We Bought a House

And will be "doing things" to it. I will attempt to regularly post our progress here.



--Band of Horses

One of the punkrock kids working the kitchen of Strawberry St. Market had this linked up from his iPod into the stereo last night and for some reason it was the right song at exactly the right time.



--The Remains of Brian Borcherdt



Defiance II

This is not a city of cars, I refuse to believe it. My town is hemmed in by bright rails to the north, a rail hub in its heart, our river flowing with trains running the length of it. Our city stitched through with tracks, our air washed clean after the cold front, the broad oaks jettison their freight of leaves, veining the sky with bare limbs. The sound of the trains, cold and clear, is the sound of purity. My morning sky, tree hemmed, is a delta viewed on an atlas and there is no better day to be alive.

I heard John Henry bound this city himself in rails, laid a thousand tracks in one day, a hammer in each hand. I found the knuckles in each clenched fist fit together like a gear. The gears in the gut of my saw fit one to the next like teeth stitched to a jaw. It turns, it is relentless. I drove my truck to work for ten years with a deer’s jaw wedged where the dash met the windshield. I dreamt I went to war with the jaw of a mule and killed a thousand men. There is a jaw-bone wedged where the earth meets the sky. It is a lever.

One cold day in the woods, long ago, one of the grown-ups came running frantic around the bend, get off the tracks he said, there is a train coming. There is a train coming, he said, get off the tracks, there is a train coming.


Defiance I

It is defiance that raises me each morning,
To provide for mine with whatever talent
I can summon to my hands, without insurance, without benefits.
I am one of the American craftsmen, my life
Can end tomorrow and no one could weep.

It is Apollo who comes to dredge the earth,
The rebellious earth breathing fire at his arrival.
It is Apollo who hangs his freight of fire above us
Each day. It is the rebellious nature of my daughter
In her car seat commanding me, “fast and fast and fast.”

The son born to the Japanese hair-stylist was named Apolo, who raised him alone. The boy sprung up, wild and restless, strung his days together getting fucked up. He dreamt the idea of a speed-skater. His woke to his friends falling dead around him. The father stole his son away and abandoned him in a cabin in the great northern woods. The weight of snow taught the boy to shut up and listen to the thing thumping in his chest.

Apolo rose before each morning, and heading out to the frozen lake,
Lashed his skates to him. Imagine for me, please, the sound a man makes
Over broad ice, the friction of his life reduced to two lines of bright steel.
His breathing. Summoning whatever strength he has in his legs to push
Away from gravity, our earth’s death of inertia. The very air trembling
Around him, the indeterminate speed of his life, near frictionless
Over fast ice, vanishing, hundreds of miles away from the rest of us.



Ship Out on the Sea

I'm a ship, I'm a ship, I'm a ship
Out on the sea
None of my love
Floating wild come back to me
So I write you a letter, I'll write you a letter
With this here pen
Don't make me wait, don't make me wait
Cuz I'm your friend

I'm in love with the garden
That is down the street
And the earth is a warm thing under my feet
And the earth is a warm thing under my feet

Oh long streams of light
Lift me, from this dirty town
Cuz I'm losing stain, soak me yeah with rain, rain, rain, rain

I'm a ship, I'm a ship, I'm a ship
Out on the sea
And all these clouds flying by so fast
Well they confuse me
And the long leaves in the tall trees
Pale in the sunshine
And I was twistin' and turnin'
In the cool sheets past bed time

Plant me in the garden
Don't you let me roam
Cuz love is a feeling like a warm dark stone
Plant me in the garden
Don't you let me roam
Cuz love is a feeling like a warm dark stone
Love is a feeling like a warm dark stone
Love is a feeling like a warm dark stone
Plant me in the garden
Don't you let me roam
Cuz love is a feeling like a warm dark stone
Love is a feeling like a warm dark stone
Love is a feeling like a warm dark stone

-- Be Good Tanyas, Chinatown, 2003



From the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away



Anthem II

The current incarnation of the Silver Surfer was born November 3, 2005 in Johnson City, Tennessee, where it manifested itself in the form of my daughter. I learned this four nights ago while taking a bath with her. As she slowly poured bath water from a cup into my cupped hands, water trickled through my clenched fingers, and epiphany poured outward from the top of my head.

