We sit on paint cans, five-gallon buckets, and the metal brush caddies that store the tools of our trade: the nylon-sash and Chinese-bristle brushes. We sit, the six of us, in a fog of sanding dust and eat our lunches, white dust falling over our tortillas and Granny Smith apples; dust finding each corner of our workplace, drifting in the broad stripes of sunlight, piling at our feet. Luciano, Angel, Daniel, Armondo, Carlos White-Wings, and I.
We work as house painters on the tide-pooled beach fronts and glittering peninsulas of southern California, practicing our craft on swank homes built at five hundred dollars a square foot and traded like chess pieces among millionaires. We paint black the wrought-iron rails of the verandas overlooking the bays and the yachts. We watch the Pacific sunsets from second-floor master bedrooms, rolling the walls a dusky mauve while the horizon goes vermilion. On this sleek spit between bodies of water, we work in the new-construction garages, the houses rising above us. We sand the miles of casing, crown molding, and baseboard, and we prime the legions of cabinet doors and drawers. Then we sand again and sit in that floating white dust and eat our lunch.
The mansion owners, by and large, love us: our music, our laughter, our craftsmanship. They bring us doughnuts in the morning and cookies and Cokes in the afternoon. Three of us have been nearly adopted: Luciano has worked eight years of Saturdays as a gardener for a noted heart surgeon. The Mayan house painter and the pink, precise man of medicine toil shoulder to shoulder in the doctor’s seaside garden. Then they share lunch at a Mexican restaurant and an afternoon movie. We laugh and ask Luciano, “How is Papá?”
Carlos and Armondo, cousins from the colonial city of Guanajuato, Mexico, work weekends for another former client, caring for two adjacent estates painted the brightest of Caribbean tones and varnishing the twin sloops out back. Angel and Daniel freelance on the weekends and have enough side work lined up for a millennium. Good painters are in demand.
Five of the six of us came to this bright blue coastline under cover of darkness, crossed the border illegally, waded the Rio Grande. Five out of six is a ratio mirrored in every building trade in southern California.
At midday, when the circular saws and nail guns and hammers are silenced and the radios come alive with Latino music, we sit down to lunch in a rough circle and listen to “Tres Veces Mojado,” the Salvadoran lament about moving north. The fine white dust surrounds us.
I wear the most dust of all: thirty years of it. When I started, the mansions of the southern California coast were mere beach bungalows and the music was rock-and-roll and the painters were all surfers. Thirty years of sanding dust lights my freckled skin, searches my nostrils and ears, gathers in my new wrinkles.
My friend Robbie and I, just out of college and hungry, without a desk job in sight, painted one house, then another. We lived along the sea in listing shacks painted coral and robin’s-egg blue, made some money, bought better tools, and slowly learned the trade. We muscled our way up extension ladders and went bodysurfing on our lunch breaks. The houses we painted were wood-sided storybook cottages with beach-sand front yards. A few were two-story square boxes of 1940s economy, their stucco falling off in thin skins of faded color. The walkways between the homes were weedy and dandelioned, final resting grounds for ash gray rowboats with rusted oarlocks, calico cats dozing in the curved and weathered ribs.
We learned to sand and prime these houses, to hold them together with well-placed nails and ribbons of caulk. We’d spray linseed oil on the thirsty cedar-shake roofs, holding our Hudson sprayers and our breaths as we inched along overhangs. We’d stand on the boardwalk with the owners to decide on colors, shading our eyes with our hands, glancing at postcards of sun-bathed villas in Las Palmas. We’d borrow blues from favorite pillows, conjure the aquamarine a striped beach umbrella used to be. We matched colors to surfboards and the salmon pink sunsets seen through the wooden, carouseled pier.
A Mrs. Covely and I knelt once, on knees of vastly different ages, to make the color decisions. She wore a sunbonnet straight out of Oklahoma!, which softened her seriousness about the house-color quest. It was April in a beachfront garden of purple ice plant and orange California poppies. We walked a sand path wild with mustard to kneel like two novitiates on tawny bark shavings amid a riot of spring blooms.
“That John, he’s no good for this,” Mrs. Covely said, nodding at her gray-haired husband, safely hidden underneath the hood of an old Jeep Cherokee. Then her stern finger, soil at the nail, touched a petal from a gathering of gladiolas, yellow and ruby red and deep lavender. “This one, Jack,” she said, and I bent close and squinted to fix the flower color to the distant cottage in need of painting.
