An excerpt from Ladder Memory: Stories from the Painting Trade by Mark Ellis.
“This is one of our disadvantaged client locations,” Kyle Hurst, managing director of the Outreach Community Development program, told me over the phone. It was February, and brutally slow, so I agreed to take a look. On the morning of our meeting, I grabbed a coffee and doughnut from the sullen checker at the gas station next door and waited in the portico for Kyle’s white van to pull up.
Sanford Arms was an old four-story apartment building sandwiched between an Arco mini-mart and a martial arts studio at a busy city intersection. The brick was distressed, the white tile inlays stained, and the portico tired. Kyle had explained about the state ordinance which required that the building be retrofitted with a sprinkler system, which had to be primed and painted to match the ceilings after installation.
Looking in the front windows, I saw that the sprinkler system install was complete; the various pipes, clamps, nozzles and junction boxes were attached and transected the twelve-foot ceiling in the main hallway. Should a fire occur, the building would be drenched to its old plaster skin in city water. There wasn’t much to paint in terms of surface area, just hundreds of feet of pipe and all the gadgets connected to it. The biggest worry would be that drops of paint might lodge in the nooks and crannies of the system and splatter onto the carpet. With two guys and big sheets of plastic, I could see priming and painting one of the four main floor hallways each day. That left the rooms themselves.
“We’re going to have you look at a vacant unit and extrapolate,” Kyle said as he bustled in with his briefcase and a stack of flyers. “So we don’t have to unnecessarily bother the tenants.”
I followed him, pleased that he assumed I knew what extrapolate meant. Standing in an untenanted ground-floor apartment, I factored that two guys could complete four such units a day. At that point a Mexican American gentleman came through the door, and Kyle introduced him as Raphael, the building’s live-in manager and tenant affairs liaison. We shook hands and he left.
Back under the front portico, with noontime traffic at a fever pitch in the intersection, Kyle gave me the fax number to which I should send my bid. “Just make sure you don’t paint over the sprinkler heads,” he admonished as he turned and walked toward his official looking van. Kyle was the picture of a young, idealistic, philanthropically-minded urban professional. I had done several jobs for the Outreach Center, including the main office where Kyle worked. On his way to his rounds each day, he had nice things to say. I had the feeling that he already knew that he was going to award me the sprinkler contract.
I heard a loud voice, someone yelling back in the main hallway beyond the glass doors behind me. I turned and saw that a man had entered the apartment building through the back. I couldn’t make out his words, but the anger in his voice, an aggrieved sense of having been wronged, was clear. He seemed to be focusing his ire on one particular ground-floor apartment door. Raphael stepped from that apartment and seemed, from my vantage, to instantly go into a conciliatory mode. His arms opened, his brow furrowed, and his lips moved, explaining something gently to the distraught man.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit to a few second thoughts about the job at that point. What was I getting into, a madhouse? Still, I needed the twenty-one hundred bucks. I prepared and faxed my bid. My advance check of seven hundred fifty dollars arrived in the mail that week, along with some materials about the Outreach Program, some tax forms, and a note from Kyle: We need you to start ASAP.
With custom repaints, my niche, I mostly dealt with relatively affluent people. I was not quite prepared for the denizens of Sanford Arms. As my helper Jason and I started in the hallways, him with a quick-dry primer and me following about fifteen minutes later with white enamel, we watched the residents leave their apartments for the morning and began to understand what Kyle meant when he talked about assisted living. Most of the folks were obviously mentally ill. I had contracted to work at a kind of halfway house, halfway between the streets and an institution.
Some of the tenants were overly friendly and others openly hostile to our presence. A second man became irate outside Raphael’s door one day, apparently having gotten the flyer announcing the upcoming need for the painters to have access to each room. One woman walked right past Jason and said plain as day, “Fuck you for pot.” Jason wasn’t known for his sophisticated women, but he’d never heard that line before.
“Don’t even think about it,” I said, ready to enter the first of the rooms.
In Apartment 110, the walls, ceilings—all available surfaces—were papered with images of the male sex organ. Nobody was home, and we got in and out.
“This is going to be strange, dude,” I said to Jason.
And it was. Some of the looks we got were so dirty that I actually thought a couple of times that I’d go through a door and be shot. In one unit a woman talking on the phone acted out through the entire two-hour painting process, talking manically to the person on the other end of the line. Another unit stood out for being tastefully furnished and scrupulously clean.
On the second day of working on the actual rooms, a disheveled woman answered the door of a corner apartment facing the back wall of an adjacent building, and the most fetid reek imaginable wafted into the hallway. I found Raphael and told him, “No way.” He went up and found that her toilet had not been running, but that she had gone on using it for a week, afraid to complain.
Finally we entered one unit that caused a pang of both sympathy and fear in me, although I don’t know if Jason shared it. It was the most rudimentary form of survivalist living, devoid of any semblance of personality or style: a bedroll on the floor, some meager food in the kitchen, and a few turned over boxes.
