Dirty Grout: My Quixotic Quest To Put In A New Floor.


“Aesthetic Anorexic.”

I encountered this catchy and perverse phrase  in an article in the New York Times about a burgeoning movement of designers and architects who practice something called “disappearing design.” The idea is for everything in a room to aspire to a silhouette so slender as to be invisible.  It occurred to me the flattest, most two dimensional thing in a room is a floor.


Floor is an evocative word with several meanings beyond the thing at the bottom of a room.

For example in a publishing auction, if you have the floor on a book it means that after everyone has bid then the person with the floor gets a chance to outbid them all. It’s a form of last licks. I’ve had books – I guess manuscripts, technically – where one publisher has had a floor. It’s very exciting and also reassuring. It means someone wants it. You have crossed a threshold. There is a floor. Even if, in my my case, it was a small floor.

Then there is the ambiguous condition of being, “Floored.” As in, “I was floored.” I feel more often than not this is used in a good way, but it can go either way, really.



This brings me to the floor of our sun room, so named because it gets a lot of sun.It took getting the big things in order before we could really focus on the floor of the sun room. A modern addition to an old house, eccentric in shape, the previous owner had apparently used it as his art workshop.

The floor, when we really looked at it, floored us.  Dirty white octagonal bathroom tiles. We did some swiffering, some mopping. There was a residual layer of dust and dirt that would not be vanquished. This was a floor to which you would never put your cheek. It was hard to the touch, the last thing you want our kids to play on. It was filthy. It had to go.

We began to investigate. I knew I was out of my depth when I was perusing a chat room for dirty grout. The phrase itself – dirty grout – sounds kind of dirty, almost like pornography. I clicked on a topic called, “White Haze on Grout.” The phrase had the poetic rhythm of a popular song of my youth, White Punks On Dope, but not the charm. We were not going to repair or improve this tile, it was clear. We needed a whole new floor.

At which point the clouds parted and word came that Home Depot would offer a small sum to chronicle our attempts at making a better life for our floors. We found some lovely looking wood flooring but at nearly four dollars a square foot  it would have cost close to five thousand dollars to do the room. Way too much. We then decided carpet would be good. We wanted it to be a play room for the kids. I am generally against carpet unless I happen to be in a room with carpet. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I find it quite pleasant and comfortable even if there is part of me that thinks that carpet is death. (I am a big fan of rugs, however. Particularly oriental ones.) But carpet, even the fairly inexpensive kind, was still looking very expensive. So we consulted  the local sale ads, which we were told is the thing to do for price conscious shoppers. These are store specific promotions, and they often last for a blink of an eye. During such a blink we bought an ash wood laminate for 68 cents a square foot, with free installation.



This was supposed to be a piece about putting in floor and shopping at Home Depot but, sadly, it must now become a piece about Customer service. However, there is a shockingly happy twist.

What happened was the when the installer came he declared the existing floor – with it’s white haze on tiles – to be insufficiently level. He wouldn’t put the new wood floor in. It didn’t matter that we didn’t mind if the floor wasn’t level.

“It’s New Orleans,” I said. “If you only do floors in level houses you must do one floor a week.”

He was not moved by this or anything else, including the fact that Home Depot had included the installation in the fee, which had been already paid.

He worked for Home Depot as an independent contractor, he told me. His company would be liable for any problems under the warranty. I said we would waive the warranty, but we were way beyond SOP. It was not worth the risk, he said, and that was that.

What about the person who had come to measure the room?  Shouldn’t they have noted the uneven floor?

That was another subcontractor, he said

In hindsight I see he was being reasonable enough. Floors, it turns out, often need to be floored before you can put in a floor.

But at the time I had an uneasy feeling that I was at the ass end of some complex financial arrangement not unlike a sub-prime mortgage: I had given Home Depot over a thousand dollars. The material had been delivered. It had left to sit and acclimate to the room for 72 hours. (I liked this part–it was like the wood needed time to get over jet-lag.) But now there was a web of third parties who were not responsible for the over-all job, just their small subsection if it.

He left. I called Home Depot. I wanted guidance.


As we all know, Americans have made a deal with its retailers that they want price to be the highest priority, damn everything else, which is why we often have to do this weird dance of standing in the aisles of huge big box stores helplessly flapping our arms and looking around for an employee if we need help. This employee must be flagged down, if not actively chased, and then it’s like you are taking a stroll in the forest with a stranger as you amble down the long aisles to the part of the store where you have your question.

I called Home Depot. I got someone on the phone, but not someone who could help, other than telling me that if we had to send the wood back there would be a “Stop Job” fee of $180 dollars.

So I was now out a couple of weeks; there had been three separate occasions when I had met someone at the house so they could measure, deliver, install (or not) the wood. I had hosted a sleep-over with a room’s worth of wood. I went to look at the boxes with the idea of maybe installing it myself and saw, written on the side, a statement about how, if you live in California, then you should know that wood dust is “known to cause cancer.”

I had a moment akin to the one where the installer announced that though he worked for Home Depot he did not work for Home Depot–one of those moments when you glimpse the complicated machinery of legislation, litigation, and filthy lucre that shapes our world. I was grateful to California for insisting this warning be listed on all the boxes of Ainsley Oak, since it would apply to people everywhere.

Not even “May cause.” Causes.

I made some calls. I went to the store. I couldn’t seem to find the person who could tell me what to do. At some point I found myself on hold with the Home Depot store where I had bought the wood, ping-ponging from the recorded hold message – a commercial – to various people at customer service who had never heard of me.

I tweeted the following in despair: “It’s a performance piece: Instead of Yams I have chosen to call the Carrolton, New Orleans @HomeDepot. On hold 27 minutes! Writing a grant.”

I promptly received this tweet from @HomeDepot_Care

“Wow. Apologies 4 long wait. Were u able 2 reach someone 2 help? If not, pls email/I can reach out.”

I emailed someone named Nicki, who reached out. She didn’t, in the end solve the problem, but she did a lot of work and wrote a whole synopsis of the situation to me via email. I was no longer standing in an aisle waiting for an employee to help me. I had some help. It also helped that the floor manager returned from a long weekend; he had a birthday. He was a cool guy. He listened the situation, lead us to a big pile of Qiuk-Level, and suggested we level the floor ourselves.

Since then we have been told by many people, including several how to type videos, that we are out of our league and should hire a professional. But the professionals seem to think this is too small a job. I am confidant it will work out. Meanwhile we have an ever growing collection of materials in our sun room, which we keep gated off. The children sometimes stand at the gate and peer into it. An unknown world which, one day, will be theirs.


***A big thanks to The Home Depot for sponsoring this campaign. Click here to see more of the discussion.


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