“The yellow, Mrs. Covely?”
And the finger pointed next to the lavender one. “And this will be the trim.” And it was all settled.
Robbie and I came to our new craft with great energy. It made us feel artistic and kept us in surfing shape. We would paint one house, apply the final touches, stand on the boardwalk with the happy owners, then paint the bungalow next door, working our way down the sunlit sand, orchestrating a beachfront color scheme: salmon pink next to sunflower yellow, then pumpkin. Our own villa postcard. We must have been cheap, for we weren’t that good, but we worked with enthusiasm and humor. We came humbly to our work, with our Band-Aids, sunburns, hangovers, and fear of heights.
We came more slowly to real craftsmanship. We learned the different thinners and solvents, and the proper sequencing of the preparation: when to prime, when to glaze. We stained, antiqued, and sprayed, bringing lessons learned with us down the paint-hungry peninsula. Each day was a new challenge.
Our fellow painter Sonny, a golden pear of a fellow, always fresh from the surf, hair slicked wet amber, arrived to work one day with his shoes painted as rainbow trout: the toes pursed into trout lips; the lowest eyelets the fish’s unblinking sockets; then an iridescent sweep of copper, green, and pink to the speckled fins at Sonny’s heels. He’d once made a cameo appearance in a surfing flick titled Five Summer Stories, and he never let us forget it, inviting us over once a month for homemade chiles rellenos and ice-cold Tecates and “Oh, look what’s on TV!” The camera crew would follow the famous surfers around the globe, and just as Sonny’s ten seconds of wave-ride fame approached, we would make trips to the bathroom or wander to the kitchen for another beer, and Sonny would moan, “Wait, wait!” And there he was, on a tomato red surfboard in a blue Mākaha tube. Ah, Sonny. He would catch lizards with lassos of grass stems and pat them to sleep in the palm of his hand. He hated prep work: the sanding, the filling, the sanding again. So I became his “prepper.” Sonny had an airy soul, and when caught committing a misdeed or misleading some poor lass enamored of his blond locks and endless stories, he would cock his head, arch an eyebrow, and fix you like a truant child with his sea blue eyes, as if to ask, Wouldn’t you have done the same?
The house-painting craft is precise and orderly. I have taught it to Luciano, Angel, and Daniel. I am in the process of teaching it to the cousins Carlos and Armondo. I am learning it each day.
To get a front door painted: First you move the porcelain elephant with the rubied headdress and the gold-tipped tusks, setting it gently on the polished wood floor. Then you slide the round rosewood table it rested on out of harm’s way. You move such items carefully, because you are moving a year’s wages. The blue Persian rug at the entry — a lifetime of paychecks — is rolled with care and moved in delicate silence. There is no radio now, just concentration. The front door itself is an intricate, eight-paneled affair, carved and curved and ten feet high. At eye level is a circular knocker, a bronze dragon’s head with fearsome teeth, a lolling tongue, and angry eyes. You cover the dragon in blue tape. And the deadbolt. And the scrolled bronze handle. Your tarp slips beneath the open door, which is held fast with a stir stick cantilevered on a roll of two-inch masking tape. Then denatured alcohol on a clean rag is taken to the cracked and sun-wearied door. The alcohol hunts out every little cut and scrape on my hands, which look thirty years older than the rest of me: thirty years of sanding and staining and dipping them in paint thinner has me hiding my hands in my pockets at all but the most casual affairs.
Then I bring out the spackle and spackling knives, and the search for tiny holes, scratches, and flaws ensues. I squeeze caulk from a tube, nursing the rubbery white into the cracks and filling the joint lines along the moldings. Then I sand, always with the grain, 220-or 320-grit paper, the portable vacuum slung over my shoulder to make sure no dust alights on the gold-tipped elephant tusks. Next the door is tack-ragged, and the smooth spackle primed from a hand-held spray can, then sanded again, then tack-ragged again. After all this, I mix my paint: three inches in a clean bucket, a splash of thinner, a dash of penetrol to ease the brushing, the mixture stirred, and the three-inch Chinese-bristle brush finally dipped and wetted.
