Saturday was spent in the middle of Providence, working with about hundred other volunteers to renovate a Veterans facility that had fallen into disrepair. It was part of a national day sponsored by the non-profit organization Rebuilding Together.
As proof of my my dedication, I actually woke up at six o'clock in the morning on a Saturday, of all days, to be a part of things. Can you believe it? Me, the ultimate hedonist, waking up at some obscene hour of the day, on the Lord's gift to all working slobs, the week-end?
It is to laugh. Ha. Ha! And yet, there I was, crawling into my friend Fruma Sarah's car 45 minutes later, on my way to save the world. Or at least, one small part of it.
Around noon, I grabbed a box of grub and sat down on the sidewalk outside the building, next to Frumah Sarah, who was crunching away on an apple.
A man who looked like he had spent a lifetime on the baseball diamond moved over near us. "So, is Channel 12 coming?" he asked.
"I think so," said Fruma Sarah. "They said they would."
"Gotta keep after them," he said. "I know, I've been trying all morning, too. And I used to work there!"
"You used to work there?" I asked, sniffing out a story.
He squinted through the bright sunlight to stare me down. "Yep. Used to be a sportscaster. Back in the seventies. Was always getting bumped for some breaking news. One time I was bumped because they had a hot tip that there was a giant pumpkin discovered in Coventry. Can you believe that? A giant pumpkin!"
"Maybe we should call and tell them we discovered a giant pumpkin in the Vet's building," I said. "That'll get 'em out here."
He laughed. "I like how you think."
"Always getting bumped, huh? How often a week would you get bumped?"
He ignored me. "I'll tell you who was the worst. George Allen. He was doing the weather at the time, right before my sports segment. Biggest goddamn joker you ever saw. Didn't really have any weather training. He used to come into work at the last minute, and he knew how serious I'd take things, how much work I put into my sportcast. And him. He'd go over to the weather map, which at that time wasn't satellite controlled--it was just all put together by magnets. And he'd go over to the map and push the clouds over an inch or two, and say, 'Look Steve, I just moved the storm front back 500 feet!"
I smiled at the memory. "George Allen. I remember him. He used to do 'Dialing for Dollars' in the afternoon. Used to listen to him when I was a kid. 'This is George Allen, Dialing for Dollars. Today we're call the Cameron family from Johnston. The Cameron family could be winning $500 today...hello, CAmeron family? This is George Allen, Dialing for Dollars. May I ask if you're watching TV this afternoon?'" I turned to Frumah Sarah, all of 27. "You don't remember that, do you?"
Fruma Sarah shook her head and bit into her pickle sandwich.
Sports Jock Steve rolled his eyes. Youth is so wasted on the young. "He used to emcee this game during the afternoon movies. Poor George. Had a stroke a few years ago. In a nursing home now. I go to visit him every few days or so."
My afternoon was mostly spent inside the building, washing down the stairway walls, which had accumulated years worth of dust and grime, and then repainting the stairs and sideboards, along with a few old friends from work, some of whom I've known for the better part of two decades.
Around three, I cast aside my paint brush and went oustide to find out what Fruma Sarah was up to. She was standing on a ladder outside, busily painting a window with gray paint.
"Let me paint your head," said Heather, who was hanging on the other side of the ladder.
I shook the head she so dearly wished to apply a latex base to.
"Please!" she pleaded. "I just want to give you a Mohawk. It'd be so much fun. Please, Ted?"
I decided to be a good sport. What the heck, why not? Gleefully, she dipped her brush into her bucket and started to paint a gray line in the middle of my head. The touch of the brush against my forehead felt wet and uncomfortable, and I quickly felt my skin tighten as the paint started to dry.
Everyone got a good laugh, and of course, I enjoyed playing the clown once again. But that night, I learned the problem with being a good sport, as I tried to scrub off the paint. It was latex, but it came off in clumps and bunches, which dotted the entire shower floor. My loofa is covered in gray speckles, and I don't think they'll ever come out.
Still, at least I now know what I'd look like as Avatar, the Last Air Bender.
Why do with an ocean what you can do with a thimble?
One thing I learned...I am not a good bucket cleaner.
"You," barked out the drill sargeant in charge of assigning duties. "Go to the back of the house and clean out these paint buckets."
So, I did. I grabbed three or four paint buckets and a hose and found a discrete corner to wash the paint from the buckets. Then, I turned on the water, full blast. The paint in the bucket splashed into my face, my glasses. The water dribbled down onto my sneakers.
I'd wait until the bucket was full, and then dumped it behind a shed. Then I loaded it up again. I was drenched in a matter of minutes.
About a half an hour later, a black kid came up, laughing at me. "I'll take over this job," he said, laughing at me. "I can make it happen, and with a lot less water, too."
Turns out, you should use your fingers to scrape off the paint in the buckets, instead of using the hose to conduct a power wash. Who woulda thunk?
I am not always a friend to the environment.
"See that guy up there?" asked my new best friend, Sports Jock Steve, slapping me on the chest and pointing across the driveway to a man standing upon a ladder, patiently applying a coat of gray paint to the planks that framed a huge stained-glass window. "He started on that project this morning. I really didn't think he was going to make it. He spent two hours on the first windows, then a couple of hours on the second one. He's been working on that last one all afternoon. But son of a bitch...I think he's going to goddamn finish painting it, after all."
"That's a nice image," I said, grabbing my camera.
"I agree," he said. "Kind of sums it all up, don't you think?"
Summed it up? Sure did. It had been a good day, and I was glad I had crawled out of bed to help out. The place looked a hell of a lot better.
Actually, it kind of reminded me of the state of my life right now.
The old paint is being peeled away and a new coat's being applied. The weeds around the entrance way are being trimmed back and the walls inside scrubbed clean of crayon marks. The electrical wiring's being gutted and the foundation tested for durability.
What will the old place look like after all this renovation is complete?
God only knows. I wish it would only take a day, but that's not going to be the case.
But I'm hoping that it resembles what came before. Only maybe, resting on a sturdier foundation.