Monday, October 13, 2008

Sistine in the Castro

Yes, we are still painting our house.

Yes, we are very much like the contractors whom we have so roundly criticized.

Yes, it has been almost five months since we started this project, an effort that was slated for completion in July. The house was going to look great and it was most certainly going to look great by summer's end. Not great like Granny's Empire of Art, but great like a house with fresh paint on it. Great for us. Great for people who are Cerealtarians.

Y'know, great. Meaning not abandoned. That kind of great.

Great for people who are intimate with the concept of perma-dirt and who aren't daunted by dust bunnies big enough to knit an extra cat.

So here it is mid-October. Much of the front of the house remains to be painted. And two rooms upstairs and two rooms downstairs have not seen the business end of a roller yet either.

It's October. The leaves are changing colors. They are changing colors much faster than the house is. Then again, the leaves will die and fall off of the trees. I’m hoping the outside of the house will do nothing of the sort.

It just seems that everything we do happens very slowly. Very, very slowly. Last Saturday I spent the whole day painting the ugly security door. The whole day. I listened to podcasts (Big Fatty and Auntie Vera this time) and dabbed and daubed at this monster of a door, trying to thwart runs and get an even coat of paint over the whole thing. It was a royal pain.

I don’t know if you even know what a security door is, but I think a persuasive salesman hit our neighborhood in the 1970s—a period when people were addled by some toxic combination of disco, poppers, polyester shirts, and (god forbid) Earth Shoes—and managed to sell security doors and window bars to all kinds of households who’d formerly never even thought about break-ins. So we have a big hulking security door barring entry to the front of house and another big hulking security door in the back. And a twenty-year-old 19-inch Sharp TV that they’re protecting. It makes absolutely no sense.

Up until last Saturday, both security doors were silver. And perhaps there's nothing wrong with that.

But for weeks before that I’d been scrutinizing every security door in the neighborhood. And it seemed that there are only three things you can do with them: (1) Forget about it, leave the damned things silver, and pretend the 1970s never happened (a good strategy in general); (2) Paint them black and pretend they’re stylish ornamental wrought iron; (3) Paint them the same color as the house and hope that they’re camouflaged to a reasonable extent.

Of course the smart thing to do is to leave them silver and pretend they don’t exist. We’d done that so far quite successfully with other 1970s artifacts: like Jefferson Starship (follow the link at your own risk), Ingmar Bergman (ditto), and Family Feud (bad perm central).

But once we started painting, every time we walked past any security door in our neighborhood, I’d turn to Mark and say, “Didja see that one? That one’s black.”

Or “That one’s silver. It’s really ugly, isn’t it?”

And that’s how I ended up listening to podcasts and dabbing and daubing Swiss Crème paint on a metal security door long into the fall twilight.

By that time I was painting with a repurposed paint-by-numbers brush, the skinny kind with 5 bristles so you can keep the paint within the little numbered areas. The brush was left over from a paint-by-numbers Jesus I’d bought at Cliff’s Variety a few years ago, a project in which my lack of ambition overwhelmed my sense of irony by, say, an order of magnitude.

I’m glad I only decided to re-use the brush and not the teeny-tiny cups of oil paint. I could’ve decided to accent the door . Sometimes it's better that I’m lazy.

It takes a good long time to paint a security door with a paint-by-numbers brush. But the thing is, you can't get paint in all the places you're supposed to if you use a normal Purdy trim brush. You just can't. The paint stubbornly refuses to flow onto the backs of the bars, into the corners of the screen. Then, finally it flows: it doesn't just flow; it runs down the metal grate in long gloppy drips.

I only hoped that Mark wouldn’t catch me painting with a paint-by-numbers brush. It would drive him crazy.

It was getting late by the time I had gone through the Mark-approved brush-cleaning protocol, a process which involves a great deal of splashing in the laundry sink. As far as I can tell, you're not done cleaning the paintbrush until you're completely soaked. So I changed clothes and hustled across the Mission to a party I was now three hours late for.
It was a party in one of those live-work spaces that sprang up like mushrooms nourished by the tail end of the dot com boom. Little fairy-rings of live-work spaces have infected the Mission, displacing dealers, homeless folks, hookers, and just about everybody else too. Lofts never need painting. If a loft needs painting, you just deflate the old one and move to a new one. This loft was a nice one with polished cement floors, original art, an admirably large Bird of Paradise, and a Mac with a big flat screen display. (And, yes, like poor John Hodgman, I am a PC. And I am an advertising victim.)

The room was abuzz with well-dressed hip people; the full assortment of Trader Joe's party food had been set out on the dining room table.

