My friend is rehabbing a two-story brick house in the big city, renewing that sturdy old beast and contributing something of his own to an urban neighborhood that is making its comeback. I stop by once in a while to check out the progress. Cooler than cool but almost invisible are the twenty new solar panels up on the flat roof, with their web app that graphs how much electricity each panel generates on sunny as well as shady days. Most of the rehab work, though, has been on the inside of the house—stripping paint, for example, from the very tall old-style baseboards and from the window frames and fireplace. New tile is down now in the kitchen, new sinks and cabinets and showers are in various stages of construction and final gloss. Wood floors have been repaired or replaced, kitchen and laundry appliances still under their delivery-day plastic stand ready to be of service. Closets have been resized and traffic patterns reimagined for twenty-first century rather than late-nineteenth-century living. So much hard work promises such a nice place to live for years to come, for himself, yes, but for the community, too, as my friend has always been one who shows by example that we have a duty of care for the world around us.
I confess that of all this rehab work on my old friend’s new residence I have done exactly none. So I volunteered a few hours of unskilled manual labor, and sure enough, last weekend we met there to scrape and sand the basement window frames, which is, at first glance, not very glamorous duty. I wondered, too, whether my life-long impatience with the tedium of scraping had improved over the years. I guessed maybe not.
But I hadn’t reckoned on the modern efficiencies. With heat guns, scraping off layers of paint going back for decades became a pretty slick operation, for the most part. And I was surprised by my curiosity about the materials themselves: the century-old wood, most of it, was still oak-hard, the sawed edges square and true. I started imagining some long-dead carpenter whose first virtue was getting things exactly right. You know the saying: measure twice, cut once.
Then that carpenter of a hundred years ago surprised me a second time. That crafty soul had etched a tiny detail across the uppermost board of each window frame, a narrow rounded groove from far left to far right that added a hint of fancy to these utilitarian windows. It was so slight that I almost overlooked it, but my friend pointed out that this exact detail, this delicate thin line, crossed the uppermost board of basement windows all around the neighborhood. This was someone’s little trademark as subtle as a wink from across the decades.
I saw these windows now as a gift of careful craft and precision and quiet, spirit-lifting elegance sent our way a century ago. And now these windows needed our attention, our care. Proper scraping so the next coat of paint would hold, proper protection for the old wood so the it would remain oak-hard and sound for decades to come. And a little patching here and there for beauty, out of respect for what’s been handed down: The quotidian thing, practical and worthwhile, with something enriching in the detail.
A century-old window in its frame is like an old friendship, the vital bonds still in place but all the better for being tended to and renewed. And like a well-made old wooden window, our floundering constitutional democracy won’t last without the duty of care, without renovation and attention to detail, without faith that there are some things well worth committing to.
Music: "World of Pain" by Cream