Blogging in E minor
Usually just a bunch of silly crap.

Cheech and Chong Go Painting: The Infamous Toluene Blunder

Our cozy, newly purchased, ranch-style house was situated on a quarter-acre lot, had a carport, a double driveway and a basement, and met our needs as first-time homeowners. It was relatively well maintained and move-in ready with exception to some minor cosmetic renovations.

            The old woman who had lived there previously had a fondness for outdated wallpaper, ugly borders and darkly stained veneers. All the doors, paneling and trim were nearly black, giving everything a dreary appearance. The house gave off a flavor of early 60’s, which include artificial Z-brick in the kitchen, non-functional French doors and colonial spindles atop a decorative wall.

            It turned out to be a blessing that our apartment’s lease was to expire a full month after we closed on the house. This gave my wife, Felicia, and I time to convert the septuagenarian décor of our recently purchased home to something more in keeping with our thirty-something, millennial-American tastes.

            On weekends and evenings, we tirelessly cleaned, prepped, primered, hammered, sawed and scraped in our efforts to create our ideal dwelling. We tore all the paper off the walls and the pulled up the more hideous of the carpeting off the floors. In the entryway, I removed the spindles that spanned the gap between a decorative four-foot wall and the ceiling. We had planned to replace the dark stain with a clean, acrylic white and paint several of the rooms cheerier colors.

            It had worked out to our advantage that I had taken a second job a few months earlier,  laboring weekends assisting my brother, Jude, in his otherwise one-man painting operation. I was well prepared for the awesome task before me, and I had cut a deal with him to exchange hours for bulk painting supplies at contractor rates. Furthermore, Jude agreed to help with some of the painting chores and serve as a consultant of sorts with regard to the renovations as a whole.

            One week prior to the Big Move-In Day, we had scheduled a painting party. My brother and a few of my in-laws agreed to help knock out a giant chunk of the painting in one day. My wife and I, of course, provided food and beverages.

            As Jude and I surveyed the back yard to set up the spraying operation, he expressed some serious concerns. “It’s way too windy to spray out here,” he proclaimed. “I can’t guarantee that we won’t get paint on your neighbor’s house. We need to spray in your basement.”

            This change of plans presented us with new challenges. We had intended all along to spray the downstairs paneling with oil-based primer; but now, we had to spray a dozen or so doors down there as well. Jude was disappointed to find that only two of the four tiny windows in my basement actually opened, and these merely swung about 20 degrees inward upon hinges at the bottom.

            “The ventilation is horrible down here,” he complained, aiming fans to channel the fumes up the stairwell to an exterior door. “This is going to be the best we’ll be able to do.”

            As we began hauling equipment downstairs, Jude was accosted by my oldest sister-in-law. “Where are you going with all that?” she asked blocking his descent into the basement. “We were going to set up the food down there!”

             “We’re getting ready to spray down there!” he retorted.

            He was confused on several points. Being that we had just gotten started, why were we eating now? Why were they setting up food right in the middle of the workspace? And more importantly, exactly who was this woman telling him what to do in his brother’s house? Jude had just slammed face-first into the bass-ackwards mentality that dominated the matriarchy that was my wife’s family. 

            I grumbled at my wife, stating that we had a lot of work to do and instructed her to keep her sisters out of our way. We had no time for Martha Stewart bullshit.

            Soon, we had the first door set upon a pair of sawhorses awaiting its coat of Kilz oil-based primer. The small sprayer Jude had rented for the job started up with a sucking sound, followed the chain saw-like clamor of the compressor, which would kick on and off with a slight delay of the trigger on the sprayer wand. It would occasionally POP! POP! while idling.

            As we worked, the smell of the primer was offensive, resembling gasoline and turpentine. Jude insisted that oil-based variety would suit our purposes better than water-based and cover with a single coat. We both wore face masks, which did little good.

            Jude would periodically pour primer from a five-gallon can into an open bucket from which the input sucking device of the sprayer fed.

           “Pop! Pop!” said the compressor.

            Our progress was slow and painful. Being July, it was already hot, humid and uncomfortable, and combined with the fumes and noise, it was all I could do to keep pressing forward.

            We were both becoming irritable and getting on each others’ nerves. In stark contrast to my slow, deliberate movements, Jude had a tendency to work quickly and recklessly. He spoke loudly, bumping things as he clomped about in heavy boots, fervently slinging doors about.

