Toad shit and wax paper

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Amid the intensive coverage of the Champlain Towers condominium collapse, there have been some indications of more widespread problems.

But I haven't seen many references to John D. MacDonald's novel Condominium, which was originally published in 1977, a bit before the Champlain Towers condominium was built in 1981. And some of those few recent references focus on aspects of administrative rather than physical structure, e.g. Mathew Gordon Lasner, "Condo Buildings Are at Risk. So Is All Real Estate.", The Atlantic 7/2/2021:

When developers experimented with locking associations into management contracts at uncompetitive rates (as detailed in John D. MacDonald’s 1977 disaster novel, Condominium), kept down sales prices by retaining ownership of common areas and renting them back to associations (also at inflated rates), or made monthly charges unsustainably low by retaining control over associations until an overwhelming majority of units were sold, the state outlawed these practices. To allow for a more timely and cost-effective resolution of disputes among owners, and between owners and associations, it set up provisions for resolving disputes outside the courts.

But it's the novel's picture of shoddy construction practices that I remember, so I hereby urge you to buy and read the novel as background for the unfolding news coverage.

Here's the start of chapter 2:

Guthrie Carver, known as Gus, was a small, quiet, knotty man. He and Carolyn had been the first couple to move into Golden Sands. They had moved into 1-C two days after the building was given a certificate of occupancy, when the land around it was still raw, with no swimming pool, tennis courts, or surfaced parking areas behind the building. One year ago last month, April.

He was a sallow man with a white brush cut. He looked like a bleached Indian. When he swam in the pool, he revealed a spare, heavy-boned body, with nicks and slices and welts of scar tissue on tough hide which slid across the strings and slabs and lumps of lifelong muscle. He had spent his life on construction jobs, most of them very large and in very far places. He liked solid structure, well specified, well planned, competently built.

Consequently he despised Golden Sands, but having spent six months looking at condominiums up and down Florida’s southwest coastline, he admitted to himself that he had not yet seen one he could not learn to despise. Carolyn had loved her bright clean shiny apartment. To her it was the symbol of the end of travel, a place for roots without the ever-present fear Gus would be sent somewhere else.

After long deliberation Gus had told her one evening that if he couldn’t put up a better building using only toad shit and wax paper, he’d resign from the profession. But this upset her so badly and so obviously, he convinced her he was only kidding and vowed to himself not to mention his doubts to her again.

As I said, you should read the whole thing. But here's Chapter 2, just to whet your appetite with some details about the ways that construction can go wrong — like this litany of problems with the steel in reinforced concrete:

Thinking of the bars made him think of all the reinforcing steel in the building around him, under him and over him. All the marginal
bars with their dowels and splices, the deformed bars and the melded wire fabric, all the supports and spacers and mesh. He made a mental list of the things which could go wrong with all the reinforcing steel. Too long a wait—over an hour—before the tension reinforcing of the pilings. Steel with grease on it, or too much rust, or with mill scale on it. Bad welds. Too few dowels from footings to walls. Undersized bars. Brittle tie wire. Unstaggered splices in adjoining bars. Bending and field cutting of bars around openings and sleeves. Fast sloppy pours that left voids under and around the reinforcing, or knocked the bars off the chairs, unnoticed.

There's no direct linguistic connection, although Carolyn's aphasia and associated medical issues may be a sort of metaphor for structural collapse:

They had their first Christmas together in the apartment, and a week later over at Beach Mall Shopping Plaza, only a quarter mile
south, Carrie had slipped on a banana skin and broken her hip. That was the old comedy routine. Banana skin. She had been pushing the
loaded cart as they walked toward their car. […]

They operated on Carrie and pinned her hip. A week later she went into pneumonia, and they moved her into Intensive Care and then
had to perform a tracheotomy. Just as she was finally recovering from the pneumonia, she had a stroke which paralyzed her whole right
side. In mid-February he was able to move her into a nursing home. He had medical disaster insurance through an ASCE group policy, so
his out-of-pocket expenses were 25 percent of her $9,000 hospital bill, less that portion covered by Medicare.

In early April the doctor told Gus Garver that he could make a reasonable guess as to the permanent disability to be expected. There
was some return of function to the large muscles of the right side, but he doubted it would ever be possible for her even to sit up without help, much less walk. Regarding communication, the stroke had destroyed that part of the left lobe of the brain which deals with the comprehension of speech and writing.

“The condition is called aphasia. Sometimes, in younger patients, the right side of the brain can be trained to take over communication. But one could not hope for such a result in the case of your wife, sir. Yes, to a certain extent she is aware of her surroundings. And she would recognize you, yes. As you may have noted, she attempts to communicate on a subverbal level, to make simple wants known with … those sounds. Words are essential to the processes of thought, we now believe. Much of our thinking is in word forms. Deprived of the tools of words, the processes become more primitive and simplified: hot, cold, hungry, thirsty.

And of course the novel ends with a hurricane, with results that reinforce the metaphor associating aphasia with a return to pre-human nature:

“What will happen to all this, really?”

“I can make a guess. In time, after everybody gives up, maybe a slow process of condemnation, a lawyer’s permanent festival, and then turn it into a park. A wilderness park. A marine park. […]”

“I see. And there is a bird flying through it. See? Does it know it is trespassing? A wilderness park might be nice, you know. But they should have somebody here to keep people from leaving the beach looking grubby.”