Galactus, who was a type of God in that He consumed planets for sustenance, created the first Surfer as His herald, transforming his shape into a matter like living silver, filling in his lungs as they would no longer require oxygen, and re-making his whole body into a being that could withstand the cold of space, flung him into it, a true seeker born of wrath.

The Surfer became impossible to behold, nameless and brilliant, reflecting whatever light found its way to him, the light from exploding stars, collapsing nebulas; he banked against black matter, navigated worm holes without conscious thought, traveling faster than thought. He pierced constellations the way the sound a guitar makes pierces the fabric of reality in the hands of a fourteen year old boy in a garage in Achilles, Virginia.

The song the boy makes is the same song of this blog, ragged and brave, it is music to obliterate everything. I don’t expect you to understand. It is the song of the forever struggle, committed in rooms pungent under the smell of pine. It is the song of my gift: A spear wound got in my side at six years old in Chickamauga, Georgia, an ache to carry with me always. There is no-one to blame for any of this.

I once cut open an orange pepper and found, frightening under the neon lights of the commercial kitchen, a pair of smaller peppers growing within its cavity, like ovaries. I remember my own lost tonsils, poisonous, abscessed years before at the gate of my throat and salt water rushing over them from the Atlantic in November, surfing before hurricanes. Others, burned-out teenage heroes, bobbed yards down-current from me in the pocked-grey heaving mass of ocean, each of us holding close whatever warmth our wet-suits would allow. Our Atlantic, who birthed the sun and moon each day, gave us these gifts, un-numerable: line upon line drawn over His living surface, wild and blue, crashing ever Earthward with us riding.




Morning erupts over the city the color of Alizarin Crimson, a new day of fire for us. Banishing whatever Gods lean over this sleeping country, whatever ones that raise the day. Who else will name each hero, shuffling awake in the blue cold of each kitchen? There is coffee to be steeped, the mouse turds to burn off between each radiator’s coils. Mouse turds forgotten under the winter furnace, her first fire. As if in the night we had forgotten ourselves, our machines, our war. The pilot light remembers, Apollo, the mouse-god, he remembers for us. I am sure he is the one that summons me each morning, “Wake up.”

Hundreds of miles away my father has been up for a good hour before me. I never call him then. I want to tell him that our lives are an anthem, starting back, by his dad, in the Black Forest. Schwarzwald pronounced in Tennessee, being sung by my son Henry sleeping in the next room. Pondering and ruinous and wide like a river. Cold and fast like a creek cutting a gash down a mountain. A song that you’re listening to right now.

There is the anthem in the memory that my body holds: the first morning hanging sheet rock is awkward and slow, by afternoon it’s as if I’ve been doing it for weeks. I couldn't tell you what sharp is, but I know it in my finger tips. The chisel is sharp, I recognize it. My hands know what to do with my saw when I am unsure. The trigger and blade guard. The teeth splashing through pine fibers.

My saw is an anthem to violence.

Not far from here is a town I have never been to named Achilles. As if Achilles could be pinpointed on a map of the Northern Neck. Achilles hemmed in by rivers flowing to the Chesapeake. Rivers piercing deep inland, old enough to be all that there is to a story. I wonder if there are cat-tails there, ratting like spearheads in the wind. I wonder if the wind in those parts ever whispers the word Revenge.







Cello Suite #3 in C--Courante. And the man is smiling.

Much thanks to Rweitz.



Came by a couple of weeks ago to finish his rough-in for the bathrooms upstairs. He surprised me. I had been busy re-installing the old brass swing-arms for the dutch windows on the first floor but had to ditch that for “trade admin.” In that I spent most of the day laughing and jawing, running all over the house helping him run pipes, cipher the layout, and butcher my beautiful framing. He gives me hell when I don’t bring him coffee. I have been bugging him for over a year to give me a “Grey’s Plumbing” t-shirt. Instead, months ago, he brought a t-shirt with a depiction on the back of the monster truck Gravedigger. Sometimes I enjoy wearing it to pick up Henry from school. Last week I finally remembered to bring him his “blind-man’s rule,” a thing that I’d had for years before realizing that no-one deserved it more than him.

