It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention. I’ll testify firsthand that this is true, and add that if it has a father, it’s got to be scarcity. To understand true ingenuity, there’s no need to go any further than your local ghetto. Who has greater necessity than those who’ve known abject poverty? This country may not be third world, but there are places in it that feel pretty close to second, at best. If you’ve never left “The ’Burbs,” then you probably haven’t experienced most of these ingenious “modifications.” There’s no capital to market them, and rednecks aren’t generally entrepreneurial types, but where there’s a will, rednecks will, as they say, “Git-er-done.”
I didn’t grow up in the ghetto, exactly. The place I think of as home was over 80 years old when Shima first came to it. She calls it “The Shack;” says it’s all ramshackled. She’s being too harsh, though. The old farmhouse and most of the accompanying standing structures have long since fallen into ruin, and what was once thriving farmland has become an overgrown forest around us. But her little cabin in the woods has been standing since the late 19th century, largely due to her ability to make things work, any way possible.
Ever since I was old enough to swing a hammer, I spent weekends and summers helping patch up the house we shared with rubberbands and bubble gum. It’s a run-down old sharecropper’s cottage, left to her by the farmer who passed on this land. He’d lost his family in an accident, and Shima had spent his final years caring for him at his farmhouse in his old age, so she was the closest thing he had to a living relative.
For most of my life, Shima has been expecting the blackrobes to show up at her door one day citing some loophole clause to take it away from her and turn it into a corporate farm, a freeway, or a stripmall with a Starbucks. But so far, no one has. So she keeps paying her taxes and keeping a low profile. Maybe she’s flying under the radar. Maybe she’s just too small potatoes for anyone to care.
There’s a story in that bit of family history, but it’ll keep. This is about the household alterations Shima has made to keep us one step ahead of disintegration.
Poor farm living teaches you a variety of skills. You have to learn basic mechanics and general maintenance quick, or you’ll never make overhead. The farm hasn’t produced grand scale harvests since before the old man died, and we’ve never had rent, since Shima owns the place outright, but there’s still plenty of bills to pay. The farmer’s market helps, and Shima does a lot of odd jobs, but the budget is tight, and it doesn’t include paying the local belegana. There’s very few of them Shima trusts. She wouldn’t give a wooden nickel to a single one of ’em, if she could figure out a workaround on her own.
These are just a small sampling of a few of Shima’s best DIY fixes.
The water heater is often on the fritz. We’ve gone through a few, almost always getting the next one from the county dump. In the non-working interims, I’ve seen her:
• Boil a pot of water by setting it atop the underside of a clothes iron wedged between cement blocks.
• Run water through pipes coiled on top of a hot plate to heat it.
• When the faucet knob fell apart, Shima attached an old key to the top of it with a screw to use as a handle. I’ve seen Rednecks use pliers for this purpose, but pliers are way too valuable to be left in any one place for too long.
• When the showerhead stopped working, before she found another one, Shima took an awl and poked holes in the bottom of a plastic water bottle, then duct-taped it to the end of the shower pipe. Voilà, spraying showerhead.
• She uses a plastic water bottle with a hole in its side at the bottom to pour water from a sink into a mopping bucket that won’t fit in the sink.
Funny thing, Shima would never dream of buying bottled water. But people throw out all kinds of things on the side of the road, in the woods, wherever they figure no one cares, I spose. We care. The birds, the bees, the plants, the trees, the animals who make this place a home... they care. It’s not just a sense of cleanliness that leads us to keep an eye out for litterbugs and to declutter this space. Sometimes, it’s survival. Waste not, want not, Shima says. She makes the most of whatever comes her way, or sometimes goes to it. She’s not averse to digging around in dumpsters, either, or foraging at the county dump. Done a bit of diving, myself, not ashamed to say. Amazing what passes for trash these days.
Shima is the queen of repurposing. Did you know:
• An old dresser can be converted into a sink vanity cabinet.
• Golf tees can be glued inside stripped screw holes to fill them.
• A halved potato can be used to unscrew a glass bulb broken at its socket.
• Cheap generic shower curtain rings can be used as hooks to hang almost anything out of the way.
• When hanging wall items, a comb can be used to hold nails in place. (Saves fingers!)
• Beeswax will waterproof canvas shoes.
• Ice cube trays and egg cartons make decent organizers for small junk drawer items. They can also be used as a paint palette.
• The bottoms of cereal boxes also make decent organizing trays for junk drawers.
• Toilet paper rolls filled with dryer lint are a natural fire starter.
• An empty tissue box makes the perfect dispenser for plastic bags.
