Wallpaper: 1, Bob Wire: 0

By BOB WIRE

I rolled over in bed Saturday morning and forced one eye open. Barb was looking at me. I could tell she’d been awake for some time. Thinking. It’s what she does.

“I’m going to rent a steamer today,” she announced. “I want to start taking that wallpaper off. You can help me if you want, but I’m not saying you have to.”

It was a trap.

I rolled my eyes but she couldn’t tell, since only one of them was open. I didn’t want to take that wallpaper off. I’d rather pour a restaurant-sized can of Embassa jalapeños into my underwear and run a marathon than take that wallpaper off.

But in the interest of marital harmony, and maintaining an inside shot at eventually talking her out of this fantasy, I said, “You know, that’s a good idea. Let’s spend our weekend taking off that wallpaper.” Smiling, she nodded her thanks (“You have chosen wisely, Luke Skywalker”) and kissed me on the closed eye.

“That wallpaper” is the original material some cracked-brain decorator lined the inside of our house with when it was built in 1974. You’ve probably seen it in your crazy aunt’s apartment, some low-rent assisted living villa, or maybe in a suburban ranch-style home that’s being used as a meth lab or shooting gallery. It’s called grasscloth. Looks like pressed burlap. Very popular with the wrought-iron, gold swag lamp, pile shag carpet swingers of the 1970s.

I would imagine it’s also a big hit with crazy spinster cat ladies, because it provides mad traction for critters. I’ve actually seen a mouse climb right up the wall on this stuff. Imagine coming home from the cat food outlet store and finding nine or ten cats scattered across your living room wall like some furry art installation. Unsettling, although I suppose it would free up some floor space for more litter boxes and multi-tiered scratching posts.

Most of the main level of our house has been burlapped, making this a daunting task. We decided to start small, in the hallway that holds the bedrooms.

This wallpaper is beige, but it soaks up light and sound and dust and odor in such a way that walking into the burlap hallway is like entering the rock tunnel that leads to the Berkley Pit overlook in Butte. Only, instead of finding a 900-foot deep pit holding 37 billion gallons of toxic waste, you emerge into our bedroom, which contains an unmade bed, a wobbly ceiling fan, and a fat little dog using his tongue to search for his missing cojónes.

The idea of brighter, cleaner-looking walls in our home was enough to propel me out the door and down to the rental center for a steamer. There’s not much to one of these contraptions. It’s basically a steel tank that heats the water and sends it up the hose to a small cookie sheet with a wood handle. The pan steamer is pretty standard equipment for removing stubborn wallpaper, but it turned out to be woefully inadequate for penetrating our jungle of dried reeds that covers the drywall.

I worked the steamer over a section of wall, but the grass sucked up all the water before it could reach the glue that is older than most of the people working at Home Depot. My fantasy of peeling giant slabs of wallpaper cleanly off the wall evaporated like steam.

Liquor makes any job go quicker.

“Aw, this looks easy! Probably won’t take more than an hour. Wait…I need to go to the hardware store. The one next to the liquorstore.”

“Honey, I have to go to the hardware store.”

Barb looked at her watch. “Eleven minutes. You lasted six minutes longer than I thought you would.”

“I need some scrapers. And new gloves. And some squirt bottles. And a new ladder. And some free popcorn.”

Now it was her turn to roll her eyes. “Why do you have to get a new ladder every time we do a home improvement project?”

I spread my hands. “Look, I can’t bring an extension ladder into the hall. It’s too big. The stepladder is too bulky. The footstool is too short.”

“Can’t you stand on a kitchen chair?”

I looked at her like she’d just asked me to weave a set of curtains out of spit. “Look, if we’re going to do this we need the right tools for the job. And that means the right size ladder. And some good goatskin work gloves. And a couple of nice paint scrapers. And a blowtorch. And some free popcorn.”

I already had my keys in hand. The hardware store was mine. We both knew any home improvement project involves at least half a dozen trips to the hardware store, so it was probably best to get the first one out of the way.

When I got back from the store, I found Barb in the hallway spraying the walls with a plastic spray bottle. The joint smelled like a pickle truck had crashed into a salad bar.

“I found online we should try vinegar and water,” Barb explained. Great. Wall douche. She was soaking down the hall wall with the solution, and scraping off bits at a time. I found another website that suggested a solution of fabric softener and water. We quickly switched to that not because it was more effective, but because it smelled a whole lot better.

The kids joined in after lunch, and soon all four of us were spraying and scraping and peeling and swearing (okay, I was the only one swearing). We called it a day at 6:00 and kicked back with a movie and a pizza (in retrospect, maybe Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” was a poor choice). We attacked the burlap enemy again Sunday for about six hours, and by the end of that back-breaking session we’d managed to transform about 70% of the hallway into a downtown Beirut hotel lobby.

Gouges and scrapes pocked the exposed drywall, flaps of grasspaper hung in tatters here and there, and the motley collection of drop cloths and bath towels protecting the hardwood floor was ankle deep in burlap scraps, hunks of gluey paper, empty spray bottles, and Red Hook ESB bottle caps. It was all held together with my spittle and tears.

We were all grubby and smelled of vinegar, but with springtime fresh overtones from the fabric softener. My head sported a fresh lump from continually braining myself on a ball-shaped light fixture. I won’t catalog our minor injuries, but I will say we ran out of band-aids. We decided that we’re going to finish just the hallway for now, get it all cleaned, prepped and painted, and see how it looks before we proceed.

One wallpaper website suggested that we leave one wall alone, and it will serve as a focal point; provide a contrast with the new walls. I think that’s a good idea. I think it’s such a good idea that I’ve decided the entire remaining walls will make a super good focal point.

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   Check out all of Bob Wire’s posts in his blogarchive.

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Bob Wire is medicated and ready to rock.

Think of it as Gonzo meets Hee Haw: Missoula honky tonker Bob Wire holds forth on a unique life filled with music, parenthood, drinking, sports, working, marriage, drinking, and just navigating the twisted wreckage of American culture. Plus occasional grooming tips. Like the best humor, it’s not for everyone. Sometimes silly, sometimes surreal, sometimes savage, Bob Wire demands that you possess a good sense of humor and an open mind.

Bob Wire has written more than 500 humor columns for a regional website over the last five years, and his writing has appeared in the Missoulian, the Missoula Independent, Montana Magazine, and his own Bob Wire Has a Point Blog. He is a prolific songwriter, and has recorded three CDs of original material with his Montana band, the Magnificent Bastards. His previous band, the Fencemenders, was a popular fixture at area clubs. They were voted Best Local Band twice by the Missoula Independent readers poll. Bob was voted the Trail 103.3/Missoulian Entertainer of the Year in 2007.

You can hear his music on his website, or download it at iTunes, Amazon, and other online music providers. Follow @Bob_Wire on Twitter.