Harry Gersh’s best credential as an authority on that formidable tribe, the Jewish paintners, is his own genealogy. Says Mr. Gersh: “My grandfather was a paintner, my father is a paintner, five of my six uncles are paintners. The other one—an intellectual snob—became a needle worker. Even I had a card in District Council No. 9, Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators, Paperhangers, Stripers, Carriage Stripers, and Helpers of America, American Federation of Labor.” At present Mr. Gersh—possibly an intellectual snob himself—is a member of the publicity department of the Textile Workers Union of the CIO. Our readers will remember him as the author of the highly controversial dissent on the cuisine of the Jewish home (“Mama’s Cooking: Minority Report,” October COMMENTARY).
A delicatessen store man is different from a candy store man or a merchant, but not much. A little of the spice of the pastrami, a little of the fat he didn’t trim off the corned beef enters his soul. But basically he is a small businessman with all the same faults and virtues.
A furrier is different from a dress operator or a hat blocker. But essentially he’s a needle worker, argue though he will about it—and he will.
But a paintner—he’s takeh different. Who could confuse a paintner with a plumber, a carpenter, a bricklayer? They all work on buildings, but who works like a paintner?
A sociological definition of a paintner would include the following: he is Jewish; he makes his living (some living, he would counter) with brush and paint pot; and his attitude to his customers is like that of a Spanish grandee to a peasant, a king cobra to a worm. Think of the butcher during the war or a candy store man with a case of Chesterfields and a box of Hersheys during the same years, multiply by ten thousand, and it still isn’t the same. At best these gentry were nouveaux—arrogants, and it didn’t last long. The paintner’s attitude has a patina.
Let’s get one thing clear from the start. A paintner is more than a painter with a Jewish accent. There are a hundred thousand painters—poor, middling, or expert practitioners of the brush and pot—not a bit different from a million other building tradesmen. A paintner, now, is something else again. He is a painter with a schmichick. He is a mechanic, a balmalocheh, an expert craftsman—but still that’s not the whole story. Other trades have older histories, but none has the paintners’ special traditions. No other craftsman has his personal psychology molded, tempered, permeated by his craft. A paintner remains a paintner, awake, asleep, or at the movies. The world is colored by his paintnering.
He didn’t deliberately adopt his biased view of the world. He didn’t sit down in convention and argue it out and pass a resolution to that effect. Part must be written down, I suppose, to economic and social determinism—the rest is sheer trauma.
It might be interesting to investigate the etymology of balmalocheh as it refers to the paintner. Some suggest it derives not from “master of the tribe” or craft, as is commonly thought, but rather from Baal Moloch, the master of the abomination.
The paintners’ trouble began forty or fifty years ago, much antedating the recent movement to encourage Jews to enter the handicraft trades. To be sure, even then they were masters; not only of the brush and palette, but of the cut direct, the snub superior.
A newly arrived Jewish immigrant, circa 1900, had little choice of new occupations. If he couldn’t afford a store, or even a peddler’s pack, he became a garment worker. But for a few, the fast talkers, the adventurous, the strong of back, there was painting. Any of the other building trades might have done as well, but painting had two great advantages—the boss supplied the tools and skill came after the job.
A carpenter needed a plane, a hammer, a saw, a chisel, and ease at handling these intricate machines. A plumber needed other tools and the ability to light a blowtorch. A bricklayer needed years of training and waterproof feet. But a paintner—anybody could schmier and look good in a dark hallway.
The boss paintner knew all this—he may have started the same way himself—and he took advantage of his knowledge by paying the greenies half or quarter scale. After all—was the customer a mehven on painting? And in that same dark hall who cared? So it wasn’t schmiered so perfect.
So an old-timer (he came over last year) took a greenie (he came over last week) and made a paintner of him. First he established relationship. He was a relative or a friend or a friend of a relative. Then he took the new one to a paint store for outfitting and training.
Since a paintner needed only one tool in his kit, the buying of that tool became highly important, almost a ritual. However, after a good deal of arguing, weighing, and measuring, the greenie was fitted to a putty knife. Then came a pair of white overalls. Union rules specify white overalls, changed each week. But the second pair would come after he had earned some money at his new trade. If the trainer were finicky he might order the new one to buy a duster. But that was ostentation.
The sale of the putty knife and overalls entitled the trainee to a tour of the store for an eye acquaintance with the rest of his trade. He was shown paint brushes and kalsomine brushes and ceiling brushes. Also enamel, flat, oil, turps, and varnish. Then he was ready to swing a brush.
The next day the newcomer was taken before a boss paintner. “He’s a good mechanic from the old country yet,” the old-timer stated, “but he doesn’t know American materials so good. So he’ll work for a little less for a while.” And another paintner was born.
