Up on the roof

In the spirit of those handy homeowner stories you see in magazines, we'll entitle this entry: "How I Saved $250 on Roof Maintenance, or Sitting Around In My Underwear While Black Gunk Eats Off My Skin."

You flat-roof veterans probably know this syndrome, but it's new to me. Last winter, I moved into my first flat-roofed house, not giving much thought to the maintenance involved. After part of August's torrential rains wound up in my son's bedroom, I decided it was time to get more interested in what's happening up on the roof.

A friendly roofing contractor agreed to fix the leak and gave me simple instructions for maintenance I could do myself, saving $250 now and untold headaches in the future.

So, with a can of plastic roof cement in hand, I ventured up a borrowed ladder in search of cracks around the seal between roofing material and parapet. These cracks occur naturally, the roofer told me, a result of heat and cold. Occasionally, you need to go up on your roof and patch them, just to make sure water doesn't find its insidious way inside.

At first glance, the seal seemed riddled with cracks. But closer inspection found that most of the grooves weren't cracks at all; they were unsightly stretch marks. I decided to cement over all of them. An ounce of prevention and all that.

If we had stronger truth-in-advertising laws, plastic roof cement would be labeled "Sticky Black Gunk." It's the type of product that makes you say "yuck" when you open the can. Like Play-Doh. Or Spam.

I troweled the gunk onto the seal and it went on easily. In fact, it was sort of pleasurable. It was a quiet, cool Saturday morning and I was up among the trees and the chirping birds. I wondered how many other homeowners around the city were up on their roofs, doing the same job. I felt a kinship with them. We should all be up here, I thought, smearing gunk and waving to each other.

The longer I worked, the hotter it got and the less neighborly I felt. After two hours, all the cracks were dutifully smeared over, I was pouring sweat and my hands were covered with black gunk. Which presented a problem: How to get down off the roof without getting gunk on the borrowed ladder and everything else I encountered?

I'd worn ancient jeans with the intention of throwing them out when I was done, so I wiped some of the excess gunk on them and made my way to the ground, trying not to touch anything with my hands. In the garage, I kicked off my shoes and stripped off my filthy jeans and padded into the house in my sock feet to clean up.

Uh-oh. Turns out you can't wash black gunk off your hands. Even with cleanser, which I promptly ran out of anyway. I returned to the garage and (finally) read the instructions on the can. "Clean hands with waterless hand cleaner." Huh? "Caution! Combustible!" Yipes. "Do not take internally!" No problem. "Use protective measures to avoid contact with skin." Big problem.

My wife was out, but expected to return soon. I couldn't go to the store for waterless cleaner with my hands covered with gunk. I couldn't even put on fresh pants. All I could do was sit and wait, holding my sticky hands aloft like a surgeon who's freshly washed.

Twenty minutes later, my wife arrived. She calmly sized up the situation and hurried to the store to get waterless hand cleaner. I sat and waited some more, itching all over and unable to scratch, certain I could feel the black gunk burning my skin. I pictured my hands red and bubbling underneath the evil gunk.

As soon as she returned, I scrubbed off the gunk -- which took half an hour -- to find that my hands were unmarred. I hadn't combusted. I hadn't even gotten the gunk on the furniture or in my hair. Overall, the experience was a success, if you discount the part where I looked like an illiterate dork in front of my wife.

The upshot? I'd survived another homeowner's ordeal. I saved $250. And I get to do it all again next year.

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