Home Improvement, Humor
Comments 14

6 Days in the Bathroom with Dental Probes and a Razor Blade

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.


  1. Dad says

    Then there are the tiles in Tuckahoe that are barely 15 years old. They’re pretty awesome, too. Maybe somebody in 2112 will be wondering who painstakingly laid them. I hope so.

  2. Aunt Betty says

    We’ve been in our house over 42 years. It was actually built in 1947. The tile on the bathroom walls is original. I never thought of it as old, but I guess Uncle Jim & I are growing old with the house.

  3. Caroline, thank you for the opening few lines which clarified the post’s lack of horrific torture description suggested by the title. It is wonderful to read your humorous posts and to delve back into the imaginative (what’s the word? not cesspool, not swampland…) forest (yeah, that works) which is your mind. Beth

    • The internet is a scary place. I figured I should be clear. Plus, my parents read this stuff. I am glad you are amused and I really appreciate that you take the time to read it. Happy Day!

  4. Found my way here via Harry. I love old houses and their history (my rental house is from the 50s, which is a little newer than I prefer but still has the cut-outs in the wall for an old phone). You’ve done such a good job bringing your house to life with words. How did you go about finding such a detailed history?

    • Hi Holly. Thank you for taking the time to read the essay. I used the title records (very detailed), mixed with some information about the history of Buffalo and world history to think about what would have happened in the lives of some of the folks. One of my neighbors actually lived here in the 1990s (tore out the paneling) and knew the person who lived here after that (foreclosure). Plus, I’ve lived in old houses all my life and have had to figure out what the heck is going on with wiring, old repairs, whatever – and I’ve bought and sold a few so I know what a quick perk up for sale looks like (bathroom tile painting). I tried to buy a new house this last time. Just couldn’t do it. Isn’t the charm and interest of living within the space of another time just the best?

  5. Pingback: I know I would paint better if I had a pair of Dickies painters pants. « wideeyedfunk

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