Second in a series.
I was clinging to the top of the ladder, waving a paintbrush with my free hand to swat at the wasp circling my head. It was hot, and sweat trickled into my eyes, which must have reflected a mix of fear and frustration as I neared the wasp’s nest. An edge along the roof remained unpainted, a glaring omission that taunted me as
the sorties drew closer and more menacing.
I had to decide whether to stick it out or suffer another sting. (After another close pass, I ended up jumping without thinking, nearly breaking my neck.)
As a teenager, I faced a spate of similarly unpleasant choices while spending summers painting houses.
The job had its benefits. I was able to work for myself and with friends. The hours were flexible. And the pay was better than other summer jobs, at least when it went as planned.
But it was hard work, at times dangerous, that provided a crash course in growing up.
My sporadic career as a house painter began one summer during middle school. With a few weeks between camp and a family trip, my father decided to make use of my idle time.
The ranch house where we lived in suburban New York needed a fresh coat. My dad, a stickler who didn’t brook shortcuts, decided I should use a brush rather than a roller. He also decided the house should be stained rather than painted. That meant a lot more work.
Over several grueling weeks, I learned how much slower it was to apply stain, which requires more brush strokes. I also learned how much harder it was to remove the splotches of stain that coated nearly every part of my body. I spent hours using turpentine to scrub away the copper-colored blotches.
When I finally finished the job — after a few falls from the ladder and more stings than I care to remember — I walked around the house, recalling the challenges of reaching the highest corners and covering tricky spots. I watched the stain dry and thought, “I did that.”
It was alluring to do a summertime job in which I could see the fruits of my labor, and so I kept at it. But that meant lessons in humility and responsibility.
I learned quickly that I lacked talent with a brush or roller. I found I had to use tape to prevent the inevitable wayward strokes and drop cloths to keep the spatter off carpeting or patios. (Sometimes I spent more time cleaning than painting.)
Then there were the more serious blunders, like the time we doused a couch and sprinkled paint on a wardrobe. There were broken windows from misplaced ladders and damaged clapboard from scraping too aggressively. Insurance, I learned later, was a worthwhile investment.
Over a summer during high school, when waking before 11 a.m. was a challenge, I struggled with the concept of managing time. Making sure there was enough light left in the day was useful for finishing a job. It also helped to understand how long a job would take, because a faulty estimate meant the difference between a tidy profit and earning less than minimum wage.
There was only so much time for loafing. This meant I had to learn how to manage conflict when a friend had to be dragged out of bed in the morning or decided to take an extended lunch break.
My last turn as a summer painter came during college in Ann Arbor, Mich., where I put a classified ad in the local paper, distributed signs around town, and hired a small crew.
We had a steady flow of interior and exterior jobs, and for the most part, we had happy customers who got a tedious task done at a relative bargain.
But we could be sloppy and had our share of disgruntled clients, some of whom pressed us to apply additional coats and fix things that it wasn’t always clear we had broken.
One day, an older man asked if he could join the crew. He said he had a lot of experience, and we needed the help. He was an excellent painter: fast, fearless, methodical. But after a half day, he disappeared.
It was a good thing, I learned. He had told the other guys that he owned a gun and planned to use it for some kind of crime if he couldn’t make ends meet.
A few days later, the painter left me a message, saying he wanted to be paid for the few hours he worked. Then he started to leave threatening messages. I was reluctant to give in to a guy who abandoned the job, but in the end, I paid him.
The experience offered some final lessons: Some battles aren’t worth fighting. Cut your losses quickly. Most importantly, it was time to find a new line of work.