Thursday, September 1, 2005

I drive by night

Behind the wheel with a taxi-driving mama
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Anew Magazine

It’s 4 a.m. Saturday morning. I let myself into the quiet house where my husband and baby slumber. I pull a folded stack of cash from my pocket, count out half and leave it in the center of the kitchen table. He drives, too. And we always split the tips.

I crawl into bed. Images of the past 13 hours flicker and fade as I sink into a sleep that I know will be deep and will only last a few hours.

I started work yesterday afternoon by selecting a car key in the dispatch office and heading to the lot to prep my taxicab for the shift ahead. Tire pressure, wiper fluid, headlamps, signal lights, empty trunk, clean interior – check. I flicked on the dispatch radio, logged onto the onboard data terminal and headed downtown, alert to the radio.

The dispatcher called out a string of intersections representing ride origins. I listened, thinking of a frequent call that comes out of a nearby high school around this time of day, a partially disabled student who rides home clear across town: a nice girl, prompt, and good booking on the meter. No tip – they just don’t happen with calls on social services accounts – but a plum ride, nonetheless.

What’s more, there’s a bartender in her neighborhood who often takes a cab to work right around the time she gets home. A good tipper, like most barkeeps and waitstaffers – gives a twenty for a $15 ride. The two calls together make a lucky combo, though they weren’t mine today.

During the four hours before my first baby break I shuttled a gang of Dutch bicycle executives from hotel to mall, an urban-landscape planner from office to car repair shop, seniors to fish fries, and, Lord help us, a guy from a tavern to the state Capitol Square. The early drunks – those are the surreal ones.

“Name anything you want to hear a poem about!”

“The moon,” I suggested.

“That’s good! Ahem. Placidly, vociferously, without surreptition… The empathetical vacuity awaits the… the… Wait. OK. Moon. OK. Here it is. The seashore magic of the… the… What was the poem about?”

The poem never was completed. He tipped $10 to make up for it.

I hit the road again around 8 p.m., after nursing and playing with the baby. Haven’t had to pump since quitting that office job. Nice. My husband’s homemade stew fueled the hours ahead.

Lots of rides back from fish fries. Then, a tavern call to the ER. Uh-oh. Bar fight? No – bicycle wreck, and the fellow needed stitches. He had walked to the closest establishment with a phone; it happened to be a bar. Whew.

After that, the radio was silent. I cruised to the airport and queued up behind a dozen other taxis. The 45-minute wait was excruciating. We don’t get hourly pay. Only a share of the meter, and tips.

Three uniformed flight attendants and a pilot piled into the cab ahead of me. Again, whew. Flight crews never, never tip. Once I even dared say it – “They say flight crews don’t tip, ha, ha!” – just to see what would happen. “Ha, ha!” laughed the pilot. “My passengers don’t tip me, either!”

My ride: a friendly Australian couple to a pricey downtown hotel. They were taking a months-long trip around the States, instead of their usual annual months-long European vacation, they said. The man handed me a twenty saying, grandly, “Just give me two back.” A $1.25 tip.

I should have known, but I’m always floored. Fancy vacation = crummy tip. Other bad-tip predictors: old mansions, new construction, verbal promises of a wonderful tip, praise for being “the best cab driver ever” and – mysteriously – somber, whispering couples.

After the second baby break, midnight. Empty streets. Many stop lights set to blinking. Perfect for shuttling bar-hoppers from one watering hole to the next. For taking folks to that next party. For gliding back downtown fast after delivering folks home.

Bar time was most exciting, with plentiful rides. But also riskiest. I screened carefully for possible troublemakers – and pukers. “Hi, what’s your name?” I would ask, reading body language and checking against my data terminal. “Where ya headed?” Wrong answers: “Just unlock the *!#&#! door!” “Hey! A girl! Let’s party!” and “Uhhhhhh....”

Best were the jolly, comfortably tipsy, groups of friends. The ones who told each other “I love you,” and “Take care, sweetie,” at ride’s end. And the ones who said, “Let’s give the cabby some more tip.”

Their faces and voices fading lightly from my mind, I drifted to sleep, looking forward to the next shift.

Home in the Highlands

Highlights of the Symphony Designers Showhouse 2005 By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach In ANEW Magazine September 2005 Suppose over a dozen of the area’s most talented interior designers offered to make your home unimaginably fabulous for free: they’ll descend upon your house, bestowing their full range of creativity and skills, repainting and decorating everything from mud room to master bath and in between, and you’ll get the option to buy, or not, whatever furnishings and objets d’art they place. Ooh, la la, right? But now suppose this means you and your brood can’t live there for the several weeks or months it’ll take the design teams to do their thing. And that thousands of people will come streaming through your abode for a 10-day period, just a-partyin’ and a-gawkin’. Would you take the bait? This summer one pair of Madison homeowners did just that. Ellyn and Dan Mohs entrusted the decor of their just-purchased house in the West side’s Highlands neighborhood to the capable hands of the 13 design studios participating in the 14th Symphony Designers Showhouse presented by the Madison Symphony Orchestra League. And this month you’ll have the chance to feast your eyes on one of the most glorious remodels around during the open-house hours and the cavalcade of special events the MSOL has conjured up, with complete house tours accompanied by refreshments, live music, fine cooking demonstrations, craft beer tastings and more. (See sidebar.) MSOL volunteers orchestrate a Showhouse every other year, in addition to their many other educational and social projects. The 1,500 to 2,000 visitors who visit each Showhouse typically bring in about $20,000 in donations for the MSO.