I arrived empty-handed and stood off to the side, my mind on a particularly recalcitrant part of the security door, a place where silver still showed through the fresh paint.

A couple danced languidly, doing the White People Shuffle.

"He was scratching before anyone knew what to call it," a tall handsome Englishwoman was saying above the music. I think she was talking about hip-hop, not eczema or flea bites, which would've been topics within my reach on a good day.

Her audience nodded in assent. I scraped a few flecks of Kelly-Moore Dura-Poxy (Swiss Crème) off of my fingernails.

These are the people who migrate en masse to Burning Man over the Labor Day holiday. They have spent the summer building art projects and being interviewed about them. They have not been painting, or if they have been painting, they have been painting an artifact that went with them to the Playa and is now in storage for next year. They are tanned and strong and do not have flecks of Kelly-Moore Dura-Poxy (Swiss Crème) in their hair and on their knees. They have things to talk about. Interesting and important things.

I remained mute. I'd spent the entire day daubing cream-colored paint on the back security door and I had nothing intelligent to say.

In fact, the longer I didn't talk, the less I had to say.

We migrated as a group to cluster around the Mac’s display and stood watching a TV show about Burning Man. The interviewer was a middle-aged man clad in a Hawaiian shirt in clueless imitation of midcentury cool. But the people he was interviewing—the people who were watching the show with me—were coming off rather well. Articulate and creative. I wanted to run and hide.

But how could I leave? I had just arrived.

Perhaps my throat was getting sore. I discreetly palpitated the glands on my neck and swallowed hard once or twice. It was kind of sore in places. And if it wasn’t fully red, it was at least Kelly-Moore Scarlet Sumac. I put the back of my hand to my forehead. Warm, just as I suspected. Or warm compared to my clammy hands. Better go.

Better go before the buboes emerge.

It wouldn’t be hard to leave unnoticed; no-one was, in fact, paying any attention to me. They were watching TV and they were watching each other. And I don't think anyone was even planning to say anything to me as the evening progressed. The Kelly-Moore Dura-Poxy (Swiss Crème) was obviously working its magic. It was every bit as effective a camouflage on me as it is on security doors.

I beat a quick diagonal retreat across the loft and out the front door, easing the door closed behind me.

I hesitated right outside the door. Shouldn't I go back in and say goodbye?

Thud-thud-thud. Down one flight. Two flights. Three flights. Four. And out onto the street. It was warm outside. Yet another hip white couple rode by on bicycles, one of them a scraper bike that blared dance music. The door to the loft complex clicked behind me.

I am so rude. I can't believe I did that.

Have I ever left a party without saying one word? It must be the fumes from the Kelly-Moore Dura-Poxy (Swiss Crème).

I drove across the Mission, ear pod securely in place. My friends on the memory stick. The podcasters still liked me; their demands were simple.

Mark said, "You're back already?"

"Yeah. I'm back," I said. "I was really tired. And I think I might be getting sick."

There's little worse than having nothing to say (although there are people who confuse verbage with garbage; I’m not that far gone yet).

And we still have a whole side of the house left to paint: if I'm mute now, just wait 'til we've finished the front.

Good thing that our house only has two sides.

Oops. Wait. I keep forgetting. Our house has four sides. We don't live in an alternate two-dimensional universe. But two of the sides are gracefully irrelevant by virtue of facing Evert's house and Stacy's house (respectively) with about an inch of clearance between adjoining buildings.

You'd have to be a cranefly or a supermodel to paint between the houses. And thankfully I am neither.

How long did it take to paint the Sistine Chapel? That’s the question that occurs to me on Sunday. I interrupt my painting and perch in front of the living room laptop. The Sistine Chapel: clearly a question for the Wikipedia, since the veracity of the answer doesn't matter nearly so much as the fact that I am transferring a great deal of Kelly-Moore Dura-Poxy (Swiss Crème) from the seat of my pants to our sofa while I find the answer to it. The gooey paint is clotting up with cat hair to form a brand new exciting texture. Some people would pay good money for a texture like this. They would.

It seems that under the patronage of Pope Julius II, Michelangelo painted 12,000 square feet of the chapel ceiling between 1508 and 1512

So that's 12,000 sq ft over 5 years. 5 years is 1825 days. Minus 10 days/year for holidays, 2 days/year for floating holidays, 20 days/year vacation, and 20 days/year sick leave. That's 1825-260=1565. Let’s round it off so it comes out an even 1500.

That'd be 12,000 sq. ft divided by 1500 days or 8 sq. ft/day.

Ha! We're doing better than that. 8 sq. ft/day. Ha!

But not much better.

At this writing, we’ve actually started on the front of the house. We've painted the balcony.

