The house had almost burned to the ground 15 years before. My mother, a lady of excellent taste, had used the occasion to redecorate along a color spectrum ranging from chocolate—that is, dark chocolate, like the type that’s supposedly good for your heart—to red, a deep, deep red, like the national debt.
As striking as it was when she was finished, you needed a flashlight to find your way around—during the day. At night? Probably some weekend guests from the 1990s are still wandering around up there lost, looking like Gollum and hissing, “Precioussssss!” It finally dawned on me that women of a certain age—she was in her late 60s—are not especially keen on bright ambient light, even if this left the rest of us wearing miner’s hats and bumping into things.
So it was that I found myself on my hands and knees with my oldest buddy, Danny, crawling around the floor with paint chips. I make no claim to knowing anything about decor. My only aim was to—as the real-estate agents would say—brighten and lighten.
We said, “Well, let’s start with white. How wrong can you go with white?” It turns out that there are many, many versions of white. Danny and I fanned through Colonial White, Egg White, White Out, White Nights, Snow White, White Flight, Perry White, Teddy White, E. B. White, Hast Seen the White Whale. Somewhere out there amidst the amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties and fruited plain, a dedicated group of Americans are working day and night to come up with 4,000 different names for beige. If Isaac Newton had gotten his hands on a paint-chip wheel, the rainbow would consist of the following colors: Better Red Than Dead, William of Orange, Lemon Tree Very Pretty, How Green Is My Valley, Danube Blue, Mood Indigo, and Violet Hush. Danny and I finally settled on Ostrich Shell. Off White, basically, but it sounds more impressive.
I’d been told, or warned, that when you paint one room, not only will it look nice, but it will also make the room next to it look as if raccoons have been living in it for the past decade. Indeed, this was the case. So we had to paint that room too, which made the room next to it look like the raccoons had been using it as well for their nefarious raccoony purposes. Remember the domino effect? Forget Southeast Asia: it’s all about decor. We ended up doing all the rooms.
Which turned out to be another teachable moment, because if you make the inside look new, then the outside is going to look like the House of Usher. So that got painted, too. Then the basement. Why the basement, you ask? Well, if the upstairs and outside look nice, you can hardly have a basement that resembles an interrogation room at Abu Ghraib. The new basement is now bright Off White or Crème de la Crème or Milk of Magnesia. Whatever. Now when guests go down into it, they no longer expect someone to leap out, put a hood over their head, and waterboard them.