How does a home become a Showhouse? “Someone in the league usually hears of a special house being built or renovated with interesting features that would attract an audience,” explains Jean Peterson, the MSOL volunteer who is chairing the publicity for the event. “And then hopefully the owners are willing to participate.” Each design team gets one room to do up. The goal is to show off their talents, present the cutting edge of interior design, and give showgoers inspiration and ideas for their own home projects. Ideally, they also strive to create an environment where the Showhouse owners will feel comfortable and at home for years to come. That means coordinating their plans with each other, so that all the rooms work together as an integrated whole. It also means working with the homeowners to understand what they want, to establish a direction for the overarching style, look and feel of the place. 

Ellyn Mohs describes the experience of working at the hub of so many skilled professionals and craftspeople: “Really busy. Pretty crazy, with so many deadlines and decisions.” Ellyn previously worked for a condominium company at Bishop’s Bay as a liaison between builders and home buyers, “but I’ve never done anything on this scale,” she says. Ellyn and Dan, an executive in his family’s business, Placon Thermoformed Products (an international resource for plastic containers headquartered in Madison) knew they would need some updates to the 1940 house before moving in. Working with Architectural Network, Inc. and Thomas Zimmer Builders to optimize the structure for their 21st century family, which includes two children aged six and seven – and one big dog – the Mohs soon saw their plans snowball into a major renovation. After the MSOL approached them with the Showhouse idea, the project escalated in scope to include design and decoration on top of the architectural changes, rewiring and new plumbing already in the queue. Now there was a deadline, too: the September 8 Showhouse Preview Party. The Highlands house for many years housed the family of George Icke, one of Madison's foremost builders during the 20th century. Mr. Icke died in 2003 at the age of 92. “Our main vision was, we wanted to maintain the integrity of the property,” says Ellyn Mohs. “We wanted to maintain the 1940s look, but make it more in line with us. How we live.” 

The changes to the exterior alone are nothing short of dramatic. A two-car garage has been attached to the side of the house. Space has been added to the second story, and the house now sports a second major peak. The original, modest entrance way has been walled up and a set of double doors under a portico now welcomes visitors into a soaring double-storied foyer. But in keeping with the Mohs’ goal, the transition between old and new appears seamless, both literally and figuratively. The new cream-colored brick magically matches the old, and the additions enhance the quiet elegance of the 65-year-old design. Inside, the house has been tricked out with the latest luxuries: three surround-sound systems – one on every floor (University Audio) – Sub-Zero refrigerators, a fully-equipped exercise room with a full-wall mirror, flat-screen plasma televisions in the living room and the master bedroom. In a creative twist, the laundry room is upstairs, handy to the bedrooms. Solid Brazilian walnut laid down in a range of deep, glowing hues provides flooring throughout much of the first story. But the interior renovation is far more radical than that; it was taken down to the very studs and completely re-envisioned. 

“People were surprised we didn’t just tear it down and build a new house,” says Mohs. “But we didn’t want to do that. We just couldn’t resist this property, though we knew it needed a lot of work. We just wanted to update it to our lifestyle.” Gone now are the small closets and bathrooms, the maze-like hallways of an earlier era. Blunt separation by walls on every side and narrow access through closeable doors are essentially a thing of the past for the common areas. Sandra Belozercovsky of Design Forward LLC worked on the lighting and other visual elements of the new kitchen, a roomy space with plenty of access to the living room, dining room and backyard. Design Forward also worked on other rooms throughout the house. She explains the appeal of what’s known as an open floor plan for today’s families. “You use the whole house at once, or at least, it feels that way. You can see into the other areas. You no longer have so many formal, separate rooms, like a formal living room, a formal sitting room.” Use is more casual, and more inclusive of the whole family, too. “When I was a kid, there would be whole rooms that were off limits for kids,” remembers Mohs. “We don’t want that.” For starters, consider the kitchen. “The kitchen is where people hang out these days,” says Mohs. But in the original kitchen, a small room near the front of the house, that wasn’t possible. “It was a tiny kitchen,” she says of the space that’s been transformed into her personal study (Zanders Interiors). Grass-textured wallpaper and a rust-red office chair give it a lively, contemporary feel today , but its sequestered location – perfect for a private space – makes it hard to imagine as a kitchen choice nowadays. 

