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Archive for May, 2007

Airstream karma

Our new neighbor Tom appeared at the door today. He’d been talking with the former owner of our home, who had driven by and spotted our Airstream in the driveway.

Tucson AS parking 1.jpg

The former owner was excited to see the Airstream, because she and her husband had also owned one and parked it in this very carport. In fact, they came down from Chicago in 1971 in the Airstream, to relocate into their new home. They informed the builder that they’d have the Airstream in the driveway and he arranged for them to have custom enhancements: an extra-tall carport, and an extra water and sewer inlet in the carport.

Is it coincidence that we happened to find and buy this particular house? After all, we saw dozens of houses and few were Airstream-friendly, and none had hookups under covered parking. And this one was built specifically to house an Airstream! I think it’s Airstream karma …

Tucson AS Jerry.jpg

So today we brought Jerry the handyman back to adjust the carport. The last ten feet were blocked off by a wall, forming a storage area. We asked Jerry to remove half of this space so the full length of the garage would be available for parking the Airstream. Three hours later, the deed was done, and our rolling home had a home of its own.

Tucson AS parking 2.jpg

Today we faced the stained concrete experiment and decided it wasn’t what we were looking for. I’m not against stained concrete, because it can be beautiful, but in this case we are going in a different direction. I’ll tell you about that in a few days.

We also had a landscaper come by for an estimate on some backyard plans. The bad news was the existing lawn. Even though it is dead on top, and we’ve deliberately neglected it, we’ve been told the grass will spring back to life when it gets some water during monsoon season. We need it dead dead dead down to the roots, so it won’t come back later and ruin our xeriscaping.

The proposal is to fertilize and water the grass until it greens up a little, then spray it with Roundup (which travels to the roots and kills it), then very expensively remove the top few inches and truck it away. No kidding. All this is estimated to cost $2,200. So needless to say, we’re looking for alternatives. It seems ridiculous to pay such money to get rid of grass, especially in the desert where the darned stuff shouldn’t be growing anyway.

And keeping in the spirit of demolition and destructions, tomorrow morning a crew is going to show up and remove all the flooring in the house, plus all the kitchen cabinets and one of the two bathrooms. It should be total havoc, exciting and terrifying all at once. This is the ugly phase of renovation, but soon enough we’ll turn the corner to making things nicer.

A haircut for the palm and other adventures in suburbia

This time of year, in southern Arizona, early rising isn’t just a virtue, it’s an imperative if you want to get work done outside. So Jesus, the palm tree trimmer, showed up at 6:15 to get started on the single palm tree we own.

It’s strange that a week ago we didn’t own much of anything, and now we can claim a palm tree and a house to go with it. Stranger still, I hardly even know this palm tree and here I am paying someone to give it a haircut. It now sports a sort of palm tree fade, short on the sides and shaggy on the top.

Tucson palm trim.jpg

In Anza Borrego the fan palms have never been trimmed and they look very nice in their shagginess. But our tree has been trimmed in the past and so we decided to stick with the clean-shaved look that is more common to suburban areas. Besides, falling palm fronds are heavy, even dangerous sometimes. I don’t know enough about palms to be sure if ours will fall or hang on.

The first phase of the concrete floor test has been completed. Toby finished the floor today, but we had a snag. A last-minute addition of turquoise stain didn’t fully dry, and when he put the sealant on it created undesirable whitish rings. You can see a big one at upper left. That will have to be sanded out and repaired later. Still, we have enough of a sample to base further decisions on.

Tucson concrete floor.jpg

This photo does not do the floor justice. It looks better than this, but I had a tough time capturing it without glare. The colors are rich and varied, but in the photo it looks muddy.

Eleanor loves it. Personally, my take is that the floor is too dark. That’s an easy change. I’d also like to keep the deep brown and reds to minimal streaks rather than large patches. We both like the turqoise patches (lower left) and the little variations in pattern and texture that you may not be able to see in the photo.

The area by the door wasn’t sealed, so you can see how the color pops out in the final stage of the process. Until then, it’s very hard to visualize how the product will appear. Now that we can see it, we will take some time to consider it, before we commit to the rest of the house.