The last day came, and it was time for the top floor rooms. Everything went smoothly, and we were on course for completion until Raphael met us coming back from lunch and told us not to paint Apartment 430. He asked if we could please leave that final unit till the next morning, when we would meet Kyle for final inspection.
We were on a roll, having perfected the art of sprinkler-system painting down to the millisecond, so I didn’t want to stop one unit shy of completion. That meant I’d have to drag Jason back out and get the two set-ups going for one ninety minute job. But from what I’d seen of the Sanford Arms residents, I figured that Raphael had his good reason.
That night I tallied up my bills and realized that the entire Outreach check was already spent. Jason commiserated, as he was getting less than one hundred dollars a day from this corporate nonprofit contract that seemed to be living up to its name. Kyle had intimated that there might be more work available, but if it was going to be more of same I wasn’t sure. It helped when we saw Kyle waiting in the lobby with Raphael the next morning, a crisp-looking envelope in his hand. I knew what that meant.
“There are just a couple of places,” he said, authorizing Raphael to point out the touch-up, which was mostly a matter of a few places that had been primed but not painted.
We followed Raphael around, revisiting units, including the phallic-papered one—still no sign of the tenant—and within the half hour, we were on the fourth floor ready for 430. I’d lost track of Kyle when we went on the touch-up run and was surprised when he answered the door.
“We’re ready for you now.”
The very second we entered the darkened, shade-drawn rooms something became apparent to this painter’s eye. I could have noticed the glossy Star Trek poster over the mantle first, meticulously matted in a futuristic frame, or the huge fish tank, teaming with tropical fish. I might have noticed that unlike the other tenants of Sanford Arms, with their cut-rate and often pathetic belongings, this particular client had thousands of dollars invested in top-shelf electronics equipment. Instead, I noticed something else right off. The woodwork in the apartment had never been painted.
In every other unit we had visited, the wood had been plastered over with coat after sloppily applied coat of oil-based enamel. Turn-around coats, the housing industry calls them, the kind of perfunctory cleanup coats landlords apply every time an apartment changes hands. Throughout Sanford Arms, the moldings had been painted almost into obscurity, the form practically lost under the slathered coats. Doors stuck, cabinets couldn’t close, and windows couldn’t open—pretty standard stuff. But not in 430. There, the original cured mahogany still shone, glowing grainy and lustrous by the light of space-age lamps occasioned around the rooms. Exquisitely joined trim, its varnish aged a deep red-brown against the paper-colored plaster.
“Check out this trim,” I whispered to Jason, but he had his eyes on the bedroom door. It would be necessary to go there, as all bedrooms were equipped with a sprinkler head.
When it was time, Kyle knocked on that door and introduced the man, John, who was sitting on the top level of a bunk bed. John looked at us, smiled, and even said hello. He seemed fine. He was in his early forties, I guessed, but it struck me that he seemed somehow immature, like a shy and slightly devilish young boy. This impression was strengthened by the U.S.S. Enterprise wall clock over his desk, and a picture-perfect replica of Captain Kirk’s phaser gun on a stand on the beautiful oversized mahogany windowsill.
I positioned the ladder for Jason and his primer. It became apparent John was going to stay put during the painting, a bit uncomfortable for Jason because the top bunk put John directly at knee level while Jason worked off the ladder. There was nothing I could do while Jason primed, so I left him with John and went back out into the living room. Kyle handed me my check.
“You did a good job,” he said, leaving the impression that it was about more than just the painting this time. It occurred to me that Outreach might have difficulties finding painters who could sensitively handle this work environment.
I met Jason in the doorway and asked how our customer was doing.
“Seems fine to me,” he said with the look of a guy who’d seen enough and wanted to get back to the lazy-day suburbs and paint some eaves.
As I put the final coat on John’s bedroom sprinkler, I felt not only a sense of finality but also that I was in the room of perhaps the most special of Sanford Arms’ special needs people. There was almost a divine-savant aura around him as he watched from his bunk—something about his Vulcan smile and perfect harmony with his space-opera environment. Perhaps soon he would be able to pack up his Star Trek collectables and lazy-swimming fish and move out of assisted living and into the community at large.
Time moved quickly, which was good since Kyle wasn’t leaving and Raphael was near the doorway. My sense that John was Sanford Arms’ star resident, a kind of paragon for those caught halfway between confinement and independence, was to be short-lived. I understood then that they would not leave us alone with him. That last section of the system, with John beatifically ensconced on his bunk, was done in a flash.
After Kyle left, as we were putting our stuff in the van, I asked Raphael why the trim work in 430 had never been painted. It turned out that that particular unit’s woodwork had been unpainted when Outreach bought the building during the boom-boom eighties, twenty-two years before.
“John was the original tenant,” he said, “and we only paint when somebody moves.”
Excerpted from Ladder Memory: Stories from the Painting Trade
photo: zouny / flickr