Thursday, April 25, 2019

A Liberal Education: Six Months on a Trumpland Paint Crew


            The first second I saw Dave Smiley, slouching around the side of his boss’ paint trailer in a suburban Connecticut driveway, smug and slovenly, wearing a Millennial scowl of stymied entitlement, I thought: “This kid represents everything that’s wrong with America today.”
And I hadn’t even seen the TRUMP sticker on the tailgate of his truck.
            Today: December sixteenth, 2017, under a stony sky threatening snow.
            “We need more plastic for the living room,” he said to the boss, a burly fireplug named Roy Bartkolovitch.
            “It’s in the trailer. You guys put things away where they’re supposed to go, you can find things no problem. This is Steve. He’s gonna be working with us.”
            A quick, hooded glance. “Hey.”
            “You want me to look for you? Guarantee I’ll find that plastic in twenty seconds flat. I know the kind of mess you make. I got your number!”
            “I can handle it, Roy.”
            “You better!” Dave walked back toward the open end of the big trailer. When he was gone Roy turned to me. “I love giving him shit. He makes it so easy. Dave Smiley and I never seen him smile once! But I’m telling you, these guys make me crazy. I have to clean out that trailer every other day. The pigs who work for me! Great guys though, God bless em. So you start on Monday. I’ll text you the address. Then we’ll see if you can paint.”

            The next time I saw Dave it was at a house in Waterford. Escrow complications had delayed my first day, and the crew had been out of work for a week, as the house closing inspections and paperwork crawled along. It was ten days before Christmas, his wife was out of work, both his kids were sick, his pay checks had dwindled, his furnace was broken, and the Connecticut Energy Assistance bureaucracy was stalling the repairs. The last thing he wanted to see was another person on the crew, gobbling man hours and shortening the Pre-Christmas work-week. He gave me a grudging nod when I arrived at the house. “Can you cut in? I need someone on the crew who can cut a ceiling.”
I assured Dave I could manage that --“Painting 101”, an old pal on Nantucket sneered when I told him this story.

Dave just squinted at me. “You get paint on the ceiling, you clean it yourself.”
I nodded. “Sounds fair.”
It soon became clear that I had mastered the fundamentals of the trade, along with some minor procedural details (Unroll rosin paper from the top of the roll so the paper doesn’t curl up on the floor; fold sandpaper twice and then tear it, so you don’t need to cut it with a putty knife – and some more obscure tricks, like rigging circus style staging arrangements (OSHA would not approve!) for paining the high walls above twisting flights of stairs. “I can’t believe I don’t have to paint these fucking stairwells anymore,” Dave remarked a couple of weeks later, after my third performance (ladder propped on rubber wedge, supported by 5-gallon mud bucket on the step below). “I’ve had to paint every fucking stairwell on every fucking job for the last five years.”
The comment was typical. I had begun to see a new side of Dave Smiley. This grumpy overweight redneck had a way with people. A terse word of praise (“Nice job”, “Looking good”) and better than that, an easy tolerance for mistakes (“Happens to everybody,” “We can fix that no problem”) made him look like one of the better bosses I had ever worked for, despite the unnerving fact that he was young enough to be my son. The kid could organize a job, too, getting three or four or five people moving on various aspects of a project with no fuss or confusion. As he himself pointed out, things worked much better when “Hurricane Roy” (as he called Bartkolovitch) wasn’t around.
 Dave was stoical about his heating problems, wistful about a disappointing Christmas for his kids, and utterly devoted to his wife, whom he referred to as “my girl”.
“My girl got a great job this week, so things are looking up,” he told me, on break one day.
At first I had kept to myself during those rigidly mandated fifteen minute rest periods, since I was the only one on the crew who didn’t smoke cigarettes. But I wound up hanging out with the gang eventually, and poking at the hornet’s nest of our political differences. That TRUMP sticker on Dave’s truck seemed more and more inexplicable. Dave Smiley was not quite the deplorable I had expected.
“So, you know Trump hates dogs, right?” I ventured one bone-chilling morning, after we’d spent an hour in the sub-zero darkness loading up the trailer from Roy’s storage space in the rustbelt moonscape of Baltic Connecticut.