At this point, however, we are exhausted by home ownership already. Too much, too fast. We’ll all be glad when this renovation phase is over, and we can just treat the house as a place to live rather than as a project. It governs our days, our schedule, and our dreams at night. Just a few more contractors and repairs and we’ll be free again …

Tucson clouds palms.jpg

This afternoon we got a tiny taste of the upcoming monsoon season. A back-door front swept down through New Mexico and our temperature dropped (to 85 degrees), the humidity spiked, and thunderstorms rumbled past. By Florida standards it was still a low-humidity day and hardly enough rain to mention, but here it was a real event. We had to run out of the house and get soaked by the fat raindrops, and take pictures of the clouds. How much our perspective has changed since we came to the desert …

Stained concrete

One of the changes we are going to make to the house is to remove all the existing flooring and replace with stained concrete. This is for several reasons. The vinyl flooring is peeling and unattractive, and the carpets are full of dust, which causes allergy problems for Eleanor.

Stained concrete is an economical way to go, but we’ve never had it before and so we are proceeding with caution. The guy we have chosen to do the job is starting with just the laundry room. If we don’t like it, it will be easy to cover up again, and if we do like it he’ll do the rest of the house when we return this fall.

Tucson concrete 1.jpg
Stripping the vinyl off.

Since our floors were previously covered with glue for the vinyl, they need some prep before they can be stained. Toby has covered the concrete with a thin skim of an acrylic concrete compound to give a fresh surface. This took a few passes and overnight to dry.

Tucson concrete 2.jpg
Applying a fresh surface.

The next step is to apply stain. This is the artful part. After a couple of conferences, we decided on a mixture of a tea-colored stain with an orange stain, with touches of turquoise, red, and tiny veins of eggplant. I know, it sounds like a bad salad, but we think it will come out nice. We won’t really know until the clear sealant is on, because that’s when the color pops out.

If everything goes well, Toby will have the floor done on Wednesday and I’ll have pictures to post. In the meantime, a parade of tradesmen continues through the house. Today, we had the chimney sweep install a spark arrestor and barrier against animals. The palm tree trimmer came by to give an estimate, and I talked to two landscapers, who will be coming by this week to offer estimates on our disastrous back yard.

Another bit of neighborhood color emerged today. Apparently the “famous mobster” I mentioned in yesterday’s blog was Joseph Bonanno, a.k.a. “Joey Bananas”. He’s one of the few old-time Mafia guys who managed to live to old age and not spend a long time behind bars. His career was the stuff of legend, starting with his rise to power as a boss at the age of just 27 years.

He died in Tucson in 2002 at the age of 97, having survived three assassination attempts while he lived here. Since he owned several houses in the city I doubt he lived in this neighborhood toward the end. He probably bought in during the neighborhood’s heydey in the 1960s and 70s. Still, it’s a great little bit of notoriety to think about during our evening walks. I’m sure someone here knows which house he owned.

1970s houses

I will admit a dirty little secret: I like 1960s and 70s ranch houses. Not all of them, but those few that have a certain style. I like those with low sloping rooflines and big glass windows, simple construction, funky lights and sliding doors, exposed brick fireplaces and single-level floorplans.

That’s what we bought. Ours is not the height of 1970s style but it’s pretty reasonable. If it had a vaulted living room with shallow angle ceiling and a few more deep overhangs I’d like it even better. To me, these houses, with their little backyards, are just begging for a charcoal grill and a few neighbors to come over in the evening.

As with all small peculiarities and kinks, I’m not alone. So many people are interested in the funky potential of these ranches that a niche quarterly has sprung up (much like Airstream Life magazine), called “Atomic Ranch.” People are finding ranches made in the high style and fixing them up to a level of class that they never had originally.

One nice thing about the ranches is that they are dead simple in their construction. Ours is an example, with slab-on-grade foundation and no attic. Of course, the downsides of the era are numerous: very little insulation, single-pane windows that are difficult to duplicate, cheezy sliding doors, often small bathrooms, and perhaps aluminum wiring.

Our house was built in 1971, in a neighborhood that was once on the outskirts of Tucson and regarded as the cutting-edge in subdivisions at the time. The builder insisted on all the first-class amenities, such as underground utilities, service alleys, a divided boulevard leading in, palm trees everywhere, carports & garages, paved streets, and houses built only of brick, adobe block, stucco, or redwood.

