If the front porch hadn't rotted, I might never have started with this painting thing. Maybe I wouldn't have decided--after more than a decade of ignoring the plaster cracks in the walls, the layers of greasy handprints on the door frames, the sagging, peeling ceilings--to take brush in hand once more. Maybe I'd be lying on a sofa right now reading War and Peace, or at least playing stimulating board games with my daughters, instead of squatting here on this sweltering morning, sweat streaming down my back and into my sticky jeans, trying to reverse a trend
toward household decay that dates from when the first of those daughters came home from the hospital, nearly 13 years ago.
Not that it's really their fault, of course.
The porch in question is attached to a 95-year-old rowhouse on a quiet street in Woodley Park, a couple of blocks from the zoo. We learned the extent of the rot when the young woman living in our basement put a foot through it, creating an unsightly hole, but not, thank God, sustaining any actionable injuries. Months later, we finally got it rebuilt. It was the kind of job that a lot of guys--my father, say, or my brother, who have constructed entire dwellings with their own hands--would have knocked off in a couple of weekends. I know my own limitations, however, so when a friend passed on the name of an excellent carpenter and all-around house doctor, we enlisted his help.
Jim and a partner showed up with a truckful of lumber one Thursday morning, and by Friday night, we had a nonlethal porch again. We also turned them loose on the walls in the upstairs hallways, which looked as though they might start shedding chunks of ancient plaster at any moment. After a few more days of vigorous patching and sheetrocking, I began to fantasize about how good the place might look if we could just keep these guys going for another couple of months.
This was not a real-world scenario, of course.
"Do you want us to do the painting, too?" Jim asked one day. It was clear that he didn't want to: Compared with most of the work he does, it's a boring, low-skill task. As for me--well, at $65 an hour, I didn't really believe I had a choice.
"I think I'd better do it myself," I said, forcing a smile. But even then, part of me was liking the idea. Redemption has to start somewhere, after all.
Sometimes, when I think of my shameful neglect of my homeowning responsibilities, I'm reminded of a pencil drawing I wish I'd bought when I ran across it at an exhibition in 1978. Nicely realized, though slightly amateurish in style, it was called "Hotel Lobby Returning to Nature" and it showed, as I remember it, a marbled room with an elegant chandelier being reduced to rubble by kudzu vines.
The drawing comes to mind again as I contemplate the shrubbery that surrounds the porch, which will have to be cut back before painting can begin. Turns out that if you fail to trim an innocent-looking, scraggly bush for 13 years--and who knew time would go by so fast?--it will end up blocking the view from your second-floor windows.
It's an oven-like Saturday afternoon and I'm just back from Home Depot, where I've bought a small saw with which to attack the bush, along with a hundred bucks' worth of paint and various other necessities. I've picked up a snazzy new 21/2-inch Purdy angled brush, a small canvas dropcloth and a "contractor valu-pack" containing 25 sheets of sandpaper. On impulse I've also shelled out $9.97 for a Shur-Line paintbrush extender, which is the kind of gadget I don't usually believe in, but which may help with an unreachable corner of the third-floor stairwell.
I'd never actually been to a Home Depot before, not much liking to drive to the suburbs to shop, but a new one had just opened on Rhode Island Avenue, and besides, Jim had recommended a brand of deck stain available there. "Did you like it?" the clerk asked as she rang me up, and I had to confess that I had. I'd felt competent and manly browsing the paint department, weighing my choices--though I couldn't help noticing that half the people in the checkout line were women, many loaded down with tools and supplies well out of my skill range. Never mind: As I schlepped my purchases to the parking lot, I was already looking forward to breaking in that new brush.
It's not that I'd forgotten the preparation phase, exactly. But the details of purgatory can sometimes escape the redemption-minded.
I plunge in resignedly, leaving the still-wrapped brush in the bag. Down come huge stalks of the mutant shrubbery, which scratch my arms as I chop them up and stuff them into plastic bags. Out comes a bucket of water laced with Spic and Span, which stings my eyes as I scrub the mildew--most of it, anyway--off the 81 balusters in the porch railing. Off comes the skin from my fingers as I sand those annoying little posts, along with the rest of the railing and the porch deck.
Aaarghhh! Who needs this? After a few hours, I'm ready to throw in the towel and hire some college kid to finish the job. Then the day cools into evening, and a little breeze comes up to dry my sweat, and I start to feel, once again, the sense of physical well-being you get from the kind of work that doesn't involve hunching over a computer screen.
The beer tastes better afterward, too.
The truth is, I love to paint--which makes me wonder, sometimes, why I stopped for so long.
My painting career dates from almost 40 years ago, when I helped my father brighten up our modest Cape Cod-style house in the Boston suburbs. He had chosen an exterior color called Sierra Red--in fact, a shocking blend of pink and orange--for which my mother still has not forgiven him. He taught me to keep my brush full but not too full, to make sure I flowed paint into all the holes and cracks, and to cast my eyes back repeatedly over what I'd done in order to eliminate the evil drips.
These techniques came in handy, in college and beyond, as I successfully avoided commitment and career choice. For two happy postgraduate years, I painted California houses for a living. Since then I've painted a string of my own rented apartments, as well as the first house I ever owned, which was in a state of paint emergency when I acquired it. When Deborah and I bought the Woodley Park house in 1986, it needed some painting, too, though not as much. I managed to redo a couple of really ugly bathrooms, and, before the girls were born, I freshened up a bedroom for each.
After that: nothing. I've been sitting here watching the paint peel.
