mexico diaries 1: Urban Archaeology

3/29/98

Today, I’ve been peeling the wallpaper off my new apartment. It’s always an adventure doing home improvement: you just never know what you’re going to find when you start delving into the past of your place. In some cases, you don’t really want to know. Someone at some point had had the brilliant idea of putting wallpaper on the panel of the bedroom door, thus starting a trend that lasted four layers or so—I was peeling it off, and discovered a home-repair method surely not sanctioned by Bob Vila: there is a steel plate nailed onto either side of the door, apparently covering some kind of hole. (under two layers of wallpaper, the final one painted salmon, like the rest of the goddamn apartment—why do you think I’m bothering to peel off the paper in the first place??) My first thought was “Heeeerrrreeee’s Johnny!!” from the Shining. Oh jeez, I did not need to picture that coming through my bedroom door. People do the weirdest things in rental apartments. My tolerance is pretty high for weird home improvement, considering that I’m a visually-oriented person. I mean, I lived through two years of a Ken apartment (a select group of Chicagoans will know what this means: Ken Jones, my former landlord, shows a remarkable knack for coming up with home repair concepts never before seen on this planet) without repainting the purple living room or complaining about the repair job on that toilet pipe—apparently managed with some’a that tire-repair foam-in-a-can stuff that expands and hardens when you spray it in place. Big mound of beige foam stuff in the corner, and I didn’t bitch. (When I was in high school, I worked at a hardware store called Harold’s, and there was a cardboard box filled with tire-repair foam hanging from the ceiling as a sales display. But the guys on the floor explained to me that it’s only an emergency measure, since one you put that stuff in, you have to throw away the tire, you can’t repair it.) I have, once again, had (profuse? what is the word I’m looking for?) reason to be glad that my high school job was at Harold’s. It wasn’t the first exposure to hardware I’d had, but it was definitely formative.

Peeling all this wallpaper is making me remember a house in Wilmette that we lived in when I was a kid: I remember helping to peel the wallpaper in the kitchen. This last week, I’ve been so insistent that we needed a steamer to get the stuff down, but I think that’s just because that’s how I remember it happening that time. Only, apparently, there is no such thing here in Mexico. Man, that kitchen was so rudenating after a while. I distinctly remember some condiment (ketchup, I think) or food residue (carrot?) hardened in a snot-like drip on the wall behind the chair closest to the refrigerator. Not that there weren’t many such snot-like excrescences there, but I remember noticing that one in particular.

Oh look! sad puppydog! and happy mushroom! And cute faun! Chipmunk! Only two layers of wallpaper down. Some people have the most absolutely bizarre taste in home decorating. I feel like I’m an anthropologist. I also think: I must be insane to get into a project like this. This is a rental apartment that I’ll be in for probably a year: why don’t I just paint over the wallpaper like everybody else? Jesus Christ—I know myself; I probably wouldn’t notice either after a month or so. Ok, so on this wall, we have salmon-colored paint over some staid vertical-stripe-deal wallpaper, probably blue or green and white from where it’s very worn, over a beige rattan sort of thing, broken at intervals by vertical trim with a sort of abstract floral design, over the puppydog/mushroom number, over a skimcoat of plaster. And the plaster appears to be over blue wallpaper, but on further inspection, this proves to be, in fact, some sort of painted design. perhaps the traditional “bluewash” treatment. This over pink. Beyond that, I’m not sure. I’d have to take a core sample. I think that archaeologists studying the 20th century will dig up those houses in California that slide into the ocean when there are earthquakes and mudslides, and take core samples of the walls in order to gain insight into how we lived. On second thought, they could just rent an apartment and excavate the walls (picturing now a team of archeologists with toothbrushes applying water and peeling wallpaper with tiny little spatulas or something. Taking paint core samples like they do in fine art preservation and putting them through chemical testing “this layer appears to be Sherwin Williams (“we cover the world”) brand “Amarilla Paja”, carbon dated 1998…”).

When I went to Brighton in November I happened on an historical display of a cork store (of all things) in an historic Brighton museum. I gather this was an actual store they recreated here, advertising signs, dust, and all. Cork store. That’s the kind of thing you’d see here in Mexico. (we’ve encountered a weights-and-measures district, plastic stores, foam stores, a store that only sells springs…). I wonder if that kind of specialization used to be the norm everywhere in Europe, too. Maybe the US has general stores only because of its pioneer history…Anyway, I thought of that only because of its very interesting cutaway of the different wallpapers this store sported over its 300 year history. There were probably 20 or 30, and clearly none were ever removed before the next was applied. Some of them were awfully nice. I wonder when wallpaper was invented? There was a really nice one on the bedroom door (here, in my apartment), a blue-grey and brown geometric design utilizing transparency for some really nice effects. I took a picture of the wallpaper, thinking maybe one day I’ll copy this wallpaper and print it myself, and wallpaper a room with it—very Jeeves and Wooster it would be. And then I’d call House and Garden and get them to take pictures of my beautiful artist-designed house.