This post is the next in a series of posts I have dubbed “The Firehouse Chronicles.” See all episodes.
We flit between pulling blackberries to Jim repairing the shingles at the back of the house while I sample paint colors for the exterior trim which is in dire condition. What was once a chocolate brown has weathered to a near pink, peeled and chipped, exposing wood to rot. I begin to scrape at a window frame, and soon I’m at the paint store and finally perched on a ladder in the sun painting trim like a pro. Of course, I want the entire place painted instantly.
I call a few painting contractors, but only one returns my call. By the time he arrives to give us a quote, Jim has already tackled one of the worst rotted window sills with epoxy and I have slathered it in paint in hopes of protecting it from rain. The man appears in the back yard where we are back to pulling blackberries. We follow him as he takes a look at the ill-repaired sill.
“Hmm, I don’t know what somebody thought they were doing here,” he says, poking his finger at it. He continues around the house without us and comes back around the other side.
“OK, I think I have everything I need,” he says. “We won’t be able to begin until next spring, we are fully booked for this year.”
Jim is insulted by the man’s comment on the repaired window.
“I don’t like the guy,” he says.
We guess he’ll quote around $15K, but a few days later I get a quote for $20K. By now, I have already begun painting the windows on the south side of the house.
“It’s probably a pretty good price,” Jim says. “This is going to be a tough house to paint, even with the scissor lift.” We decide that we will just paint the trim, and leave the exterior shingles for next summer.
With the help of a series of men we pick up at Home Depot, we spend the rest of the summer shifting between pulling brambles and painting trim. With each stroke of my brush I am reminded that we are saving $20K by doing it ourselves and with Jim’s meticulous prep work, we feel as if we are taking greater care than hired painters might.
The derelict-looking scissor lift that I assumed would have to be chopped up and hauled away as scrap metal has now been equipped with 3 new car batteries and has sat for 2 weeks in the driveway plugged into an orange extension cord that snakes its way into the garden shed. Jim has it running and stands on its platform as it squeals its way to a height of about 20 feet. A week later he has it lurching fitfully against the back of the house where he stands (bravely) on the platform with an electric grinder that sprays sparks from hot nail tips that fall into his shirt as he slices through all the nails on the underside of the eaves of the roof, prepping them for painting. Later he builds a platform above the lift’s platform so he can get up even higher to get at some of the higher peaks and eventually sets a ladder on top of that to reach even higher peaks. I can’t even look at him without feeling nauseous.
I get into a routine of working in the mornings and spending afternoons at the firehouse. I buy a pair of white painter’s pants with a “Sherwin Williams” label sewn on the back pocket. The sun is warm and I become ever-braver on the ladder reaching the top corners of the windows and trim, though 1 hour on the scissor lift painting is all I can handle. My brush hand shakes as I try not to look down or breathe for fear of making the lift wobble, a dizzying sensation.
It takes a week or two to figure out how to tackle the blackberries. We get excited about the prospect of hiring goats, until we find out that it costs $700 per day and the property would take 6 days for the goats to clear it. Instead, we rent a bobcat with a “brush hog” attachment for a day for the same cost as 1 day of goats. Jim is like a 4-year old with a new Tonka truck, tearing around demolishing everything in his path.
By the end of the day, not a shred of green remains. What we haven’t yet realized is that we have turned the hillside into a dust bowl. I source a place to buy straw which we spread over the hillside to keep the dust down. Later, In the fall, it takes two weeks of a Home Depot guy to get it cleared, placed into bags and hauled away.
Some mornings begin with picking up Home Depot guys who pull out creepy crab-like blackberry roots that the bobcat didn’t munch while we prep and paint. I head to local fast food places for lunch which we eat while sitting in the sun on cheap green plastic Adirondack chairs. We soon have our favorite guys – Raul, who we first see because he almost leaps in front of our car, so eager and energetic to get work. Louis, who we barely understand, is a workhorse. We guess he’s somewhere in his late 50s but is sinewy and lithe and doesn’t like to quit. A Rasta hat hides his dreadlocks and he speaks a sort of Spanish that even the Spanish-speaking guys don’t seem to understand. Louis only eats chicken teriyaki, so we all eat a lot of chicken teriyaki all summer. In the evenings when it gets dark, we realize it’s 9 pm so we light up the BBQ and grill sausages or steaks and eat them off paper plates washing it down with lots of Coors Light.
Jim and I have our first sort-of fight as I am up on a ladder painting a window, where I have gotten a few splotches on the glass. In my experience splotches on glass are easily taken care of by a glass scraper with a razor blade.
“We can take that window out if you want,” Jim says. “Might be easier to paint and you won’t get as much paint on the windows.”
“Taking the window out seems like a ton of work,” I say. “Why would we take it out?” It would never have occurred to me to take a window out to paint it.
“Well, you do it your way. I just hate it when there are smudges of paint on the windows.”
“But you can just scrape the windows later,” I say, aware of the pout in my voice. I am surprised to feel a sting of tears. I feel as if I have just been slapped, criticized for doing a bad job. I don’t know why this affects me so much and it’s only much later that I remember Arron’s voice: “Jesus, bird, stop hitting the ceiling! I don’t want to have to go over it again!” Arron was incredibly meticulous with painting and we painted a lot of houses together. From him, I learned to “cut” the edges, to paint without a dropcloth, to drag the “bead” of paint slowly to create a perfect line. He had been a College Pro painter for a summer and had high standards. Through this project, I learned that Jim had similar summer work experience and I have once again assumed the role of lowly apprentice.
Jim removes some of the windows and I perch them onto saw horses and lean over them with a circular sander, fill holes with wood filler, primer, and finally paint them. I see the advantages of removing the windows, especially for those in really bad shape. Joyce, Jim’s mother sits in a chair in the office where I have the windows propped and talks at me as I work. I hear stories of her youth, her family, Jim as a child, his dad. She seems happy to sit there and talk.
By the fall, we are getting close to having all the exterior trim painted and the house transforms. Heights and I have never been friends, and 9/11 did nothing to lessen my phobia. I am not a fan of tall buildings. It’s a surprise then, to find myself leaning out of windows, paintbrush extended trying not to picture my crumpled body on the ground below. I keep my gaze up. In the cooler weather, my fashionable working uniform of white painter’s pants has been swapped for a highly sexy, gray “Dickies” worksuit that zips over my clothes.
One day in late September, one of our Home Depot guys tells us that he found something while digging for blackberry roots. We follow him to a small area that has been cleared, exposing some brick, perhaps part of some kind of patio. We spend another 30 minutes clearing the rest of the bricks of soil. It feels like an archeological dig. The area gets larger and appears to be round. Eventually, we reach the edges. The “patio” is about 8 feet in diameter with one corner area clearly meant as the entry.
We speculate what it might be. The patio of some sort of shed? A stand-alone patio? A part of a garden room? The floor of a gazebo? It will be fun, at some point to find more info about the house to see when the patio might have been added and for what.
Joyce watches as we work, and then inadvertently takes a series of photos when she holds her finger down to take our picture, which. Google obligingly turns these into small “movies.” I’ll end this episode with kisses.