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San Diego painter with 40 years experience finally falls

2022 Writing Contest Winner: Non-Fiction

There is abandon in his posture: the worker no longer fights but gives himself heavily to his fate.
There is abandon in his posture: the worker no longer fights but gives himself heavily to his fate.

How many people wake each day with the opportunity to fall? How many go to bed each night worrying about their fall? How many fall? You’re not a bird — a finch, a nightingale, a swift — and you know it when you fall. Five years ago, I fell 15 feet onto a rose-colored bed of herring-boned brick. The owner of the house I was painting heard the dull, dense thud outside his door and hurried out: “Phil, are you okay?”

Author Philip Kelly, Jr.

The common swift spends nearly its entire life in flight—eating, mating, molting, and sleeping on the wing. Its yearly migration is from Northern Europe to Sub-Saharan Africa (a flight path of nearly 6000 miles), and the common swift spends more than 99% of that migratory period airborne. The birds land only to lay their eggs. Yet, for all their aerial achievement, they are challenged in their nests and on the ground. They crawl awkwardly in their nests, stagger clumsily on the earth. During these earthbound stints, the swift studies the sky. He knows his home.

When I fell, the flight lasted two or three seconds. Funny, just two or three seconds, and I had worried over it, pictured it, for decades. I was scared of climbing heights when I first became a house painter some 40-odd years ago. Working with other young guys, I would never show “scared” — I would do what I could to hide it, whether that meant dodging the climbing part of the job or just facing it and laboring up the ladder and swinging myself onto the scaffold plank. But at night, at home, I would think on it, worry about the next day at work, knowing that chore up there, 20 feet in the air, was in front of me.

We never rented scaffolding in those early years. Those skeletons of metal, rising alongside buildings with the wooden planks running their lengths, those would have been dream freeways from which to work, like walking and working in a rising cocoon of security. But the jobs we did would never afford it, so it was ladders, jacks, and planks for us. You and another painter would raise an extension ladder to the height from which you wished to work. You’d climb the ladder with a metal jack, hook it to the rungs of the ladder, and level the jack’s arm out. Down you’d go then, to grab the 15-foot-long wooden plank reinforced with metal, heft it on to your shoulder, and climb the ladder to the jack. Then with the “clean and jerk” move of a weightlifter, you would lift your end of the plank up and over its arm and bang the plank on. Then down you’d both go again, this time to gather your supplies: your caulking and sandpaper, your paint buckets and brushes. I remember it all so well: kneeling at our setup tarp, readying my paint, pouring in and stirring the thinners, thinking all the while, Shit, now I gotta climb back up there.

So, for ten, twelve, even fifteen years as a master craftsman, I hesitated before the heights, climbed with a quiet resolve, jimmied myself onto planks with no guardrails, and set my feet as deep as I could into the wooden plank — as if it were mud. Sailors have an old saying: one hand for you, one for the boat. That way, no matter what you are doing, you always have a hand empty to grab something stable in case the sea makes a surprise shudder and you go suddenly askew. And so, while painting up in the air, I would have my brush in one hand, and the other hand would be always touching the building I was working on — like a sailor, or like a toddler with a mother’s hand.

When I fell that morning — a bright, sunny, seaside morning — the words I spoke, or the words I just thought, were the given ones: I’m fucked. That’s it. No yell, no yodel, just the sudden flight and I’m fucked. I remember there was no panic, no flailing of arms and legs, no eyes pleading to a receding heaven during that short flight. Just a feeling of a resigned wonder. I believe it was Nietzsche who spoke of fear when crossing a high bridge: was it the fear you would fall, or the fear that you would jump? Such an interesting idea to muse on, especially when one has felt that fear. I like rolling that idea around in my palm. But I always come to the same conclusion: I never wanted to jump!


Over the 40 years I’ve been painting, quite a few workmates have come and gone, have climbed ladders and balanced across scaffolding planks. I know right away their comfort level with heights. I see how their hands hug ladder rungs as they ascend, how they swing around the metal girders of scaffolding, and how, when it is needed, they scramble up roof tiles to paint a pointed dormer that sits high in the sky. You know right away. But you can’t know just from a person’s background. You have to see them climb.

