Weekend Edtion: Solidarity with my house


James Bornemeier
James Bornemeier

When extreme weather is in the forecast, I abandon the city to housesit on the Island.

The reason is simple. The one-bedroom Manhattan apartment on the 16th floor of our kindly dinosaur of a 1927 building can shrug off most of the stuff that gets dished out to other buildings in the region, even though the east-facing windows will leak a bit when a wild wind drives rain horizontal. They were retrofitted sometime in the past, but acquaintances who know about such things say new construction in the city holds all kinds of surprises in the categories of leaks, poor materials and general shoddiness of workmanship. We should be grateful, they say, for the sturdiness of our dowager fortress.

To be clear, our house in the Center is no sissy. It’s situated out of storm-surge territory and we have taken out most of the threatening trees. But it has staunchly weathered all the meteorological events of the last decade without whimpering or heaving or collapsing. Sitting tight in New York while nasty weather batters the Island seems a dereliction. My presence here will prevent nothing from happening, but I would rather hear and see the damage first hand than getting reports from neighbors or discovering it after the fact.

The exception to apartment invincibility in our 15 years there was Irene, when rain penetrated aged mortar and wetted areas of the living room, bedroom and bathroom. As per arcane co-op rules, the building scraped and re-plastered these spots. Owners are responsible for interior painting. (The building also considers the wood floors within its legal purview; more on that perhaps in a future column about the one true apartment catastrophe we have endured, which entailed moving out.)

The building has since had wide swaths of brick and mortar repointed and replaced. For months, the masons traveled up and down, their platforms hoisted and lowered inches from our windows, working in utter silence except for the clink of cloven brick. On at least one ascent, they whacked one of the window air conditioners pretty good, and I elaborately imagined its thunderous crash landing below.

Ironically, our Island place was unscathed by Irene, although fretting through those endless hours of howling wind may have shortened my life in some mysterious way that won’t show up on the annual physical. The usual locust debris littered the property but the only significant Plant Kingdom victim was an old lilac bush that looked like, instead of getting blown over, it just gave up, so gentle was its death pose. But one of these storms will wreak damage to the house. Of that I am utterly convinced. That is why I head into the teeth of would-be hurricanes and all too real nor’easters. I hope it doesn’t happen on our ownership watch, but I feel obligated to be a witness if it does. The house shouldn’t take it alone.

Speaking of hurricanes, I never gave them much thought until we bought our Island home. Domiciles in Southern California, Northern Virginia, Philadelphia and the aforementioned Manhattan apartment never felt at risk. But Long Island seems to be daring them to hit dead on. There is something about its elongated slender shape that leads to idle thoughts about a middle finger taunting those Carolina storms to come north for a visit. In the early years, I battened down the property securely, guaranteeing that the storm would wobble away harmlessly. In more recent times, I’ve become less persnickety about all the possible missiles in the yard. Rather than moving them inside the house, garage or shed, I tie some of the larger stuff down, herd the potted plants on the deck close to the house and take down the wind chimes and garden sign, as if these moves would have any effect during a direct hit. Of course all bets are off if a Cat 2 or 3 lumbers across our Island sheltered by islands. I wonder how far a kayak can fly.

In my Washington, D.C. journalism days, I was dispatched, along with another guy, to cover Bertha, a Cat 2 that whacked Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, in 1996. (If you are a student of U.S. hurricanes, you will know that Wrightsville Beach is one of the premier hurricane magnets on the East Coast. Bet on it. It’s eerie.) I, however, stationed myself in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where the night before the National Weather Service said Bertha would make landfall. North Myrtle was evacuated but I found a cinder block motel on the beach that was still welcoming visitors (me). It wasn’t scary at all when Bertha hit because I didn’t own any of the roofs that I saw flying away across the street. A riderless bicycle went briefly airborne, shades of E.T. It wasn’t my stuff. It was only fodder for my colleague in Wrightsville Beach who was writing the story.

Let’s say one of Bertha’s progeny next summer/fall is messing around in the Carolinas and sees a middle finger and veers north to confront it, ignoring every NWS prediction on record. I’ll be here when it comes, flying kayaks and all.

It’s my solemn duty as a witness.