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The Tarpaulin on the RV’s Roof

I lived with and under that tarpaulin for maybe seven months.

My home away from home, taken in May 2016 while I was moving in. Over time, the RV moved closer to the hedge, and I extended the awning. Then came the tarpaulin.

Obviously, I did not want to move into the RV in the first place. I’m an RV fan, but for travel and camping, life on the road, not as a home base, even a part-time home base, as this one was.

Shit happened, a ton of shit happened, to put it bluntly, and I ended up gratefully accepting Bill Turner’s offer to rent his RV parked in his driveway for $600 a month. That’s a very good deal, folks, in this part of the world.

Bill is the hero of this tale, a modest kind of hero, but a hero nonetheless. The tarpaulin, like the RV, was his.

Is the nature of the shit that happened relevant? Maybe, maybe not. What is notable is that in one way or another it all had to do with sex as well as money, the wrong people in the wrong places.

Bill Turner in his back yard. Adam Brumm took this.

First, my best long-term client went a little haywire. Its CFO started a conspicuous relationship with an HR person, among others more temporary, creating significant risk for the company.  After months of missteps and just plain stupidity on the part of the CFO – I mean, you don’t let the whole company know that you’re having an affair at the office, not when both of you are married! – I went to the CEO.

He turned out to be smarter than his CFO – it was months later before I found out that he too was involved with an employee – but for obvious reasons, he didn’t do anything about his CFO!

Needless to say, I lost the client, after almost ten years. In retrospect, I may well have deserved to. What was I thinking, trying to rein in banal corporate sleaze? That’s like trying to stop the tide coming in! And I’m no saint, or at least wasn’t many years ago. Maybe I should have simply kept my mouth shut. But that’s not who I am.

At one of the parties Bill threw for my visiting sons. He captioned this: “two old guys not smart enough to get out of the smoke!” The T-shirt is Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush.”

The other major shit, which had already been going on for years when I lost that client, was the divorce. Financially it went very badly. Assets and income went straight down the toilet. After I lost the client and moved out of the rented Scotts Valley condo I shared with the boys, our francophile judge still ordered me to pay more spousal support! What’s she got that I don’t?  Apart from two Paris apartments, other real estate in France and a five bedroom house in Santa Cruz with an in-law studio!

It is very hard to adjust when revenue drops sharply. It’s happened to me a couple of times over the years, and each time the level of difficulty of getting back up to speed, and the number of silly ways that seem to conspire to make it harder, astonished me. Very little other business came in for the rest of 2016. No particular reason: it just does that sometimes.  I lost my soccer-playing college student roommates in Tahoe, significantly upping my costs of ownership there for about three months.  You get the idea.

Duncan, on the left, brought Nick the dinosaur for his 30th birthday. In the background, Charlotte.

I did adjust: that’s what I do. In addition to renting the RV for when I was in Santa Cruz, I sold my own smaller RV for a significant loss (whenever you must sell, it’s at a loss) and withdrew about 20% of my already modest IRA. That was taxable, but those two hunks of cash covered the gap until I started earning more regular, if still reduced, revenue.

The first five or six months in the RV went surprisingly well. Charlie and Alex moved back in with their mom, in the house they were raised in. I had two girlfriends during that period (serially, not at the same time!), and each was happy to visit the RV. The fact that I was basically commuting from Tahoe to Santa Cruz and only in the RV part of the time also helped.

Yia yia came too! Christy, Nick’s grandmother, came to the party from her home in Palo Alto. Here she is with Charlotte.

When Nick, Charlotte and Tom came over from their homes in Europe to visit, planned of course before I had to give up the condo, we all muddled through. Each spent periods in Tahoe, and some of their time in Santa Cruz in Bill’s RV and in my little RV, also parked on his property. Bill threw a party for Nick’s 30th birthday, and again for the visitors’ last night, normalizing those parts of the visits. Nick and Tom have always adjusted well: they’ve needed to!

Back to the tarpaulin. One morning in late fall, after the boys had returned to Europe, half awake, I noticed a stain on the roof of the bedroom, which was in the rear of the RV. When I tentatively touched it, it was damp. It had been raining. I told Bill.

Tom hanging out in the RV during his stay.

This was not the time to  have extensive repairs done on a leaky RV roof – he had just bought a  business and was working crazy hard to get it off the ground – and so he bought a tarpaulin to cover the roof until the next summer. We duly put it up there. The RV was 34 foot long and about eight foot wide (no slide-outs), and the tarp was 40 foot long by 20 foot wide. So it all fitted pretty well, once in place.

Getting it in place was the fun part. We both scrambled around up there that first time, trying not to tread on one of the soft spots, which Bill warned me were where the roof needed repairing, while we unfolded and spread out this 800 square foot beast. Did I mention that there were several oddly-shaped objects on the roof, vents, air conditioners, antennae and the like? They were each constantly hiding under the tarpaulin, and we were trying not to tread on them either, or trip over them for that matter.

Taken toward the end of my stay, after I’d figured out how best to attach the tarpaulin. It created a porch outside the RV!

