Monday, February 23, 2009


by Gina Sestak

My office is being repainted this week. My office at work, that is. Watching the painters set up at quitting time on Friday, their familiar equipment reminded me of that long-ago summer when I worked as a wall painter. [See my blog post Making a Difference in the World, October 21, 2006] I got to thinking about how all our experiences, including the jobs we've held, impact our writing. I haven't written a story with wall painting - yet - but I have no doubt that any description would be helped by my strong sensory recall of the way a brush feels in the hand, the cold splash of drips, the sharp smell of fresh paint, the magic of seeing years of wear erased by just a thin layer of color.

That got me thinking about other people's jobs, particularly family members' jobs. Not everyone is lucky (?) enough to be born into the Mafia or the circus, so the family business is more likely to involve punching a time clock than wasting the neighbors or walking a high wire. Still, the people in our books and stories need to work at something or they just won't be believable.

My father was a long time Westinghouse employee but, between strikes and layoffs, he spent a lot of time working other jobs during my childhood. I remember when he worked briefly as a wallpaper hanger.

No, wallpaper is not just a screen saver, at least not in the sense that I'm using the word. Wallpaper is real paper with patterns printed on it that is glued to walls to make them pretty. Paperhanging takes a lot of skill: Hanging wallpaper the way my father and his buddy did involved:
stripping and washing the walls;
hanging a chalked plumb line against the wall (the chalk lets you press the string of the plumb line into the wall and leave a straight up-and-down mark);
mixing a big bucket of paste;
setting up a makeshift table - a wide board balanced on two sawhorses;
cutting the wallpaper to fit the space allotted, including slicing out areas for switch plates;
laying the wallpaper face-down on the board;
spreading paste over the back of the wall paper with a big brush;
putting the paper in place on the wall; and
rubbing over the paper with another big wide brush to get rid of any trapped air.

It's a complicated process, but I can remember seeing my grandmother, then in her 70s (!), hang wallpaper, too. Of course, my grandmother could do anything. I once watched her dismantle and repair a double hung window, too, but that's another story.

What jobs have your parents done? Have you used those jobs in your writing?


Joyce said...

Interesting post, Gina! Thank goodness that with today's wallpaper all you have to do is cut it, wet it, and slap it on the wall. I don't think I'd want to mess with the paste variety.

My dad died when I was 2, so all I know about his job was that he worked for Bell Telephone as a linesman. Before they got married my mother was a hairdresser, and I think during WWII she worked at Dravo for awhile. After my dad came home from the war, the kids started coming and she stayed home.

Mom always did all the wallpapering, painting, and whatever else needed done all by herself. She was a night owl and often worked in the middle of the night. I remember waking up one morning and she had painted the dining room red overnight.

I haven't used any of this in my writing yet (other than making my protagonists very self-sufficient), but I've thought of writing a short story set during WWII at the Dravo shipworks. I might name the character Dolores after my mother.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

It seems like wallpapering has given way to faux painting. I used to work with my Uncle who was one of the last private statue painters for the Catholic Church. He was also a jack of all trades and renovated homes for a real estate developer.

I earned some cash for college by ripping out plaster walls and hanging drywall and wall paper. The old, non-pre-pasted kind.

My Dad was an ironworker, but he did many things for extra cash and I learned a lot of those things.

I haven't used the actual jobs, but a lot of the experience I gained in those jobs obviously shows in my writing.

BTW, I have three remaining wall in my house that are wallpapered. Someday soon they will be stripped and and re-painted.

Karen in Ohio said...

My dad was a telegrapher for two different railroads, something I wish I could have talked to him about before he died when I was 17. He was also a bartender, a butcher's assistant, and he taught piano for awhile. Mother worked in an insurance company office for more than 35 years, as a rater in the fire department. We were forbidden to call her at work unless it was a dire emergency, but when we did call she answered the boss's phone, "Fire Department". My grandpa called her once and reported a fake fire. Ha, ha.

Annette said...

We built our house while planning our wedding and the wedding day came before the house was finished inside. I remember leaving for our honeymoon with bare drywall in the bathroom. While we were gone, my mom and my aunt hung the wallpaper in there. It was a very pleasant surprise for us when we returned home.

My dad owned his own machine shop for a time and then worked at a tire re-capping plant. I've never used either of those in my writing, but my mom's family were farmers and that repeatedly makes its way into my work.

Tina said...

Good Interesting post,I've not tryed pasting wall papers in the wall,but we are planning for that and we are working towards that to get a good picture. Can you suggest anything good for us?! And offcoures in future we will have less wall repair work.

Joe said...

My dad is a doctor.I wish too but till now I in search of good oppurtunity to use my writing,do you have any offer for me?