America at Work: Dave, painting

This is Dave.

Dave, painting

Dave was painting the trim outside the Barnes and Noble where I live. I saw him as I walked in, headphones on, his white clothes standing out against the black surface he was painting. I remember thinking to myself, “people paint those things?” I hadn’t really thought about it before, but in my head, I had this unformulated vision of some kind of paintbot streaming past the building, painting as it went. I know, that’s silly, but like I said, I hadn’t really thought about it. And that’s the point, isn’t it? Very few of us think about it.

Very few of us think about the people who build and smooth the world we live in. The ones who tuck in hotel room sheets, pick up trash, fill vending machines, check electricity meters, or paint the trim on chain stores in anonymous malls. And yet, without these invisible people, our lives would be so much less comfortable, so much less finished.

So I walked back out and introduced myself to Dave (who seems like a very nice man). We talked to each other about our jobs, about following dreams, the recession, outsourcing… He has been painting since he was eighteen. He owns his own business, painting both residential and commercial properties. He showed me a thingamajig he invented and patented, for paint cans, to keep the brush from dripping and to save paint (below).

And as we spoke, I was thinking to myself (admittedly caught up in some lyrical vision of the U.S.), this is the soul of America, this is why immigrants come here, this is the American ideal. Work hard, love what you do, innovate, be yourself, and (at least in theory), anything is possible. (In reality, of course, the idealist proposition fails those constrained by structural impediments, but that’s a story for another day. The point is, there’s a lot more you can do compared to, oh, India for example.) As I watched Dave paint, swiftly but careful with detail, I thought to myself, this is America at work. In this time of recession, insufficient jobs, and truly hard stories from embattled people, watching Dave paint the Barnes and Noble was a sort of zen feeling, in the sense that my getting caught up in the movements of the brush and the quiet of the sunny afternoon led me to a kind of dhyana.

We chatted briefly, but I enjoyed that chat. He loves his job. And as we talked, I was reminded of why I love mine. I really like talking to people, especially people who like talking back. I like listening to them and telling their stories. There’s a multitude of stories here, watching America at work.

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