Ploughs and Harrows

Ploughs and Harrows

 By Mort Laitner and Tracie Dickerson
The environmentalist sauntered into my office wearing his Cheshire cat grin. I knew his smile meant trouble. I greeted him with my usual salutation, “Top of the day to you, my lad.”

He smiled and in his melodic Barry White voice he responded, “Hey buddy, you know how I sell real estate on the side, when I’m not working for the Health Department? Well, I got a listing I think you would be interested in. I know you read all the Tally emails and the Herald’s accounts concerning Chinese drywall. Well after work today, we’re going to enter a $750,000 home that is a drywall nightmare. Today it’s going for only $369,000. It’s the deal of a lifetime.”

“I’ll meet you in the parking lot at five,” I replied.

I developed an intense curiosity about the drywall problem after reading an article about a family that invested their life’s savings in a brand new South Florida home.

The day after closing, they moved in. Upon entering the abode, mom wrinkled her nose and asked, “Honey, where is that smell of sulfur coming from?”

Her husband replied, “I think it’s from the kitchen.”

“Did a dog, cat or raccoon die in here?” she queried.

“I’ll search the house and see what I can find.” He found nothing but everyday the smell grew worse.

The next day, their teenage son complained, “Mom, I’m going to puke. We got to move out of this rotten-egg palace. My friends will never visit me.”

Her husband complained, “My head is pounding, my nose is bleeding, and the smell has permeated every nook and cranny of this monster.”

Her ten-year-old daughter begged, “Mom, I can’t take it any longer! I’m too young to die! I’m moving into grandma’s!”

Mom replied, “Pumpkin, dad’s working on the problem. He called the developer, the builder and the Health Department.”

The Health Department inspected, tested and called. “Sir, I’m sorry to inform you of the bad news but your home was built with Chinese drywall.”

The family moved out. They rented an apartment, hired a lawyer and waited to see if they would ever be made whole again.

As the environmentalist drove, I read aloud the sales brochure on the toxic home. “House price reflects environmental condition.”

I asked, “Is the real estate broker afraid to say CHINESE DRYWALL? Has the broker’s soul gone bankrupt?”

As we drove up the driveway, the exterior of the residence looked like three quarters of a million dollars. Now the moment of truth, do I experience the contamination, the toxicity, the poison, or do I chicken out?

I’ll walk in the door take a whiff and run out if necessary, I reasoned.

My mind ran to Chinese manufacturers of the drywall (lead painted toys, tainted dog food) and I wondered— execution by firing squad, or just being locked and manacled in a cubical made of their drywall.

My thoughts jumped to the American families living with their relatives after finding out what they had purchased.

My mind leapt, “What the hell, I’m going in.”

As I opened the door, a wall of putrid air smacked me in the face. My stomach rolled. My eyes watered.

I scanned a magnificent living room with a twenty-foot ceiling, a kitchen with black marble counters and sanguine Spanish-tile floors.

On the white living room wall hung a framed poster with a photo of Russian film maker Andrei Tarkovsky in his movie The Killers. He wore a fedora and a three day stubble of facial hair. He looked like a gangster, black marketer, or a murderer. In bold print under the photo were his words:


The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed,

to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts,

to serve as example. The aim of art

is to prepare a person for death,

to plough and harrow his soul,

rendering it capable of turning to good.


The quote alarmed me. For a few seconds the vapors ceased penetrating my body. As I moved another step toward the poster, I wondered aloud, “Why did the former residents of this house leave this piece of art?”

Then the veins in my forehead pulsated. My head pounded. I yelled to the environmentalist, “Sorry, I’m jumping ship.”

The environmentalist replied, “I’m right behind you!”

As we drove away from this house of upper respiratory hell, I prayed no long term harm had befallen me. My plea was quickly answered with a beep-beep-beep. In our rush to escape, neither of us fastened our seatbelts.

Breathing the filtered air from the car’s air conditioner, the environmentalist flashed his toothy grin and innocently asked, “Would you like to make an offer?”

I let his question hang. A few seconds later, I replied, “The city’s building and zoning division should declare that structure uninhabitable and realtors should stop showing it.” Now the realtor was silent.

I wondered if this experience was preparation for my ultimate demise or was my soul being ploughed and harrowed, rendering it capable of doing good. I knew why the poster still hung on the wall.




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