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Adventures in Home Improvement

Painting the Sistine Chapel

May 21 to June 6, 2003

UPDATE: December 14, 2006. Editor's note: Today, three and a half years after this was first written, I received a phone call from the contractor mentioned in this story to complain that her potential clients were finding this story via a Yahoo! search on her name and after reading it, were declining to hire her. Of course she disagrees with much of what I wrote here, but the story is told from the perspective of Pat and myself and represents the truth as we experienced it. She reported that otherwise she is doing well now but added that the QuickTime movie I made for her never worked properly and I got the sense she would appreciate it if I could resolve the issue despite the fact that she neither paid for it nor offerred to pay me now. That aside, despite the agony we suffered through during the painting of our living and dining rooms, we were and continue to be delighted with the final result and, in that spirit, I have decided to replace her and her brother's names with pseudonyms throughout this saga.

Pat moved into this house with his former, and now deceased, partner Danny in February of 1987. After Danny's death in 1990, Pat lived in the house alone for six years until I came along in November, 1996. During that nearly ten year stretch, according to Pat, “I painted almost every room in our home including a four month stint painting the outside (once).”

Within the first year or two of my arrival we had new living room furniture and an office set up for me in the dining room, but I still felt like a tenant rather than a partner. By year three it was apparent we were in a long-term relationship, Pat was ready to start letting go of the past, and I could start looking at the house as “ours” rather than “his.”

The next few years became a whirlwind of home improvements: new stove, new refrigerator, new washer & dryer, new furniture, new windows, new roof, new siding, new electrical wiring, new furnace, air conditioning, and ductwork, new landscaping. Once the genie was out of the bottle it was going to take Fort Knox to contain it. As my father likes to say, home ownership is a money pit and you’ll never stop filling the hole.

Each project had its own learning curve of finding contractors, supervising the work (or lack thereof), mistakes, disasters, damaged keepsakes, and in utter frustration with whatever was going on with the current renovation, screaming at each other after the workers had left the house for the day. But when all was said and done with each interruption to our lives and after we had had time to recover and enjoy the improvement, we were always happy with the results.

14" crack in wall from earthquake.

But one project remained un-tackled and it called attention to itself every time I went into the living room to watch TV. The living room needed painting! Badly! Seems like a simple problem to resolve until you see the paint and plaster skim coat bubbling on the ceiling and the huge fourteen-inch-long diagonal crack in the wall above the fireplace, the result of settling in a house built in 1924 with a little help from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

With paint scraper in hand, I mounted a step ladder and attacked the peeling paint and plaster on the ceiling. The more I scraped, the more I found. Leave it alone for a few weeks, glance at the ceiling and see more problem areas, renew the attack. The result was a ceiling surface that looked like a teenager’s face with severe acne damage. Clearly the ceiling needed to be resurfaced before any paint could be applied. But how were we to match the patch job with the current texture?

I had already tried ceiling repair once before on a hole left by the electricians when they first installed an exhaust fan over the center of the bathroom rather than over the tub where we wanted it. Even two coats of paint couldn’t mask my lack of skill with a plaster blade, but it remains that way to this day as a reminder of Pat’s trip to Atlanta during which the attempt was made.

Divits in wall and ceiling resulting from Lee's scraping.

I hoped the divots themselves would push us to resolve the problem. Pat was furious with all the ‘prep-work’ I had put into the ceiling:

“Then I notice the ceiling with patches of skim coating off. I dubbed Lee ‘Michael Angelo.’ I was upset to say the least, but thought, oh well, the living room and dining room look really tired after not being painted for nearly fourteen years.

“Lee and I went round and round about how to repair the ceiling. My thoughts were, just skim-coat the whole thing over and that would be that. Lee was even thinking we had to tear out the whole ceiling down to the lathe. NO! NO! NO! It doesn't have to be that drastic. Well, this went on for nearly two years, plus we couldn't find anyone to come over to see the job, let alone do it.”

And there was the rub: who do we call? Contractors are so specialized these days. What do we even call the work we need done? We needed to identify it by an industry-recognized name before we could look up someone in the Yellow Pages. The more projects that were completed on the property, the nicer the house looked and the more nagging the cancerous pock marks in the living room ceiling became.

We brought the topic up in conversations with friends and neighbors in hope of getting a lead, but no one seemed to know who could get us out of the dilemma any more than we did. Enter Brad & Jane, our neighbors two doors down the street. Brad had just received a promotion from his company which included moving back to his home state of Minnesota. He and Jane had four months to get their house spruced up and sold.

