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I. Nothing (Gray) Is as It Seems, and Other Painting Perils
I squinted to read the print against the extremely similarly-colored sample card. Kitten’s Whisker. It looked at first to be an off-white, but on further squintination it focused into a thin hue of light gray, I was sure. Or was I? I flexed my eyelids again, opening my mouth to aid my vision as I had a habit of doing. I held the card up closer to the soft light in the Sherwin Williams display credenza. Was there… something else? Some slight tint of… blue? Wait… was it…? No. It couldn’t be.
“Honey,” I asked my wife, “do you see some… green in this?”
I almost doubted myself, but I was nearly certain there was some green in Kitten’s Whisker.
They would put green in there, I thought to myself. I’d developed some strong opinions about various paint retailers in the preceding months.
“No, babe. That’s gray,” she assured me, albeit without looking at the sample card.
Hmm. “Gray game,” I muttered agreeably. But I knew.
Green would not do. Any green was a no go. Our master bedroom was currently an appalling shade of green. In fact, the previous owner had gone so far in her support of the color of envy that she even had the apparently white ceiling tinted ever so slightly green to “compliment” the ill green walls, a horrifying fact that we would not discover until we painted the walls gray with a darker gray accent wall. Each night as we dimmed the lights, we began to notice a leering indication of green floating above us, a faint miasma of jealousy and bad taste haunting our dozing hours.
According to my wife there was no green in Kitten’s Whisker, but I still wasn’t sure. On the one hand, she was probably right because why would a color named Kitten’s Whisker be tinted green? There are neither green cats nor cats with green whiskers, at least not healthy ones. And she would know, she was a veterinarian. No one would name a color in honor of a diseased cat.
But on the other hand, since I’d started the process of repainting our recently purchased Watergate-era townhome, I had come to believe that there was no such thing as a pure gray. No, in every gray I saw there was a tint of color, to one wavelength or another. Philosophically, most people think of gray as symbolic of uncertainty and tend avoid it except as an accent color. But what was gray but black and white? And weren’t those colors the very essence of certainty? All I wanted was that: The certainty of a pure gray. Alas, in every paint-store sample card of grayishness I saw color! A hint of blue in Dolphin’s Fin. A shade of green in Cloud Shadow. And an absurd amount of brown in Spy’s Cloak — I mean, how could that have even been put on the “Cools & Neutrals” rack with a straight face? The lack of purity in grays left me feeling languid, let down, and lost at sea. Like a born-and-raised Scientologist who just finally got around to Googling Scientology, I didn’t know what was true anymore, except that we needed to decide on a gray for the front hall and the store was about to close.
“So why are we painting?” she asked, overwhelmed by the selection.
“Because our place is where beige went to hospice. When we move we’ll have to paint it and if we’re going to paint it we might as well enjoy it,” I said logically. “Plus, it’s fun.”
“Sounds boring,” she concluded, foreshadowingly.
We continued to shuffle through the sample cards. She handed me some purported grays: Grizzled Shadow, Big Sur, and Halifax Dusk.
“Brown, blue, and even more blue.” Back to the swatches.
II. Big Paint
One thing you don’t realize until you start painting in earnest is that paint stores are everywhere. They’ve been there the whole time; you just didn’t notice: Benjamin Moore (owned by Berkshire Hathaway), Sherwin Williams, PPG Paints. They’re on every corner, next to the mattress store. And then there are myriad smaller brands and manufacturers. Some with their own stores, others sold in big box or independent hardware stores. These include Behr (subsidiary of Masco Corp., of Delta faucet fame), Olympic (now a PPG brand), Valspar, Glidden (PPG again), Dutch Boy (Sherwin Williams), Pratt & Lambert (also Sherwin Williams), Clark & Kensington (Valspar), Diamond-Vogel, Kelly-Moore, and others. Aisles and aisles of the stuff fill whole sections at stores dedicated to supplying America’s ongoing fixation with fixing up. Paint is big business. $11 billion a year in the U.S., to be inexact.
And why wouldn’t it be? As the country clutches the padded lap bar during the latest ascent of the national real-estate roller coaster, every homeowner knows that painting is basically the cheapest thing you can do to noticeably spruce up your house. And so they’re doing it. And as one of them, I was doing it. It doesn’t matter who you are, us or them. You simply have to paint. Right now. You need to be painting your house.
Even as an aspiring homeowner, you imagine what a good coat of paint could do to the fixer-upper with which you’re going to start your own personal house-flipping show on your own personal YouTube channel or Canadian cable network (if those things are different). If you’ve just bought your house, you marvel at how badly it needs to be painted. (How did you not notice this clashy, scuffed, chipped, tasteless paint on the walkthrough? Is that teal and beige? Surely this was the color of the rat room in which Winston found himself in 1984.) And if you’re about to sell your house, you’re not off the hook because your realtor will insist that you paint your house… using a paint crew she knows… the one with the guys that you strongly suspect are paying her a hefty kickback… led by a guy she probably slept with a few years ago. As she will convince you, if you don’t paint your house it will never sell. Ever.
“Just, you know, something neutral,” she’ll say.
Not those terrible, tasteless colors you painted the house with after your bought it four years ago, she’ll mean.
Something that other people… potential buyers… you know, ‘normal people’… will like., she’ll mutter to herself when your back is turned as you explain how tasteful your paint choices actually were.
