John Howell’s column

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 21, 2010

Elusive leak prompts rooftop repair, becomes metaphor for life

Spent a long “honey-do” weekend in New Orleans and loved every minute of it. Come to think of it, Rosemary would never begin a request for me to do something with “Honey, do … .” She’d choke on it first.

Nonetheless, it was a weekend memorable for being nonmemorable.

There was a big thunderstorm Sunday, New Orleans big with lightning flashing over the river and rain pouring down from the sky in torrents.

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It also poured into our upstairs bedroom where for years a leak has persisted over one window. We had the leak before Katrina, got a new roof after Katrina and still had the same leak with the new roof. I have always suspected that the storm gutters along the sides of our upstairs somehow get too full and the water flows over the facia behind it and down to the window. I even added another downspot to hasten draining from the gutter. I appeared to help at one time. Now I’m not sure.

During Sunday’s thunderstorm water started dripping also from the skylight that is located directly upstream on the roof from the leak over the window. Hmmm? Could a leak around the skylight have been the source of our trouble all along, we asked ourselves.

That skylight was one of the features that Dave, the previous owner, had included when during the 1980s he added a two-story addition to the original, one-story shotgun house that was probably built around 1890. In New Orleans parlance, it’s a shotgun single with a two-story camelback.

Dave, or more likely the architect he hired, did a great job blending the old and the new. Not elegant by any means, but the house has good lines and space.

Which has made us wonder, during the years we’ve been there, why in the world did he put that skylight in the ceiling of that upstairs bedroom? Presumably, it could enhance ventilation without air conditioning. However, it is with some difficulty that it is opened and shut with a long-handled crank. And since we would be prone to forgetting that we’d opened it until after some rainstorm had begun, we’ve hardly ever opened it at all.

Meanwhile, our son David during a recent visit, cited that the bright outpouring through the east-facing skylight as having adversely impacted his sleep while he was there.

During the night after the thunderstorm, I realized that I really needed to caulk around that skylight. The hard part of that job is convincing Rosemary to let me. She’s had this thing about me climbing on a ladder since I fell from one ten years ago.

Any job I undertake on a ladder is not a pretty sight. My wife stands on the ground below, yelling threats that I had better not fall. I stand on the ladder yelling back at her that if she doesn’t shut up, she’s going to distract me and I’m surely going to fall. And so on.

If you ever watched the Seinfeld episodes long enough to see the interaction between George Costanza’s parents, Frank and Estelle, then you will understand.

However, my plans for the skylight didn’t involved the tall extension ladder on the outside. Instead, I brought a tall stepladder inside and placed it under the skylight. From there I climbed up, unbolted the skylight cranking mechanism to allow me to push the window open sufficiently wide to allow me to crawl out onto the roof.

There was one caveat. I fashioned a safety rope, tying one end in a loop around my chest and the other to the exposed ceiling beam that I stepped on before hoisting the other leg through the opening and onto the roof.

I’m not graceful under normal circumstances. Squirming out onto that hot roof was far from normal. But I didn’t have to find out if the safety rope worked, either. I could see myself dangling from that thing between heaven and earth and wondering what choice words we’d exchange under those conditions.

There was another thunderstorm on Tuesday. We went upstairs. Water still dripped from the same place above the window, but none came from the skylight. However, Tuesday’s rain was nothing like Sunday’s, so we don’t know whether a rain of the same intensity would send water dripping through that skylight or not.

Somehow I can’t help but think of that leak but as a metaphor for my life.

And that’s the way things are on Laurel Street in Uptown New Orleans, where the neighbors are on the wax and the hoods are on the wane.