Ten colors of paint on a stepladder

And the story of looking for home a gallon at a time.

We painted our living room this past weekend.

Painting’s never a job I particularly relish, and it’s certainly not the way I’d choose to spend a weekend if all things were equal. The time had come, though. You see, the living room was blue. Can you picture a blue room? Okay, now bluer than that. No, more blue. Really, deeply, aggressively blue. In an otherwise perfectly nice house, we had one room that felt like being swallowed by a whale. Every home carries with it a few baffling echoes of its previous inhabitants, carried-over design decisions that leave you aghast at how could they have possibly thought this was a good idea?


So, Saturday morning, we load up the kids for a trek to Home Depot, the most fun thing that I hate doing. (Home Depot’s ongoing sponsorship of college football is perfectly apt, as that’s another thing I love despite it making me miserable). The store’s full of fun tools and exciting ideas and ignites feverish fantasies of all the things you could build — as long as you accept that you’re not there for the last time this weekend. No matter how good your plan is, you will be back.

We headed to the paint section to review our choices. Night Mission. Irish Folklore. Tornado Season. Nairobi Dusk. Proper Temperature. I firmly believe that the greatest creative writing job in the world is naming paint colors, and please don’t ruin my one remaining dream for me by telling me that that it’s not actually one person’s full-time occupation. I need to believe, I need to hold onto the hope that one day I’ll be the one choosing names like Hot Gossip, Mission Control, or Lazy Caterpillar. I understand what they understand, that Integrity is more red while Honest is more blue, but they’re both shades of purple. Obviously. We settled on Dolphin Fin. (Gray.)

Paint selection in hand, we head to the counter, wait ten minutes behind someone agonizing over the difference between eggshell and semi-gloss, and then get to discuss product options with the clerk.

“Now, do you want the good paint, or are you a piece of shit?”

Well I don’t think my paint choices are indicative of—

[withering glare]

It’s just that “premium” sounds perfectly good, I don’t know if I need to shell out ten more dollars for “super-premium”, and—

[an imperceptibly slight shaking of the head that conveys the soul-deep disappointment of a parent who expected you to turn out better than this, better than someone who’d show up to a family funeral wearing an Indianapolis Colts jersey]

I… uh… [hangs head] yes, I’ll have the super-premium. Dolphin Fin. Two gallons.

Sorry, ma’am.

Two hundred dollars of paint and primer in hand, we headed home. It was a simple plan: put a movie on for the kids, shoo the dog outside, shove all the furniture into another room, put some plastic drop-cloths down, and just immediately start screwing things up. Is there one square inch of the entire large room’s floor that you didn’t cover up? Well, it’s as gray as a dolphin’s fin now, buddy. Enjoy looking at that until the day you move out. I think I got more paint on my shirt than I did the wall in some strokes. Saturday afternoon slipped away as we beat back the previous inhabitant’s grim aesthetic choices, one roller swipe at a time.

This isn’t the first time we’ve done this; it’s become a fairly frequent ritual over the last decade, owing to our oh-so-millennial transience. Living in New York City early in our relationship, we bounced from apartment to apartment every year or two for various reasons; asshole landlord, long commute, rent hike, apartment fire. We were regularly faced with a new set of walls to call home, and there wasn’t much we could do to customize the space. Painting was always the solution, a way of marking the space and saying this is ours, at least for now, even if we knew it wasn’t ours, it technically belonged to some guy in Long Island who we’d never met but we mailed a check to once a month, a guy who’d probably price us out soon or kick us out if he ever came into the city and realized we had a dog.

It’s amazing what a coat of paint can do to a room, though. A narrow, blank white bedroom was turned a light green that made it feel both bigger and cozier. The backs of shabby built-in shelves were revived with a coat of Tiffany blue. The face of a loft space, a four-foot-high shelf at the top of a ship’s-ladder that we turned into a TV room, was turned a deep chocolate brown that I totally didn’t think was a good idea but it turned out to be a great idea. (It probably helped the guy in Long Island get an extra $200/month out of the space, too, because the listing pictures after we left looked a lot better than the ones we’d responded to.) We painted in every apartment, and then again in our drafty little rental house after we moved to the middle of the country to start having children.

The house with the deep blue room was our milestone. A house we actually owned, even if we’d had to leave the city we’d sworn we’d never leave and move to Kentucky for homeownership to be even remotely in reach. After a decade of jumping from place to place, barely unpacking the boxes before we had to repack and scuttle on somewhere else, we finally had somewhere we were going to stop and put down roots for a bit. Sure, there were some weird color choices, but we’d paint over those soon enough. (This was three years ago.)

After slogging through three coats of primer, we got to a place where we couldn’t see any of the previous owner’s blue peeking through. The room became a soft gray, warm and welcoming in a way that the paint swatch couldn’t have conveyed. This is our home, it said, and it’s our color. As we pulled off the painters’ tape, balled up the dropcloths, and stowed the extra can of paint (the one I’d made a second trip to Home Depot for), my wife observed something.

Our clanky old stepladder, purchased from a Brooklyn hardware store near our first apartment — one of the few pieces of household equipment that’s traveled with us through ten years and six moves, through eight job changes and two babies — was spattered with paint of all different colors. Green from the bedroom in that quirky little walkup with the “life coach” across the hall who we’d learned to avoid a little too late. Blue and brown from the place we’d snapped up the day after the fire, while our old building was still smoldering. Light blue from the nursery we first brought our son home to, the house he claims to remember but almost certainly does not. A decade’s worth of spatters from our annual efforts to declare that we were finally home in all those places that weren’t supposed to be ours, places we knew weren’t going to last but were going to make our mark on anyway.

We’d been home the whole time.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)