Wine and Drywall
Saturday, March 31, 1973
Our mission: To taste wines and hang drywall at an elegant house in a gated community. It starts with a dozen of us in a room tripping on stepladders, spilling wine, playing loud music on a stereo. One guy, Em, a young curmudgeon, starts yelling at people: “You broke the paper. Don’t hammer so hard. You bent the nail. That won’t hold. You missed the stud." And finally, "Get out of here.”
“It’s just Sheetrock,” somebody says. “We’re here for fun.”
“There’s no fun in bad work,” Em says.
After about a half hour, only two people remain in the room: Em and myself. “I can tell you’ve done drywall before,” Em remarks.
“Uh huh,” I say.
A sweet freckled woman brings us Viennese sausage wrapped in dough. “Won’t you join us?” she says.
“Naw,” Em says.
“Later,” I say. Neither of us has touched a drop of wine.
Em is short and stocky with a broad nose and the deep dark facial hair that always looks unshaven.
We develop a rhythm. Em cuts and lifts. I nail. We work up a sweat. It's the dynamic of teamwork. Hustle is infectious. The job is an art form like a pickup basketball game, one on one, where strangers size each other up, make adjustments, try to keep it a fair match and then raise it up a notch.
The house is Goldie's. Temporarily. That is, Goldie is caretaking for a wealthy couple who are traveling. Goldie is a seminary student with a wife and a baby. Instead of rent, Goldie was supposed to drywall and paint this room. Not having a clue about construction, Goldie had the idea of a drywalling party where everybody could sample fine wines and maybe get some work done. The house has an extensive wine cellar. The owners told Goldie that he and his wife could treat themselves to an occasional bottle.
Goldie was the first to be kicked out by Em.
“Are you a friend of Goldie’s?” I ask.
“Naw,” Em says. “Never met Goldie before. My girlfriend is in a macramé class with his wife. You?”
“He’s the son of a friend of my father’s,” I say. “I don’t actually know him.”
We hang all the gypsum. Em has a knack for sizing. The cutouts for electric switches and outlets are snug. The sheets butt tight, no gaps. The nails are my pride: straight as a laser, each with a slight dimple of paper.
“Pretty,” Em says.
The sweet freckled woman returns. “Is it the music?”
“Partly,” Em says.
“How about Roberta Flack?”
“Better,” Em says.
“Got it. Now won’t you please join us?”
“After we tape and mud,” Em says. Then he looks at me. “You in?”
Lu pouts. “Won’t you at least have some wine? We’ve got dozens of bottles open in there.”
“Later,” I say.
Em's not a talker, which is fine with me. Together we embed the tape and smooth the mud. Cool gray joint compound clings in globs to our hands and arms.
We step back and survey our work: Smooth and simple. We breath the moist, slightly sweet smell of joint compound.
“You take it for granted,” Em says. “You only notice drywall when it’s bad.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Which means you notice it all the time.”
“Exactly.” Em grins. “Think Goldie can take it from here?”
The wall will need a second coat of compound, followed by sanding, priming, painting. “Doubt it,” I say.
“Yeah.” Em grins again. “Good work. Been a pleasure. Nice party.”
We slip out the side door without taking official leave of the party. “Glad to meet you,” Em says. We shake hands, climb into our separate junker cars and drive past ivied walls, out of the gated community.
I will never see him again.