One morning in late March or early April I spotted Jane out in front of her house and walked down to chat. She told me she had a contractor inside who was repainting the interior and invited me in to to view the progress. Brad & Jane’s house floorplan is nearly a mirror image of our own, both houses having been built at the same time. The new paint job was fabulous, using as many as five different shades to accent the wood trim and ceiling inlays.

Jane was, as Pat would say, “all bubbles & squirts” as she showed me the progress throughout the house accomplished by her contractor, Lila Jones. I started telling her how good this would look in our own house if only we could first find someone to repair the plaster and skin-coat damage when Lila popped into the conversation with, “I can do that to!” I gave Lila my card and encouraged her to come down to our house at her earliest opportunity.

Lila, the "artÝste."

Several weeks passed before our doorbell finally rang and, at first, I didn’t even recognize Lila standing there before me. “Lila White,” she said, “the painter from Jane and Brad’s?” Looking down from the porch at this short and stocky black woman, I couldn’t believe I had forgotten a name like that. I invited her in and showed her the damaged ceiling and walls. I added that we also wanted the entryway and dining room refinished and painted at the same time. She indicated that her brother Kyle was an expert at wall and ceiling refinishing and that she would come back in a few days with her brother to get his assessment.

In the interim I checked with Jane to find out how much she had paid Lila for the work in her house. Answer: $2,000. I figured that the job we wanted done was far more extensive and involved and hoped we could get it done for $5,000 or less.

A few days later, according to Pat’s recollection, “I walk into a house full of people. We discuss the situation, the ceiling being the main factor, painting the foyer, living room, and dining room. I can do that says Lila, the ‘master painter.’ The whole thing? Yep! Ceiling? No problem. Okay. I pointed out to her the spots on the walls that needed attention. I mean, a 75-year-old house does need some TLC. This is around May 15th now. Lila wants to start right away. I say no, I have to move all the stuff off the walls, etc.”

Lila told us that moving furniture and protecting everything with tarps would all be included in the job; all we had to do was remove wall hangings. Since we had Lila and her assistant plus Kyle and his assistant sitting in our living room and both indicated additional workers would be on the job, I was getting a little nervous about how much all this was going to cost. When I asked if they thought the whole job, including paint and supplies could be done for $5,000 both Kyle and Lila gasped as if I had just suggested paying $40,000 for a 1989 Honda Accord with 300,000 miles on its odometer. Kyle quickly interjected that the ceiling and wall repair alone wouldn’t cost more than $600. Lila added that although she still had to go home to draw up a bid, she doubted it would be over $2,000.

Greed quickly overcame my common sense. The cheapest job we had contracted for to date had been the electricians who had upgraded our service and wiring, then added additional outlets and light switches throughout the house for $7,200. This job seemed just as labor-intensive to me… if it was to be done to our satisfaction. To have a major thorn in our sides removed for $2,000 made me feel foolish for having put it off so long.

After they left, Pat and I discussed the meeting we had just had. Pat recalled having hired Kyle ten years ago to repaint the outside of the house. Although Pat was satisfied with the work Kyle and his crew had done, he had had a confrontation with Kyle over drinking on the job, daily beer can cleanup, and leaving all their supplies and tools scattered about at the end of each work day. He had sworn at the time to never hire Kyle again.

Lila had just returned from twenty-six years in Hawaii as a mural artist to help take care of her aging parents. Painting home interiors was a suitable income producer while she worked on establishing herself in the Oakland art community. Having seen the work she did at Brad and Jane’s house, we were not too concerned with her lack of home interior painting experience.

Lila returned on Monday, May 19th with a contract and sample paint chips. She showed Pat the varying shades of green she was recommending for each of the surfaces in the living room and he was delighted with her vision. It would be a major change from the pinks and mauves currently on the walls. Frankly, I didn’t care what the color scheme was as long as the resurfacing looked nice.

Lila was quick to point out that her suggested color scheme would evolve as the job progressed, giving her the opportunity to observe how contrasting light played with the wood trim and recessions in the ceiling. Her Hawaiian portfolio left us believing we were about to hire not just a painter, but an artist.

Pat brought up his concerns with Kyle. Lila admitted her brother had had a drinking problem in the past that nearly ruined his business, but had been sober for the past five years. We got her assurance that she would be the foreman, responsible for the entire job.

