Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Paint Whisperer: Disaster and Rescue

The axis of evil in the house-painting trade: toxic liquids, divided attention and gravity. Not quite as deadly a trifecta as angry red-neck, cheap tequila and large automobile; not as insidious as uneducated citizen, PAC money and partisan TV ad … but still quietly awesome in its own way.

Here are some of my favorite paint calamities …and the inspired emergency responses that saved the day (or at least the final payment on the job)

The most common involve a bucket of paint tipping over on a redwood deck. Usually there’s a drop-cloth under the bucket, but unless the drop is backed with vinyl, the paint will soak right through (think: red wine through a silk table cloth). These calamities are also time sensitive, since the owner or the General Contractor could show up at any moment. The normal response is just to stare at the white puddle in dumb-founded panic. This is not the best clean-up strategy. It wastes precious seconds, and even without the imminent arrival of disapproving employers of one sort or another, every second counts. Paint is drying, soaking into the grain. ‘setting up’, doing its job. The solution, and this applies to any porous surface – bricks for instance, or cedar roof shingles – is dirt and paint thinner. Cleaning up with dirt – every kindergarten boy’s dream. But the dirt absorbs the paint and the thinner breaks it down. You get filthy, you waste several pounds of rags and a few quarts of mineral spirits (It’s always good to have several pounds of rags and a quart or two of mineral spirits on hand for just this purpose), you get a killer fume-headache …but it works. A friend of mine who didn’t understand this simple technique wound up digging out and turning over every brick in five square feet of sidewalk one summer morning. This was unnecessary and kind of crazy. It did work, though. An idiot who worked for me tried this system on grass – not a good idea. The grass got clean, but to call that a ‘superficial view’ of the situation is charitable at best – kind of like giving the Wicked Witch of the West a nice hot bath. The thinner soaks into the soil and kills everything. In that case we had to dig up a giant patch of lawn and dirt and re-sod the whole area before the customer showed up. This is a guy who looked at a can of Benjamin Moore “Navajo White” trim paint and said “What does Nava-joe mean?” You may say – well, sure, he was a house painter. Did you expect him to have an advanced degree? Well, everyone on my crew does, these days. That MFA in writing really helps when you have to improvise. And we all know that painting is a job, but the painting on your wall is a gerund. You can’t put a price on that.

A friend of mine slopped some paint into a new cedar roof. He took thinner and rags and spread it out over the whole surface, effectively ‘pickling’ the shingles. It sounds crazy, but so does punching a shark in the nose.

Years ago a summer kid was using a white pigmented shellac product called Bin to seal the knots on some second-storey trim. He had the quart can on the window sill, the window was open, there was beautiful couch right inside …and you can probably feel your stomach rolling already. The situation has a cartoon inevitability to it. And things get even better: we were at the far end of our little island, with no solvent alcohol on hand; that’s what you use to thin or clean up Bin. Oh, and in case you were wondering: this was before cell-phones. We were on our own in the middle of nowhere. The quart went over into the house, spilling white paint all over the couch. I thought we were doomed, but my boss knew a few things that I didn’t know. He had snooped the house and knew the owners had stocked it against some nameless emergency, with cans of soup, and bags of flour and other staples, shelved in the basement. Among the supplies were several cases of white vinegar … which he somehow knew was a viable solvent for shellac. This guy was old school: he didn’t panic, he just started shouting orders, while the crew dashed out to the van for rags and into the basement, up the stairs, racing against time: nothing dries as fast as Bin. That’s why carpenters like it so much. We flooded that couch, and cleaned it, and shampooed it … and got away with it.

I know it sounds like fun, but don’t try this at home, kids. This stuff is for professional stooges only.

The first dozen times paint catastrophes happened I freaked out; but I’ve gradually learned to take control of the situation and try to fix it, however hopeless things seem. Last summer we were painting a big house on one of the main streets in town, next door to an expensive restaurant. I had given a bid to the restaurant owner for his paint job, but he is spectacularly, radically, famously, comically cheap (He has a house in Montpelier and ignores the great restaurants there to eat at the Vermont College cafeteria, crowing that it’s “the best deal in town!”). He took my bid mainly to gloat over the money he was saving by using his dishwashing staff to do the work for minimum wage. They made a number of basic mistakes: painting with full buckets, not using vinyl-backed drop cloths, and not being careful about ladder placement. One of them set a step-ladder at the top of the steps, on the little deck by the front door. One leg was dangling in the air and when he started to climb, the whole thing went over, spilling oil paint on the stairs, the shingles and the bricks. His response: to run away, in his paint soaked sneakers. Working next door, I screamed at him to stay still. My friend and I swung into action – with the usual thinner and rags and plenty of dirt. We had it all cleaned up before the owner arrived. Weeks later, and I mean weeks, the thought occurred to me that we should have just let them try to fix it themselves: it would have been an excellent lesson for the cheapskate in the value of hiring professionals. But in the moment none of that mattered. Twenty years of dealing with these calamities had created a kind of lizard brain reflex in both of us. We could no more not clean up a paint spill than we could not take a breath coming up from under water. I thought we’d gotten away with it, too. But I saw the restauranteur at my next VCFA residency, waiting on line at the cafeteria. He winked and said “Thanks for the clean up.” His smile seemed to say “I’m cheap but I’m not stupid.”

But don’t get me wrong, this stuff can happen to anyone. One of the most experienced painters I know – from a family of painters – did exactly the same thing on the deck of what was, at that time, the most expensive house on Nantucket. The paint flooded the planks, the decorative stone work, the lawn and the lawn furniture. This time we didn’t have enough thinner or rags to fix the mess. Our boss had to buy new decking, new furniture, new sod, new stone work. The only good part was that this particular culprit, who had always been insufferably smug about his qualifications and pedigree as an old world tradesman, never said a dismissive word to anyone again.

Which wasn’t really fair. These disasters not only can happen to anyone, they will happen to everyone. That’s a guarantee, that’s the fate and predestination of physics, the merciless fact of life when you combine those three hilariously volatile elements: toxic fluids, divided attention and gravity. I always think of another friend, first day on the job: he didn’t attach his paint hook to his regrettably over-full bucket properly, and it fell twenty feet off the ladder to the sidewalk below. Even before it exploded onto the antique flagstones, all of us were thinking the same thing: There but for the grace of God go I. And Grace of God or not, it was only a matter of time before we wound up going there ourselves. Fortunately we didn’t have much time to ponder that idea.

We had some serious cleaning up to do.

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