Your realtor might suggest something like Lamb’s Tears, Dorset Chalk, Cirrus Whisp, or Swan Dander. That way “they” — potential buyers, normal people — can project their tastes onto the walls. And then later they can paint them with an absolutely insane pallette of Clown Cheek, Boca Blue, and Hell-Hath-No Yellow. And then they can repaint before they sell, and so on until giant three-legged robots roam the Earth, vaporizing humans with their laser-beam eyes as we beg for mercy, all while the paint company CEOs move on to the next star colony to colorize. I know because it happened to me!
III. The Only Normal People Are Those You Haven’t Met Yet, and Other Veiled Insults
I bought my first house at the age of thirty-two. I was then a single lawyer. It was a fairly recently updated 2–1 Tudor from 1928 in a recently-yuppied historical conservation district in a sprawling, Sunbelt metropolis. The conservation district meant you wouldn’t end up with a neighbor building a badly stuccoed Miami McMansion next to your integral example of mid-1920s, steeply-gabled, gingerbread housitude. But to keep the neighborhood cough-desirable-cough, they had to attract DINK couples who wanted houses bigger than the 1,500 square foot cottages people actually lived in a hundred years ago, and who also needed someplace to spend their ample disposable income while taking full advantage of the non-income-limited federal mortgage-interest tax exemption. Accordingly, in this neighborhood you had to leave the front of your house in a period-authentic snowglobe, but you could turn your backyard into a monstrous two-and-a-half story armory of media rooms, guest living-rooms, vacuum-storage closets, and french-doored craft nooks.
Outside, my first house was a neutral tan-painted brick. (The paint was not authentic to the Tudor period, but it had been grandfathered into the historic district, and I intended to let sleeping dogs lie as far as repainting the exterior.) Inside, it was painted a variety of slightly off-kilter colors. I had bought the home from another single young lawyer, much like me, who was moving out to get married, just as I would do seven years later. But I know he didn’t paint it. His sole contribution to the home was letting his long-suffering German Shepherds (neglected to insanity during his twelve-hour workdays) scratch the floors like forked butter and claw down the bottom of the bathroom door where, presumably, he kept them locked after he found out that they had clawed the floors.
Before the dog warden, I think my first home had been owned by a “Fun Lady.” I imagined she was the woman down the street who organized the block parties and had a couple of cats. The one who was straight and single and childless and fifty-eight but didn’t mind. She was into succulents and wind chimes. She voted for Dukakis and probably Mondale. She was just a Fun Lady.
As it was, the Fun Lady had painted the house a warm, but too strong yellow in the guest bedroom, nearly black in the bathroom, a variety of brownish grays in the living and dining rooms, and a hellacious brown-red bastard hybrid in the kitchen. What’s worse, the kitchen had a drywall texture that resembled the kid’s mashed potato mountain at the dinner table in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “This means something,” Richard Dreyfus’s character said while staring at the starchy Matterhorn. Yes it did. It meant the Fun Lady was a weirdo. Also, the master bedroom was a nice, calming shade of light blue that I would never be able to replicate since I’d moved without a sample, an oversight I had come to regret.
Yet I never painted anything in the house, just like the owner before me had failed to do. In hindsight, this was probably because at that naive point in my life I didn’t know that you always had to be painting. Always. Also, I was an associate at a somewhat large law firm, which meant I was either working or drinking. That didn’t leave a lot of time for home improvement.
IV. How the Other Half Paints
But mainly, I think I didn’t paint because for a lot of my childhood we rented, and renters don’t paint. We had owned a house next door to my grandparents when I was really young — up to about eight. This was when my dad worked for my grandfather in their family-owned construction business. My grandfather was an architect and the owner by a plurality that included numerous partners and deceased partners’ widows. My dad started as a laborer, then graduated to carpenter, then to foreman, and finally to superintendent.
After the company succumbed to the 1980s (Reaganomics was particularly hard on America’s agricultural heartland, ironically, as it turns out, since he is now revered there as a demigod — Reagan, not my dad) we were renters until I started high school. Before that time, all I knew of painting was the finger variety. During our renting days I didn’t encounter much painting. That’s because renters are wary of the whole concept of paint and painting. First of all, when you rent you’re usually not allowed to paint at all. And if you are, or if you do it anyway, you just guaranteed yourself a frantic fourteen hour painting spree back to five-gallon super white the day before you move out.
And even if you don’t paint the place, as a renter, especially a conscientious, noble, working-class renter like my dad, you still spend the night before you move out spackling all the tack holes, patching the drywall holes from your sons’ fistfight, and painting all the scuffs, marks, and bodily-fluid stains left by two years with two boys in a two-bedroom apartment. You do all this lest your landlord decide the place needs to be painted after you move out. In that case, forget your security deposit. And you might even expect a bill. The landlord doesn’t use a “paint guy” (discussed below) or the super. He uses a real painting company that advertises, one with logo’ed vans, branded hats, and fancy tools. And that overhead is coming out of your ass.
Understandably then, my dad was a little averse to painting. So that’s probably why I didn’t paint anything besides miniature orc figurines until I was 27.
Seven years after buying my first house, I was getting married. So I was about to put my little, 1,182 square foot jewel-box Tudor with the stained-glass windows on the market, just like the late-marrying lawyer before me had done when he sold the place to me shortly before his wedding. Reluctantly, at my realtor’s insistence, I had the entire house painted before I put it up for sale, kitchen cabinets and all, a mix of Lambswool (not Lamb’s Wool, that was another color entirely) and Dover White. I used her kickback contractor. It sold in four hours.
