Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Sidewalk Lady

The sidewalk lady started out as a potential business lead from an associate in our industry. The result was 1. that we got a pretty good story, 2. we now question any references from associates who do not investigate the leads that they pass on (we try to ask more questions before we say yes), and 3. we managed to extricate ourselves from further involvement with the sidewalk lady.

Our associate told us that the sidewalk lady had a problem with the platform of brick at the entry door on her house, her stoop as she called it. We spoke with her briefly on the phone. She asked us to visit her house and look at her problem. Though her house is on Long Island where we are located it is at a village quite a bit out of the way for any of our usual travels. We were not particularly inclined to spend several hours, let alone the cost of gas, to go look at a problem that we had no clue what it would amount to in a paying gig. So after much effort on her part to act the ‘desperate grandmother' in need of assistance, which took several phone calls with her calling us every day, at times several times a day to beg us to visit her house – we convinced her to send us a photograph. We had to promise to return the photograph. We promised.

A few weeks later a Polaroid photo showed up. It was a really bad photo and I could not make out from it very much of anything. It showed brick. For all the fuss we had gone through I imagined this had to be the side view to a large brick structure. The address was at a relatively well-to-do area of the island best as we could tell and we imagined this must be one hell of a nice house. We were trying to visualize what the problem was that we were being presented. She had told us there were white lines. We were clueless. What white lines? We sent the photo back. With it we sent a work proposal for what it would cost for us to visit and investigate the problems. We figured that it would take at least a day between going there, talking with her, doing some probes, knocking around a few bricks or whatever and then to write up a recommendation report and a repair proposal.

Here is an excerpt from our letter: “I have looked over the photo that you have sent to us. The photo is being returned to you enclosed. You are correct that there is not much that can be seen form the photo but it does provide us with a more accurate idea of the problem that you have. Though we are not certain that we can make much of a difference it looks like what we can do is use a pneumatic carving chisel to remove the harder portion of the efflorescence and then to use an acidic cleaner and see if there is an improvement. The appearance may be less than acceptable, but it will be better than it is now, and it will avoid the need to remove and replace the brickwork.”

She did not want to pay for our time to do that investigative work. We understood. No problem. We were perfectly willing to leave it alone. She kept calling us every few days. “Please please please come visit at my house.”

Eventually we got a paying gig in New Jersey and on the way back to Long Island, even though it was at least an hour out of our way in travel time, we made arrangements to visit at her house. Over the course of the previous weeks everything seemed to have gotten worse with her masonry and it had now spread to her concrete sidewalk. She had been talking with all sorts of people about her dire situation including the Portland Cement Association, including a contractor who was writ up in the NY Times for doing shot blast on concrete parking decks.

Shot blast uses a machine that shoots steel bee-bees at the concrete and at the same time sucks them and the pulverized concrete back up again. It is used to remove the top surface of concrete in order to roughen up in preparation for a surface bonded coating... it is a fairly standard process with large parking garages. The equipment is expensive, the crews need to be experienced, and the money is made in getting in, doing large areas quickly, and then moving out. It is paid for by the square foot of area blasted. Quite often it is done in an operating garage with the need to deal with the hassles of vehicles... but not always the need to deal with grandmother types.

It was getting toward evening and we were tired from a day of work. What we really wanted was to get home after a few days away. We also wanted to get her to stop calling us. We found ourselves slightly lost in a suburban neighborhood. Not as upscale as we had imagined, but not terribly shabby either. We finally found the address and our first impression was that the house, with wood siding, looked as if it was last painted in the early 1950s. Our other impression was that there must not be anyone home, even though we had called, and been called, several times to confirm the appointment. We parked. We went up to a door where there was a light on outside, not exactly sure we had the correct information. No, this was it, she answered the door. Through the screen we asked her where the stoop was at that she had the problem with. Mind you, we consciously did not want to be invited inside.

She said, “You are standing on it.”

I looked down at my feet and instead of a magnificent, even a modestly apportioned stoop what I found was about twenty brick laid flat for about nine square feet of area, I mean it was flat 3’ x 3’ in size., smaller than a kitchen table. The brick was trim around the outside of the square with concrete in the middle. It was not the side view of anything that I had been looking at in her precious photograph.

Well, if we were not raised to try to be polite, and if it was not that we wanted to get her to stop calling every few days, we may have been smart enough to turn around and run back to the street, get in the truck and keep driving.

We could not see anything at all wrong with her brick stoop. She insisted that there was. Not only was there something wrong with her stoop but her neighbor during the winter had thrown lime and rock salt onto her sidewalk and therefore she swore that her concrete was rapidly deteriorating.

Other than normal weathering, where the stone aggregate is lightly exposed, we saw nothing to complain about with her sidewalk. Mind you, this was not a 10’ wide sidewalk in 5’ squares like in the city; it was not even 4’ wide. It was a 3’ wide sidewalk, about as small as one can get with a sidewalk other than not having one at all.

She wanted to know if we could shot blast it for her. We expressed hesitation. She went on about how that was what she read about in the NY Times and it must be the only proper way to take care of her sidewalk. She was perturbed that the shot blast guy no longer returned her phone calls.

We told her that she had some very interesting problems.

“I need to show you what my neighbor did,” she said as she pulled us out further along toward the street. “You see that?”


“He did that?”

He did?

“It was not there before.”

There was a slight indentation in the surface of the concrete. I got down on my hands and knees and put my head down close and looked across the surface. It took me a few minutes, with her asking questions the whole time and my trying to be polite, before I realized that it had to a child’s bare footprint from when the concrete was first poured.

She asked me what it was. I told her a footprint. She asked, “How did my neighbor do that?”

I said, "We have no clue. We don’t know your neighbor." Though we were worried at this point that she would go over and drag out her neighbor to engage in the debate. Instead she asked what could be done for it. I looked at it and told her she may want to consider telling her friends that it is the sign of a mysterious visitor.

I told her that a story may be the best option as to put a patch on it would only make it look worse, and the patch would not last, and the half cup of mortar needed was hardly going to pay for our coffee, let alone a lunch ticket.

We eventually got her backed up to her stoop. We told her we knew a mason in the area who was looking for work (we made him real happy when we passed on the referral, and I fully intend that note of happiness in a sarcastic manner).

And as she was standing on her stoop I had this impression that nobody would ever believe this story, so I asked her if I could take her picture on her stoop in front of her door.

She perked up, stood up in a proud pose in her house coat and said, “Are you going to make me famous?”