Donald Strauss: Painters


Have you ever watched squirrels at work or at play or at whatever it is they do during business hours? You know how they can be entertaining and frightening all at the same time? They leap about with one another, but then one comes charging at you, and you freeze into some awful compression of time where you remember stories about how terrible a squirrel’s bite can be. That is what painters are like. Remember, these are guys who are not always working with latex-based paint.
Here are two vignettes that I have witnessed in my life and times as a squirrel behavioral scientist:

1) Painters Bob and Ed are using spray equipment on one of my projects. They are spray painting thirty interior slab doors. Slab doors are absent detail on either side. They are dead flat. If they are not properly painted, their flaws are easily detected, hence the spray technique. It’s the same way cars are painted.

Bob is about as big a goofball as a person can be. On the weekends he’s in the gold-lamé jumpsuit, driving hundreds of miles to any air show he can find where he flies gyrocopters and ultra light planes. Note the shiny-tanned, sometimes painted pate, supplanted then with Elvisine Pompadour rug, and the great gapped teeth sparkling always through the grin that compliments insanely glinted eyes.

No one has the slightest idea what Ed does. He could be the West Coast version of John Wayne Gacy, “The Killer Klown,” for all we know. In fact, let’s make him into a Gacy character for the moment and if it gets too creepy we’ll change him back into something more conducive to sleep sans nightmares.

I myself have had such nightmares in recent times because a seemingly innocent and well-meaning friend recently broke into my house, rifled through my cluttered desktop, read this particular text and had the nerve to challenge me on the spelling of “Gacy,” which I had indeed misspelled but not in the way that he was suggesting. He insisted that the correct spelling was “Casey.” I then went on a terrifying spree through cyberspace that ended at a link that coughed up an audio presentation of an interview with the mad clown and murderous pedophile of Illinois, the late Mr. John Wayne Gacy. He discussed such things as male and female visitors with whom he has engaged in oral sex; the various and several houses that he owned in the area where he lived; that certain of these various and several houses were, in fact, fully furnished including stocked wet bars; that said houses were open for use by certain young male “employees;” that he, Gacy, was involved in the building trades via his business PDM Contractors, Incorporated (Painting, Decorating and Maintenance); and that he was, in the course of said business activity, engaging in various and several squirrel like behaviors that may or may not have been related to having been struck in the head, when he was a young child, by the seat of a swing; that these young male “employees” were free to bring companionship of any gender, genus and specie of their choosing, in order that they might engage in any form of entertainment, including but not limited to becoming deceased at the hands of the aforementioned Gacy; that the only—and Gacy was fairly emphatic about this as I recall—the only proviso was then, and would be to this day were it not for the inconvenience of his incarceration and subsequent death by lethal injection, that said young male “employees” must leave clean sheets on all beds. One wonders if death were the punishment exacted, by the part-time clown and neighborhood child entertainment specialist, for infraction of the latter regulation. For further information, go to Click on “serial killers.”

Early in the workday Bob and Ed suit up for the spray work: white jumpsuits, white balaclavas, filtered masks, eye protection and a goopy layer of petroleum jelly around the remaining areas of exposed skin. At the end of the work day, after the successful painting of all the doors, which are lined up around the walls of the otherwise empty living room, each door leaning against the wall so that only a small portion of the top corner touches, Bob is removing his protective gear. Ed strolls up, spray gun in hand, and proceeds to spray Bob down in a lovely taupe. Bob cooperates by rotating on his axis until Ed is done. Completely painted from the top of his bald head to the bottoms of his shoes, Bob takes a single step back, bumps into the nearest door, which door falls and strikes the door next to it, marring its finish and in turn knocking it over, etc.—i.e. dominoes. Wordlessly, Bob and Ed walk to their respective trucks as I look on with little clue as to what it is I have just witnessed.

This particular vignette is repeated—twice, with variations on the theme. At the end of the third event, under the horrified gaze of a small group of onlookers, Bob and Ed leave quietly and never return. Not one single soul in the entire construction industry, in the Southern California area, knows what has become of Bob and Ed.

