The Plaster Ceiling
By Tony Candela
It started as a disturbance and progressed to a nightmare, ratcheting from a vague worry to a major inconvenience. If you had awakened like we did to the crash at one in the morning, you might have thought an earthquake had struck. Perhaps such thoughts come readily to people like me who lived through a half dozen of them, fortunately all minor, in the 15 years I resided in California before retiring and returning to my native New York.
When disruption comes to your building, your equilibrium momentarily disappears and you strive to figure out what is going on. It sounded like a hard smash to the kitchen floor. You think, “What would have happened if I had been beneath whatever it was that just went splat?” Surely, you calculate, it would have been quite injurious to anyone unfortunate enough to have been standing beneath it. “Should I scramble to evacuate?”
Thankfully, when the bang reverberated throughout the apartment, we were safely snuggled away from it in the bedroom. It woke up our African Gray parrot dozing in his covered cage in the living room, but not my lady who remained sound asleep.
I heard the bang and thinking I knew what happened, I woke her up and asked her to check the bathroom to see if by chance something had fallen from the space-saver shelves hovering above the toilet. Knowing the space better than me, I figured she could do this in a flash and get right back to sleep. I was wrong.
After a while, she returned to tell me that a piece of the kitchen ceiling had collapsed and lay in the middle of the floor. The ceiling light fixture and the electricity on one side of the kitchen were also out. Thank goodness the outlets serving the refrigerator, microwave oven, and coffeemaker still worked. She was quite upset and we spent the rest of the night tossing, turning, dozing, and consoling.
The adversity began two days prior when I felt something touch the back of my head as we prepared to exit her apartment. Our mission: To pick up some Greek-fusion food at one of our favorite diners in Yorkville where she lives. This section of Manhattan’s Upper East Side is known as one of the most densely populated city subdivisions in the world.
When we returned with bag in hand and ready for dinner, we obtained the answer to the question I had almost forgotten about. Large drops of water were dripping from a single spot in the kitchen ceiling.
Nothing happened for the rest of the evening and we went to bed hoping things wouldn’t get worse. The next day two additional drips joined the fray as did three fresh towels. We called the landlady. I left a message, pleading for help as we knew the drips were probably dangerous to the health of the ceiling and maybe even ourselves. It was a Saturday. There was no response.
By the third night, things were worse, but we couldn’t discern the exact status of the ceiling. At one in the morning, when it partially collapsed, a large chunk of plaster hitting the floor, it made a loud and almost metallic thud.
Three days since the drips began, we finally got the attention of the landlady who promised a repairman right away. Three days later, a Chinese-only speaking man arrived along with an assistant who helped him haul sheet rock and tools up three flights of stairs and translated with us enough to give us confidence the Chinese fellow could do the job. Then the assistant left and our man began examining the ceiling to confirm the consensus opinion: the entire ceiling would have to come down, plaster removed, and sheet rock put up.
We had no idea what this would entail until the first evening after the repairman left and we got into the kitchen to inspect. There was rubble and dust everywhere. Heavy paper covered the furniture that remained in the kitchen, blankets and more paper protecting the refrigerator, sink, and stove. The place was a mess.
If you’ve never experienced plaster up close and personal, it is a solid cement-like substance made of a pasty composition of lime or gypsum, water, and sand that hardens after adhering to a mesh-like backing called lath. Lath can be constructed of wood slats or various mesh-like substances. The plaster, especially in ceilings where gravity can be the enemy, is held up and in place by the combined effect of the lath and the plaster’s own chemical properties. When it gets wet, plaster reverts to a weak and crumbly state. When it falls, at best, it makes everything filthy and, at worst, damages whatever it hits, including people if they happen to be in the way.
Our guy worked all day for two days in a row. At the end of the first day, he had amassed about 20 bags of plaster debris. He was quite good about cleaning up and I shudder to think what it would have been like if he hadn’t been. Together, we walked bag after bag down the stairs, I meeting him halfway to save us both some wear and tear. Each bag weighed at least 50 pounds. Being much stronger and half my age, he was able to carry two bags at a time, one on each shoulder. I used to be able to do that, but not for 30 years.
The next day, he finished removing the old ceiling and prepared it for sheet rock. This usually entails setting fasteners into the sheet rock prior to lifting it up to the ceiling. It also requires making sure the wood up there is ready to receive the sheets of wall board.
I spent the previous day wondering how our guy was going to lift and hold the sheet rock all by himself. Surely, I thought, his assistant, who we hadn’t seen in two days, would be returning to help him. I Googled the problem and learned about various mechanical devices designed to enable a single individual to lift and hold sheet rock in place until fastened. Sure enough, he showed up the next day with such a contraption and installed the sheet rock. Then he taped the joints and edges and readied our new ceiling for painting. Late the next afternoon, the third day of his presence in our lives, he returned and rolled on the primer. He rested for a bit while the first coat dried and then layered on a second.
By that point, I had figured out how to efficiently use the SIRI translation feature in my iPhone. It translated only into Mandarin, so I hoped he understood that dialect. Otherwise, we would have to rely on him to call his wife who spoke enough English to act as an effective translator. It all worked out and a $100 tip pressed into his hand and a big hug from me, our man packed up his stuff and left. Thus far, the ceiling is holding, the leak having been stopped when our quasi-super (we have no “real” one) adjusted the pipes of our upstairs neighbor’s radiator.
Cleaning up plaster dust is a nasty and difficult business as water doesn’t really work. In fact, on contact, it turns plaster-dust to mud. If one uses a powerful vacuum cleaner as our man did as his last hurrah, and if one follows up by buying a new and strong one ourselves, and follows-up by damp-mopping several times with a water and white vinegar mix, the dust eventually disappears.
Without continual fixes, strengthening, and renovation, sooner or later, the “guts” of 100-plus year-old buildings like ours will wear out to the point where they are no longer salvageable. Let’s hope a buyer or rescuer comes along to prevent such an outcome for this building and others like it.
Anthony R. Candela, Author
Saying aloud what should not remain silent.
Books by Tony…
Stand Up Or Sit Out: Memories and Musings Of a Blind Wrestler, Runner, and All-around Regular Guy
A memoir about life lessons learned, especially through sports
Vision Dreams: A Parable
A sci-fi novella about how a dysfunctional society forces people to go to extremes, including four blind people who seek out artificial vision.
More About Tony…
Tony Candela has worked as a Rehabilitation Counselor, supervisor, manager consultant and administrator for more than 40 years in the field of blindness and visual impairment. His work has included promoting literacy and employment of blind persons and a special interest in enhancing the career preparation of blind persons who wish to work in the computer science field. He is a “retired” athlete, loves movies, sports, reading, writing, and music, including dabbling in guitar.