I Wanted New Wall-to-Wall Carpet. He Wanted a New Sidewalk. 25 Years Later, We Have Neither

The hardest part of home renovation? Agreeing where to start.

home renovation relationship conflicts

Home renovation relationship conflicts are to be expected. Illustration by Rob Dobi

Marriage is a mystery. The notion that anyone should ever be able to find another human being with whom to happily spend, oh, say, 40 or 50 years of life is absolutely preposterous, when you think about it. Seriously. Picture your dearest non-spouse comrade, someone you really love and admire — college roommate, high-school buddy, closest childhood friend. Got it? Now. Do you want to wake up every morning for the rest of your life next to that person? Go to bed every single night beside that person? Share meals, bathrooms, vacations, car-buying excursions, TV-show choosing, housecleaning responsibilities and everything else with that person?

Of course you don’t. No one possibly could. When it comes to friends, you have some you like to watch Sixers games with, some you like to eat out with, some you vacation with, some you shop with. But you don’t have anybody that you do every single goddamn thing with. And that’s what marriage is. I should know. I’ve been married since 1983, which is — man, I can’t even do that math. Doug and I entered into our union with all the usual giddy hopes and hoopla, including a brass quartet, flowers, champagne, cake, and serious hangovers the next day. Now, from far on the other side of those hopes and hoopla, we’ve evolved into loving, patient partners who are at an absolute dead impasse over what to fix next in our house.

Elsewhere in our March issue, you’ll find expert advice on rehabbing a dwelling, courtesy of Philly homeowners. Nowhere in that issue will you find a guide to resolving the single most important question in rehabbing a dwelling: what to tackle first. I would offer such a guide, only I’m at a dead impasse, remember? I can tell you, though, how we got to this state.

Back in the Dark Ages, while our children were still toddlers, we moved from the city to a big old Victorian house in a distant suburb. The people we bought it from had, in turn, bought it from a widower whose meticulous upkeep extended to painting the overhead water pipes in the unfinished basement two different colors (black for the main stretches; gold for the couplings). Only this widower’s prior devotion, which we could still see peeking out from beneath our numb-nuts sellers’ inept “improvement” attempts (hey, ever hear of a miter box, dude?), seduced us into buying such an oversize, ancient floozy of a home.

Those basement pipes still look great.

Hardly anything else does.

It’s to be expected, I suppose, that our family of four, five cats (not all at once!), and one very large now-deceased mutt would take a toll on a home over a quarter of a century. Consider our wall-to-wall carpet, which began life, under those previous owners, in a pleasing shade of grayish-blue. There are still patches of grayish-blue, in between the worn areas and the throw rugs and the one big area rug I put down in the living room after a raucous sleepover hosted by my daughter in her college years, at which her friend Christine vomited copiously. Some spots, as Lady Macbeth knew, just don’t come out. Others do; by now, I’ve field-tested so many rug-cleaning products that I can atomize an entire carafe of red wine should it get knocked over. Alas, the wall-to-wall bears witness to those tests. And while there’s a certain sentimental frisson in remembering that, oh yes, that corner is the last spot where the dog voided his bowels before he had to be put down, it’s not the sort of memory you share with guests, who presumably regard the immutable blotches that no amount of Carbona 2-in-1 (it really works! Mostly!) can remove and wonder: Why the hell don’t they replace this wall-to-wall?

I’ll tell you, since you’re asking.

Our house has an inside. Our house also has an outside. In the back, there’s a patio and a petite garden. In the front, there’s a porch and then a sidewalk. That’s it. No hell strip, no shade trees, just a five-foot-wide expanse of concrete and then the street.

The sidewalk is not … in great shape. Normally, when you’re fixing a sidewalk, you jackhammer the whole dealio into smithereens, haul the chunks out, and replace it. Our predecessor was more of a patch-it type. When cracks appeared in the sidewalk, he slathered them with spackle, all of which instantly began to chip away.

The result isn’t pretty. But dammit, it’s the sidewalk, so who cares? As it happens, Doug does. In fact, the state of our sidewalk is something he talks about passionately, all the time. He says things like, “We really have got to get that sidewalk replaced” and “The borough is gonna make us replace that sidewalk” and “That sidewalk is a real mess.”

Let’s pause, just for a moment, to talk about priorities. Let’s start with the fact that Doug and I have limited financial resources, having whiled away much of our careers freelancing. Let’s also mention that we’re down to one small cat and have no intention of replacing the mutt. Let’s further note that we have a one-year-old grandchild who, while on the verge of walking, frequently falls, and also eats organic faux Cheerios off the wall-to-wall when she happens upon them. No one is eating faux Cheerios off the sidewalk except squirrels. We never even walk on the sidewalk except between our cars and the front steps. So, which would you replace — the utilitarian outdoor option, or the choice that would greatly enhance the beauty and comfort of our home?

There’s our impasse, in a nutshell. We can’t afford to do both. Neither of us is willing to yield. And so nothing gets done.

There is, of course, a third option — that one beloved by our home’s former owners, the do-it-yourself repair job. Doug and I aren’t exactly novices at this. We renovated our previous home in South Philly extensively, from top to bottom, before losing money when we sold it. (Hey, the city wasn’t hot in the ’90s.) In our current one, we refinished floors, painted every room, scraped off popcorn ceilings, rebuilt battered walls. (Chances are we’ll lose money on it, too.) But these are young-person projects. We’ve both become less secure climbing ladders, and collaboration gets more challenging the further you go up life’s. Nothing brings out age-ossified personality differences so palpably as hanging plaid wallpaper together in a small bathroom.