I’ll never know whether it was the paint that sold the place so fast or my realtor’s new set of fake boobs (which she called, ‘These Things,’ or, ‘The Girls,’ as if they were a pair of miniature dachshunds in her purse). Probably just the market. But I had to admit it did look really nice once it was painted. In fact, I wished I had gotten to enjoy my nice new paint for longer than the time it took to sign the seller’s disclosure statement.
A few weeks after the sale of the Fun Lady’s kaleidoscope cottage, after the wedding, I formally moved into the townhouse my wife and I had bought some months before. (To avoid Hell and my aunt’s disapproval, which are of similar reputation, we had avoided outright premarital cohabitation.) With the regret of having given the buyer of my house a $6,000 paint job for free still fresh in my mind, I was determined to paint the new place right away. Because it was true, as they said, things just look better with a fresh coat of paint, and I was going to enjoy it this time, by God! I was about to paint more than I ever had in my life. To the paint store! Let’s do this! Drop cloths, old T-shirts, boomboxes, living room sex! We were going to paint, starting tomorrow!
A year and a half later we were finally at Sherwin-Williams, glazing over glazed paint cards. Ceylon Gloam. Thatched Window. Varn.
V. A Rose by Any Other Name? I Know Just the Guy
We had decided to wait so long to start painting because it is so much easier to paint when the house is full of furniture, pictures, electronics and dirty clothes, and when your wife is five months pregnant… (That is called sarcasm, which is also a light rouge tint of interior paint in the “Warm” row at Benjamin Moore, right between Vendetta Stone and Revanche.)
We walked to the racks of sample cards at “the Sher,” and I started perusing. I examined the names of the colors and was impressed with their lexicon: Seychelle Blue, Obelia, Leporine, Dried Radish, Solitude, Awesome Violet (okay, that last one was pretty weak). The names were enthralling, hypnotizing, puzzling, and pandering all at once. As I read through them I was reminded of the past life of the friend-of-a-friend I’d met a couple summers before.
He was now the chief legal counsel of a internet company that could be described as an online tribe of people that looked at (or were featured in) pictures of young, barely-clothed, not-so-hot-as-to-be-unobtainable women, and who also bought a lot of T-shirts along the lines of those you’d see in a shop in Cabo San Lucas, but more self-referential. But in a past life, this guy — let’s call him the A — had been a part of the so-called seduction community, a/k/a the “PUA Lifestyle.” PUA stands for Pick-Up Artist.
Pickup artists are men who make a sport of using lies and psychological manipulation of women to get laid as much as physically possible. I know what you’re thinking: devaluing sex to the point of transactional meaninglessness and treating half the human race as chattel to be systematically defrauded and tricked into surrendering themselves for one’s physical gratification? That sounds awful! But before being widely seen for its true nature as something barely less detestable than a Thuggee-like cult of near-if-not-outright rape, the PUA lifestyle was thought of as a sort of quaint social outlet for serial philanderers, a way to exchange ideas with like-minded assholes who might otherwise be forced to question their moral choices in the depths of their own solitude.
Suffice it to say that one critical aspect of the PUA lifestyle is to have a fake job. It’s the job that you, the A, tell the women you are attempting to PU about, because your actual job sucks and is self-evidently uninteresting. Anyway, this particular A’s fake “pickup job” was color characterist. (He put the accent on the second syllable of the second word, “cha-rack-terist”… because rack.) His fake responsibility was to name colors for cosmetics companies and, less sexily, paint companies. This fake job checked all the boxes: it was interesting and so would spark further conversation, it probably was a job that someone somewhere actually had, and — this is critical — it involved no actual skills or technical knowledge that he could be called out on for not actually having. It also helped that, although some people have this job there are probably incredibly few of them, so you’re likely not going to have a moment along the lines of, “Really? My cousin is a satellite technician at Lockheed too. Have you heard of the new Hawk Seven System? He told me all about it!” As a side note, the A would also frequently claim upon entering a bar to have just made a citizen’s arrest. This apparently worked often, the trick being to believe the lie, like the Minitru functionaries in 1984.
A key part of the menagerie of lies the A would tell his PU targets regarding his fake job were examples of the color names he had created. They had to sound real, meaning they had to sound fake, but the kind of fake that would really be on a bottle of nail polish at Gadzooks, or the sample card at B. Moore. He would always have a couple pre-named colors in his figurative back pocket to avoid having to make them up on the fly.
“Like your sunglasses, for example,” he would say, pointing to the red sunglasses on the PU’s head, “I might call those Summer’s Night Secret.” Nice. “Or your eyes,” he would continue, “I might call those My Bedroom Blue…” Okay, maybe he was more subtle than that. But you get the idea. I guess it worked. He was rumored to have slept with over 300 women in one year. This was made more impressive by the fact that he carried this out while spending his weekends as a fake roadie for his friend Shawn’s Bon Jovi cover band, Shawn Jovi.
I sort of admired his fake job because it wasn’t easy, besides the fact that he didn’t actually do it. In fact, I was sure somewhere a real color characterist was having a hard time naming colors. (That person was probably an intern at an advertising agency, not an actual salaried man or woman with a thesaurus and a secret Words With Friends addiction, but still, someone was doing this.) I knew it was difficult because it was hard for me to come up with color names that sounded right, yet there were hundreds out there and they all seemed to change every few years. And every store and every brand had their own names for the same colors. After all, there were no new rainbows, but I had seen scores of color names as I pawed through the sample cards at paint stores around town: There were science-y names like Nimbus or Heliosphere; place-y names like Venetian Cream or Samarkand Noon; nature-y names like Glacier Frost or Sea Horizon; Earthy names like Cracked Chestnut or Almond Fur; and even fun names like Diagnosis Pink or Foat. A person somewhere had been paid to think of all these names.