Dave ground out his cigarette. “Are you kidding?”
“No man, I’m serious. He’s the only President since McKinley who doesn’t have a dog, and that was like a hundred and twenty years ago.”
“Shit, really?”
“And McKinley died of gangrene after an assassination attempt. Just sayin. Probably no connection.”
“Trump doesn’t like dogs?”
“He hates em! Somebody compiled his tweets. Dogs are his go-to insult animal. ‘I beat him down like a dog, he was begging like a dog, he choked like a dog, I fired him like a dog -- ”
Dave laughed. “He fired a dog?”
“Yeah, on Celebrity Dog Apprentice. He fired a seeing eye dog.”
“Come on.”
“Okay, okay, but everything else is true.”
“You really don’t like the guy, do you?”
“Hey, I’m just the messenger. Trump hates dogs.”
A few days later, at lunch, I said, “Have you noticed, Trump never laughs.”
“Sure he does.”
I shrugged. “Search the internet – vimeo, youTube, whatever. Find some footage of Trump laughing.”
            Two days later as we were tearing down the plastic that had draped a kitchen where Roy had sprayed the popcorn texture glop on the ceiling, Dave admitted, “You’re right about the laughing. Nothing. Who the fuck never laughs?
“Your President.”
He sighed. “What kind of fucked up country are we living in where the only choices are Trump and Hillary Clinton?”
I was cautiously intrigued. Dave sounded disappointed – and pissed-off. Buyer’s regret?
“I just wanted … change,” he said.
“Things getting worse is change,” I replied helpfully.
He shook his head. “Tell me about it.”
Perhaps it was just a sour mood. I friended him on Facebook that night.
It was an eye-opener.
Among the novelty posts, he liked and shared items about speedboats shaped like sharks, a guy who makes furniture out of chocolate, and plant matter biodegradable bags, the heartening aesthetic cheerleading (for Lars Von Trier and Hunter Thompson), I found the predictable right wing chatter of half-digested propaganda and lazy false equivalences, attacks on gun control advocates and pro-choice liberals, claims that Trump would end corruption. I almost wrote a comment, but after a series of kamikaze letters to our local newspaper, I had finally learned my lesson: no one ever did any serious damage to themselves by hitting the delete button. Whatever our political differences I still had to work with this guy every day.
And the work itself was getting more grueling all the time. Bartkolovitch billed himself as a “Residential and Commercial” paint contractor, but I had no idea what the commercial side of the business entailed until he took on the State Of Connecticut employment office job. The low-slung building was located in the crumbling municipality of Montville, half an hour north of New London on route 395. 
The cavernous space, twice the size of a supermarket, was wedged between a mortgage broker and a liquor store in a strip mall, opposite a McDonalds and a hill of ragged trees. The trees offered an elegiac note, evoking the ghost of a rural paradise long bulldozed for this disintegrating commercial shanty town.
It was dark inside the building, with bare beams and hanging coils of wire and giant propane heaters taking the edge off the winter chill. It reminded me of that conversation from Kevin Smith’s first movie Clerks, when one of the titular convenience store employees chastises George Lucas for the destruction of the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi. The battle station in the first film was a fully operational military machine, full of soldiers. The second one was still under construction when it was blown up – the only people there were the workers.
I felt like one of them in the echoing dimly lit industrial cave of the half completed employment office. Would the Millennium Falcon come zipping through it, shooting off proton torpedoes?
One could only hope.
The job was a “prevailing wage” opportunity, which meant roughly double the hourly rate for painting.
What does the term “Prevailing Wage” mean exactly?
According to the Connecticut Labor Board:
The term "prevailing wage" means the total base hourly rate of pay and bona fide fringe benefits customary or prevailing for the same work in the same trade or occupation in the town where the project is to be constructed. The prevailing wage rate schedules developed by the U.S. Department of Labor (and used by the Connecticut Department of Labor) indicate specific amounts for both components of the rate.

