How To Make a Big Hairy Mess

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Crowbar in hand, mask over nose and mouth, climb the stepladder. The ladder should straddle a combination of tarps and plastic sheets, which will scootch and fold over so that nails and plaster fill the baseboard heaters despite your best efforts. Take a hammer up the ladder, too.

Give the plaster wall a few experimental hammer whacks, because you can. Learn that this will not remove the plaster. Apply the crowbar to the wall edges, still testing to see what makes it come apart. Peer closely at the small hairs protruding from chalky grey plaster. Real horses grew those hairs. Wonder about the people harvesting horse hair from manes and tails of all those horses.

Consider the person who nailed up each lath, then mixed horse hair and plaster to spread so it oozed between the wooden strips, locking the other plaster layers to the vertical surface—keying it in place. In 1890, as someone plastered these cracks, early cars were emerging onto roads, traveling at about 5 mph, and telephones were beginning to arrive into homes. The Wright brothers were tinkering with bicycles and dreaming of flight. Women would not be able to vote for another 30 years, and black voting rights wouldn’t be a reality for another 75 years. The year ended with the Battle of Wounded Knee, and floral wallpaper was chosen to cover the imperfections in these walls.

Realize you are not getting the job done. If you have gorilla-strength arms, cram the crowbar into the wall and yank off the wooden lath strips and plaster all at once, with terrific crashing noises. If you are me, wiggle the crowbar under the plaster, peeling it off in chunks. Let the chunks fall and explode in loud billows of dark grey dust. Watch the dust dance in winter sunlight reflected brightly from the snow into the bay window.

Then wedge the crowbar under each lath, prying them one by one from the uneven wall studs. The nails will be square and irregular, and you will later pluck a handful of the straightest ones from the wreckage to keep because they seem to tell a story. The lath boards will sproing from the wall in your hands. Yank and twist them free. Remember how to use your gross motor skills, developed in childhood and ignored by us adults who rarely get to use our whole bodies for a task. Let your arms be strong; release your inner gorilla.

Now the air will become thick with dust. Warm to the work, finding your rhythm up and down the ladder. Watching your feet to avoid nails, move the ladder without removing from it your hammer, which slips and bounces off your surprisingly strong glasses, and for a moment, think the ceiling has fallen. Recover, unharmed, and, crowbar in hand, mask over nose and mouth, climb the stepladder again.

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