I had thought it was possible that the paint companies used a computer program that just spat out pairs of words, like the Wu Tang Name Generator but for paint colors: Orange Dirty Bastard, Graykwon… Redman. But it turns out even today’s advanced AI still has trouble picking random paint names that are both totally arbitrary and pleasing to the human ear. Though the AI system is improving, it still selects names like Roycroft Briss, Peacake Brean, and Bleedwood. These are obviously deep into the uncanny valley of paint names, unlike Farrow & Ball’s offerings of Matchstick, Smoked Trout, and Mole’s Breath, which, while utterly ridiculous, somehow make a kind of sense to the human auditory cortex. (F&B, to those in the know, is an English paint company whose paint you can’t afford. It traces its origins back dozens of years, to when a London advertising agency and a venture capital group bought a bankrupt company in Dorset that had sold paint for factory machines and bicycles.) So it looks like the A’s fake job is safe for now from the onslaught of our AI overlords. And bravo to him for choosing what I think was the perfect fake job to serve his hobby of psychologically manipulating vulnerable women into fornicating with him.
VI. A Digression on Finish
We were at another paint store. We were going to two or three on a Saturday these days. I was humming old Wu beats. Paint ruled everything around me. After weeks of paint-store outings during my wife’s first trimester, made in between runs to TCBY or the ice cream cooler at Walgreen’s, we had settled on two colors for the master bedroom: Lauren Gray for the accent wall and Whale Watching for the rest. (We would later use Kitten’s Whisker on the master bath after I was convinced it was green-free.) We arrived at the counter ready to head home and begin.
At that point, the clerk (who I would later find out knew nothing about painting whatsoever, like most paint store clerks) asked us what finish we wanted. We looked at each other blankly and slightly panicked. Recognizing our symptoms, the clerk took us to a display where a handful of pieces of crown molding were painted with the same color but different levels of glossiness, under a light angled so you could see how much glare they each gave off. And this is the essence of finish. Why they don’t just ask you how glossy you want it is beyond me.
There are five or six levels of glossiness, depending on the store. They have different names sometimes, depending on how expensive the paint store is, but generally they are as follows:
- Flat — This is never used, according to the paint store clerks. It is flat to the point of chalkiness and is best suited to painting the hulls of oil tankers and tanks to be used in desert warfare. It is essentially a powder.
- Matte — This is a little less flat than flat. It seems too flat, but it’s not. But they will tell you it is. So you won’t choose it. Then you will be disappointed with how glossy the paint is that you did choose. Then you will visit the house of someone with more money and better taste than you and you will ask them what paint finish they used in their living room because it looks so much better than at your house. They will tell you matte. You will then curse the idiotic paint store clerk.
- Eggshell — This is common. It is usually used in kitchens and bathrooms and hallways. You will also use it in your bedroom and living room because the paint store clerk will tell you matte is too flat. How glossy can it be?, you’ll think. Well try it and you will be angry. Very much so because eggshell gleams like someone wrung out Ray Liotta’s hair after a fourteen-hour day on the set of GoodFellas, warmed it in a iron skillet, and slowly spread it over your walls with a butter-soaked basting brush.
- Semigloss — You will choose this for your bathroom because you will think that has to be more glossy than the eggshell in your bedroom. It will be too glossy for your bathroom. It will repel water and light and will shimmer like a Saharan mirage before a hung-over French Legionnaire. This may be called pearl or satin at places where people with more money and better taste than you buy their paint. It’s really only used for trim and some crown molding.
- Glossy — Like flat, this is never used unless you are painting settees for Emperor Napoleon III.
- High gloss — Basically clear coat. This looks like paint that is just out of reach at the bottom of a clear, cold pool in Narnia.
We went with eggshell. Needless to say, we should have gone with matte.
VII. A Guy for That
With our finish selected, we returned home. The next day, my wife went to work. I donned gym shorts and a de-elasticated T-shirt, readied the rollers, and prepared to paint.
The first thing you will learn about painting is that it is really easy. With a few basic tools, you really can do it yourself. Unfortunately, to do it well requires patience and practice. Patience because going slow is what prevents you from getting paint on the carpet, the door jamb, your wife’s hair, the dog, the baby, the TV, and your actual eyeball. The good thing is, latex paint wipes off with a wet towel if you catch it before it dries. The bad thing is, you won’t. Practice is required because there are a few tricks of the trade to get the corners and edges right without having to tape everything, which takes an eternity, and you can only learn those tricks by trial and error. But, each trial takes two weeks of evenings, and each error ruins something expensive forever.
Because it is so easy, you will try to paint yourself. The first room you paint, you and your spouse may have some fun, like us, doing the whole “I got paint on your nose!” thing and maybe making an Irish twin. But you will learn shortly thereafter that while painting is easy, it is also boring. It is the Platonic ideal of boring. And worse yet, preparing to paint is both harder and, impossibly, more boring. This is why carpenters have toolboxes and painters have boomboxes.
Moving the furniture, taping the base boards, laying the drop cloths, finding the right Pandora station. It is easy, but time-consuming, and what’s more, a type of mental anaesthetic that is somehow also painful. This means the whole time you are painting you will be thinking of something else, namely, how you wish you weren’t painting. In fact, you will imagine doing anything but painting. Watching TV, walking through the park, hell, going to work will sound more appealing than painting once you have painted the first room and face the task of still other rooms — let alone a whole house — waiting to be coated.