A great friend — a fine surfer with whom I had spent many an hour in the water — came to work with us one morning. He was looking for a career. He was a stud. Young. Locks of golden hair fell to his shoulders, and he was adept at that California-surfer move, the quick shake of the head as if clearing the sea water from one’s face, the hair shimmying like a lampshade’s tassel: some small problem shaken from the surfer’s holy life; and the lips mouthing, with the gravitas of the philosopher, “Whatever.” Now, I had seen this buddy of mine paddle out on the largest of wave days, had seen him drop in on wave walls steep as mountain cliffs. Fearless. So, on his first day of work, I motioned him to climb a five-foot ladder, swing over a second-floor wood railing, and do a bit of sanding from a gently slanted roof.

He froze. He climbed the five-foot stepladder, but at the swing over part of the dance to the roof, he froze. The gold chain around his neck clung to sudden perspiration; his hair ceased to shimmy. And I knew. “Bro, let me do that,” I said. “You stay here on the decks inside, no worries.” My friend finished the day, but never came back. His painting and climbing career was over. We surfed together for years after that, and never mentioned that day.

Then appeared the miracle of Victor Sad-Wings. The sea change that swept up from the south into Southern California in the mid-1980’s — that wave of young, hungry-for-work immigrants —gifted our small painting company with Victor Alatrieste. Victor Sad Wings. It was a welcome swell of workers — not because my partner and I were looking for cheap labor. No, we were looking to continue painting houses, and we needed painters. My surfer buddy, the one afraid of heights, turned to the sea and became a fishing boat captain. Another surfer friend left painting to sell golf equipment. Another became an airline pilot. The summer kids who we welcomed on their breaks from college — kids we hired to move ladders, line drop cloths, make our paint runs — suddenly grew up and became lawyers and fund managers. Our work larder slowly emptied: eight or nine workers dwindled to just three.

Then one day, I saw a young man in an empty lot, rolling a boulder like Sisyphus. It was Adrian. He was from the pueblo of Tlaxcala, close to Mexico City. A contractor in our town, known for his cheapness, had hired Adrian to clear a lot and ready it for some soon-to-be mansion. I called my partner over to watch Adrian work. We watched from a window of the house next door, where we were painting. He was relentless: small and square, engulfed in sweat from his labors. He dug well-worn black tennis shoes into the earth, lowered a shoulder into the boulder, and willed it forward. Here, before us, was the essence of work, like man’s first labor. I said to my partner, “We have to hire that guy!” And we did. We paid him twice what he was making to clear the lot, and I set about teaching him how to paint. Adrian had a cousin looking for work. That cousin had a friend from his village in Mexico, also looking for work. That cousin had a brother. We had a painting company again!

Victor Sad Wings had been there the day the future ship’s captain had hesitated on the roof climb. It was his first day — cousin of a cousin of Adrian’s cousin — and he was right there beside me. He put his finger on his chest, then pointed to the roof. Victor was young, I’m guessing 17 or 18, long and angular, movie-star handsome. He had a Polo sweatshirt on, and hip- but-worked-in baby-blue Puma sneakers. All of us painters wore well-spattered clothes, clothes you had to change out of if you had a dental appointment, and now here was a young one who seemed to have stepped from the pages of Mexico’s GQ. Of course, I nodded: Go, get ‘em kid, and he leapt onto to that roof, all elbows and knees, like a young giraffe at play in a southern savannah.

Wouldn’t it be in our DNA to climb? Kids love bunk beds. I loved bunk beds, always wanted to have the top spot, to climb those four wooden steps to the top, and sleep in heaven — with a view of my room, all my toys and clothes, and a view of the tree outside scratching the window in the wind. But I had an older brother, and he always claimed the top, viewed the toys and the great outdoors. I slept in the cave of the bunk below and yearned for stars. Didn’t our genes order our eyes to study trees and the branches as steps to the top? We rarely scurry to the treetops to escape lions any more, but boys and girls dream of tree houses, a pathway from limb to limb. But for some reason, over the years, the desire to climb ebbs, and fear creeps in. It had for me, at least, yet my work placed me among the trees.