I work in silence, in a world of my own, progressing from the inside out, cleaning my brush as I go, smooth strokes, each edge wiped clean with a white rag. There’s no going back on drying oil paint. When I’m done, I remove the tape, and a bronzed dragon snarls his welcome from a field of high-gloss hibiscus yellow. The Persian carpet now seems a bluer blue. The porcelain elephant, with the skullcap of rubies and the gold-tipped tusks, is back on his commanding perch. And I move down the side of the house to work my way through a series of double-hung French windows.
At work Daniel and I trade our native idioms, or idiomas. I have just given him “When pigs fly.” From the rooftop deck of the house we’re working on, Daniel and I imagine plump pink bodies with spiral tails swooping about the rigging of the ketches and yawls anchored in the bay. We have been working together for fifteen years, and along with trading homegrown expressions, we do crossword puzzles at lunch: one day English, the next Spanish. We stand across from each other, sanding, caulking, and filling a door cradled in metal racks of our own design, readying it for our “spray booth,” set up in a room just off the sunny deck.
Daniel crossed the border twenty years ago, illegally, when he was just twenty-three. It was easier then, less expensive, and the “coyotes” who smuggled people across were almost humane. The cousins Carlos and Armondo had a rougher time of it three years ago. Their stories of the “way north” are unsettling. But it was still a cold, wet, dark crossing for Daniel. A walk into the unknown.
We screw metal handles shaped like tuning forks onto the doors to carry them, a painter on either side, then settle the doors into the notched stands, working on the front, then the back, turning them like slabs of meat on a grill. The scratches and blemishes are easy to spot on the sunlit deck, and the irregularities disappear beneath the sweep of our putty knives.
I watch Daniel’s hands, the fingertips dyed black from his first job in the States, as a shoeshine boy in a fancy carwash in a seaside town. There he picked up his finger stains, from the polish, and his first English: “That will be $2.50” and “Have a nice day.” Daniel said this for five years. Then came the construction boom in California, and he became a painter.
Robbie, with whom I painted that first exhausted beach bungalow, is now building some of the houses we paint. Occasionally he takes me to visit our future work: the new homes in the midst of framing or with drywallers walking through empty rooms on stilts, the ranchero music blazing. The old homes, some of which we painted years ago, are being dismantled, their parched, ghostly, once salmon pink siding loaded on trucks bound for Mexico.
As we drive by other building contractors in their contracting trucks, they lean from windows and ask Robbie, “Still working with the hands?” Robbie shakes his head no, while I sit in the passenger seat, bursting with pride: “the hands” — that beautiful phrase I wear as a badge of honor.
Luciano was the first of the new painters Robbie and I hired. He was a laborer on a site next door to a house we were painting, and I watched from a second-story window as he spent an entire day pushing a boulder half again his size across a vacant lot to a curbside dumpster, pausing only to sip water and smooth his palms across his face as if polishing a stone. “Robbie,” I said, “we have to hire that guy!” Shortly thereafter, Daniel joined our crew. Then Angel, also an illegal worker, great-grandson of a French lieutenant who left behind his green eyes and a map of Dijon, well worn and torn at the creases, in the nanosecond of his country’s possession of Mexico. Angel does all our spray work. We pass the cabinet doors and drawers into the plastic booth, and Angel hands them back, as sleek as porcelain. Always on the lookout for swooping gulls, we carry the doors on our fingertips to the spacious decks, where they dry in the sunshine.
Sonny, of the trout shoes, left the mansions when the jobs became 80 percent prep (as new construction is) and went in search of the remaining bungalows. Three years ago, the same summer we hired the cousins Armondo and Carlos, another painter found Sonny dead from a neglected heart condition. I still think of him: Sonny, his hair wet from the morning’s waves, lying beneath a pair of casement windows painted brilliant red.
Quién le pone el cascabel al gato? — “Who will tie the bell to the cat?” It’s an idioma from Puebla, a state in central Mexico. Daniel teaches it to me while we sand and spackle on a sunlit deck.
The “cat” Daniel is thinking of is Carlos Alablanca. Carlos White-Wings. He is late again. I know the task of reprimanding him will fall to me, for I am the one with the most dust. Just thinking of it makes me feel ancient.
I met Carlos for the first time three years ago on a similar deck, but one facing the sea: a sunny winter morning, a rare frost on the beach sand, glitter on glitter. The owners were hoping to be in for Christmas. During our morning coffee, Carlos sat in a corner, as lanky and folded as a young giraffe, shrouded in a dull black sweat shirt, its hood peaked like a monk’s cowl. He was reading a book on guardian angels.
