Friday, October 05, 2007

Watching Paint Dry

(Warning: Literature)

Foreword: I have a friend from New Orleans who works in the highest levels of government and has photographic proof that she has hugged Stephen Colbert. Recently, she had this to say about me:

"Oh Ian...I am sure you could write about paint drying and it would be as wonderful and amazing as anything I have ever read..."

I took that as a dare. Here is the result:

Watching Paint Dry
By Ian McGibboney

The walls were crying out for a coat. The satin blue had served its time, but the ravages of time and atmospheric pollutants had rendered its aesthetic shield overdue for a new veneer.

From the right angle, you could see the dull sheen of pencil scrawl long since covered itching to break back out into the light. With the blinds open and eyes cocked just so, you could almost make out the babyish scribble:

“Ian 82 123345” - capped by what appeared to be an aborted “6.” That must have been the point where my mom noticed what was going on and made me stop. In 1982, I was only two years old - and, yet, I seem to remember much about that year. In those days, I now recalled, I was obsessed with numbers, and wrote them as much I could anytime I could get my hands on a pencil. Paper was strictly optional.

Such a visual catalyst served as a stirring reminder of how certain cues can stimulate memories you forgot you ever even had. Not that that’s ever been a problem for me. Spurred by such a mundane, yet fond, memory, I also recalled how I nicknamed the front of my grandfather’s station wagon “eightytwo” and the midsection “morrow.” Why would I have done those things? I know now that the “eightytwo” came from the expiration sticker on the car’s license plate, and possibly the inspection sticker. “Morrow” was likely because the actor Vic Morrow had been decapitated in a grisly movie stunt gone wrong in July 1982, and I’d heard it on the news at some point. At age two, no one really knew what to do with me and my tendency to name random things after random words I’d heard in everyday speech. Some said it was autism. Most didn’t say anything at all, and just left me to my weird ways. Which, in a sense, is exactly why I was able to scrawl so much on the wall before anyone took action.

If these walls could talk, indeed!

The house I grew up in, the one whose walls now cried out for painting, was more than 100 years old. I had lived in it for 19 of those years. And though that seemed like an epoch to me, it was but a blip on the old Victorian two-story’s radar. No telling what those walls had seen, heard and had written on them over the decades. And here I was, years after having last set foot in it, somehow finding myself needing to coat it with yet another layer of future history.

At this point, my mind wanders away from childhood wonder and onto practical considerations of the task at hand: Should I use primer? Is the paint properly mixed? Flat or textured? Should I scrape away the old paint? Perhaps my mom has a scraper I can borrow. It’s probably all rusted, but I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t. And that’s saying something.

During much of 1985 and 1986, my mom undertook an extensive renovation of our house. My parents were separated at the time, so the project was almost exclusively my mom’s. Throughout my life up to that point, our house had been split up into two apartments. Mom had decided to make them into one, a project that I couldn’t begin to fathom the magnitude of at that age. What I did learn, and rather quickly, was that scraped paint has a smell all its own, particularly when combined with turpentine and fresh paint. She kept her Panasonic jambox on constantly, while my brother and I got our fair doses of prime-era MTV. To this day, songs such as “Eyes Without a Face,” “Money for Nothing” and “We Built This City” evoke the exact sights and smells of our fixer-upper, as well as all of the trashy cars parked next door in the mini-complex populated by college students. I recall wanting to become a carpenter, at least when I wasn’t repairing cars on the side. Years later, my mom claimed that the lead-paint chips probably messed her up. I disagree, but that may be because I myself must have snorted a ton of it.

Good times.

Back to the wall. I think primer will do. I get it ready, soak my roller and apply it as evenly as I knew how. As far as I can tell, however, my artistic skills have not changed much in the 25 years since I first drew on the wall. This does not bode well for my obsessive-compulsive tendencies, which means I’m applying primer repeatedly until I’m all but canceling its purpose.

Eventually, I tire of the monotony and stare blankly at the paint roller. I smirk at the six-year-old incarnation of my mind that somehow decided that this would be the perfect weapon for a serial killer. You see, in first grade I had dreamed up a movie plot called “The Painter,” wherein a deranged man terrorized a basketball team that practiced in the arena he had been hired to renovate. In the end, most the victims escape, and bond while washing the paint off their clothes at the Laundromat.

