CARTHAGEIt’s a story as bizarre as any Hunter Thompson road trip. Five months before the presidential election, Al Gore is doing his best to convince voters that he’s the guy to hold the keys to the Free World’s nukes and to replace retiring Supreme Court justices. Then, boom, he’s accused of being completely stumped in the face of an overflowing toilet and peeling paint. How does this happen?
First, a little background: About three weeks ago, Gore’s tenant, Tracy Mayberry, started complaining about her torn-up kitchen floor, her leaking toilet, and peeling paint all through the house. WTVF-Channel 5 sent a crew to Carthage and took pictures of the place. Soon after, national news outlets picked up the story. Like any politician with a room-temperature IQ, Gore promised to get the house repaired and have dinner with Mayberry besides. There was talk of peach cobbler.
For a few days there, it looked as if the story had no more legs. The phone stopped ringing off the hook at the Mayberry placeuntil, of course, Mayberry made it known that the promises of structural bliss at her rented home hadn’t been realized.
As of last Thursday, the kitchen floor wasn’t fixed, the toilet was still leaking, and the paint was still peeling. And, don’t you know, the Mayberrys and Gores still hadn’t sat down to dinner.
And, as it turns out, the problems Mayberry is complaining about barely scratch the surface of this domestic disaster. There is a laundry list of other, more dangerous circumstances that would offer enough material for a Bob Vila home-improvement special.
The electrical system is a spaghetti bed of simmering wires. The water heater is a scalding hazard. The roof is shot. While it’s not leaking yet, the shingles are starting to look like mulch. To put it plainly, this is one beat-up, worn-down houselong overdue for a lot of work.
Of course, nobody expects Al Gore to drive down to the little rental housewhich can, incidentally, be seen from the front porch of the Gore homewith a hammer in his hand and a mouth full of nails. Gore’s campaign spokesman, Doug Hattaway, is quick to point out that maintenance at the house is the responsibility of the property manager.
Just who is that elusive property manager anywaythe one neither The New York Times nor The Washington Post has bothered to mention?
It turns out that behind the very official sounding ”Gore Realty“ is just one guynamely, Gore employee Charles Elrod. Elrod is not an upper-management office type with a crew of experienced workers waiting to jump at his commands. Elrod is a country handymana middle-aged guy whose face and hands are virtual storybooks of years of hard, outdoor labor.
The doors of Elrod’s work truck are rusted through, and he’s proud of it. ”It’s paid for,“ he says through a cloud of cigarette smoke. ”I’d hate to get rid of it.“
Elrod has worked for the Gores for about 13 years. His wife, Audry, is an assistant to Al Gore’s elderly mother, Pauline Gore.
Last Thursday when the Scene visited the home at Mayberry’s invitation (oddly enough, Mayberry stayed behind closed doors for the entire visit and wouldn’t talk on the phone the next day), Elrod and a single helper were preparing to put new vinyl tile in the kitchen. It would be the third floor covering in three weeks.
When Mayberry first contacted Gore about the house, torn kitchen vinyl was one of her complaints. So Elrod put down a new vinyl floor.
Quoted in press reports, Mayberry called the job ”shabby,“ complaining that the new vinyl had been installed directly over the old, worn-out floor, without any preparation to speak of. In four days’ time, Elrod admits, the new vinyl was torn up. So he installed new underlayment and a thick, durable tile suitable for commercial use. This time, he thinks he’s got the floor problem licked.
The leaky toilet, though, is another matter. Thursday, there was a discernible ring of water on the floor around the toilet. Usually, that’s a sign that the seal at the base of the toilet is shot. Just a day or two earlier, a plumber had taken the toilet up and reset it, using a new seal. Apparently, the plumber didn’t do the job right.
There also have been problems with the toilet not flushing properly. Workers at the house attribute the faulty flushing to two things: Toys and debris flushed down the toilet and, not least of all, a whole lot of people using the facilities.
