A friend of mine died last Saturday.
This won’t be an obituary; I’m not qualified to write one. I never knew his whole life story, just the part of it that touched my own. But Ken Cross had a big place in that life and his death leaves a big hole. He came to Nantucket in 1987, bought a house in Wauwinet with his partner Joan Barr, flipped it and then rode the big ground swells of the real estate boom for the next decade, Ken painting and Joan decorating mansions and cottages, selling them and moving on. His daughter Meredith came to the island a few years ago to assemble a photograph album of all the projects they’d worked on here. It was quite a task.
They changed the island during their stay. Many people believe that Joan Barr introduced bead-board and teak countertops to the interior design vocabulary of the island; and Ken introduced a new kind of house-painting: real world, New Jersey production painting. Wags referred to him as “Earl Sheib” after the cut rate car painting maven. There was more fear than contempt in those remarks. Ken underbid the established class of old school contractors by as much as two thirds, painting a house inside and out for twenty thousand dollars when the next higher bid was sixty. How was that possible? I learned first-hand, working for him on and off over the next ten years. He taught me to use an airless spray gun, and I worked with him on the first house we did, stuffing outlets and lighting holes with newspaper, stretching plastic over the windows, opening and pouring out the 5-gallon buckets of latex.
In that first day we used seven “fives” of Ben Moore Wall Satin thirty five gallons of paint. When we were done, the closets and ceilings were finished and the trim and doors were primed -- latex penetrates wood just fine when it’s hitting the surface at three thousand force pounds per square inch. It was exhilarating. Cleaning up afterward, he said, “Pretty soon I’m going to be able to leave you here in the morning and pick you up in the afternoon with the whole house sprayed and the machine taken apart and cleaned out with thinner in the lines.” I thought he was crazy; I had trouble filling a fountain pen. But he was right. Ken was right about a lot of things. He was one of the toughest, most shrewd and practical men I’ve ever met. I didn’t learn how to paint from him really, except for the spraying and occasional tips, like rolling ceilings with yourself as the base of a pendulum, or dipping the putty knife in thinner when glazing windows.
No, what I learned from Ken was how to run a job, and in many crucial ways, how to run a life.
I remember, we were painting a billionaire’s house on Washing Pond Road, working behind Bruce Killen’s crew. I was alone in the house one afternoon when the phone rang. It was the owner, an affable gent calling from somewhere in Europe, curious about our progress. I told him everything was going fine, that the English specialist was starting to sponge paint the bedrooms. Things like that. I thought I handled myself pretty well, and couldn’t wait to tell Ken about the phone call.
He was furious.
“You NEVER tell anyone my business! I don’t want this guy knowing I hired some English punk to sponge paint his bedroom! I want him to think I could finish this job if everyone who worked for me died tomorrow! Think about it this way. Nothing you say can improve the way this guy thinks of me. You can leave him thinking of me the same way or thinking worse – that’s all. So you say nothing. No! You say, ‘I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Ken about that’ Let’s try it! Is this kitchen finished?
“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Ken about that.”
“How do the colors look in the children’s suite?”
“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask ken about that.”
“And your girlfriend – she good in bed?”
“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Ken about that.”
We were both laughing by then. There was a level of insane mischief he was capable of, and he could always laugh at himself, which is rare. “You’re a 40-year-fourth grader,” Bill Dowling told him once. Ken roared with laughter: “It’s only funny because it’s true!”
The lesson of that day on Washing Pond Road stuck with me, though. I’ve tried to play my cards closer to the vest since then, keeping customers on a need-to-know basis. Whenever I manage to do it, things go well; when I talk too much, things go wrong. But Ken always enjoyed disasters, even as they were happening. How many times was I going to have to tell the story of stepping into the five gallon paint bucket for a group of his rowdy friends?
No more times, now. I never thought I’d feel bad about that.
Ken taught me how the different parts of a job connect with each other, and impact each other. I remember after some minor disaster (a paint spill; a spatter of white oil paint on a faux-painted wall), hearing the all-too familiar “What am I going to do? I can’t fix this!”and telling him how I could clean it up and him charging back at me: “That’s not the point! You’re cleaning your mess, not painting what you’re supposed to be painting, so someone else has to drop what they’re doing to pick up the slack, and then another guy has to do what he was doing and pretty soon no one’s doing anything they were supposed to do and I’m losing my shirt on this job!” Once he calculated on the fly how much time and money he was losing with a six man crew taking a twenty minute coffee break six times a week. It was scary.
But he was also generous. He came back from a vacation and gave me an extra thousand dollars (it was just around Christmas) for “carrying the ball” on the job while he was gone. And who could forget the end-of-project battle cry, “You push, I pay.” And he did.
He fired me twice – both times deserved. I walked off the job on my own finally; but we always wound up working together again. We understood each other. I still have his voice in my head when I’m working (“Push that latex! Throw a good coat on there! Square it off! Flood that hole! Caulk it with paint! Float a good coat on there. Bully that roller! We’ll just face it off for the next coat --you agree?”) After he moved to Florida I got calls from him at random intervals, usually with a Hollywood question. from some bar in Naples “Ryan O’Neal’s kid – the one in paper Moon – who married what his name, the tennis player?”
“Tatum! Tatum O’Neal. Great! I knew you’d know.”
It was always good to hear from him. I went down to Naples for a couple of weeks a few years ago, and it was just like old times, working Sunday “To get a jump on Monday, Yah?”, going out to dinner and regaling a new group of friends with our crazy exploits. I always thought there’d be more of them. Ken seemed immortal, a jolly sharp eyed juggernaut. But cancer found him and he took himself out. That was typical of Ken: he wasn’t going to give himself up to the hospitals and hospices, the chemo and the commiseration.
He was never much for being helpless.
I just wish he’d called first, with one more joke, one more job, one more Hollywood question. I wish the people I know now, who know him only through my version of him (“What happened?! No way in the world this takes so long! Did you go to town? The upstairs is done, yah?”) could meet the real person, the one who took my side when I was getting divorced, snooping my ex-wife’s house so he could tell me triumphantly “You’re the slob? She’s still got that mountain of laundry in the basement!”
But he appreciated her, too. And he never let me get away with my griping. “At least she feeds those kids real food,” he snapped at me once, after I confessed to one more take-out pizza dinner. And when I complained about their mom having full custody, he just laughed. “Are you kidding me? That’s the way it should be! When was the last time you made anyone a Halloween costume?” He nailed it, as usual. And he was a brilliant physical mimic; no one who watched his impression of a certain crew-member having a leisurely smoke as she daubed the paint onto a window sash, or his classic hip-slapping hapless Nantucket painter doing the “Where’s my putty knife” dance, could never watch the real thing again without a smile.
Ken was the one who would always keep a secret, pick up the tab, make a loan and enjoy a laugh – at his own expense, or mine. Well, that's all over now. But I’ll always his have voice in my head, and it will always come out at odd moments and make some new set of strangers laugh. It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing. It may be the only kind of immortality we get.
Better than being forgotten – you agree?
Yeah, Ken. I definitely agree.