Of course, most of these compensation packages were determined through labor union negotiations over the last fifty years. Labor Unions: the last bastion of power for the Democratic party. I didn’t mention that to Dave. My disagreement with him about the Montville job had nothing to do with his history of the labor movement. He just couldn’t believe I was willing to give up the fifty bucks an hour because I didn’t want to work nights. That anyone would give up fifty bucks an hour for any reason seemed crazy to him. The money would change his life that winter. Was I independently wealthy? No, just a morning person who would become a liability on the job after the sun went down.
Roy accepted my refusal, but used it to trick me in his shrewd blunt affable way. “I want to start at six tomorrow morning. That’s your good time!”
Even working days was hard at Montville, but Dave managed to keep things moving, spraying vast swaths of wall while the rest of us cut in against the metal bands that marked the edge of the ceilings or caulked the endless metal door casings. In a warren of small offices I had to jump from room to room as Dave caught up to me with the sprayer. At the end of the first day he took me aside. “Hey, it got really confusing in there for a while. You should go back and check, make sure you didn’t miss anything. I know I would have, and Roy gets crazy about shit like that.”
I took his advice, and found an embarrassing number of misses. I thanked him, and quoted an old school Nantucket housepainter who used to advise you to “step back and admire your work” – knowing you’d see all your mistakes when you did.
Dave shrugged. “Yeah except you can’t see shit in this fucking place.”
Still, he managed to teach Josh Tilden, the youngest member of the crew, to use the sprayer on that job. Dave was typically firm, patient and attentive: “Have the gun moving before you hit the trigger, make sure it overlaps, keep it moving, that’s it. Sway with the gun, get the rhythm, nice. You got a sag there but not problem, Pete’s rolling out behind us.”
There were two Petes on the crew. One was Roy’s brother-in-law, a shrewd, easy-going bear of a guy, part Grizzly, part Winnie-the-Pooh. He worked part time to help out, and handled most of the company paper work. The other Pete was a sad squinting barfly with thinning hair and fading tattoos, who hadn’t expected enough from his life to be disappointed by it. But he managed a consistent stream of petty griping that got on everyone’s nerves.
“He’ll be gone soon,” Dave told me. “Guys like him don’t last working for Roy.”
Dave had higher hopes for Josh, a good looking, blithe spirited work horse who had run off-shore fishing boats until an injury sidelined him. Knocked overboard by a trawling net, he was pulled half frozen out of the Atlantic with a two broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder that never healed properly. “I got some nice Jones Act dough out of it, though,” he said when he told me the story. They had given him vicodin for the pain and he was soon addicted. Heroin was cheaper he was shooting up twice a day until he “got into the program” and switched to methadone. He’d been on methadone for a year.
“He could still get straight,” Roy told me, on the long drive to a southern Connecticut paper mill where he had contracted to paint the ceilings. “I’m not so sure about Dave.”
That caught my attention. “Dave?”
“You kidding? He’s been on methadone for five years. He’s never getting off it. That shit is in his bones.”
Roy was a recovering addict as well. I soon learned that he had gathered most of his crew from Narc-anon meetings. The secret came out when Josh was having trouble finding a methadone source in the paper mill town, where we would be staying for three days. But Roy had connections there. It wasn’t a problem for Dave because he wasn’t going.
 “We did a job there last year,” he told me, “And I am never going back to that
place. I told Roy.  Never. That is the worst fucking job you’ll ever do. Don’t go, buddy. That’s my advice. Stay here, we’ll finish up Montville together.”
It took me a while to bring up the methadone revelation, but Dave shrugged it off. “Pretty much everyone I know is doing smack or in a program. Half the friends I went to high school with are dead already. I’m serious. This shit is real.”
Somehow I had landed not just in Trump country, but in the dead center, or more accurately the central vein, of the opioid crisis. I never asked Dave how he started doing drugs – maybe next year, if we work together again.
After a long day of soothing customers, instructing the crew and cutting in half a dozen rooms with me, I told him he should go into business for himself. “I’d work for you any time,” I said. And I meant it. Indeed, it did seem like Dave was planning some kind of move, since Roy was teaching Josh a lot of the managerial basics, from painting 101 to driving with a twenty foot trailer behind the truck.
