I started painting out of desperation and luck, really.
I was in Montreal. It was 2006 and I had just graduated from university. I needed a job. I needed an off-the-books job, too, since I was an illegal alien, an American in Canada. So Axel told me his window-washing company was hiring and I went into the office for an interview, hungover, where I was told that they were hiring painters as well as window washers, and asked if I would prefer to paint houses or wash their windows. I preferred the former and, in due course, lied about my painting experience–said that I was okay with ladders and heights (I was most definitely not okay with either one of them), and that I knew what I was doing. Jack, the foreman, a Pollack with a cough, met me the next day at 6:30 in the morning outside of a metro stop, drove me to the paint store to buy some hand tools, and realized right away, I’m sure, that I didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing. But he also knew that I showed up on time, that I had a bicycle and a working knowledge of public transportation in Montreal, and that I needed a job. So he kept me on, I learned how to paint, how to climb ladders, the job. And then I left Montreal at the end of that summer, and Jack bought me a bottle of Glenfiddich to say good luck.
I got to Portland. Oregon. On my second day there I up and got a job painting houses again, figuring “Fuck it,” figuring I’d finish the season and go from there. Elsewhere. To not painting houses. But then a weird thing happened, and I continued to paint and continued to paint, because the only other jobs I had when I wasn’t painting paid absolutely nothing, and I didn’t want–don’t want–to get paid absolutely nothing. Not unless it’s a labor of love, you know? But, on second thought, I already get paid nothing for plenty of those. I don’t need another.
I met plenty of great people painting, too. Don’t knock painters. Hey, you: some of my best friends are painters. Hey, you: it’s true.
What can you do?
(That was a poem.)
(It wasn’t really a poem.)
I said, when I was leaving Oregon, when I was finishing that house in Northeast Portland–when Dan and Joe and I were buttoning it up, fixing little mistakes, calling it good–that it was the last house I ever would paint, until my own. I rendered this prophecy false the minute I packed all of my painting tools into my car for the crosscountry trip. That action said, “You will, actually, paint more houses before you paint your own.” And so I have.
The funny thing about painting, though–and the one thing I think most people completely misunderstand–is that it’s not boring. It’s never boring, really. Painting is mostly solving problems, and solving problems is fun. Sure, some of the problems are rote, and some of the answers unglamorous, but the feeling of satisfaction is still there when a problem is solved. Why? I don’t know. It might have something to do with being able to see, with your very two eyes, what you have accomplished in the span of eight hours. Aha I have changed the color of this whole huge wall today with a weenie roller and a three-inch block brush. Fanatastic, I have repelled down a sixty-foot-wall from a static line tied to another line hung between two trees and made this peak green instead of beige.*
So, like, today. Take today, for example. What did I do today? What did a painter do today? He stayed in one color–red–all day. I painted window trim and half of a crown on two sides of a house–all day. Because the house is old, all of the trim work is gnarly and bulbous and complicated. Strange millages of paint make obstacles to tight-itude plentiful and straight lines elusive. But it’s fun. You still go for the straight lines, because you’ve got pride, and you get to go up on a ladder and inspect the previous tradesperson’s work, and assess their pride, or the pride they take in their work. And then you get to outdo them. That corner is sloppy? You pull a Chicago Turn on the motherfucker. That line isn’t straight? You do the Swoosh-and-Slide.**
You make it look, in other words, unlike the piece of garbage all of your prep work has made it out to be, splotchy and scarred and Saturday morning. You make it look like a house again. You make it look like it can survive the winter. Which it can. Cause you just painted the son of a bitch, and it looks like a princess.
You make it look like a princess.
*Dan actually repelled down the wall, not me, but I was there. And the only reason I didn’t have to do it was because Dan lost the coin flip. And Will set it up. I forgot to mention that. Will’s an arborist, so there was no bullshit or anything like that: all the ropes were legit. Wow. It’s amazing what more you find yourself having to say in a footnote.
** Both of those are painting “moves” that every painter does but no painter names. In Montreal, we named them. Goddamn, that was a good summer.