At this point you will learn that painting is one of those things you will want to have a guy for. As in, you’ll say to a friend, “Hey, do you know a guy who can paint?” And if your friend is good, he’ll say, “Yeah, I gotta guy for that.” It is great to have a guy to do electrical work, lawn work, and plumbing. The harder or more boring something is to do, the more you need a guy. Having a paint guy is a big deal.
[Importantly, when speaking with a female, it is important to note the contextual difference between having a guy to do something and having a man to do something. “You should get a guy for that,” is a helpful suggestion. “You should get a man to do that for you,” is a barbaric, chauvinistic insult. — ed.]
But a guy is not just “a guy” or “some guy.” A guy is a technical term for someone who can do something well, for cheaper than average. A guy is generally retained via word-of-mouth, not Angie’s List, Thumbtack, the Better Business Bureau or Backpages.com (although you can a get a guy there too), and certainly not an ad on a van, or a bus bench, the Yellow Pages, or — God forbid — Googling “cheap painter Dallas” and hoping for the best. A guy may or may not be an officially licensed practitioner of a particular trade (should such a license be legally required) but he will be good. His — and I should say her — skills were often obtained during military service that the guy will not discuss. The guy may be a recent widow. The guy may have a brother or uncle in a related trade who provided an entree into the referral network from which you plucked him. The guy may also live in his truck, rent movies at the library, and be big into racing those weird mud-buggies that they do at that dirt racetrack in that small town a couple hours away. The guy’s politics are best avoided but it is likely he quietly resents Goldwater’s loss in ’64 and collects memorabilia from one of the more recent wars between Germany and France.
Most importantly, hiring a guy who can do some painting is always preferable to hiring an actual “painter” or a veritable practitioner of the trade who advertises to the general public for business. That is because those aren’t guys at all. They are ripoff artists and you will be considered a fool by your friends if you hire AA+ Painting, or someone else with a vinyl-wrapped, late model van. Aim for a plain white Ford or Dodge van of uncertain vintage. Barring that, one of those small Japanese pickups they don’t sell here anymore will do. If you can’t find a guy to paint, either don’t paint or reconsider your friends.
VIII. A Brief Sub-Treatise on Texture
As I painted, something struck me. It looked wrong. It looked better, but it didn’t look as new and fresh and cool and plush “af” as I thought it would. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but if I had, I would have known what it was right away. Because it was texture.
A couple months after my wife and I moved into our townhouse, some good friends of ours bought a house in the same neighborhood. It was like ours, but detached instead of a townhome, three times bigger, forty-five years newer, and had a pool. Their house also had copper wiring instead of aluminum like ours. Aluminum wiring was big in 1973 when our townhouse was built. It wasn’t until a few years later, apparently, that scientists checked their hypotenuses and discovered that aluminum gets really hot when you run a lot of electricity through it and this tendency tends to burn houses down. You’d think that would have been discovered in 1873, but so be it.
We spent the summer going over to their new house once a week or so to hang out in the pool. Occasionally, we’d spend time inside and I’d admire the paint job. There was something about it that just seemed different than the paint job at my house. Different in some way that I couldn’t quite identify, but that was more of a feeling of refinement that my paint job was missing. I’d felt it or seen it before in other nice houses. I’d never felt it in any place I’d lived, especially the white-painted rentals I grew up with.
This friend, Carlos, had a guy who did the painting at his house when they moved in. In fact, he was such a guy that you couldn’t even hire him unless you had previously used the contractor that the guy almost exclusively worked for. Carlos had used that contractor for remodeling at his prior house (climb that property ladder!) so he had a guy. Not only that, but a guy no one else could use. The best kind.
I began to consider how much painting remained to be done at our house and how underwhelmed I’d been by what we’d done so far. I could do a lot of it, but it was so boring. And I had twenty-foot vaulted ceilings above the living room and wasn’t enthralled with the idea of renting scaffolding, or of standing on a couch tipped-up against the wall, or of just sort of tossing paint up there with a bucket, a fan, and an umbrella.
I picked my friend’s brain about paint guys: cost, time, difficulty, and the like. All the while, I couldn’t stop wondering what it was that made his house seem so much more refined than mine. Sure, it was a lot newer, but it was still four walls, a ceiling, and a floor. The floors were nice, but that wasn’t it. The ceilings were tall, but we had those vaulted ceilings that, like most legs, went all the way to the top, and something was still missing, so that wasn’t it either.
VIII.a. A Short Digression on Crown Molding
My friend Carlos and I talked about crown molding. Maybe that was what made my paint job seem so lackluster, even though it had way too much luster. Crown molding is the piece of wood trim at the corners and edges between the wall and the ceiling. The bigger and more ornate it is, the harder and more expensive it is to make and install. It also depends what it is made out of. Good crown molding is made of expensive hardwood, which is then painted over in thick coats of glossy trim paint, because fuck it, that’s why. Therefore, a good rule of thumb is, the bigger and more ornate the crown molding, the nicer the house. Cheap places don’t have it at all. This was true in 1780 and it’s true today. Not that people with big crown molding are better than those with unadorned corners and edges, it’s just that they probably are.
Carlos’s house had thick slabs of crown molding running almost a foot down the wall from the corner, and another six inches onto the ceiling, with lots of rolling hills and valleys lathed into it. The rentals I grew up in just had plain old right angles where the ceiling met the wall… #workingpoor. Our new-to-us townhouse had crown molding in the bedrooms, but it was cheaply tacked-on strips of wood with only the most basic of whimsical toodley-doos on it, likely from Home Depot or Ace Hardware. The living room didn’t have any. So the lack of crown molding was certainly part of what made our house seem vaguely shitty. But it wasn’t everything.