It was the wettest winter in years. And pretty windy too.  Which produced the first set of problems linked to the tarpaulin on the RV’s roof. It was like a sail, and so we attached it to immovable objects, mostly with bungee cords, and loaded down the edges of the roof with wood. Between the two types of attachment, we figured that we were safe.

Wrong! On three or four different occasions, disaster was narrowly averted. Each involved a storm, and each involved that tarpaulin. The first time, I drove up after work to find it sagging down the driver’s side of the rig, with half a ton of water filling it and pulling so hard on the bungee cords on the other side that a few of them had already been destroyed. The wood was scattered all over the driveway, evidently not heavy enough for real weather.

Hard to see, but the sagging bubble is half a ton of water trapped in the tarpaulin. As I watched, its weight broke a bungee cord on the other side of the rig, and splash! The driver’s side window is illuminated on the left.

It was still pouring with rain, still very windy, and I couldn’t see how to release all that trapped water, which was impossibly heavy, without undoing more bungee cords and putting the tarpaulin at risk of detaching completely. The whole point of the tarpaulin was to stop the rain getting on the already damaged roof. So I called Bill, who is one of those guys who can fix anything. He was of course still at work.

And just as I am explaining the problem to him, the forces of nature took over, another bungee cord gave way on the other side of the RV, and half a ton of water gushed out of the tarpaulin, cascaded down the (watertight) side of the RV, and flowed out of the driveway. I quickly hung up, climbed onto the roof, and made emergency repairs so that the tarpaulin would continue in service until the storm was over and we could fix it more surely in place.

Which we did, improving the positioning and attachments to avoid the same kind of water trap in the future. Two or three more different water traps formed over the course of the winter, each in different places that I had not seen coming when fixing the previous trap. Fortunately, each was discovered after it was filling with water but before it did any damage. I was beginning to worry about probabilities of doing real damage if it happened again, but winter conveniently fizzled out first.

The luggage rack on the roof formed a pool when the tarpaulin was up there, right on top of the leak in the roof! The ducks flew in!

Not long after that first almost disaster, I found a gaggle of rubber ducks on the driveway after a storm. WTF?! Where had they appeared from? It took me a while to figure it out. The tarpaulin was draped over the luggage rack on the RV’s roof, which was a rectangle and formed a pool on the roof which I was obliged to empty periodically. Bill had put about a dozen rubber ducks in this pool, to help me (and maybe Erika) feel better!

It worked. See why Bill is the hero here?

Bill with Kathleen, his honey, in his place. It’s their place now!

The tarpaulin also interfered with required RV maintenance. Bill had hooked up water from his well and electricity for the RV, and so I only needed to move it to fill the propane tank and empty the waste tanks. Living there only part of the time, I was not obliged to move it often, but when I did the tarpaulin made it quite a job. Before the tarpaulin, I had to detach water and electricity, lift up the electrical jacks that kept the floor steady, and move the steps outside away from the rig (the built-in steps didn’t work). After the tarpaulin was installed, I had to do that and remove the tarpaulin from the roof.

A couple of winter shots now, this one of a frosty morning on the roof of the RV, with a post helping hold down the tarpaulin. Yeah, that’ll work!

Similarly, when I returned with full propane tank and empty waste tanks, I had to put the tarpaulin back on the roof, as well as reverse the rest of the pre-move tasks. Each time, it was a real challenge. Maneuvering 800 square foot of tarpaulin on the roof of the RV by myself and attaching it in the right places below and to the side to prevent it flying away or trapping excess rainwater would have made a good Mack Sennett comedy skit.

So I moved it less frequently, leaving it until the last minute to empty the tanks. Which brings us to the second set of problems linked to the tarpaulin on the RV’s roof. One evening, I found the toilet filled with waste from the black water tank. Now, that did not seem possible under the laws of physics. The tank was below the toilet, below the floor of the rig! How did anything climb back up into the toilet, against gravity? The rig hadn’t moved during my time away, it couldn’t. Gravity was still in session. Shit happened, yet again, and more literally!

Christmas morning in the RV, waiting for Charlie and Alex to visit!

But the fact that it was impossible did not save me from fixing it. Which was seriously gross and unpleasant and definitely to be avoided. So I either had to move the rig more regularly, and take the tarpaulin off again and put it back on again, or risk other violations of the laws of physics and yet more shit. It was a difficult choice!

For a while, a part of me bitterly resented the tarpaulin on the RV’s roof. Enough shit had happened to relegate me to a part-time RV in a friend’s driveway. Wasn’t that karmically sufficient to address all of my sins? Why more?

But that was short-sighted. That RV enabled me to hang on to my lovely little house in Tahoe. The money it saved me during the 13 months I lived in it also covered a wonderful vacation in Europe, some great gifts for the family, like five seats at Levi’s Stadium to watch Liverpool v. Inter Milan on Nick’s 30th birthday, and two new iPhone 7s for Charlie and Alex. It covered the entire parental portion of the cost of Alex’s first year at UC Santa Barbara. It gave me the breathing space I needed to restart my practice, now Startup A La Carte™ legal services. And without the tarpaulin, I wouldn’t have been able to continue staying in the RV.

The tarpaulin on the RV’s roof was absolutely not a problem!