The day before yesterday I was being a good boyfriend, and preparing my girlfriend’s mother’s closet for a paint job. The ceiling was dirty, and before we could put on a primer coat, it was necessary to clean it. It wasn’t a big deal at all really—took maybe twenty minutes, tops—but it got me thinking about ceilings and painting.
Specifically, I was thinking about the Sistine Chapel, but as I was in that closet, oil soap covered sponge in hand, I wasn’t thinking about Michelangelo. No, instead, as the occasional splash of water hit my face or ran down my arm, I thought about all the other stuff that happened before he painted the ceiling. Perhaps, I thought, someone needed to scrub the ceiling, just to make sure all that paint would stay there, the same way I was scrubbing this closet.
I know, I know…maybe it wasn’t necessary to wash the ceiling of The Sistine Chapel, but still, when we think of some sort of great accomplishment, we tend not to think about all the mundane things that went into that accomplishment, long before one important person accomplished anything. And because of that, yes, I like to imagine some humble guy named, I don’t know, Sal, on that scaffold, on his back, scrubbing that ceiling so that Michelangelo had a clean surface on which to paint his masterpiece.
I like to imagine that Sal was just this total sweetheart, a humble janitor who took pride in keeping the Sistine Chapel looking great. No, Sal’s boss never had anything to say to him except “you missed a spot there, Sal,” but still, Sal took pride in his work.
I like to imagine Michelangelo, eating some wine and cheese, noticing Sal, who’s just in awe of the stuff that Michelangelo’s doing. And because Sal is the only other person who knows what it is to lie on one’s back, a hundred feet up, and work at that ceiling, Michelangelo smiles when Sal says “that’s really amazing work you’re doing up there, Mike. Just amazing.”
“Hell on the back, though,” Sal says.
Now Michelangelo laughs.
“Get the hell over here, Sal, and drink with me,” he says.
The two eat cheese, and drink wine.
Michelangelo talks about how he really thinks of himself as a sculptor, not a painter.
“Exactly,” says Sal, who’s really excited now, and actually kind of touched that Michelangelo is talking to him as if he were a contemporary. “That quote of yours about how the statue grows the more the marble wastes is awesome. I still can’t believe you did ‘Madonna and Child’ when you were 19. Dude, you rock.”
“Well, I tell ya,” says Michelangelo, “and this isn’t just the wine talking. You see this ceiling? The way it looks would totally stink if you you didn’t clean it the way you did.”
“Oh, c’mon,” says Sal, “that’s just the wine talking.”
Michelangelo’s eyes are clear, and his face becomes serious.
“Absolutely not,” he says. “Look, I know that everybody’s gonna say ‘wow, that Michelangelo guy painted the Sistine Chapel,’ but it’s not just me. I mean, Giuseppe busted his hump building that scaffold, and if he didn’t know what he was doing, I’d be dead. And if I didn’t have Aldo to mix the paint, it would just look like a total mess up there.”
“Yeah,” says Sal, smiling, “Giuseppe and Aldo are great guys.”
Sal looks at Michaelangelo.
“But you’re the only guy they’re going to remember.”
Michelangelo makes a sort of “huh” sound, a miniature laugh. Then he picks up a paintbrush, and looks at it thoughtfully.
“Do you know where those guys are right now?” Michelangelo asks.
“Sure,” says Sal.
“Can you get them here now?” Michelangelo asks.
Thirty minutes later, Michelangelo is on top of the scaffold with Aldo, Giuseppe, and Sal. He dips three small brushes into the paint, and hands a brush to each of them. One at a time, they each touch their brush to the ceiling, right at the tip of God’s finger.
Then, later, over dinner, Michelangelo raises his glass to Sal, Giuseppe, and Aldo.
“To the other guys who painted The Sistine Chapel,” he says.
They clink glasses.
Much later, when each of them are scrubbing the ceiling of a closet in preparation for painting it, they think back on this, and smile.
….now if you’ll excuse me, I have a closet to paint.