VIII (cont.). Back to Texture After the Whole Crown Molding Bit
“Are you going to retexture it?” Carlos asked as we discussed my plans to maybe get a guy to finish painting our place.
I paused. Did I know what that was? I wasn’t sure.
“What do you mean?”
“On the walls, bro. Your shit is pretty dated,” he scoffed, vaguely intimidatingly for some reason.
I would later find out how dated my shit was when I had my first paint guy come over for an estimate. I asked him if he thought I should retexture. Obviously, he’d want the extra work, but I didn’t think he’d actually laugh before nodding and saying he would retexture because, “this shit is pretty bad.” And you know what? It was. It was pretty bad. Who knew my texture would elicit such profanity?
But what is it? Again, from my experience growing up in rentals, I assumed all walls basically had a smooth, deliciously lead-filled white surface or were exposed brick. As I learned from talking to Carlos and Googling “texture painting,” texture is a surface of a thin mud called joint compound, which is applied over the drywall in such a way so that when it dries, it has various types of, well, texture to it. The paint is then applied over that.
There are myriad tricks and tools you can use to create texture. As with crown molding, the most labor-intensive techniques are the most expensive. But counterintuitively, highly smooth texture is as expensive to get right as intricate-looking rough texture. So basic texture (for poor people) is not actually texture at all. Rather the drywall is simply painted over except corners and seams, which have tape and a thin layer of joint compound slathered on as quickly and inconspicuously as possible. Rich (monetarily and in terms of taste) texture is created by a combination of spraying on joint compound at a certain density, or applying it with a sponge, trowel, or other tool in a certain pattern, or both. This results in those little bumps, ridges, and flat-topped bubbles that you see on walls. It takes a lot of time and skill to apply texture evenly and correctly. If you try it yourself, you will ruin yourself and your house. You absolutely need a guy to do texture. And no matter your guy, you can bet it will triple the cost of your painting job. As you might have guessed, because it is such a huge, expensive pain in the ass, like crown molding, texture is one of those socioeconomic signifiers that you feel in a house more than see.
There are many types of texture, as you can imagine, but some general types are as follows:
- Rolled — This is what it sounds like. You apply the mud with a roller at halftime and then leave it and go back to watch wrastling. You’ll usually see this in garages, closets, and cheap places where landlords don’t answer your calls.
- Stipple — For this, you use a texture brush to draw up the mud in various patterns after it’s applied and then you leave it. It can also be done with spherical sponges, resulting in circular patterns that look like the outline of fireworks. This is especially the case when combined with the glossier-than-advertised eggshell paint-finish. If there is any light at all, the paint finish on the highly-raised texture will glisten and illuminate your room like a Florentine fountain on a sunny Tuscan day under a nuclear skyblast. This is called Crow’s Foot or something similar. It is hideous. You’ll see this usually on ceilings and gaudy places from the ‘60s and ‘70s that had shag carpeting and hosted “tupperware parties” during the Ford administration. Back then, painters would apparently let their kids come over, put Crocodile Rock on the turntable, and let the little naked hippy toddlers just throw sponges and brushes at walls. Then they’d leave it and call it texture. This was done in our bedrooms and living areas. I didn’t notice it until a few months after we moved in. “Oh, so that’s why our place looks old and terrible!”
- Trowel, skip trowel, etc. — This involves using a trowel as you apply the mud. It can be called Adobe or Santa Fe style, or just call it whatever you want. You can let one layer dry and then do another on top of it. You can do it yourself. You can’t screw it up. It’s easy. It also looks that way. “Oh, so this person just sort of gave up and did their own texture,” you’ll say when you examine it closely. This was in our kitchen and bathrooms. It is also hideous.
- Knockdown — For this, you (really, your guy) sprays the mud on the wall, lets it dry slightly and then drags a rubber trowel down over it to “knock down” the high points of the texture, which creates a nice, uniformly uneven texture that is very popular with wealthy people.
- Orange peel — This is knock down without the knocking down. The texture is sprayed on, but very finely and thinly so it doesn’t have high points. It is then left to dry, resulting in a texture that is very similar to grapefruit peel. Or orange peel, I guess. It’s also popular with rich people because it is a pain in the ass and easy to completely screw up if the mixture isn’t fine enough.
- Smooth — As explained above, this is also an expensive texture if it has to be done over existing texture because you have to have a middle-aged Italian artisan come to your house and painstakingly apply texture to a perfectly level finish. This type of finish can be seen in nice homes, but usually one with glass coffee tables, marble floors, and elderly people in velour jumpsuits living in them.
So that was it! That . . . feeling. It was texture. I had crow’s foot. I needed a large knockdown. That was the missing je ne sais quoi in the painting I’d done so far. That certain frisson just wasn’t there. That AWOL esprit de corps. The menage a trois that hadn’t come. Maybe a guy could make that happen. (Not that kind. Not that either.) If I could get a guy, a guy who could texture, then my paint job might capture that trompe d’oeil, the absence of which made my fuckin’ shit looked so shitty and dated as fuck.
I knew then what I had to do. I had to get a guy. I had to retexture the whole first floor of our place.
It was difficult to convince my wife that we needed to spend three times what a simple paint job would cost to retexture our living/dining/family box. I told her it would make our house look like a completely new place. She was skeptical. I told her once our living area and main hallway were retextured and repainted in a matte finish, our house would look completely renewed. It wouldn’t look like a Nixon-era relict with firework sparklers for electrical wiring! It would make us look like we were classy people! We could finally get rid of our velour jumpsuits! I convinced her. Happily, she was wrong.
