered into pieces. Lance and I ran through possible scenarios in our heads: the tile mason was playing a trick, or a burglar had gotten his house key. But nothing hysterical made sense. Then we applied good old-fashioned logic and guessed the furniture restorer, Dave, had dipped those knobs in acetylene to strip off old paint. The chemical treatment — days later — had altered their crystalline structure. They were popping off on their own. The furniture guy was the culprit. Like in the game Clue. How funny life is! You couldn’t make a thing like that up if you wanted to.
Or the stories, some never to be told twice! Like the day-trip to West Penn Barrel, or standing in line at Sherwan Williams, waiting for the cute girl who gives Lance a steep discount and keeps his wife’s paint in the computer under “Francine’s blue.” Or the rusted exterior gate that got sand-blasted and installed to keep out the squirrels. Oh, the uncounted hours!
Then there’s the thousand details I’ll never know, because only Lance knows, and I’d have had to have been there working alongside him to smell the glue. But every time I walk through my brother’s house I feel like I’m walking through his mind. And that’s not a thing that can be painted. Nor sanded away. Nor sold in a bull market at 275% of sale price (135>369).
There’s a thing about men in the Snyder family. We have the memory of fish. Tell us today and forget it tomorrow. But a man who has swung a hammer at the walls of his house owns his past forever. The act of renovating a house is copper to canvas, etching to watercolor. These are memories that will never be darkened by time. For Lance will always have his achievement.
And we will always have his example.
The Long Tail, Introduced
A few years ago, my brother Lance called me to ask if I was up for an adventure.
It was a no-brainer. When your brother calls you and invites you on an adventure, you say yes. No matter what you have planned. So I said I’d meet up with him. There was only one problem. He wasn’t exactly in my neighborhood.
At the time, I was living in the smog-choked capital of Argentina, Buenos Aires. He was on the other side of South America, in Lima, Peru. To visit my brother, I’d have to go a distance of about 2,000 miles.
Still, the promise of a far-off adventure with my brother beckoned, so I took up the challenge. Two uneasy border crossings. A long chain of mountain roads. Through a dry, dusty landscape and 48 hours of constant bumps in the company of a pair of hardy drifters who played a coarse fiddle. The trip was rough. Especially on my stomach.
Halfway there, I was lying bed-sick in a cheap hotel in Bolivia after eating bad lettuce. Worst of all, I missed the Steelers game, the day they went on to win their fifth Super Bowl. (In Peru, my brother had watched the game on a big screen TV while his host family cooked him bar-b-que.)
I made it to Lima, eventually, and found Lance sleeping in his hostel. It was about noon and I had to wake him up. The first words out of his mouth were, “Be careful out there. It’s dangerous.”
I spent 24 hours recovering from the stomach flu before he dragged me out of bed to enter a boating contest with him. That day we paddled a fat-bottomed open-hulled kayak into fifth place. Not bad, all told. Seeing the sunset along the Pacific was worth a few stomach cramps.
What’s ahead for you, brother, is a long road. Not all that different from the one you never took to see me. Think of the beginning as Lima and the end as Buenos Aires, and the mountains in between as a few obstacles. The road will climb. The terrain will be rough, especially on the stomach.
But it leads somewhere, and beckons with the promise of far-off adventure. I am ready to ride it the long tail with you. Anyone who wants to, can join us on this road. Here’s our weapons:
1. Detox (get the bad stuff out).
2. Eat well (get the good stuff in).
3. Exercise (keep your body strong).
4. Meditation and prayer, stay positive.