One of the tasks we took care of was rigging up a temporary sink and toilet in the basement, as all the existing water lines are being reworked in the house. I had demo-d the old metal sink in the kitchen, complete with avocado-colored metal cabinet and slanted cast-iron top and we drug it downstairs. He ran a cold-water-line in to the faucet and some pvc off the drain, out the back and around the cabinet to a big rusted up drain in the concrete slab. I insisted that he glue on a 22 degree elbow at the floor so that it would a. slow the run-off down and b. force the water to spiral into the cup-shaped opening in the floor. He gave the whole set-up his “Niagara test” by stopping the sink, filling it to the top, and then pulling the plug, we watched, two grown men, with great pleasure as the water ran out of the sink, down and out into a perfect spiral, curling over itself in hurried abandon, washing over the sides and finally down the drain. I have no idea why this is so pleasing to me. I have shown it to Darin and Judson, pretty much anyone who has come by. Most everybody agrees it is one of the best things currently going on in that house.

That afternoon he finished with me and I got back upstairs to the dining room and my hardware. I had just gotten my wits back on the subject when he came through, singing, and stopped dead in his tracks.

“Clay. Come down off that ladder for a second.” He was staring at a place next to me where the wall intersected with the ceiling.

“What? Are you having a stroke or something?” I asked.

“Look up at that crack up there. You see it?”

“Yeah, I see it.” There was a small area where the plaster had chipped off revealing a triangular shaped piece of scratch coat.

“Don’t that look like Scooby Doo?”

“What?” I hollered, “Are you high?”

“I don’t know, maybe I am, I mean, isn’t that, doesn’t that look like his neck?”

I stared. I stared at it for two days after he left. “Ronnie, I don’t see it.”

Later that day he told me about a clear toilet he’d seen in a trade catalogue with an aquarium built into the tank.

“Dude you are fucking with me today!” I told him.

“No I swear! I mean I think I saw one. Shit, now I don’t know. Let me go ask Scooby Doo.”

“Gah!” I said, and walked out of the room.

That night I went hunting on the web and sure enough, found the aquarium toilet. Complete with fish.

Two days later I apologized to Ronnie Grey for not believing him, and would be honored if one day he would one day install a fish-tank toilet in my house. He said he’d love the opportunity. Darin has since informed me that “Ronnie Grey tells no lies” and I know this to be one of the life’s great truths. That very same day, as the descending sun refracted in through the ancient warbled glass of the large windows in the front greeting room, a single ray lit upon the crack at the ceiling. I saw the big mouth opened for the great happy tongue to spill out, the pointed ears folded forward, and suddenly Scooby Doo was there, smiling down at me.



The Portico for the church next door got a new ceiling.

A cast of my left hand for a long lost sculpture.


Tuesday Southern

I smoked on the threshold of the back porch at the Grove job, next to the pine ice-box, picking plaster grit out of my hair. The ancient box fan muttered along inside. I realized I didn’t notice the smell of the old house anymore, myriad dusts, or pine tang from whatever framing I was blowing off. The painter was singing again, upstairs, in Spanish. I realized I’d started to hate him. There were bugs in the hot yard in October. For no reason. I thought about slinging a walnut at the chattering squirrel, the abandoned sink in the grass, the trash trailer. I smoked instead. The fan on its base with one bad wheel kept its own song. I don’t believe I’ve ever felt so Southern.



I spent the better part of last week in the basement of the Grove job stripping one hundred years of paint off the hardware for the second floor windows and doors. It involved a process Judson (boy genius) found on the internet of boiling water and trisodium phosphate, roughly one cup dissolved in a five quart pot, over an old camp stove that he'd restored. I'd get the water just under boiling, so that I was still able to handle the stuff, let it soak and then peeled off layers of paint with a scraper and a brass-wire brush. I used a dull scraper to move the paint rather than scrape it as that would scratch the soft brass. One of the hardest parts to this operation was keeping the different piles organized, to do this I utilized a year's worth of sushi take-out containers from Akida. Here is a jig we came up with to soak the long brass arms that open the transom windows over the doors:

Skinning the paint left the brass in a raw state which rusted pretty easily, so I put a protective finish on it, by shmearing Brasso on the hardware, letting it dry and then hit it with a buffing wheel on a bench grinder. They make a polishing compound for the wheel that I used as well. To polish the screw heads (yes, because I didn't want them to stand out from the hinge faces and such) I used a pair of needle nosed pliers with electrical tape wrapped around the jaws so that they wouldn't mar the brass. To be able to do the transom swing-arms I had to run it with all the safety features removed, and even though I was careful, I still got myself a couple of times with the wheel on Firday cause I stayed up all night Thursday watching this damn thing.

