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Home for the Haunting


Home for the Haunting

You know your job sucks when you find yourself escaping into a Port o' Potty.

The blue outhouses are indispensable on a jobsite, and, like the old joke about growing old, are a darned site better than the alternative. But they're not normally a place I choose to spend much time.

Today, however, I found myself lingering in the bright blue toilet. Warmed by the early spring sunshine, it reeked of hot plastic and a sickly sweet air freshener, but offered me a few minutes' respite from the steady barrage of questions and demands from dozens of eager but singularly unqualified volunteers I was directing.

"Mel, was I supposed to apply a coat of primer before painting?"

"I think stepped on a rusty nail. Is that bad?"

"Mel, there's this thing inside that's marked 'Biohazard.' What should I do with it?"

"Where's the dust mask/safety glasses/respirator/first aid kit?"

"Is this mold toxic? Do I need a lawyer?"

"Um...Mel? You should probably come see this."

Running a renovation project involves answering a lot of questions, and since I renovate houses for a living, I've grown accustomed to fielding rapid-fire inquiries about building details, design issues, and bureaucratic snafus. Usually, though, I work with professionals who know which end of a miter saw is up.

This current project, I had come to realize, was as much about wrangling well-intentioned volunteers as it was about home repair.

A few months ago, in a burst of charity inspired by a champagne-induced New Year's resolution, I had volunteered to help a community organization that renovated the homes of the elderly and the disabled. It was a wonderful cause, seemingly tailor-made for me, the general director of Turner Construction. I figured I would show up a few weekends a year, tools in hand, go where I was pointed and do as I was told. By the end of the project, my conscience, and someone's house, would be ship-shape, and I could relax for another six months or so, until the next project came along.

As with so many of my life plans, it hadn't exactly worked out as I'd anticipated. Ashley, the perky and deceptively shrewd Neighbors Together recruiter, had taken one glance at my business card and appealed to my vanity. Merely volunteering my labor was a waste of valuable and rare expertise, she had suggested. Wouldn't it be a far better use of my talents if I agreed to be a "House Captain?" That way, Ashley insisted, I would "more fully experience the joy and unique sense of accomplishment that comes from giving of one's self, working with a homeowner in need, overseeing the project from beginning to end, and supervising the eager volunteers. Imagine turning a loving grandmother's house from a daily nightmare into a warm and safe home-sweet-home, as only someone with your skills can do."

I'm such a patsy. I fell for it.

I spent the next several months inspecting the project house, prioritizing repairs and improvements, and gathering materials preparatory to this project weekend, when a horde of volunteers descended upon a modest but charming two-bedroom cottage on a quiet street in San Francisco's Bernal Heights. The scene was reminiscent of an old-fashioned barn-raising: folks swarming over the place like ants as neighbors dropped by to watch and kibitz. The untrained volunteers would be able to accomplish an astonishing transformation in one short weekend because even though most had never held so much as a paintbrush, many pairs of hands could be turned to good effect when directed by a House Captain who knew what she was doing.

And this House Captain had been up since four a.m., organizing food for the volunteers, gathering tools and the blueprints for the wheelchair ramp, checking on the arrival of the Dumpster and the Port o' Potty, and running around picking up supplies.

And if all that weren't enough to occupy my mind, I was also focused on ignoring the big, abandoned house next door to the sweet stucco cottage...where pale, flickering faces kept appearing in the windows.


Why does every interesting building in San Francisco seem to be infested with ghosts?

© Juliet Blackwell

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