For Victor Sad Wings, the joy of climbing still bubbled. He’d always meet me in the morning, bright-eyes below a chic Mohawk with a tinge of red, bouncing like a fighter. And I, as boss, would figure out the most challenging part of the job and give it to him. “Let’s put a ladder on this wall, Victor. We can climb it to get to the 20-foot extension ladder, and from there reach the fascia that peaks at the highest part of the house.” And Victor would leap to it. Like that young giraffe. And slowly, his enthusiasm for heights wore down my fear, and we climbed together. I taught Victor everything I knew about painting: the prepping techniques, the solvents and thinners to use, and how to brush oils and varnishes like an artist. And Victor taught me, unknowingly, I believe. With his gallop, his spiked hair, and his fearlessness, he taught me work as play.


I fell through the sweet, spring air of Southern California and landed with a fat, dull thud. I fell, and miraculously landed square on the angel wings of my shoulders. No head bounce; no ankle twist or snap on the red bricks. Just the thud. I remember looking up at a rectangle of clear blue sky between the buildings. I remember a monarch butterfly flitting along its tipsy way above my head. The owner, a former fighter pilot in the Vietnam war, came hurrying out his front door.

“Phil, are you okay?” He stood over me, entering the ceiling of blue.

“I think so, Blair. Give me a minute.”

I can only imagine the things he had seen in his life. Blair nodded and backed away slowly.

I got up, shook myself a bit, re-ordered the ladder arrangement, climbed and painted.

It wasn’t until my walk home on the white-sand beach that I spoke to myself.

You are not a bird.


A month later, I arrived in Venice, in a drenching rain with five thousand dollars of work cash and three months to spend in Europe. I went to bed that first night in a high-ceilinged room of whitewashed walls that overlooked a narrow canal. Two days before, I had been painting houses. Now I was a traveler. I went to sleep that night to the murmurings of gondoliers and lovers and the slap of water on stone steps below. The next morning, leaning from my window for a peek at San Marco, I noticed I still had paint on my elbows.

In a church, in the neighborhood of Dorsoduro, I bought a postcard for a Euro. It showed a work by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, a renowned eighteenth-century fresco painter. A workman is falling from a wood scaffolding. A dark, stocky man in a threadbare tunic and worn leggings, he is falling to his death. There is no doubt. It is not the moment at the beginning of a fall when you still have a chance, when you can maybe catch at a gutter or windowsill; nor is it the type of fall that you can turn into a sort of jump, so that you land like an acrobat on your feet. This is someone’s last fall. His red tunic alarms us; his muscles stretch into thin air. There is abandon in his posture: the worker no longer fights but gives himself heavily to his fate. But there! On the postcard, as on the ceiling above me in the church, an angel appears from the left, swooping in on white condor wings. She hovers, smiling gently; her robe of rose-pink barely flutters. She reaches under the worker’s shoulder with one arm, an arm white as her wings; her other arm cradles his waist. She saves him.

I have come to believe that we all contain within us unrealized falls, falls like coiled springs, waiting. I am working now for a lovely older couple, who own a lovely ‘40s home on three lots, while the other homes on this island are squeezed into one. A large and beautiful garden is the centerpiece of the estate. A Bunyanesque ficus tree spreads over the yard; white tendrils of silk hang from the branches. Rafael, a middle-aged, gentle, and quiet man from Chile, tends the garden for them, daily. He has worked here for 20 years.

I am climbing up the front of the house, painting a second-story fascia and metal French windows. It’s quite a stretch to reach my work; my 20-foot ladder is extended to its limits. I inch across the house, my ladder resting on one of the windows’ cross pieces. It looks crazy from a distance, as if I have laid my ladder against the glass. But I inch along.

Last evening, as I gathered my tools and lowered my ladder, Rafael came up to me. He, too, was tired from the day. He reached out and softly shook my hand.

“Felipe, each night I pray that you will be safe.”

