BY: JAMES F. O’NEIL
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I remember Buttercup Yellow (my favorite paint color for walls); Joe Fontana (my boss as Visitation parish); cool concrete steps (inside the elementary school)—and silverfish.
I remember gummy white bread (probably Wonder bread), white cheese, sliced tomatoes, and mayonnaise sandwiches—and cold “pop”—for lunches.
I remember mirror-like varnished classroom floors (which I was taught how to varnish, and before the Our Lady of the Angels fire), painted woodwork (done while I was seated and as I scooched along those varnished floors), and paint-splattered white coveralls (which fit, gotten from one of my sister’s boyfriends who drove a beautiful ’57 Mercury convertible).
I remember learning how to paint; I had to learn the fineries and delicacies of “cutting in” and “loading on” with brush (1/2-inch or 3/4-inch, with 1/4-inch for window frames. I was a master of that: window frames), or the handling of a roller and roller pan, even while on a 12-foot ladder. Colored paint on walls; white paint on ceilings: not the reverse. (I admit, I was not–ever–good with ceilings; so, I demurred, and let my partners handle those jobs.)
I remember “Uncle” Joe Fontana, my boss. Weathered, bent over, shuffling along (it seemed), cigarette always lighted in his mouth, teaching us, raising his voice hardly ever unless we deserved it for silliness or goofiness, or horseplay–or for some egregious errors (in painting walls?). What did we high school kids do to make him angry? Not working hard enough. Not completing enough work within a certain amount of time–sticking to a work schedule.
I remember well, more than the paint and the rollers but the scrubbing machine. I remember becoming proficient with that Monster, difficult to tame at first, with its three different pads: one steel wool for removing old varnish and a school-year’s dirt; one heavy duty bristle brush for washing the floors clean; one soft pad for polishing waxed floors. Yes, I became keenly adept in the use of all three attachments.
Joe Fontana was a gentle soul. Why did he choose me to master the scrubber?
He took the mop from the bucket of soapy water, spreading a soap solution over an area of the floor. Then he called me over, placing (gently) his hands over mine, like a kindly father. Left hand, right hand.
Then he gripped my hands and fingers over the handle and triggers of the machine. Off we went: left, right, straight, left, around, him laughing, me frightening. He stopped us. “Not easy,” he commented in his Italian-accented voice, cigarette butt still held between his lips.
“Are you-a ready?” He told me to scrub. To do it. While he watched, and smiled, and smoked. And I learned well. I was Mr. Scrubber, for all classroom floors, school halls–and Waxer, too. I was good. And less painting.
Yes, I remember those high-school summers in Chicago, working at the parish school, getting up early, making and eating those sandwiches; painting and scrubbing and waxing–all those little details, little things: memoriesofatime…
Part of this past summer’s vacation I did time painting, was on a ladder, was even remembering, not “Rosebud” but “Buttercup Yellow” –one of my favorite colors for those long-ago classroom walls. I felt Joe Fontana’s “spirit” around me from time to time, my memory of him while I climbed a ladder or kept my brush steady, helping me not forget all he graciously taught me so many years ago.
I hear sometimes, “You’re such a good painter.” “Thank you (Joe).”
© James F. O’Neil 2019