IX. Conclusion, or, Ellen Burstyn’s Balls
A lot of men seem to get really nervous when expecting their first child. Will I be a good father?, they worry. How will I cover the expenses?, they wonder. Did I really sleep with this woman on my doorstep waving a pregnancy-test stick?, they lament. The nice part about waiting until you’re married and almost 40 to have your first child is that you don’t have any of those worries. By then, you’ve seen some of your stupidest, most irresponsible friends become fathers — some of them have kids in high school — and they seem to have handled it all right. I don’t know anyone whose child has starved to death on the side of the road, and several of my worst acquaintances have kids who seem to be very smart and well-adjusted. So I wasn’t worried that I could not handle being a father.
What I was worried about was free time. Not losing it — after all, I had squandered plenty of it already and had plenty to spare at this point, having left my job — but of spending it doing mind-numbing home repair jobs, like painting. My wife was about to start a vet clinic a couple months after the delivery, so I knew I would be spending a lot of time as Mr. Mom with a newborn. And I didn’t want to spend it carrying our child in a Baby Bjorn under a plastic dropcloth. Not only did that sound dangerous for the kid — although I’d probably use a canvas dropcloth over the kid, not a suffocate-y plastic kind — it also sounded really hard on my back.
My wife and I had gotten a lot of painting done a few months back. Our guy had retextured and repainted the living area and front hall, and it looked like everything we thought it could!
But there were lots of closets, alcoves, foyers, and office nooks remaining. Accordingly, upon receiving the news that I would be a father, I resolved to complete every home improvement task I could think of before our baby was due in July. Since it was only October, I figured I had time.
There were several things I wanted to accomplish at the house, but the remaining painting seemed like the best place to start. I started by painting the wall behind some built-in bookshelves as an accent. I learned the more advanced tricks of taping, roller, and brush work. Thanks YouTube! And it wasn’t bad at all. Of course, when you’re painting a sixty square-foot patch of wall, saying it’s not bad is like saying the Korean War wasn’t bad because it was shorter than World War II.
Painting is a lot like eating a grape: You only have to concentrate hard enough not to choke and you shouldn’t let a dog or a two-year-old do it. During the several hours it took me to paint the accent behind the shelves, I listened to every Kanye West album and actually calculated the thickness of the paint I applied using Google, a ruler, and a calculator. In case you’re wondering, one quart of paint is 946.35 cubic centimeters. Based on my measurements, I used about 80% of a quart of paint to put two coats on the wall behind the bookshelves. That’s 757 cubic centimeters of paint. Applied over 65,032 square centimeters of wall (70 square feet, fourteen by five), that’s a paint depth of .1164 millimeters. Of course, that’s all by memory and could be completely wrong, but you get the idea. Basically, you don’t have to worry that if you keep painting your house, you will be squeezed into an ever-smaller paint coffin. That would take a lot of coatings. How many? Well next time you paint something, start thinking about it and get out a calculator. You’ll figure it out. Believe me, you’ll have the time.
Next, I tackled the master bathroom. I left the hand trowel texture in place to save time. I tore out the in-wall electric heater because combined with our dynamite-fuse aluminum wiring, it seemed intentionally positioned to destroy the home. I learned how to patch drywall. I learned how to match the texture over the patch to the rest of the wall, more or less, and then I painted the room with a gallon of semigloss Kitten’s Whisker. (I hadn’t yet fully internalized the lesson that semigloss will gloss over your walls like a Bill O’Reilly “history” book glosses over slavery.) I even spray painted the horrific, faux-antique mirror frame a nice glossy white called Severe Glaucoma. Lo and behold, it transformed the room. A coat of paint and some new light fixtures brought it from 1973 to 2016.
With a fragile confidence built up by those two projects, I next tackled the downstairs bathroom. I still didn’t fully absorb how glossy semigloss paint was because the light shade of Kitten’s Whisker had masked a lot of the glare in the upstairs bath. But after painting the downstairs a “nautical”-looking French blue called, as I recall, Prussian Epaulet, I came to terms. Imagine looking onto the ocean from a beach at sunset… on Tatooine. That’s about how glare-y dark semigloss paint is on a rough troweled texture when you turn on the lights. So, go with eggshell, damnit! If you take nothing else from this opus, go with damn eggshell in the bathrooms, halls, and kitchen, and matte everywhere else, including bedrooms! For the love of Glidden!
After those three adventures, it took me a couple months to get up the stamina to paint again. Believe me, after painting a couple rooms, you will need to spend some time exercising your mind before convincing yourself to ‘go back to the can,’ as they say. Not to make light of solitary confinement, but painting two rooms within a couple of weeks is worse than being held in solitary confinement, in a sensory deprivation tank, outside Earth’s gravity well, after the heat-death of the universe, with a severed spine. After a long painting spell you will crave mental stimulation with every straw of your bodily paintbrush. You will read Pynchon novels, watch Fellini films, and aim to become a Go grand master. Well, perhaps that’s an exaggeration. More likely, you will read Twitter summaries of political articles, watch House of Cards, and aim to become a Pokemon Go grand master. But all the same, you will need a few weeks to recover from the mental idleness of — quite literally — watching paint dry for days at a time.
