The Bohemian Experiment

Touch Up

Posted by beckert10 on June 20, 2009

Boston 128

I measure from the top to the bottom of the stairwell and scribble something in my notepad. “Just a moment, please,” I tell the homeowner, “just gonna run out to the car and make the final calculations.”
Outside in my black sedan I fire up a joint. After a little more sketching I come up with a price of $3,269. I’m confident the figure doesn’t sound like it was just pulled out of thin air.
Back inside I shoot the number at him. He mulls it over, but I know he doesn’t have a clue about painting or whether or not this is a reasonable price.
“When could you start?” he asks.
“Soon as possible, if that’s alright.” I say. “Tomorrow works for me.”
“Well, let’s do it,” he says, extending his hand to seal the deal. I accept, and thus I am to spend the next few weeks of my life in this house, earning $3,269. I make another mark in the margin. The only things written on the pad are a grocery list and a poorly-done sketch of a rhinoceros.

It’s amazing how people trust me in their home. This same couple who has a top of the line ADT system, security bars on their steering wheels, who instruct their children not to talk to strangers, they open their home to me in my paint-splattered fatigues and leave me there unattended. It’s a great act of faith in an age when faith is on the decline: in god, government, big business, progress, each other. But while people may not need a holy savior anymore, they sure as hell still need a repairman. The more technologically advanced society becomes, the more dependent people are upon it. Nowadays, the average person has no idea how to build a house or maintain anything in it. This is especially true for people who earn a lot of money. There is a direct correlation between income and mechanical ability. Professionals can’t be bothered with fixing up their house. That is work for uneducated and/or darker skinned people. Enter the working man with his lunch pail, Dickies pants, and slight motor-oil scent.

This guy clearly makes good money. He’s some kind of corporate accountant. Usually, the better educated a person is the more uncomfortable they are talking to a working grunt. Based on this guy’s sorry effort he must be an Ivy Leaguer. High standardized test scores are useless when trying to make small talk with average folks.
“So,” he says, “before applying the initial layer of latex based covering I assume one must…what I mean is, there is a degree of labor which must be performed before one can commence painting…that is, uh…” I let him fumble before translating. “Yes, I’m going to first fill all the holes and seal the cracks. Then I’ll sand everything down, apply a primer, sand again, and finally I’ll paint.” “So, did you catch the Rockies game last night?” he asks, searching for common ground. “They didn’t play last night,” I tell him. He laughs uncomfortably. “Anyways, I’m not much into sports. I actually stayed up reading about how the principles of enlightenment and the desire to dominate nature are inevitably leading to our alienation from the world and each other.” It’s my way of telling him, “I may look like one of them, but I’m actually one of you.” I consider engaging him in a conversation about the factors leading to Japan’s Environmental Miracle or demonstrating my mastery of the Socratic Method, in case he has any doubts, but my comment seems to work. His furrowed brow relaxes. “Well, fine then, I’ll leave you alone. I’m off to work. Here’s my card. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you need anything.”
His wife comes down a few minutes after he’s left. She’s much younger, only about my age. She’s a doll from some southern state that actually produces honest-to-goodness prom-queen sweethearts. “Hun, I’ve put on a pot of coffee for you, please help yourself to anything.” Anything? Does that include putting on a pair of your panties and swishing around the house all day?

Being in this upper middle-class home is like glimpsing an alternate future I never pursued. It has all the markings of a successful couple, including stainless steel appliances, designer furniture, and imported, shiny sedans parked outside. In our society the logic goes that the more money one makes, the more comfortable they will be. But it seems that the more comfortable people are materially, the fewer places they actually feel at ease in. They shuffle between yuppie safe havens where the service and ambience are up to their standard, remaining sheltered from the poor, nasty, gritty places of the world, which is to say, most of the world. They float through life in a bubble of material comfort, completely alienated from places that aren’t air conditioned, leather-trimmed, and serve double iced-mocha lattes.