“Look, there is a sort of green fuzz beginning to show above the high-water line, Sam. Things are beginning to grow again. It will be
nice here, you know? I wish there would be huge lush vines growing up these condominium towers some day, like some giant kind of ivy,
so that it would all be like those old Mexican ruins in Yucatan. A park can be a memorial to … I can’t say greed and stupidity, really. There was something else, wasn’t there? A kind of autohypnosis.”

“And human optimism and strange tax advantages. And too much time between hurricanes.”



  1. Rick said,

    July 6, 2021 @ 12:10 pm

    While we're on the topic, I'd also recommend the book Why Buildings Fall Down, by Levy and Salvadori (companion to Salvadori's Why Buildings Stand Up).

  2. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    July 6, 2021 @ 3:13 pm

    My reservations about condo living aside (it seems like you buy a residence but then pay rent to live in your property and have your porch decor policed), what caught my eye was the “wax paper.”

    I grew up in upstate New York, and as far as I recall, we called it “waxed paper.” I checked my kitchen supplies, and noticed — perhaps for the first time — that what I buy is Reynolds Cut-rite Wax Paper. My understanding is that the product is a paper that is infused with or coated with wax, and thus is waxed rather than being made of wax. (Side note: I use less and less of the waxed paper, since many of its functions have been taken over by kitchen “parchment paper.”)

    Waxed paper, as opposed to wax paper, is one of those pairs like “iced tea” and “ice tea,” where there are regional variations and also a big divide between the prescriptivists and the rest of the population.

    [(myl) From ling001, lecture 3:

    Richard Faust, in Columbia Magazine, 11/83, points out that there
    is a historical tendency for the -ed ending to drop in
    commonly-used terms that start out as phrases of the form Verb-ed

    Newer (reduced) Form
    Older Form
    skim milk
    skimmed milk
    popped corn
    roast beef
    roasted beef
    wax paper
    waxed paper
    ice cream
    iced cream
    ice tea
    iced tea
    shave ice (Hawaian dessert)
    shaved ice (?)
    cream corn (informal)
    creamed corn
    whip cream (informal)
    whipped cream


  3. CuConnacht said,

    July 6, 2021 @ 4:22 pm

    Mark Twain thought "iced water" made more sense than "ice water". In Chapters from My Autobiography (1907), chapter 16:

    "In the North and in Europe hot bread is considered unhealthy. This is probably another fussy superstition, like the European superstition that ice-water is unhealthy. Europe does not need ice-water, and does not drink it; and yet, notwithstanding this, its word for it is better than ours, because it describes it, whereas ours doesn't. Europe calls it "iced" water. Our word describes water made from melted ice–a drink which we have but little acquaintance with."

  4. David L said,

    July 6, 2021 @ 4:27 pm

    I still get slightly miffed when I see ads for a 'box set' of CDs or DVDs. But then it's nigh on impossible to say 'boxed set' in a way that clearly conveys you are not saying 'box set' anyway.

  5. Joe Fineman said,

    July 6, 2021 @ 4:53 pm

    In the Stop & Shop supermarket near my home in Malden, MA, the battle between canned goods and can goods is being fought out for all to see. I do not remember specifically which signs go which way, but in the overhead signs labeling the aisles, "can this" and "canned that" are about evenly and randomly mixed. The version without -ed seems to me definitely substandard and perhaps the result of a dialect in which -nd is routinely reduced to -n.

  6. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    July 6, 2021 @ 10:41 pm

    I think I first heard of shaved ice in the 1990s when we were living in Kentucky. It was said to be a Hawaiian innovation, but this undated post by Sunset Magazine says it has Japanese origins:

    Shaved ice–or “shave ice,” as it’s called in Hawaii–is thought to have originated in Japan in the 1860s, where it’s called kakigori. It came to Hawaii with Japanese plantation workers and quickly embedded itself in Hawaiian food culture. Today, it’s served over ice cream and topped with flavored syrups. For the fluffiest ice, use a shave-ice machine (about $35 from You can use a food processor to shave your ice, but it will be clumpier.

    I did think shaved ice was a dish on its own, like a slushie. Serving “shave ice” over “ice cream” combines two reduced forms in one dish. As I recall, the ice in a slushie is more of a ground ice, with a much different texture than properly shaved ice.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 5:24 am

    We British are more resistant to -ed dropping than our American cousins, and have steadfastly refused to adopt "skim milk", "ice tea" or "wax paper", yet we appear to have has few or no reservations concerning the adoption of "roast beef", "popcorn" or "ice cream".

  8. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 10:22 am

    Seems to me that wax paper has a better claim to being made from wax than (say) graph paper has to being made from graphs.

    Then again I guess all paper is carbon paper.

  9. Anthea Fleming said,

    July 8, 2021 @ 6:33 am

    It must be 35 years since I read John D. MacDonald's "Condominium", but recent events vividly reminded me of the section quoted. Also a mention of dirty-coloured horizontal lines in concrete pillars, which indicated failure to clean off the surface before a new concrete pour…
    On the subject of collapsing structures, one should read "The High Girders" on the Tay Bridge disaster. Author is Prebble I think.

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