It was a blazingly hot summer of 1974 in Ukraine when, for someone who was not quite yet fourteen, I was faced with a pretty big decision; either stay in school and continue to be a kid, or to join the ranks of adults and go on to learn a trade. In the USSR, trade school was a route of choice for lots of kids like me who were not too academically inclined, and whose parents couldn’t afford a substantial bribe it would take to get their kid around the fierce competition and into that beacon of higher education – university.
Our family had no money nor such high aspiration for learning. My grandparents have never seen the inside of a school and were completely illiterate. My mother had to leave her schooling in the middle of the fourth grade to help her parents make ends meet. Later, raising me and my two sisters, she’d work two jobs just to keep some food on our table.
My attempts of getting myself enrolled in trade school of choice had all come to naught. Maybe it was because my middle-school grades failed to impress or perhaps once again a bribe was expected. I am not joking, bribery was the way to get things done not only in the good old USSR but going way back to the times of Peter the Great and beyond in the Czarist Russia. There is an old Russian proverb: You’ve got to put some grease on the wheels if you expect them to move for you. In this respect, I don’t believe things have changed very much there since the fall of the “Iron Curtain.” Anyway, the summer was almost over when one of my neighbors literally took me by the hand and got me enrolled.
Painting, as a profession, was not my first choice. In fact, I hadn’t even thought of being a painter until after I was already signed up. Somehow being a painter didn’t seem quite as proletarian to me as let’s say being a machinist or a brick layer. In truth, it just didn’t seem masculine enough. You see, the painting profession (at least at that time in Russia) was dominated mainly by women. I didn’t come to fully appreciate this fact until a bit later, when it turned out that out of twenty eight students enrolled in my class twenty six were young girls.
Any doubts as to whether we would be looked upon as adults were quickly dispelled when, on the very first day during the orientation, our school principal, a respectable looking middle-aged man, pointed to the school’s only bathroom, which was an outhouse behind the school building, and told us that this was the only place on school property where cigarette smoking would be allowed. “Wow! – I remember thinking – An official permission to smoke. This definitely is a place for me!”
But it was not all fun and games. For two years, full time during the day, we were expected to learn the trade and finish high-school at night. Two years full-time seemed like an awfully long time. But it turned out that there was a bit more to painting than just dipping a brush into a paint bucket and smearing it on a wall, and truth be told I am still using today a lot of what I’ve learned in that school.
Of course there were also subjects like “Polit-Economics of the Soviet Union” and “History of Socialism” that had to be learned because the Soviet government would never miss an opportunity to ensure that their proletariat is well-rounded. Still, we were also taught things like how to make our own brushes and how to make our own paint. The shortage of goods in the so-called “World’s Super Power” ranged from paint ingredients and paint brushes to toothbrushes and toilet paper. And so, we’d read on and on about paint products we knew we’d likely never get to use or even see in or out of that school. You could still get the good stuff if you knew the right people (remember the proverb) but we mostly used this cheap paint that we made ourselves from chalk, lime, glue and water. I can still remember those cold early winter mornings when we’d all show up to work, gather around, and break the ice. Now, I am not referring here to making small talk as a way of easing conversational tension but literally taking a shovel and breaking the ice that formed at night atop of the paint barrel.
Ordinarily paint should be kept from freezing, but then again that was no ordinary paint. Besides, it would freeze right up again just as soon as it was applied – the heat hadn’t been turned on because windows weren’t installed yet. Maybe this was because the project was planned to have been painted during the summer months and was half a year behind schedule. Perhaps there was a shortage of glass, or maybe somebody in Moscow just didn’t show up for work that day. But ours wasn’t to question Why; we were told to paint and so we painted! We painted and watched our paint go with these very intricate, almost magical, patterns as it promptly froze on walls.
Here in San Francisco, I almost cried when I first walked into a paint store. These were not tears of sorrow, because I realized that my marvelous paint and brush-making skills were suddenly obsolete, but tears of joy. I know capitalism, particularly as of late, has been getting a bad rap but take it from someone who studied History of Socialism for two years and experienced it first hand for eighteen – big government is not the answer! Well, at least this is an opinion of one poor immigrant.
My god, two whole years of Political Economy of the Soviet Union! I wish I spent at least some of that time reading a book of common English phrases. I got my first painting job with this Cuban contractor. He studied in Moscow and then, immediately upon returning to Havana, took a quick boat ride to Miami. (I think he also had his fill of History of Socialism.)