A neighbor popped over today to introduce himself and tell us a little about the area. Reputedly, an heiress to the Zenith fortune lived in the neighborhood. A famous mobster lived here. Peter Fonda used to visit somebody here, and there’s a story about him riding a motorcycle on the roof. True? I can’t tell but it’s great to have some history to bring the place to life for us.

I like 1970s Airstreams too. Our 1977 Argosy was a really wonderful trailer to renovate and own. Perhaps it’s my bias as a child of the 1970s, but I see a lot of good in that era that is overlooked. People tend to focus on the green shag rugs and disco as reasons to dismiss the 70s. As a result, vintage objects from the 70s are plentiful and cheap. That includes Airstreams and Argosies, as well as houses. It’s an era where you can get a lot of value for your dollar if you shop carefully.

Tucson fruit grill.jpg

Tonight Eleanor insisted on grilling things that nature did not intend to be grilled. Chicken, OK. Asparagus, onions and potatoes, sure. But strawberries, bananas, grapefruit and pineapple? Well, the pineapple and grapefruit came out OK, but bananas and strawberries don’t appreciate being grilled. Still, with a dressing, it made for a very interesting salad. We ate it all sitting in the back yard and watching the sunset, while Tucson cooled down into the mid-80s at 8 o’clock.

Tucson sunset palms.jpg

Brothers under the skin

A fellow Airstreamer, James, sent me this picture today. It’s a 1989 sales brochure for Airstream, showing some of their more radical creations: the Airstream fifth-wheel and the aluminum/fiberglass “squarestream” Land Yacht trailer.


Neither of those inventions worked out for long. The fifth wheel was nicely appointed inside but flopped as a product for Airstream and was gone in about two years. The “squarestreams” lasted a little longer but were the subject of ridicule by traditional aluminum trailer owners.

But they persisted as odd little pieces of Airstream history, and many are still on the road today. Although they don’t fit the image of Airstream as perceived by many people, they are legitimate products produced by the company and thus relatives of all other Airstreams ever made. With time, people have come to see them as funky vintage units, even desirable.

I am reminded of a line uttered by the bad guy in one of the Indiana Jones movies: “See this watch? Worthless … but bury it in the sand for a thousand years, and it becomes priceless. Men will kill for it …” It is sort of like that with old trailers. After a few decades, the most common products will become vintage, fascinating, retro, nostalgic — and valuable.

The catch is simple: they have to survive long enough. This is where Airstreams have had a huge advantage. The riveted aluminum shells tended to hang in there longer than other styles of manufacture, and Airstream had the advantage of volume as well. So many were made over the decades that inevitably quite a few survived despite leaks, hailstorms, accidents, and neglect.

Tucson squarestream.jpg
James’ Land Yacht “squarestream” in Tucson

There are purists, I suppose, who still resent the squarestreams as red-headed stepchildren that never should have been conceived. But with time, most hard feelings have mellowed and people now tend to view them as fascinating peeks into the RV market of the times. It’s hard even for the purists to be threatened by the odd products of Airstream’s convoluted past, since they are no longer produced and their numbers continue to dwindle over time.

My take is simply that “It’s all good.” While the product may vary with time, as long as Airstream preserves the essence of what makes an Airstream an icon, I’ll happily embrace the products they make as kin to my own. The new Base Camp is a great example. It’s new, experimental, radically different, and yet speaks to the same adventuresome spirit as all the other products.

To me, that’s the tie that binds all Airstream owners together. The nameplate is a convenience, but the real bond is a shared love of travel and adventure. It is what marketers call a “psychographic,” a common set of interests that defies age, race, religion, politics, or any other characteristic. The “squarestream” trailers aren’t historical embarassments, but rather symbols of a lifestyle interest that can’t be defined by boundaries of style, shape, or price.

30 amp blessings

We have air conditioning in the Airstream at last. The electrician arrived with a helper mid-day and managed to get the 30 amp RV port plug installed by 3 pm, along with half a dozen other electrical projects. We now have GFCI outlets in the right places, four more lights that actually produce light, and some electrical mysteries have been cleared up.