I have the kind of metabolism, as I soon discovered, that can handle two jobs at once--in this case, earning a living and being a parent--but not three. Kids and work were the priority, so taking care of the house would have to wait. Oh, we talked about how much our domestic happiness would be improved if we could rip out the hideous orange rugs from the hallways and repaint the drab beige walls. We even talked about paying someone else to do it.
But somehow, we never did.
The reason, I've come to understand, is more than the small fortune it would have cost. We didn't replace the rugs because in the natural order of things, the walls should get painted first. And we didn't paint because I simply couldn't bear to hire out the job.
My father, a smart man given to sweeping pronouncements, once opined that the basic need of human beings is to "control their environment." This struck me as so vague as to be indisputable, but I can see now how it relates to my painting paralysis. Yes, I've learned to navigate my complex workplace, for the most part, and yes, I've helped create the kind of psychological milieu that children need. It's the physical that defeats me. I can do nothing with broken air conditioners. I'm hopeless with nonringing doorbells. As for simple plumbing problems, forget it. On a good day, I'm lucky if I can get a toilet to flush.
In sum, I should never have been entrusted with a beautiful old house like this one, and I've let my home environment get hopelessly out of control.
Except, except . . .
I can paint, by gum. And that's what I'm going to do now.
I get up early, to get started while it's still cool. The brush is wonderful, as all good brushes are before they start to clog and stiffen, and the primer goes on smoothly. I paint the inside of the railing, one section at a time, then walk around to catch the drips and finish the outside. After an hour, I realize that I've been hearing only bird song: Not a single car has driven by.
The railing primed, it's time to move inside for a while. The hallway prep hasn't been too bad. With no mildew to deal with, I've skipped the washing phase--a mistake, perhaps, but I'm a great believer in the combined power of sanding and priming. The painting is going to be slow, however. There are nine doors, not to mention the decaying window on the third floor, that will need two coats each. There are high ceilings, which are always fun, and there's that nasty out-of-reach corner.
But that's okay. I'm in my rhythm now. I slide a tape into the boombox and fill my brush. Pretty soon I'm singing along with Jesse Winchester:
Do it till you're sick of it,
Do it till you can't do it no more.
The song is from Winchester's second album, "Third Down, 110 to Go," and it takes me back nearly 30 years. The Vietnam War was still on, John Dean was testifying before the Senate Watergate Committee, and my painting partner and I would listen to the college radio station while we worked, at least when we didn't tune in the Watergate hearings or an Oakland A's game.
I lost touch with that partner after he morphed into an attorney, but lately we've reconnected, and an e-mail he sent me the other day reminded me, indirectly, of one of painting's great pleasures. He was complaining about the fact that he's never been a linear thinker; instead, he's a "jumper," whose thoughts constantly leap "from here to there to elsewhere then back." This can make lawyering difficult. He'll be in some meeting where he's supposed to be digesting complex information and suddenly his brain will click on a moment from a cross-country trip we took in 1973, with specific memories of "the air and the road and the dry mountains we are driving up into." Then he will think, "Come back, Charles" and--reluctantly--return.
I e-mail back, in effect: So what else is new? I think that's the way all our minds work, when we let them. But the wonderful thing about honest labor that doesn't take too many brain cells is that your thoughts are truly free to go where they will.
The doors and the window are all primed now, and I've moved on to one of my favorite parts of the job: outlining the edges of the walls before rolling them. The brush extender turns out to have been worth the investment, though it's really only luck that I don't slop any off-white onto the pure white ceiling.
Meanwhile, the music has me jumping.
"Time!" shout the Chambers Brothers, and I'm back in college, leaning off a dorm-room balcony as the girls downstairs blast rock from their window at midnight. "I'm a fool for a cigarette," chants Ry Cooder, and I'm watching an old friend, newly love-struck, light up in a Cambridge stairwell a few years later. "Turn up your radio," croons Van Morrison, and I'm at "The Last Waltz" with another friend, who won't get old enough to be middle-aged. "She's got everything she needs," rasps Bob Dylan, and--Oops.
There seems to be something wrong with the windowsill I primed yesterday. Maybe it was too hot. Maybe I should have washed it after all.
In any case, the paint didn't take. I can peel off long, rubbery strips with my fingernails.
"You're making me realize just how long these projects take," my neighbor tells me. She's right. It seems like I've been sweating this one out forever. But today, finally, I feel like I'm getting somewhere.
It's my last porch-painting morning, and I've moved on to the finish coat.
Inside, the hallways are ready to roll, so before too long, those sinfully dirty walls will be reborn. I take an irrational pride in my rolling technique--the trick, again, is to use the right amount of paint and to ease the pressure on the roller near the edges so you don't leave lines--though I know that a 10-year-old could master this in half an hour.
By the time I'm done, the woodwork will literally gleam. This will include that recalcitrant third-floor windowsill; for whatever reason, the primer has decided to stick this time. At long last, the hallways will look fit for civilized habitation--and never mind the fact that I haven't yet touched the railing on the staircase, because it's got twice as many of those damned balusters as the porch and I simply cannot face them right now.
But I will! I will!
I'll paint my way down that staircase and turn the corner into the living room, where the ratty old built-in bookcase shouldn't take more than a week or so to refurbish. I'll keep going into the dining room, and maybe we'll get Jim in to build us a new kitchen, if the Dow ever hits five digits again, and hey, if it doesn't, a fresh coat of paint will still do wonders for the old one, even if it takes 10 gallons of Spic and Span to remove the grease.
Taking care of a house, I'm thinking, is like raising kids: a totally daunting task, if you contemplate it in its entirety, but manageable enough if you just take it one step at a time. Lest I be tempted to backslide, though, I've been careful to spill a bit of paint on those orange rugs.
I want to make sure they won't still be here 13 years from now.
Bob Thompson is a Magazine staff writer.