Jeff was right about the paper mill. Forty feet up on a rusting metal catwalk, peeling dead paint off a corrugated ceiling in the ninety degree heat, bones shaken by the relentless vibrations from the giant machines below us, ears battered by the roar of white noise, I knew I couldn’t handle working up there in a suffocating protective jump suit and vapor mask, whose filters would clog as the day wore on, making it ever more difficult to breathe. I was on the verge of an asthma attack on day one. I knew I couldn’t hack it, and Roy had to lead me out of the mill and drive me back to the motel. He was good about it. “Some people can do this work and some people can’t.” he shrugged. “Now I’m a man shy but we’ll get it done. Take it easy and God bless.”
Calling my wife to come get me felt like calling my mom to take me home from summer camp early. But I had escaped. The longing, stoical looks on the faces of the other crew members as I started down the steep metal stairs to the factory floor told me I wasn’t crazy.
The job was crazy.
Dave just laughed. “Told you so.” And he had me beat: “Last trip, the platform was so hot they wouldn’t let anyone up there for more than fifteen minutes at a time. Plus it was a part of the mill where the metal was always wet so we had to use paint you could spray onto wet metal. Guess how toxic that shit was. At least the Chinese buffet was good.”
Roy did take us all out to the Chinese buffet restaurant that Dave mentioned, but it struck me as sad – a luxurious treat for someone who had never eaten in a really good restaurant and probably never would. My sense of Dave’s life as a prison of hard work and austerity sharpened on the day he offered to drive me home from a job in Uncasville. He asked me to wait outside his house while he changed his clothes – because of the mess? Because of some sense of my class snobbery? If so he had me wrong there. I had lived in squalor for years and had knew how hard it was for a couple to keep house with two full time jobs and two kids – two times too much to do. I strolled his neighborhood while I waited, taking in all the grim details – the weeds growing through the cracked asphalt, the rusty cars on blocks, the cheap plastic toys scattered in the narrow yards, the bent crooked blinds in the windows. The little side street felt abandoned. How would Dave ever get away from here, move up, claw his way into the middle class? He definitely needed to start his own paint contracting business and I mentioned it again on the long drive down 395. Did he really think Trump was going to help him with that? The guy who had stiffed every contractor who ever worked for him -- and even stiffed the lawyers who defended him in the lawsuits against the contractors?
“At least he respects the flag,” Dave said.
We were into it now. “The Russian flag?”
“Come on. This is America right? Innocent until proved guilty. That’s what I learned in school.”
“Innocent until you stop the investigation – or pardon yourself.”
“He can do that, man. He’s the President. You gotta respect that. He doesn’t take shit from anyone. Look at that Colin Kaeperneck thing. Disrespect the flag and Trump will take you down.”
I took a breath -- tread softly. “That protest had nothing to do with the flag, Dave. It was about police brutality and cops killing black people.”
He sniffed. “Fine. But don’t use the flag then. I thought Tim Tebow was full of shit too, when he did it to protest abortion. I’m pro-life, but leave the flag out of it, you know?”
I gave him marks for consistency, but he had opened up another topic. “Something you posted on Facebook bothered me the other day,” I began.
He laughed. “I bet it all bothers you, buddy.”
“Well … ”
“Tree hugger.”
“What about you? You posted about those biodegradable plastic bags.”
“It’s a good idea.”
“Trump doesn’t think so.”
“How do you know?”
“Those bags solve a problem. He doesn’t think the problem exists! He doesn’t believe in climate change.”
“Hey, slow down. The jury is out on that one.”
“No it isn’t! The jury is in. The verdict is guilty and the sentence is death.”
“Come on. There’s tons of scientists --”
“There’s two. Out of ten thousand! And they both work for oil companies. Look, you can prove it for yourself. It’s common sense. Sunlight enters the atmosphere in long waves that penetrate the carbon dioxide. They bounce back in short waves that can’t penetrate it, like the glass in your car. That’s why cars get hot when you leave the windows closed. Here’s a slogan—‘Global Warming Killed My Dog’.”
He frowned. “I have to think about that.”
“Yes you do. You have to think about all this stuff. Like comparing pro-choice advocates to mass shooters.”
“That’s not what I was saying.”
“The lady hates guns because they kill kids, and she just killed her own. That was the gist of it.”
“Okay. So what?”