Bob and Ed behaved like squirrels. They acted out the squirrelly parts of themselves, or we projected our own squirreliness onto them. And now it is over. Like so many other people we know for abbreviated periods of time—people we might like or even momentarily love—Bob and Ed are gone into indifference or maybe even a small sadness and longing that may or may not revisit us from time to time, accompanied by images of their faces, bodies, aromas, frequencies, and the other things they leave behind. I think we’ll just let Ed be. He never killed anyone and he never thought about it any more than the rest of us do.

2) Married couple and painters, Wynona and Dwayne, wander onto one of my jobsites, strictly out of the blue. By certain country and western standards they are a gorgeous couple, both third generation painters. They have been genetically engineered by the work of their progenitors, so that the material above the brain stem is mostly filler to prevent headaches and airborne infection in the cranial cavity. They are beautifully built—small and tight in the manner of aerobic instructors circa 1981-84 CE.

At age twelve they were featured in a People Magazine article that referred to them as the DaVinci Twins—kissing first cousins to you—because of their unexplainable talent for making photo-realistic murals and their detailed knowledge of Italian Renaissance painting. Neither of them could read, nor could one do the work of the other. Wynona drew the cartoons, always to perfection. Dwayne worked the brushes and color, never painting outside the lines. They were the subjects of a study by the Neuropsychiatric Institute at UCLA where ultimately the researchers reached no conclusions. Those same researchers, however, did end up with some very cool murals in their offices and apartments.

Presently, a Designer (once upon a time called a decorator) will call wanting an entire wall in the grand salon of some lovely understated 32,000 square foot home in the gated community of, say, Beverly Park, to receive a near-perfect reproduction of “The Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine” by J.L. David. Dwayne and Wynona could handle it in a matter of weeks—two weeks if pressed. They learned about cocaine at an early age.

In the wake of the Bob and Ed wars, these two stride up to my construction shack, in the way that small tight people do. The stride leads from the pelvis with a profound amount of thrust. It leaves all viewers with a strong impression that in their off hours, and possibly even during their coffee breaks and lunch hours, these two engage in coitus olympicus. He wears muscle shirts and those stretchy pants that cyclists and weightlifters wear. She wears the kind of cutoff jeans that are commonly referred to as Daisy Dukes. They are “lookin’ for work.” In fact, according to Dwayne, they have been hoping to get on my “team” for quite some time. They have heard much about me—mostly that I am good to my trades. They show me some sample boards they made up. They even volunteer to paint a sample wall. That won’t be necessary, I tell them. I’m more than a little seasick—something about the clothes—but I need painters.

At the great slot machine of life, it seems that ignored doubts most often roll down a row of lemons. A few weeks into the job and Wynona starts getting hungry. She and Dwayne, in their adventurist pursuits, have played naked twister with the occasional spare-girlfriend-hanging-around-the-garage-of-a-weekend-afternoon, but that is more of a his-thing than a hers-thing. Wynona has herself most certainly strayed from the marital bed, but one fella at a time has hardly offered up adequate fulfillment. She is thinking that more would be better.

A couple of ugly little fights break out when Dwayne decides that some of the tile setters are paying a little too much attention to various sectors of Wynona’s Northern and Southern geographies. Chaos takes over altogether when one day Dwayne has to head for the paint store prior to the 3:30 whistle. I am clocked out for the day. Wynona takes the opportunity to select an all-star team of five from the thirty or so fellows at the site. She invites them to join her for some exercise at a nearby overnight establishment. It is to be a round robin event. No ties. Everyone goes home a winner. Except for Dwayne.

