Saturday, April 30, 2016

Z is for the Zen of Jount Compound #atozchallenge


Plaster work is so metal...
There are few moments in life where I can shift my mind into Zen-neutral.  Writing and painting don’t do it.  Those are conscious efforts to create something from nothing to please both me and you. That runs counter to what the great artists say.  “Creating is being in the zone”.  I disagree.  I think creating is striking a balance between what you find acceptable, your soul finds satisfying and your mind calls junk then deems you a miserable failure. 
I’ve only found that Zen moment at one job – construction, specifically plastering.  I got some work with a crew I liked being around and an employer who I’d call, “One of the good guys”.   As for the crew, Caesar would either help me or tell me to drop everything so we could and leave early.  Goren, a nine- foot tall Serbian power lifter, would tell me I was doing it wrong and Doug, my boss, would come by to inspect and teach.  Johnny couldn’t tell one way or another what I was doing. 
Who knew I was doing plaster work wrong?
TIP: When your father thinks he’s Construction Dude and tells you how to do something, chances are, you’re doing it wrong. 
 I would slather the compound on the wall like I was icing a cake.  It would dry in a matter of days looking like a scale model of various mountain ranges.  I perfected “The Alps”, The Rockies” and my personal favorite, The Manhattan Skyline.  Then I’d come back the next day and with a bandolier of different grit sand paper to flatten the peaks and raise enough fine dust to bring lung cancer to an army.    
My assignment was an entire apartment needing a skim coat.  I started in a room that was four bare concrete walls with a single light bulb dangling from the ceiling like a plucked eyeball.   I had two days to lay down two coats.  Two coats? It takes a day, sometimes more for my first coat to dry.  I should have realized something was amiss when Doug asked, “Can you polish?”.  I assumed by "polish" he meant could I slop on several thick wet coats and sand them smooth and cover everything in a thick layer of dust.  “Sure can,” I said with ignorant enthusiasm. 
Goren brought his favorite putty knife, a twenty-year old artifact in perfect condition.  The blade was true, sharp and flexible.  He prided himself on cleaning and maintaining it as if it were a Civil War-era rifle.  Leon, a Jamaican plasterer from another company was there, too.  He boasted of his many years on the job, “I been doin’ this for yars, mon.  More yars en you can cont!” 
My technique of hurling plaster onto the wall and smoothing like it was peanut butter on wheat left Leon with his jaw hanging.  He couldn’t believe how slow I was. He jumped on the scaffold next to mine and asked if I knew how to mix compound, how to have it on the knife and how to smooth it on.  Sure, I shoveled some out, threw it on the wall and started to work.  He almost fainted and fell into the bucket of compound. 
“Watch, Mon.  This is how you do it.”  Without going into mind-numbing detail as to the nature of technique, this man was an artist and schooled the hell out of me in five minutes.
After a while he stopped talking and was somewhere else.  I saw that look in his eyes.  He was no longer doing, he was being.  He was a poem in a rain storm.  He finished one coat smooth on my ceiling in about forty minutes.  After he finished he said, “You see?  You can do it, Mon.  Jus concentrate and you’ll see.”  I stayed late and practiced to frustration. 
The next day I was at it again.  Leon poked his head in, “Marnin, Mon, got some speed in ya today?”  I sighed and made my mixture like Leon showed me but I felt useless.  It would take years to learn this. I started to work the compound into the wall when something happened; I let my mind drift into that neutral Zen-space while I worked and disappeared into my head somewhere.  I snapped out of it to see before me a perfectly smooth section of wall about five-foot square.  Elapsed time; five minutes.  Holy cow it worked! 
There was something about the rhythmic flowing movement from knife to wall and back coupled with smoothing the compound on the wall.  I finished my room, the bathroom and the kitchen in one day.  Leon was shocked, Goren and his knife took credit and I found something so valuable I almost thought I should pay Doug for the lesson. 
Sometimes in the midst of the sweat, dust and labor, I find the calmest place in the city is a rough wall and the deeper corners of my mind.  They come together to create the most tranquil moments I know….

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