Water, Water, Down The Stairs

We all know how the song goes: “I fought the law and the law won.” What law? The law of unintended consequences. Whose law? Murphy’s. The iron law of life is: you’re minding your own business and the roof falls in. Or in this case the basement becomes a grotto.

For ten years I have lived next door to a plain, little 1,600 square foot, one-story home. Then six months ago it was bought by someone in thrall to TV shows like “Flip that House,” “Rehab Addict” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” Bang, Zoom, hordes of men in tool belts descend and gut the house, add a second and third story, regrade the lot, fence and landscape the yard and instantly resell it for 150% more than they paid. Capitalism triumphant.

And then the rains came. For ten years the only water in my house has been in the sink and the bathtub and from one little leak caused by a bit of improperly installed flashing on the roof. That little leak was deeply disturbing, however, because the entire idea of a home is a place where you are safe from the elements, where you can count on shelter from the storm. From the very beginning, the purpose of a well-chosen cave was to keep you out of the rain.

Jesus warned that to follow his unpopular road was hard – “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head,” although in his neighborhood gully-washing rains at least were not a big problem. But he was also speaking to the universal human condition.

Think of the pitiful homelessness of Lear, made doubly painful when he finds himself in a lashing storm. He realizes that without a place to lay his head, a tatter to keep him warm and dry, “unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal.” In short, it is good for a man to have a Castle when the skies open.

And up until this episode I was warm and dry, fat and happy in my castle, able to laugh at the tempest. But I figured without the home improvements next door. A mess of shrubs on the property line had been removed. The slope of the next door lot had been made steeper to channel water away from the newly created McMansion.

But if the water didn’t stay where it had always been, where would it go? In my direction. During the storm, I could stand on my front porch and watch a river run downhill from next door to create a lake in my front yard, submerging walk, lawn, and garden. And soon the lake was in my basement. And it kept right on coming for several days.
What’s a fellow to do? Well, the immediate solution was to put on some boots and start bailing. But soon thoughts turned to the law. It can’t be okay for the guy next door to alter his property in such a way that it inundates mine. And as Frost’s famous poem reminds us, “Good tort suits make good neighbors.” I think that’s how it goes, but realistically legal recourse could drag on for years, enrich the lawyers, and meanwhile I’d still be up to my ankles in water.

The insurance company said, predictably, that it was not their problem. And by the way, keep those premium checks coming in. you wouldn’t want to be without the peace of mind insurance provides. But my mind was not at peace since they ruled my catastrophe was the result of an act of God. To be fair, isn’t everything? Though in this case, until the rehab artists altered the landscape, God had sent the water in a different direction and left me alone.

So, of course, I am on the hook for teams of men who are ripping up my basement to channel the water elsewhere with drains and pumps and other expensive improvements that I never needed before and that may or may not work when they’re done. Other crews will arrive to tear up and regrade my yard, to build a dike or levee or ditch or gutter to direct the water away from my home. It isn’t hard to predict that this will have the effect of ruining the day and flooding the basement of some poor sap farther downstream from me.

And after all this vast expense, will I finally be once again safe and dry indoors? Will I no longer be on the heath with Lear? I’m not counting on it. As Shakespeare, who had very few illusions, knew, there’s no escape from calamity. He built himself a nice retirement home in Stratford-upon-Avon, but even so “the rain it raineth every day.” And when you least expect it, the Lord may be willing, but the creek may still rise.

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