Monday, September 8, 2008

Ed Zotti and the Brotherhood of the Right Way

The City of Chicago sucks. It's in rocky financial shape. Its air fails to meet new EPA standards. Its expressways are gridlocked, its streets teem with drive-by shootings, its public schools are abysmal, its politicians practice shameless primogeniture and its once great newspapers are circling the drain.

But Ed Zotti has so much faith in Chicago that he spent years, untold thousands of dollars, and countless buckets of sweat to rehab a shabby old Victorian there -- in a perverse mirror image of the folks who flee the city to fix up houses in the suburbs and the country. The man is nuts. (So am I. For three years my wife and I have been fixing up an old log cabin in Upper Michigan.)

Zotti is, however, oh so very readably nuts. His new book, The Barn House: Confessions of an Urban Rehabber (New American Library, $22.95) will warm the cockles of any ham-fisted homeowner who hands half his paycheck to Home Depot every Saturday morning or fills his contractor's bottomless pockets once a month -- or both.

Zotti, as every Chicago writer knows, does the "Straight Dope" column as "Cecil Adams" for the Chicago Reader and other formerly alternative weeklies. As a writer he is both a superb stylist and a superb explainer, a rare combination whose reigning demigods are Tracy Kidder and John McPhee.

He begins in his childhood, when his irascible perfectionist handyman father (I had one of those, too) introduced him to the principles of the Brotherhood of the Right Way. Its members believe not in "okay" or "good enough for government work," but using only proper and painstaking techniques to build something both beautiful and lasting.

Zotti followed this mantra when he and his wife bought an empty pile in a questionable (to put it mildly) neighborhood in the northern wastes of Chicago -- a frightening place full of Munstrous ghosts, burglars and derelicts -- and set out to Fix It Up, a weak phrase for more than a decade of obsession full of hard and expensive labor, his own and others'. The place was a dump, but Zotti saw through the mouseturds and cobwebs to the beauty in its classic lines.

Joist by joist, rafter by rafter, outlet by outlet, workman by workman, hanger-on by hanger-on he takes us through the procedures of restoration, sometimes with drawings and always engagingly, like a Bob Vila who can write. Once in a while the proceedings might start to flag, especially for those uninterested in the relative merits of hammer and saw, but a frequent and often funny anecdote quickly restores interest.

The best of these tales are about the many memorable tradesmen who worked on Zotti's house. One such was the Chief, both talkative and unflappable. If he "had been held in a sensory deprivation tank for a week, he would afterward be able to spend two hours describing the fluctuations in his pulse." Nor could he be rushed; "if the Chief were talking and a ticking bomb thirty seconds short of doomsday were left in his lap . . . his only response would be to acknowledge the urgency of the situation and proceed as before."

There are asides into Chicago immigrant sociology. Who outside the city knew the best drywall guys are Mexican? There are also unfailingly interesting detours into urban history and planning, especially the processes of gentrification. This book is about a lot more than sawing and nailing, plumbing and wiring; it is about understanding one's community, its past and its future.

And about understanding one's own place in that community. In one of many richly rendered passages, Zotti tells how an old electrician watched him "crank down a fitting with what he considered excessive force" and said, "I'd hate to be the guy that comes after you."

That gave Zotti pause. He wasn't, he realized, the first to work on that old house and he wouldn't be the last. He appreciated those before him who had done things properly, and he hoped those who followed would appreciate his work. Rehabbing the Right Way is a long continuum of skill and caring.

The tradesmen who belong to the brotherhood often are unappreciated by the bottom-line guys, Zotti writes. "You were an artist in a world that didn't reward artistry -- I knew that from my own experience. As a writer I occasionally got compliments for a well-turned paragraph -- people expected such things of writers. But rare was the electrical job at the end of which people came up to me and said, Hey, nice pipes."

That costs lots of money. Piles and piles of it. Though the long, long project kept them broke and often discouraged, Zotti and his impossibly patient and tolerant wife were fortunate in having plenty of income, as he is quick to acknowledge. The less well-heeled, he admits, would have had a much harder time of it than he did. (Not that it was easy.)

Nice pipes, Ed. Nice book, too.


  1. Ah, Henry, I'm blushing. What a nice piece! I was hoping the book would connect with people and your thoughtful remarks give me hope that it will. Thanks so much! Just one problem ... you've gotten me seriously in trouble with my boss, Straight Dope columnist Cecil Adams, by intimating that Ed = Cecil. This happens constantly and ticks off The Master no end. Just wanted to set the record straight.

  2. Okay, Ed. Glad you liked it.

    Everybody else: It doesn't matter if no photograph of Cecil Adams exists and Ed does all the fronting for their books. You are hereby informed that Ed only EDITS the Cecil Adams columns.

    This is called a Larger Truth.

  3. Dear Ed,

    My co-workers and I know all about the Brotherhood (thought it might in our case be a Sisterhood) of the Right Way. You could probably have a Facebook group devoted to this (or another book) and tons of people would relate! Congratulations on your project. My husband and I will have to remember you as we rehab our Jeff Park bungalow.