It took a good while to do all this but I think it will make all the difference in the world with the house is finished. I don't know how many times I've worked on a place only to either half-ass scrape the hardware and re-install it, or else just chuck the whole batch and go with all new cheesed-out shiny stuff from Lowes. However, this is coming from a guy who has no problem spending an afternoon rummaging through piles of rusted-up hardware that will never find a home outside of the buckets they find themselves laying in.




Last Friday, Judson and I
climbed onto the roof of the Methodist church next to his house on Grove that we've been working on. We got there via the scaffolding the church had set up for a mason named Larry (that coincidentally I used to have to tote tile for) so that he could re point the grout joints above the frieze.





"...You'll Never Be Gold"



Found Cabinet #1

Inside what I guess would have been the reception area of the old crazy house down on Grove below Lombardy. The place is going condo and I think they've going to save it intact.

The Painter Victor

Is probably one of the finest painters in the city.

His numbers: (c) 512-0945 (H) 271-8291
Tell him Clay sent ya



The Nation of Ulysses

Had instructions on how to remove your fingerprints
In their liner notes. Their music unraveled easily,
It frightened me. They were the hardest Dischord
Band to listen to, the most revolutionary.
My friend Sean, who used to hit the all-ages shows at the Black Cat
Told me one night the Nation of Ulysses showed up and set
A dumpster on fire and rolled it, burning, into the middle of the street.

I don't know why, nearing middle age, I remember this
As the first cool wind to end summer rolls over me on my back porch.
Where are the Nation of Ulysses now, with so many gluttonous dumpsters
There in the alley or bristling with the shredded paper of K street?
What would Ulysses think of his wild and ravenous children,
Full grown now, lost in the forest or else mute under the manager's eye?


Smoke or Fire

California's Burning



Will Percy: Do you think pop culture can still have a positive effect?

Bruce Springsteen: Well, it's a funny thing. When punk rock music hit in the late 1970s, it wasn't played on the radio, and nobody thought, Oh yeah, that'll be popular in 1992 for two generations of kids. But the music dug in, and now it has a tremendous impact on the music and culture of the nineties. It was powerful, profound, music and it was going to find a way to make itself heard eventually. So I think there's a lot of different ways of achieving the kind of impact that most writers and filmmakers, photographers, musicians want their work to have. It's not always something that happens right away-the "Big Bang"!


Fig.11-Achilles and Hector at the Gates of Troy

circa 1997

I Built This Thing

In 2000, about an hour
before I went to fetch my wife Mary from her stay at NYU hospital after she had a brain tumor removed. We lived in Jersey City then. I think I made it in about thirty minutes, using a leftover piece of laminate from our counter-top and a couple of scraps of MDF. They told us she would have to be laid up in bed for a couple of weeks, so I thought it could be for meals. It got used maybe twice as she refused to stay in bed. Then we put our little t.v. on it. Years later, in Tennessee, when Henry was two, he pulled the t.v. off the thing and pinned himself under it. He was okay but the screen always had an off-color corner afterwards. Henry learned how to brush his teeth standing on it in our tiny pink and green tile bathroom in Tennessee. We had it hidden again until just recently as May has gotten enough balance to manage climbing on it. I have no idea how it has lasted this long. The legs are still sturdy even though I can't remember using glue. The laminate has yet to peel. This weekend Henry and May used it to do flips onto his futon. Laying on his futon, we have been piling together to watch the Planet Earth series on Mary's laptop. The laptop fits perfectly on top of it.



Joe McCarthy's Ghost

The Minutemen @ 9:30 club, 1984

Metamorphosis (pg. 142)

—Stephanos Dedalos! Bous Stephanoumenos! Bous Stephaneforous!