This is one of those moments in life when it is very hard to determine the friends from the enemies. You know those moments when ignorance would suffice, those moments when the absence of an Iago in your life would turn a collection of events into an outcome more to your liking? When you sit right there where you are do you feel like you have arrived at that place as a result of a series of wrong turns? In just a moment you will know that Dwayne feels precisely that way. Carl is not invited to the gangbang—his paunch just a little beyond the acceptable, his muscle cuts just a little too long gone. He is not the alpha baboon material that Wynona is looking for this afternoon. Carl, a good and devout Christian man, finds himself faced with a three-headed dilemma. Should he hate himself for being mad at the insult of such an exclusion? Should he help sister Wynona out of her sinful ways by ratting her out to her stick-o-dynamite husband? Or should he just let his good lord take care of the details? Sometimes compromise and the middle way are wonderful things. Sometimes they are the parents of mediocrity or worse. Carl, possibly driven more than anything else by an unconscious hatred of all things related to desire, hoofs it down to the paint store to see if he can catch Dwayne. But let us talk about paint, painting and painters for just a moment.

First, consider this about the materials: when you paint your house, particularly the interior, you have invited, into your environment, Volatile Organic Compounds. The paint companies would like to have you refer to them as VOCs. Sounds nicer, doesn’t it? These VOCs would be things like formaldehyde or 1,1,1 trichlorethane. In the process of formulating paints for use on drywall, plaster, poured concrete, concrete block, ferrous and non-ferrous metals, stucco, wood, plywood, synthetic wood, all of the preceding as interior or exterior applications, acrylics, acrylic copolymers, alkyds, waterborne epoxies and aliphatic polyurethanes are formulated in a variety of ways to serve a variety of interests. The long-term health of the people who are applying said formulations or the long-term health of the people who will live in the places where these formulations are to be applied, these long-term considerations are seldom if ever taken into account—in the formulation of paint, that is. It would seem that drying times and appearance as they relate to marketability, rather than occurrence rates of leukemia, Hodgkin’s Disease, lymphoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, myeloma, multiple myeloma, sarcoma, liver, pancreatic, stomach and other cancers in those, including but not limited to children, residing and or working in painted environments, are the greater concern of companies that engage in the manufacture, sales and distribution of paint.

Latex, I should declare here and now, is one of the most sustainable of all products used in not just the painting trade but in the entire construction of a house, as the base material comes from “rubber” trees—Genus Ficus, species various. Right there in Beverly Hills California where the dominant street tree is the Ficus Nitida—which trees have roots that can heave whole sections of sidewalk as much as twenty four inches above their original elevation; which trees do not even need populations of birds to reside in them in order to fill the sidewalks below with shit because the trees themselves do the shitting; which trees if fitted with taps and buckets could probably provide the entire population of Beverly Hills, 90210—and, very possibly, neighboring West Hollywood, 90069—with heavily discounted tires, latex paint and condoms, ribbed-for-her/his-pleasure, reservoir tipped or otherwise appointed.

Much of the time, however, these painters are working with oil-based paints. These paints produce, in copious quantities, the aforementioned Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). At the end of those days when said painters are working with said paints, they clean their brushes with various solvents commonly known as mineral spirits, turpentine, paint thinner, acetone, etc. These solvents also produce noxious fumes, which fumes shall, heretofore and hereinafter, be referred to as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These are solvents that may not, according to the laws of various states, be poured onto the ground, into the street, sewer, or storm drain systems. A painter who is following the rules will need to spend something on the order of $5,000 and up each year to dispose of and register every drop of used solvent. Follow this one through for a minute. A painter who is clearing $25,000 a year is probably not going to generate great enthusiasm about tithing up 20% for environmental protection. It is more than likely that this very painter is going to wait until no one is looking and pour that collection of VOCs into or onto one of the aforementioned forbidden locations. If you are living in the greater Los Angeles area, you should know the following: the Los Angeles Basin has an extensive system of subterranean storm drains which have as their primary purpose the conduct of rainwater occasioned by seasonal storms, which would otherwise organize itself as sheet flow on the urban streets and then therefore into the homes of the area’s residents, to various outlets at the Santa Monica Bay. During the dry season, this system of storm drains is also, as I mentioned earlier, the recipient of paint solvents. In addition to the deposition of paint solvents and other noxious chemicals, the human and animal populations manage to conduct a variety of animal feces as well as lawn and garden irrigation runoff water—this water contains an astonishing variety of residual chemical fertilizers and pesticides, just in case you were asleep at the wheel and had not considered this—to the system. This “cocktail” moves very slowly through the system until it is eventually joined by the runoff of the rainy season. Go to for further information on the outcome of this urban bowel movement. See that in the City of Santa Monica, numerous private beach clubs and luxury resort hotels are located within very close proximity to storm drain outlets. See that the organization called Heal the Bay, which tests and monitors various locations in the bay for fecal bacteria, has given, to certain sites within short distances of these various and certain hotels and private beach clubs, fair weather grades of “D” and “F.”

