Home Bodies

Why we care about gutters, grottoes, and toilets that flush up.

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My father is a home-improving sort of guy. He grew up a poor kid in a
cramped Brooklyn apartment, so when he finally got a split-level in the
suburbs he never stopped expanding and renovating. There was the deck
with carcinogenic charcoal grill in the `50s, the den with full-wall TV
and stereo unit in the `60s, the master bedroom with vertiginous spiral
staircase in the `70s, and the expanded bathroom with Jacuzzi and bidet
(my mother’s idea) in the `80s. In the `90s, he moved into a new house
and immediately replaced the Corian countertops with granite. Although
he’s now 82, he hasn’t slowed down. A few weeks ago, my husband and I
took him to the Home Show at the Philadelphia Convention Center. It
just the sort of thing he likes. We ended up liking it, too.

When we entered the show, we could see it had something for
everyone. Rakes and pruning tools were cheek by jowl with
state-of-the-art wood saunas. You could go from sublime green marble
countertops with flecks of mica to ridiculous toilets that flushed up
(actually not so ridiculous if you’re installing an in-law suite in
your basement).

There were displays for the old standards — chandeliers, awnings,
American flags, Philadelphia Eagles paraphernalia — and for the basics
— aluminum siding, gutter cleaners, junk removers, and “mold
remediation.” There were a surprising number of companies selling hot
tubs, which seemed like a throw-back (I half-expected a bikini-clad
girl to pop-up and hand me a brochure), but these tubs were overseen by
serious young men in suits: the hot tub gone corporate.

Lining one side of the hall were sample living rooms, garishly
decorated for local newscasters. Apparently there are people who want
the same overstuffed sofa the weatherman on Action News wants.

There were a slew of technical innovations: a company promising to
refinish your floors without sanding (a concept akin to a face lift
without a knife); an exhibit for customized concrete (to make your
driveway look almost like brick or stone); and a display for Gutter Stuff: guaranteed to make gutter cleaning a thing of the past
(should I have alerted the workhorse gutter-cleaners at the other end
of the hall?). There was a bedding product called Dream Silks: “a
luxurious long strand silk filled bedding product” guaranteed to adjust
perfectly to the temperature needs of anyone under it — at $99, much
cheaper than a marriage counselor. There were Little Giant Ladder
Systems with ladders that could attach to the oddest places at the
oddest angles. (My father took an excessive interest in these, and we
had to pull him away.)

A consistent motif at the show was “green awareness.” Most every
exhibit featured products that professed to save energy or be good for
the planet. This struck me as poignant. You wouldn’t have seen it
a few years ago, but now, even the aluminum siding guys know the
environment is going to hell in a hand-basket.

“System” seemed to be the operative term: There were bedding
systems, closet systems, bathroom systems, ladder systems. Having just
acquired a “home entertainment system” (i.e. a TV and DVD player), I
conclude that a system means that something will break in the first
week.

Many of the companies had the daffy quality of answering a
non-existent need: Treasure Your Garage (give your car a nice room of
its own), Fort Knox Security (buy a safe like one owned by Norman
Schwarzkopf or Joe DiMaggio), GoalSetter Systems (turn your tennis
court into a basketball court or vice versa).

There was a clutch of German companies specializing in stainless
steel appliances: Spend a fortune to make your kitchen look like your
high school cafeteria. And there were Swedish companies specializing in
teak kitchen countertops. I was enamored of these, but when I
asked one of the Swedish salesmen (possibly not Swedish) if I could cut
directly on them, he gave me a withering look and turned away.

For me, the high point of the show were the demonstrations: the
miracle alloy that can clean tarnished metal in the blink of an eye;
the stove-top griller on which chicken can be cooked to perfection
using only a half cup of water; the vegetable peeler that can peel
vegetables very, very fast. My father bought a ratchet cutter to cut
the rhubarb in his garden (now he needs to get someone to eat it). I
bought the chicken griller, hoping to solve my dislike for cooking and
for calories in one shot. I was also tempted by a device called the
Theater Lift. It consisted of a cabinet from which a TV could be made
to rise up, like Persephone from the Underworld, then go down again. It
seemed ideal for those of us who want to pretend we fall asleep reading
The New York Review of Books.