I think everyone recognizes the many uses for plastic bags. I’ve never been in another house that didn’t have a bag of bags somewhere. I’ve even seen a few that had purchased a special dispenser just for that purpose. Ridiculous, considering how easy it is to come by an old empty tissue box. You’d be surprised how many one can hold, too. Any more than that, you probably wouldn’t know what to do with anyway.
• Panty hose legs with the tops and toes cut out will organize multiple cords.
• Paper towel rolls are the best way to wrap extension cords.
• The blank side of business cards are the perfect size for labeling storage boxes, tubs and bins.
• Old post earrings make pretty pushpin thumbtacks for a bulletin board.
• Empty spice jars will organize office supplies.
• Mail can be sorted in priority order, standing up easily on an old spring.
• Nail polish will seal envelopes just as easily as saliva. Saves from having to taste it.
• A can opener will help with the packaging on plastic seals.
• An old pasta maker will just as easily shred paper.
Wouldn't exactly call a single antique sewing machine cabinet stuffed in the corner of an eat-in kitchen an "office," but most homes keep some sort of special place set aside for conducting household business.
• A slender ladder can be easily modified into a storage shelf, and fits in the space between the fridge and the wall. Add wheels and a cabinet handle as a knob. Alakazam, instant rolling pantry.
• Pringles cans are exactly the right size to hold spaghetti noodles.
• Dry spaghetti noodles make great candle lighters.
• Dental floss is a perfect slicer for cake and cheese.
• Wrappers from blocks of butter can be kept in plastic baggies and stored in the fridge to be used for greasing baking pans.
• An empty ketchup bottle used to dispense batter makes for the most perfectly round pancakes every time.
• An empty picture frame makes a simple dry erase board for keeping track of a grocery list.
• Frozen water balloons make for natural ice packs. So do wet sponges frozen in plastic baggies.
• Any standard sized Mason jar can be used in place of a blender container. The bottom piece of the blender screws right into the lid of the jar, and the jar becomes the new blender. Handy for canning and storing. Back in the day, blenders were actually designed this way on purpose.
• Window blinds turned on their side make great hanging racks for drying dish towels.
• Half a shower curtain dowel or a tension rod placed under the kitchen or bathroom sink allows spray bottles to be hung from their nozzles.
• A desktop file organizer doubles as a drying rack for cookie sheets and cutting boards.
• An alligator binder clip makes a great stand to dry a wet sponge.
• Plastic cards work wonders for scrubbing hard to clean sticky crusty grime off pots and pans without scratching glass or metal.
Crazy thing about that, too. Shima’s never used credit for a single purchase in all her 80+ years. If it can’t be bought with what you got, you don’t need it, she says. But there’s still plenty of plastic out there to be had. Almost every store has a points system that gives out one of those keychain danglers that comes with a card for your wallet. Shima has a special spot in an egg carton next to the sink just for the extras.
For that matter, almost any household cleaner, detergent, soap, air freshener, disinfectant or hygiene product — soap, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant — can be made at home using all natural ingredients. Most generally work better than the toxic chemicals available over the counter. Shima has perfected her recipes over 60 years of trial and error.
• Empty baby food jars will organize tool shed hardware and supplies.
• Scratched up, worn out old CDs still function as safety reflectors. Great for the mailbox.
• Shima was probably the first in the county to have a riding lawn mower. Non electric or gas, of course. She replaced the front wheel of an old bicycle with a push mower, and now gets exercise without hurting her back. It was pretty fun for me when I was there, too.
• A rubber band stretched across the top of an open paint can allows for wiping off excess paint from the brush with minimal drips.
• Bleached white sheets tacked on top of the roof in the dog days of summer reflect a great deal of the sun’s heat back out, and help to keep the house cool.
Actually, you know what? Come to think of it, don’t get me started on the roof. Let’s just call it a patchwork quilt of pure independence that includes — among the weirder items — terra cotta pots, license plates, and bottles, and agree that some things are better left to the imagination.
Shima had a great time when I told her about this post, running around the house putting together notes for it. I thought I’d be able to remember a lot of these, but my recollections paled in comparison to her list… and this is the pared down version. Ah, but there’s nothing quite like being there. I’d have had her send pictures, but she hasn’t quite figured out how to get them to me from her camera. I guess some things aren’t as easily hacked for even the most clever and creative octogenarian, after all.
Hmm. I wonder...
Maybe she just hasn’t learned to hack technology yet, or, perhaps that’s a challenge best kept in the hands of the younger generation. That way, no matter how capable may be the folks who raised you, there’s always still a reason to go back home, and give Grandma a hand.
Jugaad and many other fine tales