We were perfectly matched – he spoke a bit of Russian and I didn’t speak a word of English. He said he’d pay me three bucks an hour. I did some quick math and his offer seemed like a great deal to me. After all, in 1978 in the US, three dollars would buy you six packs of Marlborough. In those days, on the black market in Russia, a pack of American cigarettes was selling for 3 rubles. My mother would have had to work a whole day there to earn 3 rubles. Anyway, I was very grateful to my first employer for giving me a job. But I was even more grateful to him for pairing me up with this Guatemalan kid. Because this kid’s English was only slightly better than mine, I wasn’t too intimidated practicing my “English” with him. (In talking on the phone people still sometimes take me for a Latino.)
In about a year’s time, armed with better knowledge of local paint products, a bit of hispano-russo accented English, and a bold idea that seven packs of cigarettes are better than six, I went on to look for another job.
My uncle, who’d arrived in the United States about four years earlier (practically a native), told me that, if I was looking for some serious cigarette buying power, a union job was the way to go. We placed a call to a local union hall and were told that I would have to pay a fee and pass a journeyman painter test. I forked over the money and scheduled myself to get tested. To my surprise, I passed the test on the very first try and was most definitely heartened by the thought that my trade school years turned out not to be a complete waste of time.
I was now a union journeyman painter and was all ready to go but in the late ’70s good union jobs were hard to come by. After a couple of months of regularly reporting to the union hall, at 6:00 am. sharp, this young girl who worked there took pity on me and got me my first union job.
When my foreman handed me my first paycheck at lunch, I almost fainted with excitement. When I came down a bit, I actually stood up ready to run back to work. What lunch? For this kind of money, I was willing to work without lunch! On my way home, I was thinking of how I was going to present this huge paycheck to my mother and how long it would take for us to save up and buy a house. “Oh, if only my Russian friends back home could see me now!”
Things were going great with my new job until I was sent to a project where the use of a swing-stage was required. Of course now I know that a swing-stage is a type of suspension scaffolding where pulleys and planks are used to hoist painters up and down the building, but at that time I had no idea what it was. This fact I honestly confessed to my boss when he inquired as to exactly why I was not helping the rest of the crew with the stage set up.
As you can imagine, he wasn’t in the least impressed with my confession and told me that, if I didn’t know what a swing stage was, I wasn’t a journeyman painter at all but an apprentice. “OK” I said “What do I do now?” He told me to go to the union hall and change my classification to one of an apprentice.
A few days later, I reported back to my boss and proudly announced that I was now officially a first year apprentice. Almost as enthusiastically he told me that they had no need for apprentices and that I should seek employment elsewhere.
Needless to say that I was pretty mad at him and it was not until later that I realized that he actually did me a favor. In the meantime I accepted an apprentice position with a very small painting shop and got myself enrolled in yet another (but this time three year night-school) apprenticeship program.
My new boss, an old school German painter, groomed me in all aspects of the painting trade. In just a few short months I could sweep the shop with the best of them. Now this guy took his business seriously. With him, everything had to be done right the very first time. He was so picky that at times I felt like he was trying to get even with me for Germans losing to Russians the World War II battle for Stalingrad. But he made a real painter of me and eventually I’d become his only foreman. I later went on to work for one of the biggest union shops in San Francisco. In 1983 I got my contractor’s license and in 1985 started Classic Shades Painting.
As I set down to write, it was my intention to lay down my qualifications, my resume if you will, as a painting contractor but in looking this over it reads more like some sort of political commentary. Oh well, it’s my story and I am sticking to it! As far as my qualifications are concerned, I wander if two full-fledged painting apprenticeships, thirty-five years in the trade and twenty five-years of running a painting company would perhaps qualify me for an honorary house painting PhD. I don’t know. What d’ya think?
(Written circa fall of 2009)
Painting Contractor in San Francisco Bay Area
P.S. Just in case someone wonders about it or wants to pay me with cigarettes – I don’t smoke anymore. My wife and I had quit smoking the day we decided to get pregnant with our first child. And now that our second one is born I measure my compensation strictly in terms of future college tuition. Yes, my kids are definitely going to go to college! I know my mother would be proud. I think she’d say what she’d very often repeat to us (this is a rough translation of it from Russian): “God bless this land and its people. God bless Ameritchka.“