Some of these temperamental traits are a result of our upbringings. Doug grew up in Western PA, where his ancestors worked the land, which is why our garage is a Museum of Antique Farm Implements. He’s also an only child, so he was the apprentice for every one of his quite-handy dad’s home-repair jobs, which inevitably began with a ritualistic laying-out of tools. I grew up in the Philly suburbs, the third child in an eight-person household headed by a dad who was stymied by a hammer. My mom, however, was a home-repair whiz who could rewire lamps, reroute sewage pipes, hang doors, reupholster sofas. But since she also cooked and cleaned and had all those people to look after, jobs got done on the fly, with lots of jury-rigging and improvisation. There was never any ritual involved.

Naturally, these differing backgrounds are reflected in Doug’s and my approaches to home repairs. He’s of the “measure twice, cut once” school. I say, “WTF, we can make it fit.” When we were young and newly in love, we laughed at this dichotomy. It isn’t funny anymore.

It’s an adage that opposites attract. In evolutionary terms, this wouldn’t seem to make sense. If one ancient hominid was prone to swinging wildly from vine to vine in hopes of happening on some juicy mangos while its mate lagged behind, trying to commit the details of a mango tree’s surroundings to memory, the chances of them successfully raising offspring together wouldn’t seem great. And yet, “Oh, yes, he’s Type A and she’s totally laid-back,” we laugh about our friends, when we ought to be cautioning them to run like hell from one another. Watching Doug methodically and meticulously pack a car for vacation is, I’m convinced, what will someday send me over the edge. Those aren’t infants; they’re suitcases — toss them in the trunk and let them land where they will! What, you think if we’re in a fatal crash, the cops will cluck their tongues over your packing job?

Over the years, I’ve decided it’s this same fear of judgment that has laser-focused Doug’s attention on the sidewalk. There aren’t many of our neighbors who have seen our wall-to-wall, home life nowadays being largely one of isolation. But our pavement’s right out there in the open, and apparently Doug thinks everybody on our block gossips about its decrepitude behind closed doors. Me, I’ve seen their recycling bins, so I know they have much more fun things to do. Besides, the condition of our sidewalk isn’t that unusual in our little town, where ancient street trees uproot concrete slabs and those weird round sewer vents poke up everywhere. “See over there? How about that stretch?” I demand, pointing to similarly derelict extents of pavement as we drive past them. But, perhaps predictably, the fact that many of our peers also neglect their sidewalks doesn’t give Doug solace. Not even when I point out that if the borough does decide to hand out citations, it hardly seems likely they’ll start with us. In my whole life, I’ve never gotten picked first for anything.

There’s one more aspect to this indoor-outdoor row that, up to now, I’ve refrained from mentioning to my husband. The condition of the wall-to-wall has been caused by many, many offending factors, as I’ve already noted — pets, kids, houseplants, soccer cleats. The condition of the sidewalk can only be blamed on the inept Mr. Patch-It who previously lived here — and on Doug himself. In the mid-1990s, when our vicinity endured a succession of winters with vicious ice storms, Doug regularly visited the Museum of Antique Farm Implements, selected a weapon, and whaled the living hell out of the frozen coating on the sidewalk. Any chance Mr. Patch-It’s handiwork might endure vanished under assault from a six-foot length of rebar wielded by a man who had two small kids, one of whom couldn’t be persuaded not to wet the bed.

It seems to me that the person largely responsible for the destruction shouldn’t get to prioritize its repair.

As for me, I’ll admit that between the hours I spend on my job and my tending of the garden, I’m not actually inside our house all that much. This, you might think, would cause me not to care so much about its interior. You’d be wrong. It’s precisely the rarity of my domestic downtime that makes my home precious to me. I’ve spent a quarter of a century curating its contents, and they give me great pleasure: the paisley throw atop the sofa, the antique drum table polished till it glows, the ceramic elephant in the hearth of the (non-working) fireplace.

Just the other day, I was sitting in my living room, reveling in the cozy comfort of my confines, when a thought occurred to me. In the 25 years since we moved here, I’ve never once consulted Doug about an interior design decision. I purchased the elephant without him. I chose the paint for every room without his input. One day, after he went off to work, I covered a whole wall of the dining room in chalkboard paint, a spur-of-the-moment enhancement he only discovered upon returning home. I reupholstered chairs without showing him the fabric first, refinished armoires and end tables any way I pleased, and one year, when the TV show Trading Spaces was popular, let the kids redecorate each other’s rooms without so much as mentioning the plan to him. Mind you, he never complained; he was happy, just as my dad was, that all this household crap was being taken care of by someone other than him.

But I realize now, in retrospect, that I should have tried to involve him more. You young folks just embarking on married life, let this be a lesson to you. A man’s home is his castle, whether he wants it to be or not, and soliciting his input on the tapestries could be wise if you might someday crave the gilded armchair of your dreams.

It’s too late for me, alas. I guess I’ll just continue adding to the throw-rug collection. Doug can go sit on the front porch with a beer and stare sadly at the concrete cracks. Someday, one of us will die. If it’s me, at least we won’t have fixed the sidewalk. If it’s not, I see that Avalon Flooring has some very handsome berbers for sale.

Published as “Where the Sidewalk Ends” in the March 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.