The Mayberrys are a family of four. One is a child of toy-flushing age. While nobody would come right out and say there are more than four people living in the house, an observer did offer this: ”Just before you got here,“ he said, ”I saw eight people drive away in a late-’80s, cream-colored sedan, with a partial vinyl top.“
Add to that the numerous cars parked at the house and the fact that Elrod has arranged to have more than 300 feet of drain line added to the septic system, and there’s pretty good evidence that the house gets crowded.
But back to the house’s problems. The peeling paint isn’t just any old peeling paint. Given that the house was built around 1956, it’s pre-1978 peeling paint, and that means the paint almost surely has lead in it. Lead, says HUD, is a ”serious health hazard.“ Young children and unborn children are most at risk from lead poisoning, which can cause permanent brain damage or even death.
If Gore followed the federal government’s own rules, he would’ve warned the Mayberrysand any previous tenantsabout the known health risks associated with peeling lead-based paint.
”By 1996, federal law will require that individuals receive certain information before renting, buying, or renovating pre-1978 houses,“ according to the HUD Web site (www.hud.gov/lea/leadhelp.html). ”Landlords will have to disclose known information on lead-based paint hazards before leases take effect. Leases will include a federal form about lead-based paint.“
Whether the Mayberrys ever got such a disclosure from Gore is unclear. Often, landlords can truthfully say that they have no knowledge of lead paint.
It would be hard to believe, though, that the federal government’s Second Banana, the man who wrote the environmental tome, Earth in the Balance, had never heard of the lead-paint problem or didn’t know his own rental house was built during the pre-1978 lead-paint era.
The electrical system at the house is an even more immediate danger. To wit: inside the Mayberry’s rented house, a chest freezer and refrigerator are plugged into a puny 18-gauge extension cord. The cord is hot to the touch. In the main fuse box, there are 30-amp fuses on most circuits. Most likely, these circuits are overfused. Wiring is stapled to the garage walls. All are fire hazards.
There is also a water heater with no discharge line on its temperature-and-pressure valve. That’s a potential scalding hazard, and there’s a label on the water heater that explains the danger.
Carthage residents aren’t eager to talk on the record about Gore’s tenants, but the buzz in the vice president’s hometown is that they’re not exactly model renters. Judging from the countless chains and worn earth around surrounding trees, for example, there is ample evidence the Mayberrys haverecentlyhosted a number of dogs on the property.
Just for the sake of argument, assume the tenants ran the overheated extension cord, flushed unflushable things down the toilet, and wore out the kitchen floor and the paint all by themselves. Even if that’s true, it’s highly unlikely that the tenants wired the house or installed the water heater. They surely didn’t wear the roof out all by themselves.
The house is just plain neglectedto the point of being clearly substandard and even dangerous. So whose fault is that? It’s a short chain of command. At the top, there’s Gore. Just below him, there’s Elrod, the Carthage handyman. The flow chart ends there, even if the Mayberrys aren’t doing much to help the situation.
When the story broke, the smart money was on Gore hiring a crew to fix the house, expenses be damned. But that doesn’t take into account family loyalties or the small-town way of doing things.
Surely, Gore feels some loyalty to Elrod and his wife. After all, they’ve been taking care of Gore’s houseand, more importantly, his momfor more than a decade. But now, Gore finds himself in the awkward position of either taking the heat for his slum property or hiding behind Elrod’s coveralls.
The best strategy, it would seem, is to get the place fixed up fast, with no more foul-ups or fanfare, then alert the media of the upcoming dinner with the Mayberrys.
It looks like things are moving that way. In recent days, Gore has put family friend Steve Armistead in charge of the house repairs. The Gore spokesman says Armistead will make sure that the house gets fixedroof to foundationincluding all the electrical problems, plumbing problems, and paint problems. Hattaway also says that Gore still plans to break bread with the Mayberrys.
The only question, he says, is whether they’ll meet at the Gore house or the Mayberry place. When we asked what Tipper would wear to the dinner, Hattaway declined comment.
Walter Jowers is a home inspector by profession.
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