by Gina Sestak
One summer I worked painting walls.
If you've ever done physical labor, you know how liberating it can be. The repetitive motion of raising and lowering a paint-laden roller engages your body while your mind runs free. The dress code called for paint-stained shorts and T-shirt, and ran the mile and a half to work every day, never needing to shower before starting the job. As one of two women on an otherwise all-male crew, I was privy to a world few other women see.
The crew was made up of students working for the summer, plus two permanent employees. Those guys didn't want us working too fast, lest they be held to the same standard year round, so a pair of us would be given two days to double coat a room. That was the fun part. You always begin by scraping off whatever is loose on the wall or woodwork. Lesson Number One: Paint will not work like glue to hold down loose fragments. In fact, as it dries, it will make everything come loose. Once you've scraped off the loose old paint and wallpaper, and gouged out the cracks in the plaster, you apply spackle. [Isn't that a great word? Spackle. Like speckle with an "a."] Spackle is a patch material that comes in cans and has the consistency of cookie dough. You use it to fill the cracks and holes, let it dry, then sand it smooth. Only then can you begin to paint. The paint came in 5 gallon plastic buckets that we had to lug to the rooms. I learned that this is easier if you carry two at once because it balances your shoulders, but you end up feeling inches shorter afterward. We used rollers on the walls and ceilings, but brushes played a major role. There were big fluffy dust brushes to get loose particles out of the way, wide brushes for painting small but not tiny areas, and narrow brushes for cutting in around the woodwork and ceiling. No masking tape for us. We made straight lines with steady eyes and hands. I learned to move furniture and large appliances (refrigerators, washing machines, dryers) by pushing from the hip, and to lay drop cloths effectively. My ladder skills improved tremendously, and I found that you can keep your balance in precarious positions by putting one hand on the ceiling, even though there's nothing there to grab.
I was working for the University of Pittsburgh, painting dorms that were empty for the summer. We found a lot of pornography abandoned by students who were apparently reluctant to take it home. These were the days before the internet; most of us hadn't seen this kind of thing before. It became common for one of us (always one of the guys) to read some of the grosser passages from the Marquis de Sade aloud at lunch. Sick but interesting. Lunch was usually brought from home and eaten in a lunch room provided for that purpose. On payday, though, we'd go out and have beer. [Most of us were over 21 or had ids that said we were.] Hot and thirsty as we were, I found that I was the only one who relished beer-and-vanilla-ice cream floats.
What did I learn from this job? The ability of physical activity to clear your thoughts, for one thing. The comeraderie that comes from sharing a job with a work crew. That some truly sick and poorly written things do manage to get published - I remember one book that had a passage three pages long in which the main word used was "ung," as in "Ung -- ung -- ung" during a sex scene. And, since we repainted areas that hadn't been repainted in at least a dozen years, I found that you can make a difference in the world with just a roller and some paint.