Earning it: House painting after college

There is something about painting houses in the summer heat that is so satisfying. Every off-season in between college I savored those long work days working with my dad in Washington state.

In Washington, the summers don’t last long, especially in our location west of the Puget Sound, so when it’s there, we took advantage of it.

I can’t tell you what I like about it, only that the interaction between the painter and the house is Zen-like. From the foggy early mornings with a Thermos full of coffee, stretching from ladder to roof with a roller, to the late afternoon warmth with a pint full of beer at the local watering hole. The the success of the day is measured from a tailgate. The forest-hue of Jade Romanesque slowly overcoming the faded sun-battered Wishing Well Violet. The colors are probably made up by old rich guys in a country club, my dad said. Old Glory Blue, New Lime Yellow, Piñata Red.

The colors are never very bright, despite their names. They come out in a slightly gray tone, shimmering at first, and then blending seemlessly back into the neighborhood. The darker the color, the more sun they attract, the more business we get. It’s in these summer months that about half of our business takes place on three-story homes with gorgeous waterfront views.

In the morning, after we pull into the driveway, the homeowners come down from their bedroom balconies in their bathrobes to meet us. They’ve compared and contrasted the colors with visiting neighbors and now they come to us for advice. Confirmation, really. My dad runs the business. It’s not his job to decide what looks good. But a happy client is a happy client.

“I think the Jade Romanesque would look just lovely with the Night Shade on the trim, don’t you think?”

“I think so!” he will say. He could have been a car salesman if he wasn’t so disheveled looking.

For them, Jade Romanesque has a lasting effect. It is exotic sounding (throw in the Night Shade for the mystery). But for Dad, it’s just another color. At the paint store, Benjamin Moore, no one asks for Jade Romanesque. They ask for number 476. The clerk rings them up.

“Jade Romanesque… haha,” they laugh at it.

I’m aware of the dry paint splattered on my sun-tanned forearms and matted in arm hair as I enjoy the air-conditioning in the paint store. The paint is on my shirt and my shorts and my dirty tennis shoes. The “whites” I’m wearing haven’t been washed in at least four months. Their inner-linings feel like a mixture of oil and sawdust. Washing them is a semi-annual ritual for my dad.

When we leave the paint store, lunch is a roast beef sandwich with a small bag of greasy Lay’s potato chips and an old bottle of Aquafina filled with water from the hose. Going back to work afterward is one of the hardest parts of the day. Hydrate often. Keep moving. When the heat of the sun toasts me like a warm piece of bread I know it’s nearing 4 p.m. Pack it up and leave before 5 p.m.

My dad does this every day. I’ve been on the sites enough to work the job myself. Unravelling rolls of tape along window and door frames and carefully pushing a wet paintbrush into all types of surfaces: wood siding, decks planks, drywall, stucco. Some textures take it better than others. Always go with the grain. Keep the paint fluid and moving.

Most of the house is covered with the paint sprayer, wielded by Dad, or his accomplice, Eric. Once it’s on the walls, the paint has to be rolled or brushed in. Eight or nine hours of brushing and rolling and I can feel it in my wrists, up my arms into my anterior deltoid and mid-shoulders.

But it’s all in a day’s work, and when I’m home the things I worried about in college are so many miles away.

I look at my dad. His hands are demented from arthritis. He’s 53, and even though he doesn’t plan on stopping soon, a lifetime of labor is creeping up on him. His clients are often the same age as him. They’re doctors, lawyers, dentists, real estate agents. Recently retired. White collar. From California.

We smile at them, and though we look friendly, we’re laughing at them. It’s the type of humor you acquire after painting houses all your life and listening to the same requests again and again. It comes from driving the same tired pickup to and from work every day; wearing the same distressed, unwashed jumpsuit every day; eating the same lunch every day; brushing the paint onto the house in the same painful stroke every day.

It is not how summer is envisioned. It is often miserable, but it’s a prideful sort of misery that a son and a father can share. It’s the pride of the working class. Maybe this is why I put faith in socialism. After all the years I spent in college, I just can’t see myself in that bathrobe, on that balcony, looking over the palette of colors. For all the sweat, back ache,s and sore arms, the satisfaction of work well done is privy to those who toiled over it.


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