Painting books

The most important words in my job description are “and other duties as required.” Those other duties have included setting up chairs, putting away chairs, building shelves, selling popcorn and candy bars and beer, and moving ten tons of paper in one day. My latest accomplishment, though, has taken me by surprise. My boss has me down in the basement painting books.

It’s not exactly painting that I’m doing; it’s more sealing the covers of books. These are large ledger books with red leather covers. Some of them are more than one hundred years old. Even under the best conditions, leather deteriorates over time. A product is made that, although it cannot reverse the deterioration that has already happened, it can cover up the leather and prevent further deterioration.

The mixture of chemicals I’m using has the viscosity of egg white, and it smells like a doctor’s office. The smell is caused by isopropyl alcohol, the chemical that evaporates to leave the surface sealed. I’m using sponge brushes with wooden handles to apply this stuff to the book covers. Hence, I tell people that this week I am painting books.

When my boss assigned me this task, he told me that I would be working in the basement so that the smell would not bother my co-workers. He also suggested I not do this task for too long at one time. “I don’t want to find you passed out on the floor down here,” he said. So I am taking the job about eight books at a time, then letting them dry and doing other things before I return for the next eight books.

They are huge and heavy ledger books. My boss didn’t give me detailed instructions on how to do this job, but I’ve painted houses before, and I’ve sealed wood on a deck. I was sure I could figure out a successful procedure. I pick up each book, make a note of what it contains (because at the end I’ll need a list of all the books in the set), and brush the cover lightly with a cleaning brush to remove any dust or other particles. Then I lay the book on a table and paint the front cover. I then slide my hand under the book and turn it so I can paint the spine. Then I lay the book down again and start the next book. After about three books, the cover of the first book is dry, so I can flip it on its front cover and paint the back.

I haven’t mentioned this to my boss, but last month I hurt my arm moving furniture at home. Now I’ve got a steady ache around my elbow that sometimes twinges when I reach for something (like a door) or when I grasp something (like a ledger book). The pain is survivable, but I doubt I’m doing whatever muscle or ligament is stressed by carrying heavy books and painting them.

Aside from that, the work is quite pleasant. The basement is quiet and still. The books look beautiful when they get their wet cover of sealant. Of course the sealant is clear when it dries, so the old scars and stains reappear. Even so, the sealed books have a greater vibrancy of red with gold trim than those books I have not yet sealed.

Today they tested the fire alarm at work. Of course they sent an email out first, telling employees we would not need to evacuate the building. Of course I was in the basement painting books and didn’t get the email. The first time the alarm sounded, I thought for a second about whether or not I should leave, decided to leave, screwed the cover on the sealant container, and headed for the door. I had just gone up the stairs and reached the door to the parking lot when the alarm stopped. I didn’t see other employees standing outside, so I figured it was safe to get back to work. The second time the alarm sounded I thought for a few seconds, decided it was smarter to leave, and was halfway across the basement when the alarm stopped. After that, the other tests were so brief that I didn’t even have time to think about leaving before I knew I didn’t need to leave.

By the end of the week I should have all the books painted, and I should have the list of books ready so other people know where to find these books. I’m curious about what other new and unique opportunities I’ll have at this job the rest of the month.

J.

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