I dropped a postcard to my old friend Mike the other day to find out how he's been making ends meet. Since being laid off in 1993 after 20 years in computer maintenance, Mike's gone through a rather heroic succession of odd jobs. It's the new American career profile.
"What the hell are you doing?" I wrote. "Selling incense? Sterilizing Brahman bulls? Tattooing fine young Americans? Cotillion instructor? Cheese fermenter?"
I wasn't far off.
"None of the above," Mike said, responding by phone. "This would stump them all on 'What's My Line.' I paint blimps."
"How's that? "
"I'm a blimp painter."
I couldn't resist: "You mean like Rubens?"
"No, and that's in bad taste. I mean it literally, not figuratively."
I have admired the pluck that Mike has shown since losing his job at 41, with a hard-working wife and two kids at home. He has sold cars, erected fences, laid sod, built audiophile stereo speakers, designed a catalogue for a specialized sound equipment store--he even worked on the technical side of movies for a short time.
Nothing surprises me about Mike (he's also a credible jazz saxophonist), but I can honestly say I never expected that he would end up painting blimps. I didn't know anyone ended up painting blimps. It sounds like an occupation for a character in a Kurt Vonnegut novel. You know, Dwayne Hoover's Customized Zeppelins! Or a piece of stunt art by Christo, the guy who wraps islands.
"Started last week," Mike said. "I'm actually a glorified sign painter. You know, helium blimps, 20- and 24-feet long, that fly 150 feet in the air."
Oh, the little blimps. Phew. I had first envisioned him suspended from a pulley, repelling down the face of the Good Year gargantuan with a spray-paint gun. But he meant the mini-blimps--the cocktail weenies of the dirigible family. Now, every time I drive past a flying Bratwurst-shaped balloon proclaiming "NISSAN" OR "FORD," I think of Mike.
He got the job by word-of-mouth (how else do you get a job like that?), and is nothing if not enthusiastic.
"These things fly so high," he explained, "that you can completely screw them up and nobody gives a damn. But for me, it's just got to look right--when I do a Ford logo, it's something that would make Henry Ford smile."
Naturally, I made dumb requisite jokes about sniffing helium all day; about how he's "fighting inflation with inflation" and doing his bit to "pump up the economy," and about how this particular advertising format might be ideal for promoting so-called safe sex.
Mike only sighed.
"I never imagined that life would be like this," he said. "It's a very unsettling feeling. I'm glad to have the job, but the economy had been getting worse and worse, and I expect next year it will be worse still. Of course, our elected officials are saying it's getting better. I think they've got a lot in common with blimps.
"Everybody who is no longer able to collect unemployment has either found some weird thing to do, or they've given up. I've sent out a billion resumes, you know? I rarely even get the courtesy of a reply. There's nothing out there."
Pretty true. But then, how many people can put "blimp painter" on a resume? I inquired about the aesthetic rewards of the job. Does he take a measure of satisfaction in contemplating the aerodynamic beauty of his aircraft? Does he feel a vaguely defined thrill as he watches his careful artwork ascend slowly into the smoggy skies? Nope. He's just as jaded as the next blimp painter.
"I used to marvel," Mike said, "at the technology of the grand old passenger zeppelins, but not any more. In fact, when I see pictures of the Hindenburg now, I just see a big ugly gas bag. Which is, as I've suggested, more or less the way I see our elected officials."
His painting routine is surprisingly colorful. It starts with Laurel-and-Hardy-like wrestling of a big polyurethane bladder onto a wooden cradle, then inflating it with air (helium isn't conducive to a steady brush).
He then projects the logo or slogan in question on a metal plate covered with butcher paper. Next, he takes a special electrical "pen" carrying a negative charge and draws it close to the metal plate, which has a positive charge, causing electricity to "arc a hole" through the paper. Thus is created a kind of stencil, or "pounce."
Does this purely mechanical process confine the creative whimsy of the blimp artist? Not at all, Mike insists--in fact, this is the very same technique that another Mike named Michelangelo used to outline his frescoes, "except he just punched holes in canvas with an awl."
Now just a peregrine moment, there, Michael. Are you suggesting that you are the Michelangelo of 20th-Century blimp-painting?
"I don't know," he said, "but you know what? My first blimp took about as long as the Sistine Chapel. I get paid by the piece, so it all worked out to about $3 an hour. I worked about 65 hours on it, but that sucker was perfect. I hand-painted it. I didn't even mask."
There was genuine pride in my friend's voice, and I wasn't sure it made me entirely comfortable. Three bucks an hour? Even at his six-day, 12-hour-day workweek, this enterprise wasn't getting off the ground.
"Hey, the guy who has my first blimp is so excited he's sending letters out to the 200 other franchises on how magnificent that sucker is," Mike said. "Yes, pretty soon I'm going to be painting a lot more of these big yellow bananas that say, 'RENT-A-CAR!!!' "
To my great relief, Mike broke into his old, familiar sardonic laugh. I was glad to see he appreciated the general irony of his situation, and that he still had his sense of humor. I guess having a wife and two kids helps you to keep a sense of humor about ironic situations.
"Besides," he said, "I've already made more money from my art than Vincent Van Gogh."
And as Van Gogh knew, not all profit is immediate--or monetary. There's a real future in blimps, Mike said with bravado. Why, one day he might manage a whole fleet of blimp painters.
He's already mulling over marketing ploys, like "doing a whole series of Burma Shave-type ads," where words would be staggered from zeppelin to zeppelin. What's more, he recently began taking some work out in trade.
In exchange for going the extra mile on a recent blimp by adding a little penguin logo beside the name of a Canada-based frozen food company, Mike asked the owner to ship him a little frozen Canadian salmon. "I love salmon," he said.
And there's one more benefit, my persevering friend will tell you, from being the guy who paints blimps for a living.
"I love to tell people what I do," he said. "I love to give them a good laugh."