As the three of us sat down at the dining table, Lila presented us with a hand-written contract for $2,440 which clearly spelled out the work to be done in two stages:

1. Repair previously patched area
2. Repair holes in ceiling with hot mud
3. Scrape crack lines & dust
4. Fill fine lines & caulk
5. Spackle where needed
6. Move furniture & novelties
Total: $600.║║ (Deposit = 1/2)

1. Cover novelties, move novelties, move furniture (3 rooms).
2. Wash walls & floors. Cover light fixtures, tape windows, cover novelties with plastic sheeting.
3. Select 3 color design, color consultation.
4. Apply primer.
5. Paint wall, mask where needed.
6. Paint trim, mask trim (new molding).
7. Paint door.
SubTotal: $1,690.║║ (Deposit = 1/2)
Supplies (paint, primer, plastic sheeting): $150.║║
Total: $1,840.║║

Grand Total: $2,440.║║

The bid seemed low to me, but of course I couldn’t say so to Pat with Lila present. Pat and Lila went over the details while I took Lila’s handwritten contract, typed it up on the computer, and printed out three copies for us all to sign. Although Lila wanted half up front, the amount of money seemed so small that I told Pat to write the check for $2,500. We had 36 hours to get the wall hangings and knickknacks out of the living room. The work would begin at 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday, May 21st.

Tarped furniture, papered fireplace, primer coat started.

Lila arrived at 11:30; Kyle and his assistant Wayne shortly thereafter. Living room furniture was moved to the center and covered with plastic sheeting. A ceiling-to-floor plastic tarp was taped in place at the cross-beam demarcating the living room from the foyer and dining room. Wayne and Kyle got to work with scraping and sanding in one area while Lila started scrubbing the walls and ceilings with a phosphate solution.

Test colors appear amidst disaster area.

About two hours later, Lila came to my office where I was hiding to stay out of their hair and asked if I could spot her a hundred bucks for supplies while she waited the seven days for Pat’s check to clear. I handed her a C-note which she promised to pay back as soon as her bank gave her access to the funds.

Next, she handed me a CD and asked if I could help her with a presentation she was putting together to open doors for herself in the Oakland art community. She had paid a fellow previously to come up with something, but his finished presentation was a Microsoft Power Point file and she wanted something with a little more pizazz. I agreed to look at it and see if I could come up with something more suitable. In one breath she told me she certainly wanted to pay me for my work and in the next added that she was currently financially strapped. I told her that I normally billed at $40 per hour, but we could probably work something out. Lila went back to work in the living room and I now had a new project to occupy my time.

Lila, Kyle, and crew were gone by the time Pat got home from work. With the living room sealed off, the TV would have to be turned towards the kitchen for me to watch my daily VCR tapings. I rolled my office chair out to the doorway between the kitchen and dining room, propped my feet up, and watched my shows, never realizing that this would be my TV viewing stance for the next two weeks and two days.

Next morning Lila and her crew rang my doorbell at 1:30 in the afternoon. “What did he just say,” you ask? Each day upon leaving, Lila would promise to be back by 7:30 a.m., 8:00 a.m., 9:00 a.m.… take your pick. Most days they showed up at noon, 1:30 p.m., and on at least one occasion 3:30 p.m. Lila always appeared at my door in the mornings with an armful of luncheon goodies for her and her crew and, depending on the time of her arrival, would either put them in our refrigerator for later or head directly to our backyard patio for a typical 90-minute lunch break. Between late arrivals, early departures, and one to two-hour lunch breaks, work in our living room rarely exceeded four hours per day during the first full week. Kyle and his assistant’s work schedule was even more erratic and often left Lila and her two assistant’s unable to proceed with their own work.

An idiot, I’m not and it was obvious to me before the project even began that there was no way Lila could finish a job of this size in one week as she had promised. Ten days to two weeks sounded more realistic. But at four to six hours a day and only three or four days per week, the job would probably stretch out to over a month.

Above: End of day's collection of painter's tools, wall & ceiling scrapings, and dust accumulated on living room floor tarp.

Right: Test colors on crossbeam. Note hanging tarp intended to contain dust with knife holes to keep it from billowing

And for Pat and me, it was going to be a month of hell far worse than the seven days of misery we had gone through with the electricians back in 2001. With Pat at work, for me it was like watching the Three Stooges for the first time in color. Except there were five stooges on the day of their crowning act of brilliance. Lila and her crew were busy taping the woodwork on one side of the sealed-off living room while Kyle and his worker were sanding the ceiling in another section. The resulting dust made it difficult for any of them to breathe.

So, they opened the wings to the living room window to get some circulation. A hefty summer wind was blowing outside and now that it had access to our living room it turned the plastic drop sheets taped to the ceiling and floor into billowing sails that eventually pulled loose from their duct tape moorings and allowing the accumulated dust to flow to the rest of the house.

Kyle’s brilliant solution? Cut holes in the plastic drop sheets to attenuate the billowing and re-tape the edges to the floor and ceiling. The drop sheets deflated as expected, but the dust now surged freely through the holes. The fine dust from sanding the ceiling found its way inside every electronic device and onto every surface in every room of the house, no matter how remote from the living room.

