I promise you, it is safe to read on. This isn’t about mental health. It isn’t about a hostage situation. It has nothing, whatsoever, to do with home veterinary surgery. It is about antique tiles and latex paint, achieving their disunion, and bothering with old things.
Once upon a time, Buffalo was the center of the universe and Olmsted’s parks were filled with flowering vines, nannies and prams, horses and bicycles. In this 1912 world of hope and money, Mr. and Mrs. Butler built my house. Its rooms were airy, the windows numerous. The bathroom gleamed with state of the art, antiseptic white subway tiles and tiny hexagonal floor tiles. Let’s imagine it was a joy to clean – for the woman who lived in the attic room, whose own toilet was in the basement.
Mr. Butler died fairly young in 1920. He spent only 10 years shaving in front of the shiny, new bathroom mirror. Catherine, his widow, sold the house within two years. As I picked latex paint from grout lines among the tiles next to the toilet with my sickle dental probe, I thought about her getting up the morning after her husband’s death, and facing the future in that same mirror. The Kaeselaus bought the house and stayed, one generation after another, for 40 years.
I imagined Mr. Kaesalau rinsing the cold sweat of disaster from his face on October 24, 1929 as I razored the paint from tiles near where the old sink was. As I stretched behind the radiator I wondered if Mrs. Kaesalau and her daughter dried their flimsy World War II stockings on it – Mr. Kaeselau was gone by then, and their sons may have been at war. What happened that Gladys, the daughter, inherited the house in 1955 instead of one of the sons? Why did she sell it to Mrs. Moni in 1962?
I do know that Mrs. Moni redecorated the house during her 30 years, using wood and melamine paneling. But she left the bathroom tiles alone – although maybe she is the origin of the vibrant turquoise paint I picked and scraped from the top rail tile…maybe she is responsible for the deep smoke patina in the tiles and on the house’s woodwork. I squeezed under the clawfoot tub to get to the paint back there, and envisioned a 1970s, fading glory, over middle aged woman lounging in a pink bubble bath. Chain smoking. With a martini. Didn’t everyone smoke and drink martinis in the 70s?
Mrs. Moni died, although hopefully not in the tub, and a series of folks moved in and out. Someone fixed the kitchen. Someone took out the paneling. Some couples divorced, others lost the house in foreclosure. I figure a lot this drama was acted out in the bathroom. The tiles I freed from their latex coat along the side wall probably saw their share of weeping and wailing, screaming and hairbrush throwing. But they survived it.
Approximately 98 years into their life on the wall, the tiles were covered with a slick coat of white latex paint. Age marks, patina, old holes from old toothbrush holders, missing grout gaps, mysterious stains – all were covered in a clean wash of white. It’s awful. It’s sad. And after several days of quiet picking and scraping, the old tiles are again witness to life and history.
Are they unlovely? Sure, in some places. Do they look old? You bet. Would a sledge hammer have been quicker? Absolutely. Would I do it all over again – spend days picking and razoring paint? Yeah, I would. In fact, removing the glue and goo of new tiles from the hexagons on the floor is next.
I’ve seen bathroom tiles that are 2000 years old. Ok, maybe the bathroom around them is gone, but they are still there. I’ve used the bathroom next to tiles that are 200 years old. Yes, they were a little sketchy. No, I didn’t mind. Old isn’t bad. Old lets us think about the passage of time. 100 year old bathroom tiles? Entirely worth six days with some probes and razor blades.