397. Painting the Void

[I can’t write about Joel again until the judge clears me and drops the restraining order. Alas, you don’t know a person until you know him. It required three Boro cops, a canine unit, and a helicopter to get him off me at the Coffee River Junction.]

In other news…

For many years I worked all my summers painting houses and barns and various other structures– garages, sheds, fences, offices, apartments. Anything that stood still. It was a nice counterbalance to teaching the rest of the year, painting prosocial propaganda on the foreheads of tomorrow’s electorate. Once my partner and I painted a flagpole at a cemetery and the gatehouse at the cemetery entrance.  Not sure why a cemetery needed a spruced up look. No one ever visited the old graves except for morose birds and squirrels, or maybe some drunk Satanic Goths at night.

Many painting moments are unforgettable, though I rarely recall them. My memories are compartmentalized, I suppose. So naturally this past weekend as I painted a house to help out a family with a disabled daughter, I must have reopened that old paint story can compartment. The house I was painting is on Riddle Road and faces a large custom built brick house on the circle Riddle Road intersects, maybe three hundred yards away. My former partner and I painted that house decades ago. The owners we worked for are likely dead now. I strained my brain to recall the details, their two German shepherds that snapped at us like we were sweaty burglars made of beef jerky. Still, it’s a nice feeling when you finish sprucing up a finely built home.

The older couple had watched us paint their neighbor’s house that was further along the same circle. They noticed how methodically we burned off old paint; then primed; then carefully applied the final coat. We spent weeks on that glorious old limestone house and its two story garage. All covered in red and green slates from New England. What a fine structure it still is, surrounded by huge white oaks. The owner of the limestone house had seen us painting his neighbor’s house, down  toward Philadelphia Avenue.

So it all started twenty plus years ago, burning paint off Tom B’s stately old house on the corner of Homewood and Philadelphia. He owned rentals all over the county that we had painted cheaply and quickly. Now we were to take our time and prime the wood around his house. Finally we could do a full job that would last and be appreciated. Painting Tom’s rentals felt sort of sleazy since we never cleaned first or sanded or primed. Nope, just slapped on a new coat of paint. Not a good advertisement for one’s ability painting new battleship gray over old battleship gray or covering a barn roof with silver fiber-packed sludge. Big gaps would get filled in with newspaper and steel wool, covered with glazing, and away we painted.

I vividly recall painting around a Victorian farmhouse chimney that held a honeybee hive. Thousands of bees swarmed in and out of a chink hole between bricks. They weren’t stinging me, but I was not comfortable being in their cloud. So I crammed a ball of glazing into their passageway to trap the inside bees inside and then sprayed the outside bees with hornet spray. It was a fire fight, but I eventually gained the upper hand. After the blasting was over, I went back to painting next to the glaze ball that entombed the million bee army. I could hear their buzzing through the wall of glaze. It couldn’t have been more than thirty minutes until they breeched the glaze barrier. Each bee had taken a small bite of the glaze and then stepped away for the next bee to bite. Eventually this army defeated the glaze plug. Let me tell you, they were not happy buzzers when they exited with mouths full of Dap 33. I scrambled off the ladder and applied more wasp spray, then moved my ladder stand to the other side of the house. I imagined gallons of old honey in that chimney that would age for another hundred years, perhaps turning into a potent mead one day.

Painted a couple of houses for blind women. The one would wander outside on her porch and declare, “Looks nice, boys.” Makes you wonder if a tree falls in the woods on two deaf guys who didn’t hear it coming, did it make a sound? And the two dead deaf guys– did they make a sound if no one was around to hear their final squashing screams?  I’m thinking yes to both. Philosophers should get real jobs and stop pondering the imponderable. Maybe paint their houses and not just do graffiti with spray paint, “Why?” and “What is the purpose of life?” on their garage walls.

I think what I enjoy most in the painting business is restoring an old shutter or door to its original lines and look. As you burn off layers upon layers of paint, you find the different colors beneath until you hit the original wood, oozing a little bubbly sap and the piney pitch odor. Time’s grimy grasp is reversed and the process of preservation begins again, prime and paint and caulk. Good as new after 4 or 5 hours of labor.

That’s my life story, I think. I’ve spent a lot of time in my counseling office peeling back layers of hurt and fear and anger that clients come caked inside of. Almost all of them say this, “I want to change.” Not all of them see it through when the heat gets  hot and the scraping begins. Those who do often find a deep beauty in their bones beyond the grasp of their imaginations. Something epiphanous happens when a brave soul realizes he/she is not what has been painted all over them years before. It is both terrifying and liberating to be stripped bare just before starting all over. Finally, though, it is edifying. Go restore something and see for yourself.



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