The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


July 13, 2013

Painting the town requires a special set of skills

The Back Porch column

Last night, I turned in my red vest. I’ve spent most of the summer working on my working person’s Ph.D.

My year as a starving writer left me — well — starving. To shore up my financial foundation, I took a part-time summer job in the paint department at Lowe’s.

I’ve been painting since I was big enough to hold a brush. Yet, I was amazed at how little I knew about paint. It’s been a time of great learning, but not just about paint.

Life and retail are about people, and I’ve worked with some good ones over the past 2-1/2 months. They’ve reminded me to value and appreciate what I have, that we are fellow travelers through this life and that there is honor in doing a job well regardless of how dirty the job is.

The paint department manager is a wonderfully courageous person. After her high school marriage ended, she raised their four children on her own. Most of them have college degrees, and some have advanced degrees. She packs her lunch every day save for one — that day out is her weekly treat to herself.

If she doesn’t know it about paint, it can’t be known. I really believe that.

The job is physically and intellectually demanding. Carrying gallon buckets of paint up and down a ladder and wrestling 5-gallon buckets into the shaker takes muscle and sweat. Figuring out which product a customer needs requires a lot of critical thinking.

For example, a woman showed a photo on her smartphone of the room she wanted to paint. She held up a color swatch to the screen and asked whether it was a match.


I pay most of my bills by teaching college students. It’s interesting the things my colleagues have complained about at the different places I’ve worked.

Pay is a pretty common complaint. Well, imagine trying to feed and clothe four children on minimum wage.

One former colleague couldn’t operate a photocopy machine but believed that anyone who did not possess a doctoral degree — as he did — was his intellectual inferior. He also signed all his e-mails to colleagues as “Dr. So-and-So.”

Many was the time I wanted to pull the substantial stick out of his butt and beat him over the head with it.

Not every person who gets a college degree is arrogant and superfluous, but it often seems like the better off a person gets, the whinier the person gets.

My paint boss is a happy person. I don’t mean pleasant, I mean really happy.

We laughed at ourselves earlier this week over our excitement that the new order of paint sticks had arrived.

We were without them for two days, and it didn’t seem right to hand people gallons of paint without giving them free sticks, too.

She runs a tight ship and has high expectations of herself. She is an expert at what she does.

My full-time job involves serving the great gods of journalism and society by imbuing the next generation with the skills and wisdom they will need to protect our democracy. At least I hope so.

But we must remember that for all our looking down the road, we live in the here and now. We need people like my paint boss who can help us survive and thrive in the here and now.

I pray to God that I won’t forget the lessons of this summer and wake up in an ivory tower. But if I do, I also pray that I will remember how to get down.

And if I have to paint it, I know people.

— Young is a Register-Heald columnist. E-mail:

© 2013 by Nerissa Young

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