Then we have the painter’s personal ecology to consider. Let us say that there are 250 workdays in a year, given 104 off for weekends and another 11 or so for holidays and sick days. For an easy 100 of those workdays, painters are engaged in a job related activity that is the equivalent of all-day-glue-sniffing. These are the things that make Bob, Ed, Dwayne and Wynona better-siblings-through chemistry, members of the international alliance of altered statespersons, squirrels.

Painters can be placed into two major tendencies: good and bad. The good and the bad are further subdivided into numerous sub-tendencies. The bad ones come in two flavors: corrupt and incompetent-but-well-meaning. The good ones come in two flavors: corrupt and superb. There are, of course, exceptions, variations and spies in the numerous camps, but basically that is how it breaks down. The price range goes from $7.50 per hour for the bad/incompetent-but-well-meaning, to $15-30 for the bad/corrupt, to $25 for the good/superb, to $30 and up for the good/corrupt.

You will not be making a great stretch to trust that the bad/incompetent ones will screw things up royally, though you may or may not ever become aware of it until the paint comes off the wall in sheets. The bad/corrupt will give you the same peeling paint but at a premium. The good/corrupt are generally only hired by the wealthy to paint a tiny powder room for several thousand dollars with a “special faux finish” that a person hanging around a paint store, looking for work, can tell you how to do for several hundred dollars. The good/superb quite simply give the very best value for the dollar.

As with many things, sex for example, in the painting trade, preparation is nearly everything. Quality of material figures heavily but preparation is sine qua non. Poorly prepared surfaces can do little or nothing to justify the application of expensive materials.

& & &

The last few events in a sad life, the events that cascade from Dwayne’s conversation with “good guy” Carl, are best played in reverse.

A huge ball of flame returns to the ground causing pieces of scalp, brain and skull to leap from the oily concrete ground of the Arco station. The pieces fill the void at the back of Dwayne’s head. He removes the pistol from his mouth and returns to his car. On the way back to the Bel-Air Hotel he thinks out loud. He thinks very slowly as if he were explaining this to a small child. “I’m going to a gas station. I’m going to light the place on fire and blow my brains out. They only take ATM cards. I hate that one on the corner of 4th and Pico.” Dwayne does not know who or where he is, or whether he is the child or the man, or if he has even ever been the man or the child. He is ashen and lost.

“Whatever you say, buddy, just so long as you show up in court on the 14th. Valentine’s day, you know?”

“Just give me the ticket, please officer. My life’s over anyway.”

“Do you realize that if I had clocked you going one mile an hour faster, you’d be off to the slam for exhibition?”

Dwayne’s eyes are hollowed out, recessed so deep that the cop can only see them when she shines the big black flashlight on his face. She approaches his truck.

“Fuck-in’ uni-pig.” He stops the truck right there in the left hand turn lane in the middle of Sunset, right there on top of the 405 Freeway.