There was a time in history when one went to the circus to see
curiosities that bore no relation to everyday life. But with the rise
of industrialization and mass production, the curiosity became
domesticated: London’s Crystal Palace of 1851, presided over by Queen
Victoria, the most domestic of monarchs, was a home show on an
extravagant scale. So were the World’s Fairs that followed from it. The
Philadelphia Show was in the same spirit — a domestic circus.

Nothing seemed to demonstrate this better than the Super Mop. I
suspect that mops have been hyped as “super” since time began (re: the
miraculous properties of mastodon hair). At the Philly Home Show, a
young man with the zeal of an evangelical minister demonstrated his own
version. The Super Mop was made of a hard, green substance, possibly
kryptonite, and could more or less double as a vacuum cleaner. For the
low price of $30, this day only, we could buy not one, but two.
Needless to say, we waved our bills eagerly, as did the rest of the
people watching the demonstration. Soon my husband and another 10 men
were added to numerous others already shouldering two mops around the
Convention Center.

The last demonstration we saw was for a chamois cloth that a guy from South
Philly was showing as we headed for the exit. This seemingly
ordinary cloth, he showed us, could soak up a liter of Coke spilled on
a beige carpet. Just place the folded cloth over the spill and voila — it’s soaked up: no stain, no leakage, just twist, rinse and use again.

“Maybe it just works on Coke,” my father said.

“If it just works on Coke, that’s good enough,” said my husband,
waving a $20 bill for which he received not one, not two, but three
shammies with an additional small cloth that looked like a piece of
building insulation.

After the show, we debriefed over drinks at a nearby hotel, the mops
and shammies, the ratchet pruner and chicken cooker piled on an empty
chair. My father said he had been inspired to think more seriously
about patterned concrete and was contemplating a waterfall grotto near
the patio. I had gotten some ideas, too, though of a less concrete
kind. I was thinking about homeowners, all of us domestic bricoleurs
trying to make our habitation approximate some idea of beauty, novelty,
and efficiency. This is not an easy task, especially since we must do
it collaboratively, taking into account the wants, needs, and tastes of
those living with us. The Dream Silk comforter, which adjusts to my
being hot and his being cold, is a metaphorical enactment, or perhaps a
statement in microcosm, of the fundamental challenge of living in a
home as family.

But what the Home Show also dramatized was the bond that exists
among all homeowners. Not just sharing in the social and political
sense, home-owning means sharing in the existential sense, of
understanding what it means to keep a place up when things wear out and
we wear down. The socio-economic diversity of visitors to the show was
impressive, as was the range in type and price of the products. Even
more impressive was how many of the products were of interest to
everyone, no matter how modest or how grand their homes. Everyone has
chicken that dries out, silver that tarnishes, gutters that clog, and
driveways that looks like crap. We all want Super Mops, though we’d be
satisfied with good enough mops (i.e. mops that do a bit more than push
the dirt around).

In retrospect, I wish I’d bought the vegetable peeler, the Dream
Silk comforter, and the metal cleaner. Maybe someday I’ll even get the
teak kitchen countertops, if the possibly-Swedish salesman would deign
to sell them to me. Those countertops are so beautiful that they might
make me want to spend more time in the kitchen, which would then cause
me to buy some high-end kitchenware and maybe a German stainless steal
refrigerator. Who knows what home improvements could lie in my future —
that is, unless I sell the frigging house and move to an apartment in
the city where there’s no yard, no gutters, no siding, and the kitchen
and bathroom are the size of a postage stamp. That would be nice too. • 19 February 2008

 

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.

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