Such kindness. Such quiet kindness shown to a painter who doesn’t fly.

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There is abandon in his posture: the worker no longer fights but gives himself heavily to his fate.
There is abandon in his posture: the worker no longer fights but gives himself heavily to his fate.

How many people wake each day with the opportunity to fall? How many go to bed each night worrying about their fall? How many fall? You’re not a bird — a finch, a nightingale, a swift — and you know it when you fall. Five years ago, I fell 15 feet onto a rose-colored bed of herring-boned brick. The owner of the house I was painting heard the dull, dense thud outside his door and hurried out: “Phil, are you okay?”

Author Philip Kelly, Jr.

The common swift spends nearly its entire life in flight—eating, mating, molting, and sleeping on the wing. Its yearly migration is from Northern Europe to Sub-Saharan Africa (a flight path of nearly 6000 miles), and the common swift spends more than 99% of that migratory period airborne. The birds land only to lay their eggs. Yet, for all their aerial achievement, they are challenged in their nests and on the ground. They crawl awkwardly in their nests, stagger clumsily on the earth. During these earthbound stints, the swift studies the sky. He knows his home.

When I fell, the flight lasted two or three seconds. Funny, just two or three seconds, and I had worried over it, pictured it, for decades. I was scared of climbing heights when I first became a house painter some 40-odd years ago. Working with other young guys, I would never show “scared” — I would do what I could to hide it, whether that meant dodging the climbing part of the job or just facing it and laboring up the ladder and swinging myself onto the scaffold plank. But at night, at home, I would think on it, worry about the next day at work, knowing that chore up there, 20 feet in the air, was in front of me.

We never rented scaffolding in those early years. Those skeletons of metal, rising alongside buildings with the wooden planks running their lengths, those would have been dream freeways from which to work, like walking and working in a rising cocoon of security. But the jobs we did would never afford it, so it was ladders, jacks, and planks for us. You and another painter would raise an extension ladder to the height from which you wished to work. You’d climb the ladder with a metal jack, hook it to the rungs of the ladder, and level the jack’s arm out. Down you’d go then, to grab the 15-foot-long wooden plank reinforced with metal, heft it on to your shoulder, and climb the ladder to the jack. Then with the “clean and jerk” move of a weightlifter, you would lift your end of the plank up and over its arm and bang the plank on. Then down you’d both go again, this time to gather your supplies: your caulking and sandpaper, your paint buckets and brushes. I remember it all so well: kneeling at our setup tarp, readying my paint, pouring in and stirring the thinners, thinking all the while, Shit, now I gotta climb back up there.

So, for ten, twelve, even fifteen years as a master craftsman, I hesitated before the heights, climbed with a quiet resolve, jimmied myself onto planks with no guardrails, and set my feet as deep as I could into the wooden plank — as if it were mud. Sailors have an old saying: one hand for you, one for the boat. That way, no matter what you are doing, you always have a hand empty to grab something stable in case the sea makes a surprise shudder and you go suddenly askew. And so, while painting up in the air, I would have my brush in one hand, and the other hand would be always touching the building I was working on — like a sailor, or like a toddler with a mother’s hand.

When I fell that morning — a bright, sunny, seaside morning — the words I spoke, or the words I just thought, were the given ones: I’m fucked. That’s it. No yell, no yodel, just the sudden flight and I’m fucked. I remember there was no panic, no flailing of arms and legs, no eyes pleading to a receding heaven during that short flight. Just a feeling of a resigned wonder. I believe it was Nietzsche who spoke of fear when crossing a high bridge: was it the fear you would fall, or the fear that you would jump? Such an interesting idea to muse on, especially when one has felt that fear. I like rolling that idea around in my palm. But I always come to the same conclusion: I never wanted to jump!


Over the 40 years I’ve been painting, quite a few workmates have come and gone, have climbed ladders and balanced across scaffolding planks. I know right away their comfort level with heights. I see how their hands hug ladder rungs as they ascend, how they swing around the metal girders of scaffolding, and how, when it is needed, they scramble up roof tiles to paint a pointed dormer that sits high in the sky. You know right away. But you can’t know just from a person’s background. You have to see them climb.