            The fumes were nearly visible at this point, creating a distorted, watery, aquarium effect in our small workplace. My white-clad, face-masked brother appeared as Leatherface from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre as he skulked about the basement with his sprayer wand, which was attached to the loudly purring compressor motor that persistently popped and farted and made me miserable. Jude’s movements seemed to be followed by strobe-like tracers under the excessively effective commercial-grade lighting he had set up on stands and the resulting shadows.

            By the time we had finished the doors, I was a mess. My brother proceeded to primer the cheap paneling that surrounded us in the basement so that it could be painted later. I objected as he sprayed the drop ceiling, the cement wall and everything in sight. Despite the prep work, which had included taping paper to the floors immediately below the walls and laying drop cloth all over, he had managed to spatter the floor and the carpet. I objected.

            “You’re not going to want to keep this carpet,” he replied.

            I went upstairs to get some fresh air, only to find my in-laws hard at work destroying my house. My sister-in-law, roller in hand, was rolling up and down and side to side with her butt sticking out in true amateur form.  The kitchen had been painted a dull avocado, which I had objected to from the start; the shade was only fit for bathrooms. And somebody had a mixing experiment going on in the hallway, which was now multiple colors. People had failed to spackle where necessary, and somebody had broken a mirror.

            Disgusted, I grabbed a soda and took a seat on the grass in my backyard. My brother and wife joined me. “Man, all these people are ruining my house!” I shrieked in exasperation. Both tried to assure me that it would all work out in the end. At about that time, the in-laws left, abandoning the leaking craft they had created.

            I noticed that the trees in my backyard were “breathing” as the wind tossed their slender limbs about. All the sounds of the neighborhood – the flutter of birds’ wings, the distant drone of lawnmowers, the clamor of children playing in nearby yards – took on a hollow, tremolo quality. And stranger yet, the neighbor’s dog was laughing at me.

            “Can this stuff make you hallucinate?” I asked.

            “If you get enough of it,” Jude replied, “It has toluene in it.”

            “Awww man, I’m trippin’ on drugs,” I shrieked.

            It all now made sense. I was not merely hot, uncomfortable or overcome by the smell of primer. I had, in fact, been immersed in a chamber of noxious fumes for several hours and now found myself overwhelmed by a psychedelic experience that would be the envy of many a glue-huffing punk. The things I had attributed to the working conditions – the tracers, my irritability, my paranoia – were the result of an overdose of mind-bending chemicals.    

            My brother was upset with himself for letting this happen. “If I had known we would be spraying indoors, I would have brought my respirator,” Jude ruminated.  He obviously had a greater tolerance to the compound, having worked with it repeatedly.

            Felicia worried in sympathy as I become increasingly concerned that I might get “drain bramage.”

            I started to piece together that my house was not really ruined, that my perceptions were the result of my altered state. Jude concurred. He addressed each of my concerns, reassuring me that with a little work, everything would be fine.

            I lay back on the grass and sucked in fresh air, attempting to clear my bloodstream of the offending chemicals. Within an hour, I was beginning to return to normal, though I continued to feel the effects the following day. I suppose they really mean business when they say “use in a well-ventilated area.”


            After seven years of apartment life, Felicia and I finally moved into a home of our own. The bulk of the work had been completed on schedule, yet more remained. We pressed forward in our spare time, putting the final touches on our masterpiece. On Labor Day, we proudly unveiled our project for family and friends, beaming with pride as we led tour after tour through the house as people arrived.

            Later, we recounted the story of how my brother tried to kill me with chemicals, which got a good laugh. But all joking aside, I’m lucky I didn’t end up with serious neurological damage.

            Some would argue that I had not been so fortunate.


4 Responses to “Cheech and Chong Go Painting: The Infamous Toluene Blunder”

  1. Great post!

  2. Oh geez! I totally knew where this was going ~ oh my, yes!!!! Working a basement with that paint was a baaaaad idea!

    Glad it all worked out and hope you said ‘hi’ to the faeries for me 🙂 I have missed them

  3. I remember way back when……

  4. That was one of the scariest and funniest moments in my life! I was so worried about you and at the same time, couldn’t stop laughing! That day was……? Anyway, we worked hard and it paid off, now it’s time to do it again, walls need painted, carpet is worn and everything looking blah. Let’s get started, but let’s leave the oil base primer at the store.

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