"Interesting choice," I hear you think. "The balcony. Exactly what I would do."

The balcony does seem much safer now that it's painted. The paint makes it hang together. Or at least gives it the appearance of solidity and permanence.

The other houses in our row have replaced their wooden balconies with wrought iron (ask Evert if you want an impassioned account of the contemptible design poaching perpetrated on him by another of our neighbors), but our house is still graced with its original funky-looking wooden balcony. When Mark used to smoke, he spent a lot of time out there on the balcony, leaning on the rail, puffing on his Marlboro, waving at the tourists passing by. Pretending to be the Pope.

It was when John Paul was still alive—when the Pope looked less sinister and when one would want to pretend to be the Pope. Before I suffered my colossal disappointment and found out that I was not John Paul's replacement. That the world was not ready for a short, Jewish, female Pope. That Pope John Paul's replacement was destined instead to be a dangerous-looking wolverine with needle-sharp teeth and black circles around his eyes. I didn't even know that guy was on the short list.

Notice how many fewer Pope promotional products there are these days? How many fewer Pope mugs, change purses, postcards, and Franklin Mint plates?

That's because they chose a wolverine. They'd have done so much better if they'd let me do it.

Anyway, back then—"back in the day" as all the kids say now—Mark would stand out on the balcony, and smoke and wave. Tourists gasping for breath at the top of the hill snapped his picture. He's a part of hundreds of vacation memories.

And a half-dozen of us crowded out on the balcony to watch fireworks at the dawn of this millennium—Y2K. Neither the computers nor the balcony crashed under the weight.

The balcony has always seemed like a prime architectural feature of our house.

That's why I was so disappointed when we discovered just how rotten it is.

"Stop it!" I said as Mark dug his pocket knife into the crosswise boards. The wood yielded like a ripe banana; you could take big scoops out of it. " Just stop it! Don't dig any more out!"

"Why not?" Mark said. "I want to find out how much is bad."

"No! If we know, we won't be able to go out there anymore."

But Mark stubbornly kept digging.

I've always operated under the theory that it's often better not to know, especially if you're not planning to do anything to address the problem. As you might expect, Mark and I carried on a brief but intense spat, during which many holes small and large were dug and filled with the wood filler that smells like fiberglass. Primer was recklessly applied (primer which later crazed in the cold of night like a broken windshield and had to be scraped off), and matters got worse rather than better.

In the end, our dubiously safe balcony absorbed several quarts of sealer, tubs of filler, and was daubed with a patchwork of different colored leftover primers. It looked almost as dangerous as the new Pope.

That's why the first thing we painted on the front of the house was the balcony. It's amazing how much safer it looks now with a fresh coat of paint.

Lumpy still does not think it's safe. "You guys are crazy if you think I'm going out there," he tells us. "I'm a cat, not a dirigible."

But unfortunately, finishing the balcony removes the last obstacle between us and the rest of the job: the tall parts of the front of our house. Perhaps our house isn't the Petronas Tower, but in the front, it's a good three stories high and the ground below is an uneven platform for the extension ladder. Worse yet, if you look behind you, it's a long, long way down to the street, a very long way down to the tourists who are now snapping pictures of the fools on the ladders. They don't seem to realize that we are not part of their San Francisco tourist experience.

"Are you sure we should be doing this ourselves?" I ask Mark.

I've asked him this question so many times that he's starting to get angry.

In spite of my reluctance to tackle the high bits, we bought a 24-foot extension ladder with a rope that raises the top part rung by rung. The two of us carried it up the hill, Mark on the front and me bringing up the rear. It's surprisingly flexible, this ladder, not at all sturdy like I'd pictured.

"We could always hire some guys to do part of it." I add. This is disingenuous. I don't mean part of it; I mean the SCARY part of it. The vertiginous part of it. There are these guys in the parking lot of Kelly-Moore Paints who seem hell bent on clambering up ladders for a price. They look fearless and competent only by virtue of how they’re already paint-spattered. Sure, they must know how to paint. A few of them don't look quite sober, but they all look brave nonetheless. Sarah Palins of the day laborer set.

That's it! Maybe Sarah Palin would paint the high bits; she seems willing to rush headlong into danger without the clouding effects of knowledge. Her eyes haven't been ruined from reading, and her balance is unobscured by the dizzying effects of focused thought.

She'd charge up that ladder.

Mark will have none of it. "I'm painting it," he tells me. He's not in a good mood and I know better than to challenge him.

It will be cold come November. I am hoping the tall ladder doesn't sway too radically in the wind. I'll worry about Mark out there, painting, slated to finish before July rolls around again.

Think of how little I’ll have to say by then.


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