Monday, July 12, 2010

It's 3 a.m. Do you know where your roofer is?

It's 18 minutes after 3 Monday morning. Forty minutes ago, I felt a single drop of water hit my shoulder when I stood up in my bedroom to investigate the tap...tap...tap coming from just above the ceiling while a thunderstorm sounded outside.

Thunderstorms generally don't bother me, even though I believe they will get worse and more frequent with climate change. I like living on the third floor of my well-constructed building that is probably no more than 40 years old, because no one is walking over my head, my heating bill is probably less in winter, there is a vaulted ceiling in my livingroom, and it feels like living in a treehouse. The main view of the world from my apartment is a large sliding glass door just off my livingroom which looks out past my balcony to the upper branches of large pine trees. If the wind ever reaches my balcony enough to make the wind chimes sound or the rain fiercely enough to splash it, I know it is worse beyond the stand of pines. A flowering tree, standing between my balcony and the parking lot, is left untrimmed to the point where its blossom-laden branches hang down very nearly to the roof of my parked car.

I've always liked "living up under the eaves" and have done so when I could. In 1967, my family bought an old Dutch Colonial house with an absurdly large 3rd-floor attic, which my dad and I finished into an apartment for me. In graduate school, the professor I worked for occupied a large corner office on the top floor of the University of Memphis's Patterson Hall, and when I entered the office each morning, I looked out the windows directly into leafy tree branches. When I was 10, I remember being awake at 3 one morning with one of my brothers, and we sat at the attic windows of my paternal grandparents' house, listening to the pigeons cooing just outside, in the nest they had built under the eaves.

This morning, alas, the outside world is no longer merely a show and the fourth wall has been breached. The tap...tap I heard some time ago was like a small, sinister footstep in the dark, though fortunately it didn't end with a visit from Samara Morgan. After I noticed water stains in a corner of my bedroom ceiling a few weeks ago following heavy rains, the property manager asked me to wait a week or two until we had had no rain, after which he would have the roof repaired above my ceiling. This was supposed to have been done a couple of weeks ago, and a man came to the apartment Friday and put a new piece of sheetrock in the damaged corner of my ceiling.

Well it looks like he'll probably have to do so again. I can't see any fresh stains, but there must be water in the attic space between the ceiling and the roof.

The last time anything like this happened to me was nearly 40 years ago, when I occupied the upper floor of a house that had probably been built before the First World War. I had just moved in a few days before and was awakened by the sound of water spilling outside my bedroom door but inside the house. Rushing out into the hall, I saw a stream pouring down from the attic, splashing water and plaster flakes all over a box of books. I thought I remembered it hitting my copy of the Greek New Testament, but I found it just now and couldn't see any water stains.

I say that was the last time, but a variation happened about 9 years ago in the building where I lived before moving here, a place a little older and not so well maintained. A fire broke out in a nearby apartment, and smoke came pouring through the air vents into mine. No fire came to my apartment, but a fireman had to enter and punch a hole in my dining room ceiling with his fire axe, to make sure there was no fire in the attic. After he left, I taped a garbage bag over the hole until it could be repaired. To this day, some of my books and papers remain a dingy gray, left that way by the smoke.

Those episodes were unpleasant but not completely unexpected, but this is not "supposed" to happen. A friend lives in the African nation of Chad and looks out through her screen door to find herself being observed by a curious goat who has wandered by, but in the richest country in the world, we are supposed to be sealed, sanitized, waterproofed, and warrantied. With a thunderstorm raging outside, I have a computer desk, too large and heavy to move, laden with snaking wires and cables, and I don't expect the least danger or inconvenience from the elements to my HP color printer-copier-scanner, my Dell computer, my Acer monitor, my DSL modem, or my Logitech web cam. My expected mode of life is 90 years and a world away from the expectation of my paternal grandfather when a boy, waking up on a winter morning just 85 miles east of here and brushing the snow off his blanket that had come through the roof in the night, or of my paternal grandmother, unable to sleep because of the hideous din of rain and hail on the tin roof of the farmhouse she and her family occupied in a field in St. Francis County, Arkansas.

Actually, something like this still does happen to my mother and stepfather, who live in a very large and attractive house downtown overlooking the river, for which they were willing to pay a handsome price a few years ago, thinking it had been well built. It seems now that that wasn't strictly true, and if they experience leaks, the water may drip on polished hardwood and tasteful antiques and works of art, which is certainly worse than anything happening here!

What can the roofers have thought they were doing a couple of weeks ago? I assume they actually did climb to the top of my building and didn't somehow place fresh shingles above the wrong apartment by mistake, so why is a tenant reduced to listening watchfully in the dark at 3:30 a.m., wondering if a corner of his ceiling is about to give way and pour a muddy mixture from the storm outside into his room, ruining the fragile tangle of wires that connects him to e-mail, news updates from The New York Times and The Washington Post, FaceBook,, Netflix, and his online banking?

And that, really, is the thing that causes the most worry in 2010. My maternal grandparents were related by marriage to a family in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, who, 80 years ago, left their house on purpose every year in anticipation of the spring flooding of the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers and later returned to clean out the mud and snakes from their house's lower storey. Within the last 10 years, when the neighbor of a former colleague of mine died in rural Tennessee, the hearse could not get to the home of the deceased to pick up the remains because of flooding, and the neighbors had to improvise their own way to get the body to where it needed to be. Two months ago, one of my colleagues at work had neighbors camping out in her house in Nashville and her entire neighborhood was cut off from the rest of the city by flooding. She could not reach her office, but she remained connected to the outside world because her cellphone service included a data plan.

And when I get right down to it, that's why I keep listening for the dripping sound to resume: the risk that a breach of the fragile fabric that keeps out the elements may throw me back to a time when I didn't have the choices that now make me feel deprived if they are closed off. On one of the eight bookcases in my apartment is a two-volume life of St. Paul published in 1858 that I have owned since 1977 but not read, as well as a four-volume edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson that my parents bought for me in a garage sale in 1967; I actually have read through that one, but, like Shakespeare, Homer, and the Bible, it bears rereading throughout one's life. My entire dining room table and my coffee table are piled high with books and magazines, and if the Internet went the way of the Hummer, I would still have plenty to do.

But not the same choice. Now, if I awake to a noise in the night, I can immediately publish a reflection about it that at least two people are likely to read, both in other states and one of whom I haven't seen in 40 years or, if I wish, I can enter a message board and explain to someone in England or Australia why Hitler was not a Christian, despite their wish to believe it so. I can listen to Orlando Gibbons via Radio at AOL or click on a scene from Citizen Kane posted to YouTube. If I lose all those choices, even for a few days, it's no more than irksome, but I'd still as soon avoid it. Now, turning to my e-mail in-box, I see the daily headlines from the Times, informing me that governors have expressed grave concerns about immigration, as well as another Times notice that assures me that there is a "boatload of water fun" to be had at Clearwater and St. Petersburg, Florida. Meanwhile, the dripping has resumed 4 feet above my shoulder, steadier now and more insistent.

© Michael Huggins, 2010. All rights reserved.

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