The flashers on the cruiser momentarily snap Dwayne out of his adrenalin-induced frenzy. He takes some of the curves on Sunset Boulevard doing an easy sixty. Thankfully it is one in the morning. The street is all his. Through the area by UCLA it takes all four lanes to negotiate the turns. Dwayne’s ears are ringing, humming, pounding. He stops dead in the middle of Stone Canyon Road to observe what might or might not be an apparition. It makes absolutely no difference to him if it is or if it is not but he stops nonetheless. It appears as if a flattened and dried squirrel is dancing in the beam of his headlamps. None of its four feet touch the ground, as if the flat dry squirrel were operated by a puppeteer. Dwayne has never been to a puppet show and he will never figure out that what he saw in the dusky light of the canyon bottom was a live squirrel, making off for the night, carrying the dried remains of a long deceased and desiccated family member. The taste of a penny under his tongue is tricking him into a nasty little electrolyte voodoo dance as he backs his truck out of the parking space reserved for maintenance vehicles. He jumps out and runs, totally out of breath, up the path and in through the back door of the little cottage. Having set his street sweeper down, gently down, he kneels to pick the gun up slowly, then stands as smoking, screaming bullets return to its barrel, and he peers through the haze into the room. It’s a mess. Co-mingled blood everywhere, swirling around and through everything he sees—the walls, the floor, each individual type extracting itself from the others, more pieces of brain, skull and scalp, hair, viscera, muscle tissue, urine, feces, and anything else that a body produces in a moment of lead-projectile-aided trauma, all rejoining and taking their proper places on and in their respective bodies. Bullets still flying at him, smoke and the sound of gunshots, sixty in all, ten for each of them, Wynona screaming, shot last, the five guys in random order first, Dwayne, terrorist-grade automatic weapon at his side, is unable to set priorities in this maelstrom of pure molten rage. There is a split second of calm before a moment like this. That split second attenuated into something that feels like a very long meditation. All sound is echo. Eyes closed hard, so hard it feels as if his skull is going to crack. Eyes opened to see his wife and five construction workers so deep in their death-defying spectacle of hurtful erotics gone completely awry, they had not even the smallest sense that he had entered the room. What Dwayne sees before he leaves the room is something that he has never seen even on internet porn sites, not even in the thousands of hours of triple x movies that he and Wynona have watched but not really watched because they were always so lost in their own erotic overdrive and haze of alcohol, cocaine and pills, so gone that they never much registered what was happening on the screen. Five men are inside his wife. He cannot even calculate it. If he knew anything about physics or zoology, he would say that these six people are bundled together in a way that says more about the movement of large arthropods than it does about actual desire; that these people are defying certain laws: gravity, thermodynamics, and space. At some point he does not have the slightest idea what he is looking at, and all that he can feel is a searing, white hot around his eyes, his face and in his belly. This is the bungalow where Marilyn Monroe, undoubtedly herself now also dried flat—though not dancing in the twilight of a street entirely occupied by the most privileged, though every bit as destined for death, citizens of Los Angeles, CA 90077—and currently parked in a well-kissed stone crypt just 2.5 miles from here, visible scar on her sweet soft belly, posed for her last set of naked stills not taken by a photographer in the employ of the Los Angeles County Coroner. Dwayne removes his key from the door. Of course Wynona would be here at the Bel-Air. A little coke to the night manager. The keys entrusted to them as contract painters. The last place Dwayne would look. The last place Dwayne does look before he heads out backwards to every motel he can find in the area and finally back to the paint store where Carl runs up to him at the cash register and says, “Dwayne, something terrible is going down, Lord Jesus help us all.” He is breathless and, he thinks, filled with The Spirit. “Wynona and a bunch of the boys just headed out from the jobsite together an’ all I know is that they said something about slapping balls and finding a big enough bed.” Just at that moment Dwayne is thinking seriously about the formulation of paint.


About the Author

Donald Strauss is in the witness protection program and wishes to remain anonymous. It should be noted however, that Mr. Strauss is currently developing articles on complex narratives, urban environmental history, urban nature writing, and climate change narratives for publication in related academic journals. In addition, Mr. Strauss is currently preparing his novel, The Built World, for web publication.

He lives in Los Angeles, CA