|Nofels Variant on Parkinson Law: Crap expands to fill all
available space plus ten percent more.
When we first moved into our house nearly 20 years ago, I was thrilled to see we had a three-car garage. The third bay wasnt available for use by a car, but that was fine with me, it would be my work room. The third bay had a serious downward tilt to its roof. Seems like some previous owner prior to our immediate predecessor, had added the third bay by just tacking onto the existing structure. There wasnt even a foundation. But it was available to me. Let me quickly flash back to my childhood to show how important this concept was to me.
Every summer, our family would make a trek back to Pittsburg, Kansas, to visit the ancestral manse of my mother. This was before the days of the Interstate Highway System, so it took 48-hours of nearly constant driving to get there from Cleveland, Ohio. One of my favorite hang-outs as a single-digit-aged weezer was the garage of my aunts husband Im identifying him as such so you know that there was no blood-relationship between us.
It was a two-and-a-half car garage that seldom had a car in it. Auto access was by the alley, so the garage door faced away from the yard and house. There as an access door on the yard side and a roofed patio abutting the rest of it.
It was always dark in there and the place smelled of old crankcase oil, raw lumber, and a hint of mustiness a heady perfume. It was cool, both literally and figuratively. The cooliosity, in a large part, was created by the workbench that spanned one wall. There were a lot of interesting tools that I only remember as being large, dusty, mechanical things that I was afraid touch for fear of breakage either them or a minor bone of mine. There was a pin-up calendar that tickled my libido in a way unidentifiable by a seven-year-old. There was a small hand-turned bench grinder, a wonderful time-waster. I would sharpen 10-penny nails to hypodermic points, then grind them flat and start again. Yes, I was an easily-amused child. Flash forward a quarter century and here was my chance to create my own work area.
Trouble was that the previous owners had left lots of their crap: old interior doors, a workbench cobbled together from scrap lumber, and a shelf across the back that was made from old siding. Crap is like a can of worms once disturbed, it can only be contained by a larger can. I left the previous owners stuff as it was, but dreams of a work room soon evaporated underneath a load of my own crap: lawn mower, snow blower, picnic table, garden tools, and snow tires.
There was about 2.5 ft2 of space where I could actually do work, provided I used the picnic table as a workbench. I vowed that things would someday change and Id never have to eat radishes again.
Someday turned out to be about 15 years. When the garage was in its final stages of decay due to improper water removal and termites, we my wife and I decided we needed a new garage. This time Id do it right: a three-car garage with the third bay walled-off as a real work room. The garage was built and I was happy for about 20 minutes until it, too, filled with crap: small snow blower, big snow blower, lawn roller, garden tools, extra aluminum and vinyl siding, ladders, and propane tank. This time I was left with 2.0 ft2. I needed someplace to store all of this stuff. Thats when I decided I needed a shed.
How may shed dealers are there on my side of town? Besides the big-box home-improvement stores, there were two shed dealers about a quarter mile apart. I checked both. One would build the shed under the radar of the Cleveland building inspectors, the other would comply with the law. OK, I wanted to do things right, so I went with the honest guys. Besides they were a couple of hundred bucks cheaper and I liked their designs better.
Turned out that the builders didnt get permits, I had to. Thats when I touched the Tar Baby.
I found out that I couldnt get the shed the size I wanted because there had to be a setback from the neighbors side property of 18-inches and the shed builders needed two feet between the shed and any existing structure in order to build the thing. That nixed the 12x12 and put me in a 10x12. Net loss of 24 ft2.
I took the rudimentary plans given me by the shed folks and drew a yard layout needed by the city. I took the layout and the plans down to Cleveland City Hall.
Since 9112001, city hall "security" has beefed up. No longer could you just walk in. Now you had to show an ID to a bored security guard. Security guard? This was the city, why werent they using cops? I guess they were all out stopping crime sprees. Why, it wasnt just the other day that I saw a couple of boys in blue chasing a guy coming out of a bank. He was wearing a horizontally-striped shirt and a domino-mask. He had a big canvas bag over his shoulder with a large dollar-sign on it.
Back in Reality . . . once you showed the 300-pound security guard your ID, you had to sign the register and tell them where you were going. After you did that, they gave you a 2x3 piece of paper to carry around. Oops, I mean an hall pass, oops, I mean "entry permit."
I went up to the second floor to the building department. On the way, I went through the marble halls that famous former mayor Tom L. Johnson must have trod: 20-foot ceiling, mahogany wainscoting and molding, and old capped-off gas light fixtures.
Mental note: dont make floors of marble back home, after 75 years, constant foot traffic wears grooves in it.
In all, what was once the physical manifestation of the seat of power in the city now had the feeling a creepy, underlit, mausoleum. Entry into the Building Department changed all that.
The Building Department was a rats warren of desks and three-foot partitions with a broken-down formica counter in front and a caged tellers window that looked like it was cobbled together from spare parts by someone who wasnt used to using a hammer.
I signed in again and took a seat. For seating I had two choices, what looked like an old church pew or dime-store stacking chairs. I sat and waited. Only about fifty percent of us in the room city workers included had English as a first language.
Eventually, I was "Next." They didnt call names from the registry book, you just kind of waited until all of the people who where in the room ahead of you were called.
A gentleman who was probably born in Zimbabwe took my papers and said I had to fill out a form in a holder on the counter. Nice that I was notified about this while I waited 45 minutes for my turn. I was sent back to the other side of the counter to fill out my paperwork while he took someone else.
Curiously enough, most of the people coming in for permits seemed to be intimate friends with the two guys who were taking applications. Theyd sit there an talk over old times and recent events. Reminded me of Andy Taylor and Floyd the Barber passing time. How nice for them. I assume that these were contractors who were probably dealing with this department on a weekly basis.