With the birth of this new craftsman there was the attendant psychic trauma. The new paintner knew he wasn’t a mechanic, knew that another trade took better tools and greater skill. He knew it and the other paintners knew it and the boss knew it—and he knew that they knew it. But the customer didn’t know it. The customer didn’t know anything. And a tradition was born—the customer doesn’t know anything. And who has respect for a person who doesn’t know anything?
Feeding this disdain was another factor—proximity. Most building craftsmen—for example, plumbers—see their ultimate consumers only in an emergency. Others, such as bricklayers and lathers, never see the householder. But the paintner comes around year after year, always working under the customer’s eye. He is cursed with the amateur over his shoulder, with housewives’ indecisions, with spots on the furniture and floors. And he curses right back.
Products of a literate culture, the new Jewish paintners immediately set out to make the language of the trade more esoteric. Some superficial students in the field have ascribed the trade patois to unfamiliarity with English. A more realistic study would indicate that they were only trying to do for painting what others before them had done for law, medicine, and the dance. In the interest of impressiveness they were clothing what is essentially a simple art in verbiage outside the ken of ordinary people.
The new language had so powerful a hold on the trade that I, a very literary high school student in my youth, never knew the simple original English words for the paintner’s tools I worked with—I carried a “straisel” around during several summer vacations without embarrassment, but blushed when we bought a new one and the bill was marked “I Straight Edge.” And I painted many windows with a good “seschtel” before I heard ordinary folk call it a sash tool. But. being a good union man, I must keep some of the other words secrets of the trade.
The paintner has other troubles. He is forced by the eccentric fancies of women folk to live in a world of strident off-key hues. He is beset by lemon yellows, baby-blues and pustulent chartreuse, when all he wants is a decent, honest eggshell off-white. This spectrum conflict further colors his approach to people. Exhausted by the many whirling, clashing colors thrown at him, he sees the world in dull grey, the world and half its people. With women he usually sees red.
The boss paintner, more interested in money than in artistry, has also wounded the craftsmen. Anxious for the job, the balabuss offers a little carpentry and plastering with the painting. The paintner is stuck. He must fix plaster and refit the window sash before applying his colors.
It is this list of psychic and physical wrongs that has made the paintner what he is today. His uneasy sense of his own lack of craftsmanship, the lady of the house eternally over his shoulder, a growing color-phobia and the pressure to dabble in other skills in which he has even less artisanship than at painting—all these make him feel persecuted. And what do the persecuted do? They find a scapegoat to persecute.
The genius of persecuting someone involves setting the right tone at the first meeting. In order to create at once the correct rapport between himself and the householder, the paintner has developed the classic opening gambit:
“And what kind of meiseh-meshineh color do you want now?”
At one stroke the paintner has established the fact that the customer has no color sense, that she is looking only to make trouble for a poor working man, and that it would be far better if she left the whole matter in his hands without further hints or interference—especially if she values peace of mind more than some silly partiality to some non-existent color.
Sometimes, out of a feeling of delicacy usually foreign to the paintner (or because the boss is present), the classic opening is more devious or hidden. I remember being witness to the following scene, a silent witness because the customer was a family friend and the paintner was a fellow craftsman who worked for us.
Mrs. Lewin was having the whole house painted. It was a long-thought-out and long-planned affair. She and her husband had spent hours creating the color scheme, rearranging the furniture to suit, deciding when they would have enough money. She had read one full year’s back issues of House Beautiful and American Home. She knew what she wanted.
Enter Schmiel to survey the job. He arrived early, carrying a parcel of overalls, a bucket with his scrapers, putty knives, and spackle. When Mrs. Lewin answered the door he announced:
“The paintner is here.”
This is the correct third-person approach.
Once the door was opened wide, he entered, and without further invitation or ado he walked right through to the kitchen. There he deposited his bundles, and seated himself in a chair. Again without waiting for an invitation. Why not?
“Am I a salesman? I’m a mechanic, I came to do a job, so I should be bashful?” he would have explained.
Mrs. Lewin was forced to tag after the man who was going to execute her fond plans. Having little experience with paintners she had not even assumed the traditional no-use-trying-to-do-me-in expression attempted by more sophisticated householders in addressing paintners.
Excitedly she invited Schmiel to follow her about the house, so he could see what colors she wanted in what rooms. They went upstairs and she began her “spiel.”
“In this bedroom,” she began, “we want a light yellow. Almost like early sunlight.”
Schmiel didn’t bother to look at her. He didn’t even bother to shake his head sadly. He just stood in the exact center of the room and looked about at the four walls. Mrs. Lewin went on talking about the almost sunlight yellow. Schmiel just looked. When he had looked enough, he walked into the next room without saying a word. Mrs. Lewin followed.