Pat’s take on the situation:

“With the ceiling resurfaced, painting in the living room started in earnest. Well, a few glitches. Lila says “I’ll be over at 9:00 a.m. She shows up at 2:30 p.m. and works until 5:30. Lee is stressed to the max and I am trying to be the helpful spouse. But it is really wearing on me as well. I try to clean up areas, move things. Screw it! Lee is resigned to watching the big screen TV turned around facing the kitchen and sitting in his office chair almost inside the kitchen door. By this time we are thinking what in the hell did we get ourselves into?

Above: Painting finished here, furniture is stacked in living room by Lila's crew as they work in dining room.

Below: Lamps, blinds, etc. stacked in dining room while work proceeds in living room.

“I think it is week three when Lee puts his foot down and talks to Lila about her schedule. What they are doing looks fabulous. Lila says we’ll start on the foyer next. When I come home the dining room is a sea of tarps, furniture is stacked all over the place, one can’t even get into the living room without killing one’s self. I go ballistic. “I told them to tell us when they were starting on the dining room, damn it!” Lee and I spend a lot of time on our new patio enjoying the dust free atmosphere, dreading when we have to go back inside.”

To take my mind off the frustration of it all, as well as a hearty effort to stay out of the workers’ hair, I worked on Lila’s presentation project on my computer. I concluded I could make a nice slide presentation in movie format, add a sound track to give it warmth, and save the whole thing out as a QuickTime movie which I would burn to CD for Lila to give to prospective clients and art galleries.

The process required that I teach myself how to use my new iMovie software, but after a few days I got the hang of importing the individual slides, adding display times and transitions to them, and syncing them with the So Many Stars track of my latest Natalie Cole album. By week three of the living room fiasco, I had probably spent 60 hours on the project which I knew I’d never be able to bill to Lila; she didn’t have that kind of money. Plan B? Bill her $1,000 for work done and charge the rest off to learning the software and processes involved in producing the movie CD.

I shared the first few renditions with Lila just to make sure I was on the right track of what she wanted. Initially she was thrilled but as my investment of time on the project grew, her interest diminished and I assume out of fear of the impending bill. All the same, I was determined to finish it and, besides, what else did I have to do with my time? I certainly couldn’t leave the house while the workers were here, the living room and dining room were off-limits, and one of her assistants had commandeered the kitchen sink for washing paint brushes and buckets.

My favorite “Lilie-ism” during the project was when she had one of her workers tape the living room picture window with masking tape because it was two dollars a roll cheaper than painter’s tape. After the trim had been painted and dried, the same worker spent an entire eight-hour day removing the tape and scraping off the paint that bled under it onto the glass.

Yes, an eight-hour day. As the project neared completion Lila realized she was wasting too much time and she, along with her workers started doing eight, ten, and as I recall even one 12-hour day. She even came in on a Saturday and worked until nearly 8 p.m. But when they wanted to go home without putting the living room back to usable order, especially after telling me they wouldn’t be back until Wednesday, I insisted that work items be put away and furniture restored first.

I had finally completed her art presentation movie and had burned her two different incomplete versions to take home and test out. She no longer came to my office to check on its progress, so I shelved the project until such time as I saw some green.

The final brushstrokes of paint were applied on Friday, June 6th and we didn’t see Lila again for another four days. Little by little, Pat and I restored knickknacks and rehung artwork. But the presence of finely sanded masonry powder was never-ending: cereal boxes and tuna cans in kitchen cupboards, under carpets, atop the freezer on the back porch, the blinds in every room of the house. Six months after the project’s completion, we were still finding the white powder.

Foyer & living room reassembled after work is completed

Job completed; view from living room into dining room.

When Lila returned on the 10th of June, it was to cajole me into paying her more money for the job. “I know we had a contract, but I really lost a lot of money on this job and I don’t have enough to pay my workers.”

Knowing she should have charged more in the first place and wanting to be fair, I asked how much more she wanted. $1,000. And what about the work I did for her with the movie presentation? “You know I’m good for it,” she said. I knew she wasn’t, but agreed to give her more anyway, subtracting the original $60 overpayment and the additional $100 she had asked for on the job’s second day. I cut her a check for $840.

Now that we have our house back, we admit the living room, dining room, and foyer are beautiful. The living room ceiling looks like the day it was first skim-coated in 1924. We have five different shades of green that interplay with each other and respond to the variants of lighting throughout the day. I doubt a regular house painter would have rendered such beautiful results. And we managed to come in $1,500 under our original budget!