By Mordechai Schmutter


I always thought it was a great idea for me to work in my house. The commute is pleasant, and I’m in a central location — in the living room right at the bottom of the stairs — so that I don’t miss any of the goings-on of life, and that way I can write about them. The problem is that when these things do happen, I can’t actually get any work done. Especially since a lot of these things happen right on top of me. Because I’m in a central location in the house.

Not everything I write is columns. This week, for example, I have some serious client deadlines that I’ve been working on for weeks and that I’m already behind on in the first place, and then all of a sudden, last Thursday, my wife said, “Oh, by the way, you know that ceiling job that we’ve needed to get done for the past few years already? Well, it’s happening next week. All week. Right over your desk.”

I complain, but if it were up to the person who works in the house to decide when construction work was going to get done, it would get done never.

As a little bit of a background, it turns out that Passaic houses such as ours have weird features, such as plaster ceilings that just give up after a while, and light switches that control fixtures that are in entirely different parts of the house, and a fireplace with an outlet in it, in case you want to plug in a vacuum cleaner or something.

This whole thing started not long after we moved into our house, with a little bubble in the ceiling over my wife’s bed. She was watching it grow for years. Then one day, a couple of summers ago, the bubble collapsed, and a part of the ceiling fell on her bed while we were downstairs eating supper. So after bentching (gomel), we put a piece of sheetrock over the hole as a temporary fix, which was fine for the time being, because no guests come into our bedroom anyway, except for contractors that my wife wants to show the ceiling to.

Yes, we wanted to fix it. But this is a plaster ceiling, and the way to fix it is to rip out the entire ceiling of the room, figure out what to do with the pieces, and then replace it with sheetrock. We’d done this once before, in our boys’ room. We actually made a deal with a contractor at the time that we’d rip out the old ceiling, over the course of an entire day, and then he’d show up and spend about a half-hour putting in the new ceiling.

We weren’t going to try to get the same deal this time, because, besides our bedroom, the same thing was starting to happen to the ceiling over the upstairs hallway. That’s not something we can help fix, because part of that ceiling goes over the stairs. As it is, we’ve never been able to put a lightbulb in up there. Our house came with a high-hat fixture over the stairs, which has never worked since we moved in, and it took us years to figure out that it probably was not that we just hadn’t found the right switch for it; the bulb itself was out. (For a while, we thought there was a corresponding switch at the bottom of the stairs that didn’t work, but it turned out that that switch controlled the outdoor light in front of our house.) We haven’t figured out how to get up there and replace that bulb. It’s irreplaceable.

I used to wonder why people had chandeliers over their stairs, and now I realize it has nothing to do with being fancy. Who needs their stairs to be fancy? Is it because they bought a chandelier for their dining room and then they got home and realized that the chain was 14 feet long? “Oh, I guess we’ll hang it over the stairs then.” No, it’s so they can reach the fixture to change the bulbs. This might be how all chandeliers got started.

So for years, we’ve been approaching every contractor we saw, trying to find one who would give us a fair price but also be willing to stand on a ladder on our stairs. It was a lot harder than we thought. All the Passaic contractors know that the houses here are built weird. Contractors get to pick and choose their jobs, because everyone’s house needs work. No one says, “This house is broken. Let’s get another house.”

Finally, last week, my wife was at her friend’s house, and she noticed, “Hey! You have workers in your house!” And the friend said, “I know!”

So my wife spoke to him, and the price that the guy gave us was way too good to pass up. We had to snatch him up immediately, in case he’d change his mind.

The only downside is that he’s Hispanic. I’m not racist, which is usually what people say before they say something racist, but I like workers that I can communicate with in the language in which I write for my career. Especially since I’m the one who’s home. But that perk costs double, apparently.

I don’t even know how my wife’s friend found this guy. It’s not like he davens in their shul.

So first we had to quickly move all of our earthly possessions out of our room. We’d done this once before, for our boys’ room, and it turns out that tiny pieces of ceiling get everywhere, because  — follow me closely here — your ceiling is roughly the size of your entire room. So we moved our night tables and our beds and our sheitel heads and so on into our daughter’s room, and we made her sleep in the basement. We also hermetically sealed our closets.

This job was supposed to take two days. Well, technically the guy never said two days, but he implied one day, and my wife, who works in interior design, told me that even if he works efficiently, he has to wait for the spackle to dry before he paints over it. Now we’re in day four. I’m still behind on all my deadlines, none of those clients care that my office is under construction, and I’m sitting in a cloud of dust. If it were just the bedroom, we could seal it off, but they’re working on the hallways too. The entire house looks like an explosion at the flour mill.

We knew from experience that the plaster dust gets everywhere. That’s why we hermetically sealed our closets. We also bought the guy a plastic hanging mechitzah, which basically looks like a tablecloth, but that thing is barely holding it together. Plaster keeps landing on it, and plaster is heavy. So basically there are pounds and pounds of dust sitting on the stairs, and every time a new chunk lands, all the dust gets kicked up, and it comes rolling down the stairs toward me.

Sure, you can say this is my fault for working at home, but someone has to be home to supervise him anyway. I don’t know what he’s going to steal in a room with hermetically sealed closets covered in hechsher tape, but someone has to be home. Speaking of which, we only left out two days of clothes.

Where are we sleeping all this time, you ask? Every night after he leaves, we sweep and mop our room as best as we can, vacuum the hallway, drag our mattresses and alarm clocks and lamps back into the bedroom, and sleep on the floor, underneath the attic. In the morning, we get up a little earlier than usual, unplug all our alarm clocks, drag out the mattresses, and stand them back up in our daughter’s room. This was a great time to discover, while we were cleaning the carpet one night, that we’re out of vacuum cleaner bags. Our bags have to be special ordered. The vacuum wasn’t discontinued, the store they came from was discontinued. Whatever happened to Kmart?

“Sure,” you can say, “but why don’t you sleep in your daughter’s room?”

Because then we’d have to pull our stuff out every night anyway to make room to open her high riser.

“Well, why don’t you just keep the mattresses somewhere else?”

Well, schlepping mattresses down the stairs didn’t seem worth it for two days of work, and keeping mattresses in our living room with kids around just means there’d be dusty footprints on them by the end of the week. Though technically, they’re dusty now from all the dragging, on floors that we haven’t properly vacuumed.

“Well, why don’t you get a hotel room?”

Look, are you paying for this? If we went to a hotel, we’d have to take all the kids with us, some of whose rooms are fine, then get up earlier to get to the house in time to watch the workers, and we still wouldn’t have enough clothes!

At least the bedroom’s almost done. I know this because I climbed through the plastic and over the plaster and went into my room, and it was basically ready for a second layer of spackle. They did a pretty good job, except for a small bubble in the sheetrock over my wife’s bed.

How is this even possible?

Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of six books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to


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