“And this is my daughter’s room,” she continued. “We thought it would look just right for her in a pale pink. An ivory with a pink tinge. Do you think you can make that color?”
This time Schmiel did look at her. The look was almost expressionless but it conveyed the sense of a busy man whose patience was beginning to fray a little. He said nothing.
The next room was the bathroom. Mrs. Lewin had ideas there. It was going to be gay and bright. Not just antiseptically utilitarian like most bathrooms, not violent like the new Hollywood bathrooms, but laughingly gay. Schmiel shuddered just so slightly. Now downstairs. The living room was going to be papered, said Mrs. Lewin. The balmalocheh stalked out into the dining room. This room was to be a soft grey. Not a blue-grey, nor a brown-grey, just a soft even-toned grey.
“And now the kitchen,” Mrs. Lewin ended, “I want this room in ivory.” Schmiel nodded. But she continued, “So I can put some gay decals on it and make it look Pennsylvania Dutch.” That did it. The paintner sat down heavily.
First, he tried the artistic approach. Mrs. Lewin looked susceptible. “It won’t look good so many colors. Such a mish-mash. How could anyone stand it? Every time you go into another room your eyes will blink. Better leave it to me. A nice ivory all over. Hah?”
Mrs. Lewin wasn’t having any. He had misjudged her. She started in again listing colors and rooms. Interrupting, the paintner made his second move:
“It’s going to cost you a lot of money. Every time a new color is ten dollars extra. Five rooms all different is fifty dollars more. Hah?”
Of course, here he was daringly off-base. The price had been set, and it wasn’t any of his business, anyway. But he tried. Mrs. Lewin was firm. Third move.
“It’s so old-fashioned, all these colors. Last week I worked by very rich people in Westchester. With high-priced decorators yet. And by them was all eggshell.” He looked hopefully upward. It didn’t work.
Schmiel had now used the three standard anti-color gambits. Basically Schmiel was not dull or mono-color minded. He enjoyed Christmas ties. But color was a nuisance and anyway not within a layman’s province.
But, unfortunately, Schmiel had no opening for standard argument number four. This one is reserved for a customer who asks for something new. A paintner’s definition of new is within the last twenty years. This argument goes like this: “There isn’t any such thing.” And if confronted with printed proof, the next move is: “It’s just in the advertisements, it’s not on the market yet.
To Schmiel’s and the trade’s sorrow, Mrs. Lewin won the argument and got her way. But before the four days were over there must have been many an hour during which she wondered whether it was worth it, whether anything was worth it. Schmiel had many resources.
Another of the paintner’s gripes—inevitably let out on the customer—is that he cannot leave his tools in the shop. That schvere-arbeiter the plumber, called upon only in emergencies, has developed a method for making customers pay for their temerity. He leaves his tools in the shop. He does carry a bag of tools, but the one necessary for this particular job is in the shop. The paintner is caught by fate. The boss delivers the paint, ladders, and brushes. These materials are ample for the work. And that means seven hours of work for seven hours on the job. It’s not right.
To counter this wrong, the paintner has developed several time-wasting techniques. For example, the “you got a rag?” angle. Technically there is no reason in the world why the householder should supply rags to the paintner. He is supposed to leave her premises broom-clean and without spots. But the lady of the house knows that it doesn’t pay to take chances. When the paintner says, “You got a rag I should wipe up the spots?” she starts tearing sheets, shirts, and dresses. Usually they are sheets, shirts, and dresses she is still not sure she can spare. Meanwhile the paintner examines the pictures on the wall with a jaundiced eye. Every day he needs more rags.
Another technique involves coffee. Let the slightest aroma of coffee rise through the house and the paintner appears in the kitchen for a drink of water or a question about some room. There he will hover about, sniffing. Each sniff will seem to exhaust the air from the room. The rest is always automatic.
If the lady of the house is not a between—meals coffee drinker the paintner will broach the subject delicately. “Hummah,” hell say, “I thought I smelled coffee.” Usually she gets the idea.
For recalcitrant housewives, there are several “get-even” techniques. One is a subtle method of making fun of the customer, known in the trade as macht choizik.
I once sat entranced while the same Schmiel exercised his techniques on a lady who had insisted on a peach ceiling. He would put a drop of color into the paint pot, mix it, dip his brush, and climb laboriously up the ladder to take one swipe at the ceiling. Then he would climb down, go to his lunchbox, take out a peach, climb back up with the fruit and compare the ceiling color with the real thing. After some hours of this the woman fled her house for the movies.
