A sign says “Graning Paint Co.” with a Glidden logo in the corner. There’s a mural on the building behind it with a paint can pouring over the cinderblock wall. Graning shares its stance with Ray’s Market as the only non-vacant storefronts between the railroad viaduct and the interstate underpass. Ray supplies the community under the bridge with cold paper sacks and much of the flattened litter you see along the sidewalks.
A rainbow awning covers the sidewalk at Graning, above barred windows holding stacks of mis-tinted cans of beige. Ashtrays are on the sales counter and real painters are waiting in there; painters with white shorts and white tennis shoes, handle bar mustaches and Big Johnson tee shirts. These guys don’t have any paint on themselves. The shelves are cluttered like the back of a van, items with a certain amount of age, and always the doughy smell of paint being tinted and shaken in the back.
A man will ask you at the counter, “Cash or charge, bud?” He starts your ticket on a green metal machine with a lever that seems elaborate for separating a carbon copy. No prices are written on anything and he looks up every item in a binder, his two fingers dragging a cigarette across the page, then he looks back up at you, then he writes something down on the ticket.
When I was just a homeowner, skilled in the regular homeowner ways, I wore old green hiking paints that came to carry so much paint they were only green behind the knees. I’d painted far more than most people, I have one of those kinds of wives, but I still considered myself an outsider in a paint store.
Every painter remembers the day they put on the white pants, how the brush seemed to glide wittingly afterwards, and such blinding pants will forever save you the small talk at the gas station counter when you have paint on your knuckles and the attendant says, “I see ya been paintin eh?” If you’re a homeowner with a wife like mine, and I’m just like you, putting on my pants one leg at a time, but they are white as the souls of angels and you are retiring an old pair of jeans, then the painting became more involved than you imagined.
My dad got me some painting work when I was younger. His friend was a big-time contractor, and I think it was mentioned between them at breakfast to send me on one of the crews. It taught me more than painting, and I believe it was felt, and rightly so, that I should experience some more difficult work than lifeguarding. It served, at the time, to encourage my studies, for that boost I needed in my earliest semesters, to settle for a B and then struggle for it later. Or else I could ride on a bucket in a crowded van, forty-five minutes out of town, heckle women from the steps of a church, smoke a joint in church, eat Moon Pies for lunch, and get dropped off at a motel where I lived: should I want to be a professional painter. I could see it wouldn’t afford the cigarettes I preferred, and I didn’t want to do it.
One guy’s name was Cowboy and he had a voice that carried like a wrestler. He wore a bandana on his head and he kept himself scruffy, although you could tell the mustache was dedicated. About seven of us were painting the inside of the Baptist church in Clay, Kentucky and he still couldn’t manage not to take the Lord’s name in vain. Not even to clarify his work directives around church: “You mean the G-D baptistery, or the ceiling over the G-D altar?”
A quiet older man we called Doc had once been a schoolteacher and I guess gotten in trouble with a very young girl some years before. He was the butt of Cowboy’s jokes, which alluded to the hushed matter. Doc was the most professional looking in our bunch with his perfect white pants and neat white hair. Also he was the other guy in the crew with a cut brush, and Cowboy, you could tell, measured a man by the size of his brush. Cowboy worked with a four-inch Wooster whose ferrule could barely fit in a cut bucket. A fencepost brush, some people call it. He could forge a stolen check with it if he wanted, but he painted balcony spindles and heckled Doc, then called down everlastin’ detail about the woman still asleep in his motel room.
My job on that crew was to run around with a caulk gun and a rag. Whenever my name was called, “Dipshit,” I was supposed to push the guy over who was up in the scaffolding by a few feet. Otherwise I kept all the plastic taped down and removed enormous amounts of garbage. At the end of the week I had graduated to a roller pole and a bucket, although I can never pretend I grew up in the trade. It was only on a few occasions, and soon after that I met Ashley.
I was in a hurry to finish school, a degree in Finance, an incomplete Minor in Piano Performance, and the hurry extended through a lot of apartments that we painted brightly before painting back to white at the landlord’s insistence. We were in a hurry to become homeowners and I should have just gone with new wood paneling to save me the roller naps, but today I find myself the owner of eleven ladders and still very much in a hurry.
Whenever I’ve put brushes in the hands of my friends, trim assignments on their very first day sometimes, I think about my old crew on those spring breaks in college. That crew was not a special case of painters, but nor is every crew like them. I had a good mentor in Knoxville who was, in fact, the opposite. The whole crew had seminary degrees, except me, the church pianist. I had been picking up odd jobs before that on Facebook, and refusing to even consider another go in the world of desk jobs. I realized there was demand for painting and money could be earned if you were not afraid of a tall ladder. In my dad’s words, “Painting is probably a field where they could always use another good one.” Songwriters, I had decided, the world was sick of. And a business degree is about as useful as a two-foot stepladder: always handy, but you don’t really need it for what you can do with it.
One day, headed to Graning, I’d made up my mind. We had been trying to live without a car in a small city, even with Ashley a few months pregnant with our oldest son. My bike was locked out front, and a backpack on my shoulder full of brushes and rags. I had been carrying the same borrowed ladder around the neighborhood and losing open mic contests at night. I sat a brand new three-inch Purdy XL Glide on the counter. It was the swan, by the way, get slapped with a brush like that you could drown.
“Cash or charge, bud?” the man said.
“Actually, I’d like to see someone about setting up an account,” I said. “I’m starting a little painting business.”
“That’s great,” he said. “Come with me for a second.”
He took me to a paneled office that opened up to one side of the sales floor. A white headed man I’d seen often got up from his desk and shook my hand, covered in speckled paint. I apologized.
“I’ll gladly shake a hand with paint on it,” he said. He had a pleased look about doing business, but also about doing the part of his job that he loved: making painters out of men with paint on themselves.
He pulled out a legal pad and asked about my company.
“Well,” I said, “It’s just me right now. I have a big job going, but the homeowner already bought all the paint.”
He wasn’t writing anything.
“I know they bought it here, though. Twice actually. It was the house where the paint was stolen.”
“Ah,” he laughed. “Did they ever find who did that?”
“No,” I said. “But she heard a story from a cop. There’s some painters over in the trailer park on Central who supposedly have done it before.”
“How bout that.”
“Yeah, I guess they tell customers they’re running a special on grey and yellow,” I said. It was pretty lame to say, I know.
He smiled, “Well, young man, we’re glad you’re getting started in this business. And glad you came to us. Let us know whatever it is we can do for you and we’ll save you all the money we can. And good luck to you.”
I thanked him and signed paperwork right above the word contractor. We shook hands once again and he walked me out the door back onto the sales floor. I bought white pants after that and put them on my new account.
Then I walked over to Ray’s Market. I needed something to celebrate having gone into business. It was nearly dark inside except for the Pepsi sign and “Please Have Your ID Ready.” A tub of Laffy Taffys sat on the shelf and I picked out a handful of yellow ones. I thought they might scrape glass if you needed them to, and I gave the lady a handful of dimes.
I folded the pants and paperwork into my backpack. I needed to think of a business name and probably hire some painters. Pedaling up Broadway past the shelters and the mission, people sitting along the wrought iron fence, I thought I’d swing home to take off the green pants and forget those apartment colors forever.