Once recovered, I painted our guest-and-future-child’s bedroom a nice periwinkle named, creatively, Perfect Periwinkle. Clearly this name was chosen by Sherwin Williams’s color characterist on a late Friday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend. Periwinkle has the benefit of being equally suitable for a girl or a boy, or any of the other available genders of human child.
At this point, I had the techniques down. I no longer had to tape every possible edge. Just the base boards. I had gotten skilled with specialized edge and corner painting tools. These are actually invaluable, saving a great amount of time in prep and cleanup, which suck ass.
To save money, I decided not to retexture the bedrooms. Yet somehow, I refused to learn my gloss lessons, choosing eggshell on the theory that it would be a child’s room and eggshell can, in theory, be cleaned more easily. (Can’t you just paint over it?) But upon completion, I could still see the eye-burning glare from the mountainous crow’s foot texture whenever I turned on the lights. But given the time it took, eggshell it would remain. We would get sunglasses for the baby.
Now I was rolling, literally and figuratively. My paint game on point. I had the tools: The edgers, the cornerers, the plastic liners for the thing you pour the paint in for the roller to load up. I had even invented my own technique to avoid paint sliding down the can and accumulating in the lid grooves on the edge of the can when you poured out the paint. I wrapped it in aluminum foil. Sure, that got my hands painty (I never did the nitrile glove thing. Too Dexter-y). And sure, I could have bought something that did it better for eighty-nine cents. But I invented it! And if it failed, I discovered that the free paint stirrers from the paint store are the perfect thickness to scoop paint out of the grooves on the top of the can back into the can.
Having leveled up in Paintroid, we decided to do an accent wall in the master bedroom. An accent wall is one wall in a room painted a different color to show people that you have Pinterest on your phone. It should be darker than the predominant color… unless you chose a different color within the same palette. Then it could be lighter, or totally different. Don’t worry too much. If you mess up the accent wall color, it will only bother you every day for the rest of your time in the house. That’s because you won’t notice that the accent wall doesn’t work until after you clean up and put the furniture back, and you will absolutely never paint that room again until you are in your late fifties or about to sell the house. So no pressure, but get it right or deal with it until your kids grow up. That should actually be Sherwin Williams’ slogan: Painting. Get It Right or Deal With It Forever. (Also, Death to Earthlings.)
We went with, as I recall, Dire Wolf on the accent wall and Half Forgotten Dream elsewhere. Not only was my technical painting game exploding all over my walls’ faces by then, but my gloss game was also on fleek — as the kids said a few months back. I went with matte, finally. It was perfect. It reduced the glare to the point that you almost could not see the antiquated crow’s foot texture.
But — and this is the second-most important takeaway from this article, after never using semigloss on a wall — beware!
My sensory deprivation reached new depths while I painted the master bedroom, and yours will too if you paint more than one room in a stretch. I listened to the entire discography of Henry Nilsson. I played “air keyboards” to the entire Van Halen album 1984.
I imagined conversations I’d have with the morning hosts on the sports radio station if I were a guest. I would have been hilarious. I had several “hot takes,” though most have since been superseded by events.
I invented a language that I shared only with my new imaginary friend, Eustace, an English boy from the 1850s. His brother had died in the Crimean War. He said he too wanted to fight in “a Crimea.” He didn’t know it was only a single place.
Silly Eustace, I corrected him.
On further reflection, however, I realized that it is sometimes called “the Crimea,” not just Crimea. So I could understand his “the/a” confusion. Eustace was only eight, after all. Maybe I shouldn’t have donated him to that merchant marine who was looking for a Chief Buggerer’s Mate.
I imagined a band called Ellen Burstyn’s Balls becoming the new Beatles. I imagined that everyone, including Ellen Burstyn, loved their enrapturing music that reinvented rock, but was also completely offended by the name. LGBT advocates, fundamentalists… feminists were offended that the name implied an actor as good as Ellen Burstyn could not be a female, and Jimmy Kimmel gave a speech explaining why he would not have the band on his show, out of respect for Ellen Burstyn.
But on Charlie Rose, the band explained that they meant the figurative balls on Ellen Burstyn, and that their name was a compliment to her gutsy acting choices and her resistance, courage, and success in the face of the structural misogyny of the Hollywood system. That such a compliment attributed positive qualities to males by and through their gonads was a structural problem with English that the band could not be expected to avoid without compromising the intended meaning, they explained. They had to work within the language structure they inhabited, they pointed out, and could not be expected to be in the business of changing or critiquing that structure, let alone trying to advance poststructuralism in their album titles in addition to in their lyrics (where they did so). They weren’t Noam Chomsky (though, coincidentally, they were much bigger than the band Chomsky). Given the state of the music industry, Ellen Burstyn’s Balls pleaded, they might only have one chance to pay tribute to Ellen Burstyn in an album title, and they couldn’t very well do it in a gender neutral Esperanto-like language (such as the one Eustace and I communicated in).
Some time later, most had conceded that the band made some good points and perhaps society had overreacted. People didn’t know whether to be offended any more, and even then for different reasons. Except the fundamentalists; they stayed offended. Ellen Burstyn’s Balls ultimately played a surprise appearance on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, whose first and only guest that night was none other than the incomparable Ellen Burstyn! The show and the band won a GLAAD award for the performance. Ellen Burstyn hugged them after the show.
I snapped out of it and the bedroom was painted. The house was done. It looked great. I never looked back. I made a couple mistakes here and there, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed. I painted some end tables, but with spray paint. Child’s play. I had become the Edward Collier of painting a single color in two coats on featureless walls. I had gone insane from boredom. I vowed to never paint again. And I never will. I got a guy for that.