Making Lemonade out of a Lemon

by Emily Torgrimson

The 1998 Sunlite looked like the perfect trailer for Eat for Equity’s great American road trip. From the looks of it, we could slap on some paint, reupholster the cushions [as my brother pointed out, trailer design lags at least a decade behind home decor trends], and hit the road running.

But then we started work, and discovered that what had seemed like one soft spot in the floor – was actually widespread rot. The previous owners did a great job of covering it up, putting wood paneling over the warped vinyl, replacing the water-logged composite board with solid plywood only in the few square feet where you could walk [and not, say, under the perimeter of the trailer, under the seats or the bunk bed or the stove].

And so we started gutting, not fully realizing that by the time we were through, we would have gutted and replaced all of the floor joices and about 80% of the wall studs. I told myself there was no point in complaining to the dealer – we had already torn much of it apart in order to see the full scope of the damage – and I didn’t see us getting our money back.

And I started to get angry – at the previous owners, at the dealer, at myself. Going into this, my worst fear was buying a lemon. This trailer was both the biggest purchase of our organization and a representation of my big dream for Eat for Equity, to take our model on the road, from town to town across the country.

While tearing off layer after layer of plywood and studs saturated with black mold, I had visions of the many ways the trailer could have killed us – from the sides or roof collapsing in on us, to falling through the floor, to unknowingly breathing in mold day after day. I honestly wasn’t quite sure how it hadn’t collapsed thousands of miles ago.

But we charged ahead, organizing work weekends with an amazing crew of volunteers, to both tear down and build back up this tiny house on wheels. We knew going in that we’d have to put in some elbow grease – we’d lined up a general contractor, Lynn Tienter, and a designer, Matt Sand with Rogue Arc, who were donating their time and skills to the project.

After months of work on the trailer, I finally called our dealer. I realized that by not telling them what was going on, I had made the decision for them. I had preemptively assumed that since they weren’t legally obligated to do anything, they wouldn’t. And in deciding to call the dealer, I was backing off that assumption, being vulnerable, and giving the dealer the opportunity to make his own choice to not help, or help.

I know my call caught him off guard, but he surprised me more. After a long conversation, our dealer told me he wanted to help make it right, and offered to have his employees put in a couple days worth of work on the trailer. I only half believed him, until he called back a half an hour later to tell me he meant what he said, that if it took two days or a week, he and the dealership would help us get our trailer road-ready.

The trailer surprises me at every turn – from moments of unexpected disappointment to moments that reaffirm my faith in friends and complete strangers. It continues to be an opportunity for us to tap our incredible and skilled community – and engage volunteers who are more comfortable slinging a hammer than slicing onions. Coming back from one work weekend full of gutting and troubleshooting, my friends said, “That was so much fun!” Meanwhile, I’m in the backseat remembering the hours we spent literally jacking up the roof so that the sides wouldn’t completely fall off, thinking, “Were we at the same weekend?” I’ve learned so much from the people in our network who know how and love to build things – thanks to them, I’m learning how to build a tiny house.

This process has been humbling – it’s forced me to take on new skills and ask for help. The process has been grounding – it’s forced our organization to take our time and make sure our structure [both trailer and organizational] is solid before we hit the road.  And the process has been an ongoing lesson in reaching out and giving people the opportunity to give and to surprise you.

Thank you to the following people who’ve helped so far:
Sam Bardwell, Jesse Eustis, Matthew Hauck, Jen Pelletier, Nancy Rosenbaum, Matt Sand, Lynn Tienter, Josh Tolkan, John Torgrimson, Pat Torgrimson, Neale Torgrimson

If you or someone you know might be interested in joining us to work on the trailer or donate materials, please let us know – we would love to have you!