Eventually I filled out the form and went back to my friend from Africa.
He filled out numerous forms, all of which had to be stamped several times with different rubber stamps to make them official. Then he sent me to the plat room where they had to verify that the property on which I would build my 10x12 shed was actually in the city and on this planet.
"Come back to me when you have that."
I went down the hall to an enormous room with one guy in it. A friendly guy, but only one.
I again waited my turn and handed the gentleman my paperwork. He hauled out a plat book the size of Santas "Naughty" register and began looking for my property. In these days of instant information access I can get a free satellite image of my house from the Internet this guy had to look through a book that hadnt been updated from what looked like the Civil War: hand-drawn property-lines with Spenserian hand-written descriptions. Well, I guess the outlines of the land wont change much until the next glaciation.
Having gotten official verification that my yard was where I said it was, I went back to the building department. My immigrant friend was gone. Where? Well, it was his lunch break. I could sit and wait, or I could make a pain of myself. Having spent 90 minutes in the process already, I was a pain.
I went to the other gentleman who was taking care of us counter riff-raff and explained what had happened. He looked at me as if hed never heard of a person doing what I was told to do. From his accent, it seemed hed just immigrated from Bulgaria. He took all of my paperwork, examined it for flaws, errors, or doctrinal heresy, stamped it a couple of times, and sent me off to another gentleman further within the rats nest of desks.
This was the first native Clevelander Id encountered all day in city hall, but he was pissed. Big Time. He was an archetypical disgruntled bureaucrat. I was called into his "office" a roughly cubical area created by a harmonic convergence of file cabinets and bankers-boxes and he looked at my growing mound of paper with the same distaste a junior high school assistant principle would have when looking at a note brought it telling him to give this kid ten swats for spitting on the floor.
While he examined the papers he was interrupted four times by telephone calls he answered angrily. He stamped the papers some more and told me to take then and go sit in AREA 3. I went and sat, grateful to escape without a weeks detention.
AREA 3 is the place where you wait for people at computers to enter the information from all of the papers. Eventually a nice young lady called me over and took my papers and keyed the information into the system through perhaps about 1,203 screens. During the process, she told me that since I was asking for the permit, I would be responsible if anyone was killed or injured putting up the shed. ¿Que? The company putting up the shed was supposed to be insured and bonded. Id just take my chances, I guess.
She handed me a faux-engraved certificate and some more papers and told me to go to the other side of the counter and wait until the cashier called my name. I waited another 20 minutes, then had the privilege of paying the city $40 so I could build a shed on my own property. Cash only.
Two days later, I got a call at work from a building inspector who wanted to know all about the shed: what type of siding, what type of foundation, where it was located, what color were my eyes? I realize these guys have to inspect everything from sidewalks to skyscrapers, but he seemed completely in the dark about what I was going to have built. If he had the permit stuff, surely he had the plans and drawing Id given the city. Hadnt the city ever encountered a guy putting up a shed? Maybe not, maybe most people were smarter than I and just had the damn thing built without official city blessings. As Grace Hopper observed: its easier to get forgiveness than permission. Serves me right for trying to do things according to the rules.
After I re-assured the inspector that I wasnt going to build the shed out of gasoline-soaked bales of hay and roofing it with dynamite, he said to give him a call when it was ready for inspection.
But, thats not the end. In Cleveland, a building permit is only good for 90 days. Turns out that by the time the landscaper and the concrete guys were done, my shed wouldnt be built until to weeks after the permit expired. Bother.
I once again trekked downtown, awaited my turn, and explained my situation. A third son of some far-off land explained that Id need to get an extension from the building inspector. He looked up the inspector involved: "Oh, my. Its Mr. Mxyzptlk, hes a hard-nosed bastard." Funny how there are never any bureaucrats nicknamed "Compassionate Merciful Bastard."
Traveling through the creepy corridors, I found Mr. Mxyzptlks desk. Of course he was out doing building inspections. One of the featherbedding idlers in the bullpen told me Old Man Mxyzptlk wouldnt be back until after four five hours from now.
Back to the building permit room.
I was told by a fourth gentleman of offshore origin was I in Cleveland City Hall, or the U.N. Commission on the Subcommittee of the Office of the Secretary Generals Department of Jobs for the Illegitimate Sons of Foreign Potentates? that I would have to await the building department ombudsman. It was 10:30 and she was away from her desk. She arrived at 2:15 and saw me soon thereafter.
Her cubicle as a mass of tchatchkies, most of them religiously-related. Jesus certainly is involved in a lot of stuff, considering hes been dead for quite some time.
She struck me as a person who wasnt quite sure exactly what she should do. She did lots of checking in large three-ring binders and made a lot of phone calls.
After sitting at her desk for 30 minutes, she finally fired up her computer and carefully pecked in my information her two-inch multi-hued fingernails prevented any faster data input. Soon another official-looking document popped out of the printer and Id gotten another 30 days to get the shed up. But . . .
When I look over the new permit, I notice that the address wasnt 3838, it was 3638.
As I made the mistake of asking about the typo I realized Id just opened a giant, economy-size, #10 can of worms.
You guessed it, I had to run the entire gauntlet again.
Two weeks later, the shed guys come in, build the shed in a cold November rain/sleet/snow mix and I filled the shed up with crap and havent reduced the crap index of my workroom one whit. And, after reading the fine print of the building permit, I was supposed to call the Hard-Nosed Bastard Building Inspector before they put up the shed. Let em find me. Im a rebel and Ill never, never be any good.
© 2003, Pete Nofel