I never said it made a whole lot of sense.

Probably because my brother and I went through a celebrity-mag phase, I pictured the star of this film as a teen heartthrob. I even gave him a name, Andrew Duronda, and would frequently draw and write mock-up profiles of the guy as if he was real. And because I generally did this in class, my teacher became a fan.

My high school art teacher had a cooler response. For my freshman Art I class, she asked us all to write stories and create art to go with them. I recalled my first-grade thriller and made it into a more workable story, “Psychopainter.” Though the story was somewhat better, I was worried it would seem racist, this white guy terrorizing a bunch of black guys (even if it was the Utah Jazz he was targeting). So I made the killer into a vaguely Asian countenance. Dumb dumb dumb. He was supposed to look Libyan, like the bad guys in “Back to the Future” who kill Doc Brown (the inspiration for the character in the first place), but instead he looked more like those Jap caricatures from World War II. But just as with the wall scribbles, no one told me to stop until it was too late.

Why anyone is letting me paint this wall is beyond me. On top of my dubious history with pencils, this house has been out of my family’s possession since early 2000! But, somehow, it seems appropriate. It’s like one of those dreams I have at least a couple of times a week, in which the events of 1999 hadn’t even happened.

The house was ours because my grandparents had bought it sometime in the 1950s, for what I’m told was about $7,000. My grandparents lived next door in a house they had built themselves in 1947. My mom had moved in sometime in the 1970s, and my dad and the kids followed. This bucolic arrangement lasted all the way through 1999, when my grandparents died within a six-month period of each other and we put the houses up for sale. When I have these vivid dreams, however, it’s as if these events really didn’t happen. I mean, they did on some level - after all, the dreams take place now - but in other ways it’s as if they haven’t. We still have the houses, my grandparents are watching TV at home and I can hop in anytime I wish. I also have access to all their old cars (I love cars, especially that old station wagon) and every story I ever wanted to know but never can.

I really wish these walls could talk.

Well, the primer’s dry. I guess it’s time to grab that paint and get going. As I paint - going back to the bright beige I long associated with the walls before I had them done in blue at 13 - it occurs to me that I have not since lived in a room with painted walls. At my parents’ current house, where I spent my college and some post-college years, I never elected to paint the stark-white walls. In my current apartment, doing so is forbidden - not that I’m complaining, because I prefer my rooms to be as bright as possible. Why I’m here now, painting the ancient walls of my distant past, is anybody’s guess. Closure? Closure from what? Who knows? Who cares?

Before I realize it, my painting is done. Not bad, I think, as I survey my handiwork. Despite this no longer being my room, I still want it to look its best; after all, it has a reputation to live up to. Said reputation frequently manifests itself in my dreams, where I find myself back in my old room much as I last left it. For some reason, however, I have left my TV/stereo cabinet there, with several stacks of unlabeled videotapes and CDs on top of it. Moreover, my closet is still full of old clothes and magazines, and assorted swag is lying in a mess in the opposite corner. The challenge in the dream, such as it were, is always the same: pack everything up and go. But, for whatever reason, it’s always difficult. Not emotionally, but literally. Well, maybe emotionally, too.

Maybe that’s what this painting job is all about: building upon good memories with a needed dose of the present and future. As the paint loses its immediate super-luster to the forces of evaporation, I’m reminded that life is never static; even when things seem to linger for a long time, ultimately everything should (and must) change. That’s what happened before I got here and that’s what will happen long after I’m gone.

The pencil scrawls, exhumed for such a brief and shining moment, are again solidified in the latest incarnation of satin paint. Like a person, they’ve left memories and love. But also like a person, there comes a time when they deserve a dignified burial. And those who remember move on, not letting a piece of themselves ever forget what once was.

Man, if only these walls could talk…


Leah said...

Ian, it is wonderful, amazing and brilliant! I love it...


MOM said...

This brings tears to my eyes, much like the time I was scraping my baseboards and sat right in the middle of a puddle of paint thinner. Yeoooowww!! Thanks for the memories but I've got to move on. Love forever...