Now that's more like it. Here's the second-floor tub after I regrouted and re-caulked it...
...okay, in my mind. The real thing looks like...a white subway-tile tub surround with some grotty bits still left--grot that fought off solvents, single-edged razor blades, bleach; grot that has fused into the tiles like glass. So it's not perfectly pretty, but right now, the job looks damn watertight. For about the next day or so, until the damn caulk line undoubtedly breaks again, and Zul the Evil Tile Grot Demon mysteriously colors everything black that was pure and clean and white.
Given that I procrastinated this hideous job for months--months during which we took "refugee showers" in the upstairs guest suite in the tiny leaky "Tardis" shower stall--it is good to report that I have learned many deep and lasting lessons. One is, choose a career as a bond trader early in life so that you NEVER EVER HAVE TO GROUT YOUR OWN SHOWER OR CAULK YOUR OWN TUB.
Ahem, but really...the Internet research alone was amazing. There is a tiling site called the John Bridge Forum that serves as a sort of pro/am clearinghouse for every conceivable tile/grout/caulk question. From these good folks, I have learned that I'm not done yet--I should seal the grout lines with a paintbrush. (Aha, maybe that was one of the problems the first time around--I'm sure we didn't seal it.) I also got everything I needed to know about why the original subway-tile installation sucked so badly. Indeed, it should've been a "mud job" or "thickset" and not a slap-'em-on-with-mastic job. Turns out there's a brotherhood of mud job guys who talk in mystic ecstasies of the Zen-like beauty of old-fashioned mud jobs. (Our contractor, Mr. Stupid, and we ourselves have unfortunately not met any of them--maybe they left Brooklyn long ago for muddier pastures.)
And caulk? Lordy, don't get these folks started. We're talking way beyond the old "wet the back of a spoon to get a smooth line" level here. (Although I did fill the tub halfway before caulking it, to "stretch the joint"; this means you have to, yes, lean over a foot of water, or stand in it, while caulking. Why not just put bricks in the tub?) Here's a typical tile forum entry: "I'm sorry to say I've gotten frighteningly anal about caulk lines lately. I think I've used about $50 of blue tape and ten trees worth of paper towels on the last few jobs. I can't see that blurry feathered edge anymore on tile or tub edges. I agree about the weakness and permeability of the silicone feathered edges. I'm going for solid, sharp cut lines. With carefully placed tape, minimal caulking onto tape, two inch putty knife, occasional finger work, towels, minimal water dipping and immediate tape stripping after striking... Good things are happening. I'm gonna go get a life now."
Me, I used my latex-clad finger and smeared it all over the place. (That last sentence oughta get some interesting Googles.) I'll trim the feathery bits with my trusty single-edge razor blade, which I keep in a folded 3x5 card that my Dad labeled, in typical Dad style, "Single-Edge Razor Blade." Opening it up makes it feel like he just took it out of his (now our) old green toolbox and handed it to me. He was a master tiler and caulker, who did a new tub surround in our apartment in Little Neck when I was a kid, faux-marble green-and-white tiles...that job lasted perfectly for 10 years.
It's my dad I channel, even more than the Internet mud masters, for stuff like this. I was never, alas, a helpful little tomboy at his elbow, picking up techniques for my Rosie the Riveter future as a girl renovator; I would mess with balls of caulk or line the washers and nuts up and make them talk to each other. But just by hanging around, I got a half-remembered headful of advice that tumbles out of the toolbox along with his labeled razor blades and other treasures. "Make sure all the loose dust and dirt are off; wipe it down with alcohol and a cotton swab." "Hold it at a 45-degree angle." "Give it a nice, even pressure." "I've got a Dremel attachment that would shave that down to just the right height."
Ah, yes, the Dremel. I inherited Daddy's Dremel Moto-Tool, along with his speed regulator and his beloved boxes of accessories--a forest of little grinding wheels, cutters, abrasive pads, and baffling thingies, but I've never, since he died in 1985, had the guts to take it out, figure out how to work it, and turn it on. For this accursed tile job, I was stymied by the remnants of old caulk stuck in the joint. I could just hear my dad saying that the Dremel could clean that joint out fine. So I went down to the seldom-visited "tool room" and dug out the set. I plugged it into the speed regulator, held it gingerly, took a deep breath, and turned it on; it sounded, as I recalled well, just like a dentist's drill. I put a metal brush wheel in the "chuck collet" (great name for a weatherman, Chuck Collet!) and touched it to the workbench; it made a satisfying whir. The power was mine!
As it happened, the mighty little Dremel didn't accomplish much on the caulk joint, but it hardly mattered. I had broken the Moto-Tool Barrier. Subsequent Internet research on the Dremel site (to supplement their unhelpfully minimal owners' manual) reveals that my dad was not alone in his obsession; had he lived longer, he would've spent many happy hours learning more cool apps (my favorite: frothing milk for coffee). There's even a freelancer's tutorial to help figure out all the little attachments. For years, I have fantasized about removing red paint from the bead-molding trim on the newel posts with that Dremel... (Yeah, I know. I'm gonna go get a life now.)
In the DIY spirit, some DIY psychoanalysis is in order. It doesn't take Freud, or even Dr. Phil, to figure out that my 20-year block over turning on the Moto-Tool went deeper than my power-tool phobia. I can see my dad's hands holding it, fixing everything that needed to be fixed all through my childhood, which apparently lasted until age 28, which is how old I was when we lost him. If I'm holding the Moto-Tool, he isn't, and if that's the case, it must be because he's not coming back. Several decades is a long time for a functional adult to realize that Daddy's not coming back to fix things, but one of the CrazyStable's mottos might well be, "Better late than never."
Inspired by the lovely domestic shrine to family ancestors on display in the Hall of Asian Peoples at the American Museum of Natural History, I decided to make a little Daddy Dremel Shrine to celebrate my breakthrough. (Note the fine cigar box from his storage archives.) Now that I've started using it, I miss him less, not more; he's right there, telling me to hold it at just the right angle.
Top image: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 'A Favourite Custom," 1909, oil on panel. The Tate Gallery, London. Thanks to Olga's Gallery.