I am the patrón, the jefe, so I must speak to the tardy painter. Yet it doesn’t seem so long ago that I was the one who was late. During a lunch-break surfing session, I’d signal, “Time to go,” to Sonny, the afternoon’s prep work before us, and Sonny, sleek and happy, would signal back, “Just one more wave.”
I like to walk the empty job sites early in the morning, before the carpenters and the stonemasons arrive. I like to sweep and listen to the echo of my steps on the concrete floors and smell the sawdust piled in fawn-colored hills beneath the table saws. I’ll straighten our paint shop, constructing pyramids of paint cans: the oil-based here, the water-based there; farther away the primers and stains; all the labels facing outward, an X scratched in the tin tops where the thinners have been added. I’ll organize the rolls of tape: white for most applications, blue for the more delicate surfaces, and green for the lacquers. I’ll arrange the red metal brush caddies against the walls to serve as our lunchtime easy chairs.
There is a movement afoot in Congress, and along our southern borders among civilians dressed in fatigues, to keep illegals out. There is a desire to empty the job sites of workers; to shoo away the craftsmen who build and decorate these mansions; to punish them for their late-night crossings. I am a house painter, not a politician. If this were to happen, I see fifty years of painting experience out the door. And that is just within our group.
The owners of the multi-million-dollar homes, the ones who hope to be in by July Fourth or in time for that Christmas party, will certainly miss the framers, the drywallers, the stonemasons, and the painters. The paint stores and hardware stores will miss them. The black-smocked Chinese baker who comes to the counter to take our daily doughnut order, flour dusting her hair, will miss them.
We are not so far from the Shaker craftsmen of New England, or from the medieval artisans of Japan, who sailed offshore to lacquer their black bowls in the dust-free ocean air and the quiet. We, too, handle wood with love and fight our battles with sea gulls. We do beautiful work. When we spot a run in a just-painted door, we don’t let it slip by. We fix it. It’s called “craftsmanship.”
And if these craftsmen are shown to the border, who will take their place? And what will these artisans do in a land without multi-million-dollar homes in need of their skills? They will be stonecutters with no cathedrals. There have been no painters deported around here yet, but it is an uncomfortable subject, a reminder that their situation is tenuous. My fellow crew members are careful not to rock the boat.
I’ve had a recurring vision: I am standing on a concrete floor in a large house, empty but for me and the sound of sweeping. Outside I can see Luciano walking through a field of head-high maize, trailing his hand along a bristly wave.
There are times, rare blessed afternoons, when you have the perfect amount of work to do in a room; heavenly, engrossing times when the screeching of tile cutting is distant and the late daylight falls through a window on your work, the cracks in the cabinet joints disappearing beneath the smooth white trail of vanilla-smelling caulk. The occasional worker drifts through to trade barbs and ball scores, then leaves, his steps receding down the hall, and the silence is slowly recaptured: just you, the work, the swish of sandpaper.
On those afternoons, you’d do it for free.
Carlos White-Wings arrives during morning coffee, embarrassed. The black hooded sweat shirt is gone. He wears a Tommy Hilfiger one now, white with burgundy stripes about the sleeves. What Carlos lacks in punctuality he more than makes up for with his youthful energy. He is becoming a craftsman.
He has a girlfriend, and she has dyed sections of his dark, short-cropped hair blond for that surfer look. Carlos, still the young giraffe, with his yellow-tufted hair.
After coffee, Carlos bounces to work. Who could tie a bell on this cat?
I watch Daniel work with his craftsman’s economy and grace. His hands seem to know where the bead of caulking will stop, where the brush stroke will end, and to work backward from that point: the trick of starting from an imagined ending. Daniel and I know the craft’s secrets. We are in our midfifties and know, too, the toll of the ten-hour workday.
Carlos Alablanca has new braces on his teeth and text-messages his girl at lunch. Carlos White-Wings knows nothing about endings.
Will Carlos come to appreciate the bitter scent of thinner and the scratch of pumice hand-cleaner on his skin? Will his brain learn not only to see the paint color on the wall but to smell it too — tangerine, lemon, lavender? Will he yearn for the sun-slanted, silent afternoons when he can disappear into his work? Will he be given the chance?
We get up from our lunch of apples and tortillas, take up our brushes, and go back to work. Luciano, Angel, Daniel, Armondo, Carlos White-Wings, and I.