Hearing Paint Dry

My Grandpa Nick has always had a knack for the succinct phrase, something so elegantly worded yet can express so much.

I first came across this gift at a very young age. I was probably about 4 or 5 and we were all sleeping in one bed, 3 of us, sleeping the wrong way in one of the bedrooms.  That's how it was. There were more kids than there were bedrooms and you had to bunk up. We didn't care. It was more fun this way. It was almost too fun, because we couldn't get to sleep. We were making a lot of noise, and giggling. Grandma Tina came in and asked us to please keep it down because Grandpa was in the other room. "Your grandfather can hear paint dry!" she said, chuckling with us, but firmly tucking us in.

This was a new thing to me! Hearing paint dry? I knew that my grandfather did a lot of painting. He was around paint a lot, in fact. Maybe he knew something that we didn't! I was sure that he painted one room and then sat and had coffee listening for when to put on the next coat.

This made me abnormally quiet and allowed all of us to get to sleep. I continued to think about my grandfather's ability. Could this apply to other things? I yawned silently, then froze in terror! What if he heard that?! A yawn! So thinking, I fell asleep.

The next morning, my grandfather greeted me from outside the bathroom. As I came out, he called after me. "Didja wash your hands?!" He was always asking us about washing our hands. You could depend on hearing that sound when the door opened as often as you'd hear it squeak. The door would open, squeeeeeeeeak. From somewhere in the front room. "Didja wash yer hands?" Sometimes that's how we knew that the bathroom was free. "Didja wash yer hands?" "Hey, bathroom's free!"

"I certainly did wash them!!" I knew better than anyone else about the germs that could be spread. I'd been told by so many adults about germs that I was germ-o-phobic. Leave the bathroom without washing hands? Never! In fact, just thinking about it made me want to go back and wash them a second time. Eech!

Then I got his attention again. "Hey, Grandpa Nick... Last night Grandma Tina said that you could hear paint dry. Is that true?"

I saw the ghost of a laugh hit my grandfather's face, then he grew all solemn. He leaned towards me, as if to tell a secret. "Not only that, Danny, but sometimes... I listen to the grass grow!"

Wow! The grass grow! That got my attention. It's some kind of super hearing. I thought about it all for the next few days and there were many days afterwards when I would sit in the back yard and just listen for the grass growing, convinced that I could hear it. But I could never actually hear any paint drying, as much as I tried.

After that, I heard a lot of wonderful, succinct phrases. I came to depend on my grandfather to put into one phrase all the emotion that I was feeling and to do it with a funny image, too. Have a bad day at work? "That guy was busier than a one-armed paperhanger!" he'd day. Now there was a busy man, I thought as I imagined some poor sap with one arm trying to hang some paper. I mean it wasn't my fault that he took this job in the first place. I guess it's okay to laugh at him a little bit.

Or if you hated your job, and there were plenty of times when I did and I was steamed at somebody else I worked with. I'd come home and Grandpa Nick would be over. I could tell him all about it, commiserate a bit and get a choice phrase to wrap it all up in. "Yeah, nobody likes to go to a place they hate. That's goin' to work with a fork in yer throat, let me tell you."

Garbage can was "cabbage can". Decaffinated coffee was "unleaded". If you were swindled in a bad business deal and lost your shirt, well: "That guy really raked me over the coals!"

It was liberating to talk like this, to think like this. As I got older, I understood what effect exaggeration and metaphor did. It kind of told you to take what life gives you, but don't take any guff... and if you can dish it out to somebody else, more power to you.

One of my favorites is, "You got any irons in the fire, Danny?" This one's great because you don't have to talk about the irons if you don't want to. You don't have to list the irons. You don't have to justify why there are only so many irons in this particular fire. It's just enough to trust that the irons are there. In all honesty, I've never seen an iron in a fire and if I did, I wouldn't grab it at least not without some kind of glove. I just need to say, "Yeah, Grandpa, I've got a bunch of 'em." "Thatta boy!"





@ 2005 Dan Speziale