One of the simplest joys of life is to make something beautiful. For me that joy is greater when that something has been run down or broken or left for useless.
For the past three days I have been painting my daughter and son-in-law’s new apartment in New York. Actually, I have been working on that place for months because the place is a fixer-upper. I like the work. This is their first home; reminds me of the first place Pam and I bought. In my mind I can still go room to room at 36 Kane Street and see before and after. It became beautiful, maybe—because I did nearly everything myself—the prettiest home we have ever lived in.
Maggy and Andy’s apartment is an old pre-war, two bedrooms, a real kitchen, room for a proper dining room table. Seven years of eating dinner on the sofa and sleeping on blow-up mattresses is over. I am happy for them. Proud, too, of course.
The last owner rented the place out, and it shows. People with more beer than expertise painted the walls and woodwork with rollers soaked in cheap paint. Wires for a defunct security system, along with TV cables had been stapled to door frames and base boards, then painted over and over. When we tore out the cables it looked as if someone had glued broken spaghetti to the edges of the trim. Parts of the walls were crumbling. There were gouges. The walls were littered with flecks of crud from the clotted bottoms of paint cans.
I offered to do this work because I knew that, on their budget, they could only hire the handyman in the building to throw a coat of paint on things. That would be more of the same.
I used sharp scrapers and a power sander to restore the lines of the woodwork. It took hours, days. I covered everything in plastic but dust was still everywhere. I filled the wall gouges and sanded down all the crud. I went through two tubes of caulk. I listened to Dire Straits and Victoria de los Angeles. At the end of the day, the kids would come home from work, marvel at my progress and take me out for dinner.
Why, since I was exhausted and popping Advil, did I feel like the luckiest man on the planet?
Yesterday I finished. It was beautiful. It was far from perfect, which is why its beauty made you feel like dropping to your knees. There were limits, thank God. We couldn’t just strip out the old and put in new. We had to work with what is. We had to take something broken and find a way to fix it. We had to take something neglected and see if we couldn’t love it a bit. We had to take what others had recklessly torn up and gradually coax it back to its old form.
There is an old prayer which we say on Good Friday. “Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made….”
“Don’t tell the kids,” I say to Pam, “don’t tell the kids how much joy I get out of going down there to paint. I can’t explain to them that I am doing this . . . not really for them.”