A great friend — a fine surfer with whom I had spent many an hour in the water — came to work with us one morning. He was looking for a career. He was a stud. Young. Locks of golden hair fell to his shoulders, and he was adept at that California-surfer move, the quick shake of the head as if clearing the sea water from one’s face, the hair shimmying like a lampshade’s tassel: some small problem shaken from the surfer’s holy life; and the lips mouthing, with the gravitas of the philosopher, “Whatever.” Now, I had seen this buddy of mine paddle out on the largest of wave days, had seen him drop in on wave walls steep as mountain cliffs. Fearless. So, on his first day of work, I motioned him to climb a five-foot ladder, swing over a second-floor wood railing, and do a bit of sanding from a gently slanted roof.

He froze. He climbed the five-foot stepladder, but at the swing over part of the dance to the roof, he froze. The gold chain around his neck clung to sudden perspiration; his hair ceased to shimmy. And I knew. “Bro, let me do that,” I said. “You stay here on the decks inside, no worries.” My friend finished the day, but never came back. His painting and climbing career was over. We surfed together for years after that, and never mentioned that day.

Then appeared the miracle of Victor Sad-Wings. The sea change that swept up from the south into Southern California in the mid-1980’s — that wave of young, hungry-for-work immigrants —gifted our small painting company with Victor Alatrieste. Victor Sad Wings. It was a welcome swell of workers — not because my partner and I were looking for cheap labor. No, we were looking to continue painting houses, and we needed painters. My surfer buddy, the one afraid of heights, turned to the sea and became a fishing boat captain. Another surfer friend left painting to sell golf equipment. Another became an airline pilot. The summer kids who we welcomed on their breaks from college — kids we hired to move ladders, line drop cloths, make our paint runs — suddenly grew up and became lawyers and fund managers. Our work larder slowly emptied: eight or nine workers dwindled to just three.

Then one day, I saw a young man in an empty lot, rolling a boulder like Sisyphus. It was Adrian. He was from the pueblo of Tlaxcala, close to Mexico City. A contractor in our town, known for his cheapness, had hired Adrian to clear a lot and ready it for some soon-to-be mansion. I called my partner over to watch Adrian work. We watched from a window of the house next door, where we were painting. He was relentless: small and square, engulfed in sweat from his labors. He dug well-worn black tennis shoes into the earth, lowered a shoulder into the boulder, and willed it forward. Here, before us, was the essence of work, like man’s first labor. I said to my partner, “We have to hire that guy!” And we did. We paid him twice what he was making to clear the lot, and I set about teaching him how to paint. Adrian had a cousin looking for work. That cousin had a friend from his village in Mexico, also looking for work. That cousin had a brother. We had a painting company again!

Victor Sad Wings had been there the day the future ship’s captain had hesitated on the roof climb. It was his first day — cousin of a cousin of Adrian’s cousin — and he was right there beside me. He put his finger on his chest, then pointed to the roof. Victor was young, I’m guessing 17 or 18, long and angular, movie-star handsome. He had a Polo sweatshirt on, and hip- but-worked-in baby-blue Puma sneakers. All of us painters wore well-spattered clothes, clothes you had to change out of if you had a dental appointment, and now here was a young one who seemed to have stepped from the pages of Mexico’s GQ. Of course, I nodded: Go, get ‘em kid, and he leapt onto to that roof, all elbows and knees, like a young giraffe at play in a southern savannah.

Wouldn’t it be in our DNA to climb? Kids love bunk beds. I loved bunk beds, always wanted to have the top spot, to climb those four wooden steps to the top, and sleep in heaven — with a view of my room, all my toys and clothes, and a view of the tree outside scratching the window in the wind. But I had an older brother, and he always claimed the top, viewed the toys and the great outdoors. I slept in the cave of the bunk below and yearned for stars. Didn’t our genes order our eyes to study trees and the branches as steps to the top? We rarely scurry to the treetops to escape lions any more, but boys and girls dream of tree houses, a pathway from limb to limb. But for some reason, over the years, the desire to climb ebbs, and fear creeps in. It had for me, at least, yet my work placed me among the trees.