Their banter was not new to him and now it flattered his mild proud sovereignty. Now, as never before, his strange name seemed to him a prophecy. So timeless seemed the grey warm air, so fluid and impersonal his own mood, that all ages were as one to him. A moment before the ghost of the ancient kingdom of the Danes had looked forth through the vesture of the hazewrapped city. Now, at the name of the fabulous artificer, he seemed to hear the noise of dim waves and to see a winged form flying above the waves and slowly climbing the air. What did it mean? Was it a quaint device opening a page of some medieval book of prophecies and symbols, a hawklike man flying sunward above the sea, a prophecy of the end he had been born to serve and had been following through the mists of childhood and boyhood, a symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being?

His heart trembled; his breath came faster and a wild spirit passed over his limbs as though he were soaring sunward. His heart trembled in an ecstasy of fear and his soul was in flight. His soul was soaring in an air beyond the world and the body he knew was purified in a breath and delivered of incertitude and made radiant and commingled with the element of the spirit. An ecstasy of flight made radiant his eyes and wild his breath and tremulous and wild and radiant his windswept limbs.

—One! Two! ...Look Out!

—O, Cripes, I’m drownded!

—One! Two! Three and away!

—Me Next! Me next!

—One! …Uk!


His throat ached with a desire to cry aloud, the cry of a hawk or eagle on high, to cry piercingly of his deliverance to the winds. This was the call of life to his soul not the dull gross voice of the world of duties and despair, not the inhuman voice that had called him to the pale service of the altar. An instant of wild flight had delivered him and the cry of triumph which his lips withheld cleft his brain.


What were they now but cerements shaken from the body of death—the fear he walked in night and day, the incertitude that had ringed him round, the shame that had abased him within and without—cerements, the linens of the grave?

His soul had arisen from the grave of boyhood, spurning her graveclothes. Yes! Yes! Yes! He would create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul, as the great artificer whose name he bore, a living thing, new arid soaring and beautiful, impalpable, imperishable.

--James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Hot Engine Heart

Flying the Flag

Months ago my associate Darin got parked for a long while on a hectic job down in the fan, I'd call him up to see how it was going and his response would be "Just down here flying the flag." I have adopted the phrase myself anytime the best thing to do is to simply show up.


Judson #1

I Have Been Working Lately

On a house my buddy Judson bought just past Boulevard on Grove. He intends to live there when we're finished.

The Carpenter Mike Smith

Has been doing this work longer than me, Judson or Darin. I myself have learned a lot from him over the years, and we all consider him a friend. Last Tuesday morning he came by Jud's house while I was restoratin' the porch and borrowed my two-foot level, said he needed it to true up some framing on a job around the corner. I think I mentioned that was last Tuesday; I haven't seen Mike or the level yet. I purchased it eight years ago from a hardware store in Hoboken, and it's a weird thing: red, all metal and tapers down at both ends. I think it's considered a plumbers' tool. It doesn't read true plumb, but the level bubble is still okay. At one point I put Poke'mon stickers on it. If you see Mike Smith, please let him know I'd like it back.

Addendum--Mike brought it back this afternoon.


Young Til I Die

Pogo, you old fuckers


"Snapdragon" for Mary

Fig.26-Hot Engine Heart

I no longer trust the nail gun my father brought home from Costco two winters ago for me to build him a monster deck off his house in Florida. I don’t know that I ever did trust the thing. It ran hundreds of nails at his house; it did the same last spring—a whole box of two and a half, ring shank, in one morning, plowing down a squeaky floor over an anesthesiologist while he chewed aspirin downstairs and watched his TiVo.

However this week, at Judson’s house, it misfires and jams. The thing runs nails at wild angles if it shoots them at all. I’ve been playing Andean Flute music for Victor and José, the Peruvian painters outside, worrying about how ridiculous it would be to catch a nail in the face, having it ricochet off some case-hardened yellow pine, with the “flautas” trilling along behind. José has no English so Victor has to help me tell him “La musica del Andes’ llena mi corazon.” Fills my heart. We swap stories about summer musicians in the hot subways of New York. Later I run onto the porch and announce “La musica del Britney Spears llena mi penga!”