Paul Dybdahl of Dybdahl’s Classic Kitchens and Cabinets talks about how the new kitchen was designed expressly with the Mohs in mind. “Ellyn wanted to take more advantage of the backyard,” he says of the move to the back, near the door to the screened-in back porch. “My favorite room in the house,“ she says. A mini-fridge for beverages is installed under a counter near the back door but out of the main workflow area of the kitchen. “During family play time, kids can run in and grab juice without disrupting anything, without even approaching the main refrigerator. That’s good for energy use," Dybdahl adds. For Dan, who “likes to do a lot of chopping, vegetable prep, that sort of thing,” the kitchen island is the main work area, and it’s topped with mesquite wood from Texas. “The whole island is a cutting board,” says Dybdahl, who first saw this use for mesquite at a recent trade show. “Nobody’s heard of it yet. It’s a very, very, hard, very dense wood. Ellyn wanted a work table they could chop on.” But Dybdahl needed to coordinate with the cherrywood cabinets he was installing. He recalls his thought process: “Well, we can look at maple and have it stained darker. Or there’s teak, but as that ages, it goes to gray. Then I got an idea in the corner of my mind, how about that mesquite?” This surface will naturally age to a “deep reddish brown, almost rosewood-like,” he explains, “very similar to the cherrywood.” Deep sage walls and celadon tile, in the minty hue of classical Asian porcelain, play against the cherrywood for a warm, substantial feeling in the kitchen, evoking the natural color scheme of the woods outdoors.

The creamy-colored tumbled limestone flooring, carved into a rectangular brick pattern, resonates with the house’s exterior and provides a magnificently durable, easily cleaned surface that only improves with age. Its comfortably worn look makes for a sturdy, Old World atmosphere. Handy features built into the island include a vegetable and rice steamer and a slot for waste. In general, the layout facilitates Ellyn and Dan cooking side by side, as they like to do, and feels connected to the kids’ play space. “If you interview your customer properly, you know how to lay out your kitchen,” says Dybdahl, who says he has enjoyed working on his first Showhouse. “It’s going to be a wonderful home.” he says.

The living room is done in neutral tones for “a Zen quality, very relaxing,” according to designer Phil Levy (Phillip Levy Fine Furniture & Interior Design, Inc.), and the style is “quite contemporary.” A plasma TV above the fireplace sports a contemporary arts screen saver. Ample windows look into the yard, and the relaxed, spacious feeling is enhanced by the way the room opens to the kitchen. This is Levy’s seventh Showhouse. “It’s really a treat,” he says. “This house is great fun. It’s fun to work with all the other designers – an opportunity to get to know them and work with them. Even though we get one room apiece, the whole house has to coordinate.” This room was added several years ago as a four-seasons space, but only during this renovation was it fully integrated into the house for complete insulated comfort. “It was the logical place for a living room,” says Ellyn. “Everyone who came here said, ‘Wow, what a nice room!’ But functionally, it was freezing cold. Now it doesn’t have that add-on feel anymore.”

The second story was extended above the living room, creating the master bedroom suite, another major departure from the former floor plan. Alan Boehmer (Alan Boehmer Interior Design) collaborated with lighting specialists Design Forward on the master bedroom suite, a stunning array of rooms accessed through a doorway off the top of the stairs. The bedroom itself is around a bend and up steps within the suite. A bracing ice blue continues above the walls and partly up a nave-like pitched ceiling, between a white gridwork of molding. The blue bedclothes adorn the dark walnut bed. Boehmer describes the look as “American. Not English, Italian or French. Clean lines. Fresh colors. Not at all cluttered.” Tilework in the master bath, a spacious walk-in closet for Dan and a cozy, windowed dressing room for Ellyn complete the suite.

Perhaps the most drama is to be found in Dan’s office (Decker-Cole Interiors) on the first floor, a traditionally styled gentleman’s study cased lavishly in cherrywood complete with a sunbathed reading nook. Walls of indigo are set off by cherry panels. A wood-mantled fireplace and handsome furniture and accents in upholstered in wines, deep blues and golds come together for the manliest variety of staid Victorian opulence. These are just some of the splendid features that have come together in this venerable house, happily remade into a home once again through the artisanry and craftsmanship of talented professionals working together.

Fortunately, we all have the opportunity to enjoy their creations through part of September during the Showhouse hours – and to raise money for the artistic talents of the Madison Symphony Orchestra at the same time. What could be a better housewarming?

Symphony Designer Showhouse 
The Showhouse will be open for tours Sept. 9–18, 2005 Monday–Saturday 10 a.m.–4 p.m. and Sunday 1 p.m.–5 p.m. Wednesday, Sept 14 it will be open till 7 p.m. Call (608) 257-3734 x232 for tickets. Admission is $15 per person or $10 for groups of 10 or more. A $100 Patron Ticket includes raffle ticket for a Wolf Barbecue Grill and almost all special events. See for details on the many special events planned, including the Showhouse Preview Party Thursday, Sept. 8, 5–7 p.m. ($30 admission), featuring wine, hors d’oeuvres and music from the Michael BB Trio. Mention ANEW magazine to get an extension past the official Sept. 1 reservation deadline!