For Victor Sad Wings, the joy of climbing still bubbled. He’d always meet me in the morning, bright-eyes below a chic Mohawk with a tinge of red, bouncing like a fighter. And I, as boss, would figure out the most challenging part of the job and give it to him. “Let’s put a ladder on this wall, Victor. We can climb it to get to the 20-foot extension ladder, and from there reach the fascia that peaks at the highest part of the house.” And Victor would leap to it. Like that young giraffe. And slowly, his enthusiasm for heights wore down my fear, and we climbed together. I taught Victor everything I knew about painting: the prepping techniques, the solvents and thinners to use, and how to brush oils and varnishes like an artist. And Victor taught me, unknowingly, I believe. With his gallop, his spiked hair, and his fearlessness, he taught me work as play.


I fell through the sweet, spring air of Southern California and landed with a fat, dull thud. I fell, and miraculously landed square on the angel wings of my shoulders. No head bounce; no ankle twist or snap on the red bricks. Just the thud. I remember looking up at a rectangle of clear blue sky between the buildings. I remember a monarch butterfly flitting along its tipsy way above my head. The owner, a former fighter pilot in the Vietnam war, came hurrying out his front door.

“Phil, are you okay?” He stood over me, entering the ceiling of blue.

“I think so, Blair. Give me a minute.”

I can only imagine the things he had seen in his life. Blair nodded and backed away slowly.

I got up, shook myself a bit, re-ordered the ladder arrangement, climbed and painted.

It wasn’t until my walk home on the white-sand beach that I spoke to myself.

You are not a bird.


A month later, I arrived in Venice, in a drenching rain with five thousand dollars of work cash and three months to spend in Europe. I went to bed that first night in a high-ceilinged room of whitewashed walls that overlooked a narrow canal. Two days before, I had been painting houses. Now I was a traveler. I went to sleep that night to the murmurings of gondoliers and lovers and the slap of water on stone steps below. The next morning, leaning from my window for a peek at San Marco, I noticed I still had paint on my elbows.

In a church, in the neighborhood of Dorsoduro, I bought a postcard for a Euro. It showed a work by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, a renowned eighteenth-century fresco painter. A workman is falling from a wood scaffolding. A dark, stocky man in a threadbare tunic and worn leggings, he is falling to his death. There is no doubt. It is not the moment at the beginning of a fall when you still have a chance, when you can maybe catch at a gutter or windowsill; nor is it the type of fall that you can turn into a sort of jump, so that you land like an acrobat on your feet. This is someone’s last fall. His red tunic alarms us; his muscles stretch into thin air. There is abandon in his posture: the worker no longer fights but gives himself heavily to his fate. But there! On the postcard, as on the ceiling above me in the church, an angel appears from the left, swooping in on white condor wings. She hovers, smiling gently; her robe of rose-pink barely flutters. She reaches under the worker’s shoulder with one arm, an arm white as her wings; her other arm cradles his waist. She saves him.

I have come to believe that we all contain within us unrealized falls, falls like coiled springs, waiting. I am working now for a lovely older couple, who own a lovely ‘40s home on three lots, while the other homes on this island are squeezed into one. A large and beautiful garden is the centerpiece of the estate. A Bunyanesque ficus tree spreads over the yard; white tendrils of silk hang from the branches. Rafael, a middle-aged, gentle, and quiet man from Chile, tends the garden for them, daily. He has worked here for 20 years.

I am climbing up the front of the house, painting a second-story fascia and metal French windows. It’s quite a stretch to reach my work; my 20-foot ladder is extended to its limits. I inch across the house, my ladder resting on one of the windows’ cross pieces. It looks crazy from a distance, as if I have laid my ladder against the glass. But I inch along.

Last evening, as I gathered my tools and lowered my ladder, Rafael came up to me. He, too, was tired from the day. He reached out and softly shook my hand.

“Felipe, each night I pray that you will be safe.”

Such kindness. Such quiet kindness shown to a painter who doesn’t fly.

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