A historic crisis in householder-paintner relations was precipitated in New York by the New School for Social Research, some years ago. The architecture and interior painting of the New School building on 12th street were advanced. Classrooms were painted with walls and even sections of walls in different colors. Theoretically this method of painting was calculated to even the light throughout the room, eliminate glare, rest the eyes, and focus attention on the lecturer. Maybe it was fine for the New School. But a lot of apartment dwellers got ideas.
The paintner, as a creature of tradition, resists change. But this idea of two walls of different colors was more than change—it was revolution. So the paintners rallied for the counter-attack; they used all the old methods and some new ones. And today they have routed the enemy. At any rate, two color rooms aren’t as popular as they once were.
During this battle the paintner made telling use of a new ally, a part of his equipment that heretofore he had looked upon as an inanimate enemy—the dustcloth. The dustcloth is the canvas affair to cover the furniture and floors to prevent spotting.
Now a dustcloth looks inanimate, but it has an animate malignancy. Householders do not believe this but I have seen it with my own eyes. These great squares of cotton can develop feet and crawl. A new, whole dust cloth can instantaneously open its fibers and let a paint spot through onto the piano it is supposed to be protecting—and close up and look whole again. The paintner carefully covers floors and furniture with dustcloths. He paints, and then he lifts the cloth, and there under the cloth he finds spots, dried hard. One more thorn in the paintner’s side. But in the New School imbroglio it was the secret weapon in the paintners’ arsenal. I recall the case of the West End Avenue lady who had some lovely new Swedish modem white birch furniture, and for the walls of her living room she wanted nothing less than moss green and Algerian beige. . . .
Most paintners have wives (and live in apartments that badly need painting), but no tribe of men dislike women more. For that, by and large, women must bear the blame. Why do female householders assume that men working about the house are half-blind—or rather blind to half they see? A woman who normally would redden with shame if she knew that her slip were showing will walk about the house half undressed, oblivious to the painter.
Gas meter readers, either because they work for a major utility or because of special training, can walk into an apartment in the early morning with their eyes fixed on a point near the ceiling. They can read the meter and walk out of the house without even having seen the woman of the place clumping about in her nightgown. Paintners cannot do this. It bothers them. A strict morality goes along with the rest of their conservatism. To make matters worse for them there are the “matchers,” the women whose sense of color is so literal that they can only visualize what they have right at hand. This one comes up to the paintner and, grabbing the front of her shocking pink peignoir, shoves it in his face.
“Here,” she says, “make me this color in the bedroom.” It is frightening. (“Lady,” ends one of the many rueful paintners’ jokes on this theme, “I am an old man.”)
From this paintner trouble comes another and—from the householder’s point of view—worse trouble. The artist, averting his eyes from the deshabille, makes mistakes. For example, he paints over things. It is sad but true that, if not closely watched, the balmalocheh will paint over the door hardware, any wall lighting fixtures, and an occasional piece of furniture too heavy to move. But it’s not his fault.
To counteract this and other forces working to undermine their craftsmanship and probity, paintners often work in pairs. Working as a team, the two mechanics carry on a running conversation, usually about their customer. It is de rigueur that the householder be always spoken of in the formal third person, even though he may be standing right beside them. When the customer addresses them, one paintner always paraphrases what the householder said to the other painter, using the third person, of course.
Two paintners are working on the window sashes of a living room. The man of the house is sitting in an armchair, reading a book. Suddenly a large splash of ivory enamel appears on a pair of grey kid gloves carelessly left by the customer on a window side table.
“Schlemiel,” says paintner No. I, “look what you’ve done to the man’s gloves.”
“So it happened an accident,” No. 2 answers, “a little turp and it’ll come out. Don’t get excited.”
He climbs down from the ladder and attacks the spot with a paint-dirty rag and some turpentine. The owner of the gloves sits mesmerized. The conversation continues.
“A nice pair gloves, soft like butter. But not a paintner’s color. Gloves like this you don’t find on a paintner. It must be a fine man, an artist, maybe a writer, to wear such gloves in the middle of the week.”
Paintner No. by now has stopped working and is watching the proceedings with great care from his high perch.
“Be a little careful, you yold you,” he says, “a five-six dollar pair gloves you’ll ruin for the man yet.”
Eventually the spotted glove is put aside to dry. To be sure, it doesn’t look perfectly clean, but No. 2 explains to his partner that only a snob and an aristocrat could be dissatisfied.
“And this glove he doesn’t use anyway. He has to take out a cigarette, or maybe a nickel for the subway. How can he wear a glove on the right hand. In the pocket it can have a little spot,” he adds.
That’s the way it goes. You think you have troubles? Ask any paintner, he’ll really tell you.