“It’s … a sloppy comparison. It assumes two absolute ideas, when one of them is anything but. People disagree about abortion. No one disagrees about murdering innocent children with military assault rifles. People don’t even agree about when abortion becomes murder. Some people think masturbation is murder – sperm slaughter. I’m serious. I’m not talking a stand for or against abortion or choice or whatever. I’m just saying, it’s hard to think clearly when you have all these weird off-kilter analogies kicking around in your head. Calling a pro-choice lady a child killer is just a way of not listening to her. Like that post where you say people who are against assault rifles don’t know anything about guns. Hundreds of Sheriff’s Departments and Police Departments have come out for reasonable gun control legislation. I read an article by an ex-Navy seal who said you don’t give military armament to civilians. You think that guy doesn’t know about guns?”
“I think you spend too much time on my Facebook page.”
We both laughed. “Maybe you’re right.”
A few minutes later, as we sat in a commuter lot just off the highway waiting for Annie to pick me up, Dave said, “Roy’s having a tough time right now. Couple of customers are stalling and he just had his big workman’s comp audit. Paychecks may be a little late. So I mean … if you need something to tide you over – my girl’s working two jobs and we’re doing okay right now.”
“No, I’m good. But thanks, man.”
“Hey, I told her you’re a writer and she wants to read your books. I don’t read but she loves that shit.”
“I’ll get her one.”
Dave’s wife Jackie worked with us one day a few weeks later, during the always horrible cleaning-out-after-a-finished job phase of a nasty residential marathon, east of Norwich. She worked hard and tirelessly, with no need for instructions. During a break she told me she was reading the book I’d given Dave and mentioned that he was the eldest of seven children. It made sense. Roy was the mostly-absentee Dad and the crew made up the rowdy, lackadaisical crowd of younger siblings, regardless of our actual ages. “It was nice, what you said to him about working for him if he goes out on his own. He was happy to hear that.”
“Do you think he’ll do it?”
“I don’t know. I sure hope so. Give him a call when you come back next year.”
I was heading back home to Nantucket soon, and there was a lot we never got to talk about. But I knew Dave had already heard some of what I was saying. A few days later, Roy was griping about a kid who had quit and started a rival painting company, using many of Roy’s techniques and poaching several of his customers. “You don’t do that,” he said, “Bite the hand that feeds you.”
Dave looked up from cutting a sheet of rosin paper. “What are you talking about Roy? You didn’t feed Jerry! You paid him for a day’s work. And the guy worked hard. He worked rings around me some days. Don’t compare him to a dog! Dogs don’t work – anyway yours doesn’t. And you own your dog, man. Nobody owns Jerry, except maybe the IRS.”
He got to his feet, headed for the door, grinned as he walked by, and whispered, “Bad analogy!”
That moment of linguistic solidarity prompted a vision of a potential friendship, down the line. It sounded like a joke: a tree hugger and a gun nut walk into a bar. And the bartender says – what? “We need a Priest and a Rabbi to make this gag work!” or maybe, “If a tree falls in the forest on top of a gun nut, does that count as ‘concealed carry’?”
Or how about … the bartender says, “What’ll ya have,” the gun nut buys a Bud Lite, and the tree hugger takes a glass of Pinot Noir. They each roll their eyes, then they take a hike in the woods and spend an hour at the shooting range. Not particularly funny, but oddly heartening in these days of partisan tribal warfare.
I’m back home now, but Dave and I still “like” each other’s posts on Facebook and try to keep in touch. I know he’ll never be Democrat, but maybe I can talk him around to becoming an old-school Republican – the kind that hates Russia and loves the FBI. I hope our months of working together showed Dave something surprising about pansy lefty wing libtards.
As for me, I learned that I was dead wrong that first day in December. In fact Dave Smiley represents most of what’s best about America – hard work, generosity, leadership, decency, a spiky sense of humor and a willingness to see beyond the grotesque cartoon parody profiling that defines our political discourse. 
I still want to discuss the link he posted recently about the Democratic Party being the “biggest threat to America”, though.
Really Dave? The same party that fought for the prevailing wage laws that meant so much to you, and the fuel assistance program that got you through the winter? Oh, well. Maybe next year.
It’s worth a try.