Tucson electrician.jpg

But the big thing is the air conditioning. Today was forecast to reach 103, but it got hotter in places. Eleanor reported that the bank time/temperature sign was reading 113 but the truck’s digital thermometer only said 106. In any case it was hot enough that the Airstream would have been marginally inhabitable this evening, so it was good to plug into the new 30 amp outlet and start cooling it down.

By evening the Airstream’s interior was back into the upper 70, thanks to the miracle of air conditioning. And now we have a nearly full hookup in our carport — water, 30 amp electric, and gray water drain — which means the Airstream will be completely usable as a guest house when we return.

We also interviewed a concrete stain artist today, who we are hiring to re-do the floors. There isn’t time to strip the existing vinyl and carpet flooring, prep the surface, stain, and seal, for the entire house before we need to leave. But there will be time to do a single room, so next week the laundry room will become our test case. Stained concrete floors (photos) are becoming popular everywhere, and particularly here where they fit in the southwest motif and feel cool in the summer.

But it can’t be all house business while we are here. We don’t want to hit the road feeling burned out and thinking of the house only as a burden to return to. So last night I bought a propane grill and tonight we relaxed like true suburbanites on the back patio, watching the sunset turn the clouds pink over swaying palm trees and the rugged faces of the Catalinas.

Dinner on the patio felt a little peculiar after all our time camping, but I’m sure we’ll quickly get used to it.
Although just a few days ago it felt like penance to be locked down to a house for two weeks, now our time here is starting to seem very short.

The Airstream refuge

We are settling in to homeownership, in our own peculiar way. Our lifestyle this week is the result of conflicting forces, to wit:

a) we do not wish to buy anything in the house that will take up floor space, since the first challenge of the house will be to rip up all the existing floor coverings and install new floors that are more friendly to allergy sufferers.

b) the outside temperature for the next several days will be 100 degrees +, and it’s not cooling off much at night.

c) we won’t have a 30-amp outlet to run the air conditioning in the Airstream until at least Saturday afternoon.

d) we’ll be leaving Tucson in about 10-12 days, thus discouraging us from getting into any major projects at this time.

This limits our options. During the day we occupy the house because it has central air conditioning. We’ve been fixing small things and making lists of many more things. Each day we have numerous phone calls to make to tradesmen, and each day a couple arrive to review the state of things and write up estimates. We are making a lot of tradesmen happy.

Scheduling appointments could be a full-time job but I already have one, so in between calls and estimates I use the kitchen as World Headquarters of Airstream Life magazine. I stand in front of the computer sitting on the kitchen counter, because there are no chairs. On the bright side, I suppose it may be healthier than sitting in a chair all day.

At night, we re-occupy the Airstream, with all the fans running and windows wide, waiting on cool night air to slip in after midnight. But we are happy to do it anyway. It’s still home. I was thinking last night that it would be the only night of heat, but then the electrician arrived today and told me he’d be back on Saturday to do the actual work. So it was another day of heat in the trailer and once it reached 101 inside we tended to avoid it.

There’s lots to do but we can only do a few things at the moment. Today we tackled lights. Nearly every light fixture inside or outside the house had an issue: no bulb, dead bulbs, loose wires, or too-large bulb. One bathroom fixture had a 240-watt bulb where there should have been no more than a 75-watt bulb. That left a nice scorch mark. We replaced all of the interior bulbs with the CFLs I bought earlier, and now we have functioning lights, a minor accomplishment but one that feels good.

Tucson house back br.jpg

We also done some exploratory surgery. The ugliest room in the house is the one Eleanor and I would like as our bedroom. It has great light, a beautiful view, and sliders to the back yard. Unfortunately, it is also encumbered by dark 70’s wall paneling in decaying condition, the single-pane window glass appears permanently fogged, there’s an annoyingly humming ceiling fan, very little closet space, and in the morning the eastern sun comes glaring in at 6 a.m. and heats up the room.

Ripping up a piece of wall was a way for us to get a hint of what lies beneath, but it was a dusty, sweaty, dismaying experience. And after that we went to the hardware stores with our long lists and spent a few hundred dollars on stuff.

So you can see why, at the end of a day, we are not particularly bothered to leave the cool house for the hot Airstream. In our Airstream, we can turn our back on the house projects and camp in the driveway for a few hours. It’s a vacation from the obligations of life, and oddly enough for a mobile thing, a stable anchor in which we can recharge for the next day.

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