It was a hot summer of 1974 in the Ukraine. For someone who was only fourteen years old, I was faced with a pretty big decision to make – remain in school and continue to be a kid or join the ranks of adults and enroll into a trade school.
Trade schools were a route of choice for millions of kids like me, who were not too academically inclined and whose parents could not afford the substantial bribe that it would take to get their kid around the fierce competition, of five to sometimes over a hundred applicants, for every available slot in that beacon of higher education – university.
Our family had no money nor such high aspiration to learning. My grandparents had never seen the inside of a school and were completely illiterate. My mother had to leave school in the middle of the fourth grade to help her parents make ends meet. Later, raising me and my two sisters, she would work two jobs just to keep some food on our table.
All of the attempts to get myself enrolled into trade schools of my choice had come to naught. Perhaps my school grades had failed to impress or perhaps, once more, a bribe was expected. Bribes were the way to get things done, not only in the good old U.S.S.R., but going back to Peter the Great and beyond in the Tsarist Russia. There is an old Russian proverb about this: “You’ve got to put some grease on the wheels if you want them to move for you.” In this respect, I don’t believe things have changed there much since the fall of “The Iron Curtain.”
The summer was almost over when one of my neighbors, who was also a family friend, literally took me by the hand and after a few attempts, finally got me enrolled into one of the schools.
Painting, as a profession, was not my first choice. In fact, I hadn’t even thought about becoming a painter until almost after I was already enrolled. Being a painter just did not seem as proletarian as let us say being a machinist or a brick layer and, in truth, it just didn’t seem masculine enough. You see, the painting profession, at that time in Russia, was being dominated by women. I did not come to fully appreciate this fact until a bit later, when it turned out that out of twenty eight students in my class twenty six were young girls.
It was not all fun and games though. I was expected to learn the trade full time during the day and finish high school at night. Two years full time seemed like a great deal of time, but it turned out that there was a lot more to painting than just dipping a brush into a bucket and smearing it on a wall. Truth be told, I am still using today a lot of things that I learned in that school.
Of course, there were also subjects like “Political Economy of the Soviet Union” and “History of Socialism.” I guess the Soviet government never wanted to miss an opportunity to ensure that their painters were very well rounded.
We were also taught things like how to make our own brushes and to make our own paint. I was learning about some paint ingredients that I never saw, in or out of school. Shortage of goods in the so-called “World’s Super Power” ranged from paint ingredients and paint brushes to tooth brushes and toilet paper.
Oh, you could still get the good stuff, if you knew the right people, but we mostly used this cheap paint that we would make from chalk, lime, glue and water. I can still remember those winter mornings when we would show up at the project, gather around and break the ice. Now, I am not talking about the action of making small talk as a warm-up to a conversation but, literally, with a shovel, break the ice which formed during the night at the top 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 we applied it to walls. You see, on this building project, windows hadn’t been installed yet. Maybe it was because the project was supposed to have been being painted during the summer months, and it was simply half a year behind schedule, or maybe there was a shortage of glass, or perhaps somebody in Moscow didn’t show up for work that day. (Ain’t the system of centralized government great?) In any case, ours wasn’t to question “Why”, we were told to paint and so we painted.
I almost cried when I first walked into a paint store here in San Francisco. These would not have been tears of sorrow, because I suddenly realized that my marvelous paint and brush-making skills were obsolete, but the tears of Joy. I know capitalism, particularly as of late, has been getting a bad rap, but take it from someone who had studied “History of Socialism” for two years and, more importantly, had experienced some of it first hand for eighteen – government is not the answer! Well, at least this is an opinion of one poor immigrant.
Two years of “Political Economy of the Soviet Union”! I wish I had spent that time reading a book of common English phrases. I got my first painting job with a Cuban contractor who spoke Russian. He had studied in Moscow and then immediately upon returning to Havana took a quick boat ride to Miami. I am still very grateful to him for giving me my first job. He paid me three dollars per hour and that seemed to me like a great deal of money. After all, in 1978, three dollars would buy six packs of American cigarettes. To buy that on the black market in Russia I would have had to work for a week. But I am even more grateful to my first employer for pairing me up with a Guatemalan kid whose English was only slightly better than my own, so I was not too intimidated practicing my almost non-existant English with him. (People sometimes still take me for a Latino.)
In about a year’s time, armed with better knowledge of local paint products, a bit of Russo-Spanish 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 had arrived in the United States 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 made a call to a local union hall and were told that I would have to pay a fee and pass a journeyman test. I forked over the money and scheduled myself to get tested. To my surprise, I passed the test on the first try and was definitely heartened by the thought that my trade school years turned out to be not a complete waste of time after all.
I was now a union journeyman painter and was all ready to go, but these were late 1970’s and good union jobs were hard to come by. After a couple of months of regularly reporting to the union hall, at 6:00am sharp, one young girl who worked there must have taken pity on me and got me my first union job.
I almost passed out when, at lunch time, my foreman handed me my first paycheck. When I came to, 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 us to save up and buy a house. Oh, if only my Russian friends could see me now!
Things were going great on 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 scaffold where pulleys are used to hoist painters up the building. But at that time, I had no idea what it was and honestly confessed this fact to my boss, when he inquired as to why I was not helping the rest of the crew.
He wasn’t, in the least, impressed with my confession and told me that if I didn’t know what a swing stage was, then I wasn’t a journeyman 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 status to 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 didn’t need any more apprentices and that I should seek employment elsewhere.
Needless to say that, at the time, I was very mad at this guy. But later I realized that he actually did me a favor. I got enrolled into a three year apprenticeship program where I would attend classes at night, and I also accepted an apprentice position in a tiny painting company.
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, and I would eventually become his only foreman. Later, I went on to work for one of the biggest union shops in San Francisco.
I got my contractor’s license in 1983 and in 1985 started Classic Shades Painting with a couple of partners. Today, the partners are long gone (still friends though) but I am enjoying the business more than ever.
In this writing, I had set out to make a list of my qualifications – my resume, if you will, as a painting contractor. In fact, it turned out as some sort of a political commentary. Oh well, it’s my story and I am sticking to it!
As far as my qualifications are concerned, I wonder if two full painting apprenticeships and thirty five years in the painting trade with twenty five of them running my own painting business, would add up to one Ph.D. in house painting. What d’ya think?
P.S. In case someone wonders and wants to pay me in cigarettes – I don’t smoke anymore. My wife and I had quit smoking in one day – the day we decided to get pregnant with our first child. Now that our second one is born, I measure my compensation strictly in terms of college tuition. Yes, my kids are going to go to college! I know my mother would be proud. I think she’d say what she always used to say (this is a rough translation from Russian): “God bless this land and its people. God bless Ameritchca!”
Painting Contractor in San Francisco Bay Area