“Hey Art,” said Brad, “what do you call that stuff…you know…that stuff that…the droppings…that deer leave behind them?”
Art didn’t rush to answer. They were each standing on extension ladders, painting the second story of a building at Lamont Geological Observatory. Brad was Art’s assistant, hired about three month’s ago, and Art was just about the entire maintenance staff at Lamont. Art did all the painting and carpentry. He was the only employee on the Buildings and Grounds staff licensed to drive a vehicle, so he drove the surplus Army pickup truck twice a week when the garbage was picked up from the various research buildings and private residences on the campus. Art was also the only one who knew anything about gasoline engines, so during the grass-cutting season he operated the self-propelled Gravely mower with ganged side mowers. If the head groundskeeper needed help, he could ask Art to set up the Gravely, but otherwise old Bill Fassler would be content to push the old manual rotary mowers along with three other grounds men.
“Deer shit!” Art replied with a tinge of disgust in his voice for having to answer a stupid question.
Both workers continued to paint without interruption. Brad was an undertaker, actually, but he was just starting out and he’d been hired with the proviso that if he got a body to work on, he could have time off without pay. His establishment was a large white building in a fairly remote location surrounded by empty lots and woodland. Brad lived with his wife, on the second floor. He once complained that the only bodies he got were those instant deaths from traffic accidents when the police would call him, sometimes in the middle of the night, to pick up a badly battered body. Brad really didn’t mind, however. He accepted this as part of the dues you must pay in starting a business of your own from scratch. Brad was affable, an outgoing, sociable man who liked to talk and who had a lively interest in things going on around him.
Art, on the other hand, was a loner. He accepted that he now had to worry not just about his own work but about whatever Brad did, as well. That didn’t make Brad his friend. Brad would have to work a good many years before Art would accept him as a regular co-worker and Art was satisfied that would never happen, anyway.
It was three days since there had been any conversation between the two. “Oh,” Art might say at the start of the day, “we’re going to paint. Here, take this,” as he handed Brad a can of white paint. Or he might have said “Get the other extension ladder,” without any other instructions, expecting Brad to put it all together and follow him up the hill to where they would work. Art was not just taciturn. He believed that the only way that Brad would ever learn anything was for Art to convey the least possible amount of information.
It was a beautiful spring day. There was a clear blue sky with a slight breeze. The air was dry and warm enough for exterior painting and, overall, it was very pleasant to be outside. About 20 minutes had elapsed and Brad was working up to the next question.
“Hey Art,” Brad said, “what do you call that stuff, you know…the stuff that horses drop behind them?”
Art glanced suspiciously at Brad but continued to paint, applying just the correct amount of paint to his brush, his strong, muscular arms carefully stroking back and forth in a slow, methodical, unvarying pace.
“Horse shit!” Art spat out, a hint of contempt in his voice.
They continued to paint. It seemed impossible to please Art no matter how hard Brad tried. He had given up expecting any kind of recognition from Art for how well he was doing. The first time they painted together, Art had said “You can tell a good painter by looking at the label on the can. A good painter never lets paint drip down the outside of the can and when the can is empty there isn’t a speck of paint on the label.” So Brad did his best to keep the label clean. Art didn’t use a drop cloth because he never dropped a spot of paint anywhere that the paint wasn’t needed. Once, he got a job painting the interior of the manse at the Palisades Presbyterian Church. The church elders were expecting a new minister to move in. Art really shook them up when he set up his ladder and proceeded to paint the ceiling without a drop cloth.
Brad and Art reached a point where the ladders had to be shifted and they both climbed down, setting the paint cans aside while the ladders were moved. As with everything else, this was done in silence. Brad picked up cues by observing Art’s movements.
They were back on the ladders again and Brad said, “Hey Art, what do you call elephant droppings?”
“Elephant shit!” Art blurted, his round, florid, smooth-skinned face bobbing up and down—an involuntary movement of his head that indicated the presence of stressful mental activity inside.
Brad was already contemplating his next question. Art was an uncomplicated man. You might call him the salt of the earth. He was built like an ox and everything he did was at the same speed: steady and methodical. He couldn’t perform well if closely supervised and he did not like to supervise the work of others. Art preferred to work alone and believed in the dignity of labor. His diversions were few and his outlook on life processes was sparse. Outside of his work at Lamont, Art liked to hunt deer during season and he maintained the house that he had built singlehandedly and the three acres of grounds around it. He had found an ideal job at Lamont because his work was appreciated and he intended to remain there for the rest of his life.
“Hey Art, what’s the name of that river in Africa? You know, that river that’s supposed to be the longest river in the world.”
“How the hell do I know?” Art answered emphatically. “I don’t give a gawd-damn what they call it.”
Brad continued to paint. This was perhaps the most beautiful weather they had experienced and Brad was thankful that he could be outdoors, working on what used to be a large private estate before it was given to Columbia University. He had carefully spaced his questions to Art for effect and also because he might not have received any answer at all if the questions had seemed less than casual. He was waiting for just the right moment and it came now.
“Hey Art,” Brad intoned his last question, “how come you know so much about shit and you don’t know nothing about geography?”
Art glared at Brad. His head was bobbing uncontrollably now. His cupped ears and smooth, pink cheeks framed the pain visible on his twisted lips as they fought to release a verbal response. But he was unable to speak, unable to express anger. It wasn’t that Art didn’t feel it. He did. But nothing Brad had said surprised Art. It was partly the generational difference. Brad was young, just starting out, and these days most of the young ones, Art felt, thought that the world owed them a living. They didn’t have any real interest in the work they did and they didn’t respect a man, like himself, who put in an honest day’s work because there is no other way to live. Art knew that Brad would not be working there long and he didn’t care one way or the other how long he stayed.
If Art could have conveyed the sense of what he felt at the moment, it would have been something like, “Show me a man who can do a day’s painting without spilling paint down the outside of the can and I’ll say there’s a man fit to be standing on a ladder next to me.” So the two of them worked on in silence on this perfect spring day. Art dipping carefully to take up measured amounts of paint on his brush and applying it to the wall in firm, unhurried rhythmic strokes. If Brad expected a response, he would have to infer it by interpreting the fretful bobbing of Art’s thick head.
More about Lamont Geological Observatory, now the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/about-ldeo/history-lamont-0