Monday, July 26, 2010

Scut Work

In the past, English families of privilege would move to modest quarters during warm weather so that the staff could do heavy maintenance in the big house. Living away was called keeping secret house. I like to shut the world out for a week or two in July and see to details that raise my standard of living for almost no dough. It’s a vacation of sorts and refreshing, that lets me live much faster the rest of the year.

Since this is a development property, I put capital only into home improvements that are strictly necessary. Consequently, the house is a good working lab for tenant dodges that make a rental more congenial. An old art school buddy came by for the first time a couple of months ago, walked through the rooms, and called out every move I’ve made. This week’s posts are devoted to unglamorous chores with a big payoff.

The lead eyesore is the bathroom sink in a rent-controlled building in San Francisco. Renewing a sink is simple. Put on gloves. It doesn’t hurt to keep disposable vinyl ones near each sink. Latex will compost, but there’s a risk of developing an allergy. Change your toothbrush and use the old one to scrub details with liquid detergent or shampoo. Keep a light touch, so the brush doesn’t flick little dots of cleaner all over the place. Detail faucets, drains, and finally the toilet hinges and base every time you change your brush, or oftener. It’s distasteful work, but I’m too proud not to do it. Keeping the edges clean makes a spectacular, subliminal difference in the way a room feels. Wear eye protection for suspenders and belt security. Throw away the brush when you’re finished.

This is a good sink, made of cast-iron with a thick layer of enamel baked onto it. It’s been doing its job for about a hundred and twenty years. The white enamel probably has lead in it, because it’s so old. A surface like this is tender, so experiment to find out what will erase the rust. Start by filling the sink with uncomfortably hot water and detergent. Let it soak until the water begins to cool, drain it, and scrub gently with part of a pad of 0000 steel wool, the secret weapon. A light touch is the secret part. I find that fine steel wool short-circuits most of the toxic, expensive cleaning products carried in grocery and hardware stores. It does miracles with old chrome and gookie on paint. Store it in a zip-top plastic bag.

It may be necessary to scrub several times. Turn and pull at the pad to keep fresh fibers at work. Be judicious in your efforts. The rust may not disappear completely the first time you tackle it. There are powerful rust-removing products on the market. I tried one on my claw-foot tub, and it left dirty pockmarks around the overflow vent. That was a long time ago, and since I’ve been using fine steel wool to clean the tub, the stains are gradually disappearing. The brightwork on the fittings looks better, too, all the time.

The trick in a bathroom is to get it clean and then keep it clean with the things you use to clean yourself. Wipe the fixtures every morning with a towel that’s on its way into the hamper. You can go for years without heavy cleaning if you do this. Sanitize with rubbing alcohol, zip away soap residue with vinegar, and massage the tub after a bath or many showers with fine steel wool and ordinary hand soap or shampoo.

As a gift to my host, I cleaned the tub in this week’s bathroom. It too is enameled cast-iron and was so far gone, it looked like filthy marble. Half an hour’s aerobics turned the drain to gold and left the surface like a clean sheet of paper, unavoidably porous but pristine and slip-resistant. The manager called on my host to discuss having the bathtub resurfaced, and it was sweet to witness her reaction. The old tub won’t be as easy to clean as new epoxy, but it will be safer. Saving it is a kindness to a rent-controlled building.

I have learned much from my host, a fastidious man who maintains that a rubber duck is a personal item. The world is more elegant than when that tub was new and a slavey kept it looking good by grinding away the surface with pumice. We’re still abrading, but the rate is slower and the going is easier.


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