I have to stop framing in order to demolition more of the walls of the “play room.” I keep calling it Baby Mary’s room because of the ancient pink paint. The plaster buckles and peels off easy enough. The sooty pink walls of some old man’s daughter, full grown and gone, shatter and give way to grey scratch-coat, mortar webbed with horse hair.

At the end of the day I notice the gun sitting alongside with the air-coupling up, covered in grit. I worry that grains of it will pressurize inside the housing next time I hook it up to the compressor, that the perfectly smooth chamber will swim with grey imperfections, that it will explode anyway as I go to toe-nail studs to the bottom plate of the closet. I still have a half bottle of pneumatic tool-oil I bought at Harper Hardware over a decade ago. I double up on the morning dosage for the rest of the week, hoping to drown the grit and potentially quench what could be the hot, dangerous heart of the tool.

It’s things like this that keep me up nights. Tools breaking, the assholes I work with. Sometimes I take the motorcycle out after the kids are down. If it jostles me enough and I am feeling angry or reckless I bank off Kensington onto Ellwood, and just on the other side of Patterson, open it up on the ramp to the bypass. The best part is the three-way merge with 95 and 64. It becomes less complicated if I go faster than everyone else, which is how I address most of my problems. Speed makes traffic two dimensional. I only have to worry about whatever’s in front of me. I think about the potential of dangerous people on the road---drug traffickers up from Miami, truckers on speed. I think about whether or not there is enough air in the tires. I consider the sensation of being simultaneously angry and afraid. There are lots of ramps merging on that stretch and everyone drives it very fast. I can hear truck tires, my chain flying through revolutions, flinging grease, the pistons roaring away in their cylinders. I try not to think about what could happen.

On the ramp off 95 to the downtown expressway there is an open joint where the two roads meet in the air—in a tangle of overpasses. A biker got stuck in it just before we left town, years ago. This junction, this expansion joint between two huge elevated slabs of cement, channeled his tires to the divergent point and catapulted him over the side, a hundred feet above Shockoe Valley. The ramp beyond it is a perfect descending radius which tightens incrementally before launching you through the center of downtown. This is the way I complete the circle back to the Fan. This is the way I wind tightly around a city I’d thought I’d never call home again.

Neat Neat Neat

Ha ha, Captain Sensible eats shit there in the middle


The Trigger on the Worm Drive

Finally shit the bed. It tends to stick "on" with the blade spinning, after a cut, which is not a very safe feature. I got to take it, as well as my old sander to Staley Co Inc. tomorrow to get fixed.

The Pool in the Omni at Christmas

When Grandmother came at Christmastime, she got a room at the Omni, in the James Center. The room came with access to the pool we didn’t even know it had. The lights were still up so we went downtown, kids and everything, to humor her. Henry flung pennies at the dwarves in the fountain, May-may pointed at everything, the sixteen foot Nut-cracker, and careened around the lobby. We went up and down the elevator, then to Grandmother’s room, got on our suits and went searching for the pool.

I never noticed before but the James Center must be terraced, because the pool had a greenhouse roof at one end and sliding glass doors surrounding it that let out onto patio. Being December, of course, the whole place was freezing. We found a thermostat that given a couple of hours might’ve heated the water a few degrees. There was a heat lamp suspended from the ceiling that was disabled. The kid’s were far too excited for us not to be going in. I was to be first.

Submerged, I pushed deep into the deep end. I banked frigid against the far wall and came back to shallow water, Grandmother and Henry hooting loudly. May clutching at her mother's side. My foot thumped on the pool floor and I felt it reverberate, like a drum. I felt the bottom with my foot; it was steel plate, painted white. The sides of the pool were metal.

I realized in a moment, that myself, that all of us were swimming in thousands of gallons of water, suspended four stories up by what was essentially a steel pan welded into the ribs of a building. Nobody else seemed concerned with my discovery. Henry with his water-wings and Grandmother's thin arms under his belly. I thought about the welds holding the sides together, the welds stitching the tub to the beams, the beams, whatever was directly underneath. The five of us were laughing to keep warm; splashing in the steel pelvis of what passes for a skyscraper here.

And it held us up.