Once Up On a Roof

13 Jul

On July 8th 2000 a thunderstorm moved through our neighborhood with wind rain and hail. Normally hail is a very local and very brief phenomenon-30 seconds or a minute is typical. In this storm it hailed constantly for 30 minutes. You read that correctly, 30 minutes! Thankfully it wasn’t baseball size but it did plenty of damage to houses cars and outside brick- a- brac. In the aftermath everyone in our neighborhood got a new roof . Within hours of the end of the storm roofing company representatives descended upon our neighborhood going door to door offering to negotiate with insurance companies and take care of all the work. None of them were local. They were  storm chasers.

One of my neighbors who had lots of friends decided he would replace his own roof. The insurance company would pay him the estimated replacement cost if he would agree to have the roof inspected upon completion. The math was pretty simple. The insurance company would pay $8,000 (these are small roofs) and he would have about $2,000 of expenses. We instantly formed a co-op among several neighbors. I had never done roofing before but I leapt at the chance of a $6000 payday.

Meanwhile work crews began showing up around the neighborhood. A swarm of 10 to as many as 20 men would strip the roof in a matter of hours. There were no English speakers on those crews. It turns out that many were from Central America. Somehow they had obtained temporary work visas. (really?) It wasn’t uncommon to see station wagons or vans parked at the work site with women tending to one or more young children. These guest workers were functionally homeless. But why not. They moved like locust from one storm ravaged area to the next and wanted to save every dime possible of the roughly $100/day they were making (based on $10/hr over a 10 hr day). I don’t think that many even made that much. It was hard to learn to much about them as it was unusual to find an English speaker among them. After the swarm finished stripping the roof another smaller crew arrived to do the install. This crew often had some white guys – owners it turns out. We later learned that the stripping crew work was done by a subcontractor; which is the reason I doubt that any one up on the roof was getting paid $10/hr. But were told that ‘it was the most money they ever made’. I am still uncomfortable with that rationalization.

The economy was very good back in 2000. Economically that seems like such a distant memory now. But young people always need summer jobs especially minorities. There wasn’t much skill involved in the stripping process. Our roofs were low and gently sloped minimizing the danger. I began to wonder why with unemployment among young people so high there weren’t more locals up there. Then we started our work and I figured it out in a hurry. It was brutally hard work. There is no comfortable position to stand sit or kneel. The shingles are so abrasive that you change positions often. On hot sunny days the heat burned you through your clothes and slow roasted your body. I was hard to drink enough water. Beer never tasted so good at the end of a day.  My knees hurt, my hips hurt my back hurt and that was just on the first day. I aggravated some kind of nerve injury that made my hands and arms numb. The professional crews did a roof a day. It took us a week. My roof was the last of the three. The co-operative spirit had waned by then so I had much less help. But my roof was done faster than the others thanks to the learning curve.

It’s twelve years later. The roof still looks good. The shingles I bought supposedly have a 30 yr life. That will make me 80 when it needs to be done again, baring another hail storm. A number of the roofs done by the professional crews have been redone or are in badly in need of redoing. The cheap shingles they used deteriorated quickly. Good luck finding any of those guys. I am a big proponent of DIY but if the opportunity comes again I think I’ll pass. I still wonder about all those young men who toiled at that work 10 hours a day 7 days a week. I hope they have found some other way to support their families.

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