A job like this is perfect because the owners aren’t home, making it easier to create an atmosphere of blue-collar perfection with the tunes going, a bottomless cup of joe and regular trips to the car for hits of high-resin dope. In addition, it allows me to work more openly as what I refer to as a, “Present-day urban archaeologist.” Not that I go snooping. I’m a professional, after all. But that’s not to say I can control my curiosity completely. My intentions are pure. I merely wish to understand my fellow man better. It’s fascinating to discover that, for example, pretty much every kitchen has a drawer devoted to odds and ends that don’t categorically belong alongside other household items. The junk drawer: something I feel is a powerful commentary on mankind, though I can never quite put it into words. Or, take the collection of plastic bags under the sink. What possible social condition produces the mass urge to hoard old plastic bags alongside cleaners and disinfectants? Surely there is an underlying factor that causes most people to place the kitchen’s rubbish bin out in the open while a certain minority prefers it inside a knee-high cabinet. What is the significance of men turning their basement into a den of retreat? Why do people have a set of fine silver that often doesn’t get taken out at all? Why are women obsessed with keeping a guest room that often doesn’t even see any visitors? Why is this same room almost always decorated with old photos?
Refrigerators are veritable personality tests. Lots of sweets reveal an indulgent side. People who have the low-fat version of everything tend to be a little uptight. Whole milk drinkers are usually a bit older or consider low-fat food to be for faggots. Skim-milk drinkers are almost always health conscious and/or extremely organized. Lots of beer and wine or a good liquor supply doesn’t necessarily denote an alcoholic. It’s possible they entertain often. A good indication of a drinker in the house is the presence of large quantities of cheap alcohol. The Ol’ Uncle Tom’s Vodka is not for guests. It is for the after work swan song that doubles as a remedy for sadness and a form of entitlement.
She said to help myself to anything, which I take as an invitation to taste the various meats and cheeses in the fridge. A knife isn’t handy so I just bite small pieces right off. Hmmm…what’s this, last night’s dinner? They’ll never notice if I take a bite…chances are they’d be offended if I don’t. What’s this strange, Italian-sounding dish from the deli? Mmmmm…scrumptious…I’ll have to remember it. It’s simply divine with the dry sauvignon.

Painting is something I picked up in college. I worked for my school’s maintenance department during summers. The patriarch of the crew was an old-timer we called Pops. He was the spitting image of Santa Claus with his pure, white hair and beard, paunch, and twinkling eyes. Pops became as much a staple of my summers as the work itself with his tales of shit, sex, or often, both. He explained, for example, what a blibbit is: ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag. While he never specified its use it was implied to be a sort of projectile. He had a certain acquaintance who used to shit in his hand and throw it at elderly people as they drove through town.  Pops once hung out with some Hell’s Angels who laced his drink with LSD, handcuffed him to a post and had a line-up of women suck him off.
He also would impart wisdom from time to time in a grandfatherly manner. “Now what you do is just pretend to drink when you’re at a party. That way, when everybody is snookered at the end of the night you’ll still have your wits and you can nail any broad you want.” He also encouraged monogamy by explaining, “…you’re better off with one pussy you know is clean.”
But while his stories made me laugh there was also something sad about them. It was as if he was trying to validate his life. He seemed almost desperate to prove he wasn’t just an old guy who ran the painting crew. Listening to his tales I realized a story is more than just an attempt to entertain. It is an effort to form cohesion between the present and the past. People are never quite sure how they got from a younger version of themselves to the one that stares back at them in the mirror. Sometimes, a story is the only link between the scattered pieces of a life.

I’m cutting in around the medicine cabinet in the master bathroom. One can never really know a person until seeing what medications they’re on. At first glance nothing shocking jumps out, but then a small bottle in the back prescribed to the man of the house catches my attention. Valtrex…what’s that? I search my memory’s database for the appropriate inadequacy. Erectile dysfunction? High blood pressure? Anxiety? Heart-burn? Loose stool? Excessive mucus? Insufficient mucus? A pill for every symptom of this disease called postmodern America. I have a flashback to an advertisement with some little white monsters being pelted with green dots. After a few moments I remember what the cute little scene actually represents: genital herpes.
I drop the bottle, pick it up with a rag and put it back in the cabinet the way I’d found it. I don’t feel bad for him. I just think of that sweet little wife of his taking time out of her mornings to fix me a pot of coffee. She couldn’t possibly deserve a lifetime of oozing, cankerous sores. I think of Pops, throwing a blibbit defiantly into the face of life. I think of myself as an old man, retelling this story, trying to make sense of a life that seems impossibly long ago.

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