This story appears in the 9.02.15 edition of the Trumansburg Free Press and at ithaca.com. On my day off a few weeks back, I was out and about around town and spotted the dude on the left in the photo – his name is Mike – about halfway up this 120-foot tall corner church. He was painting from one of the few final rungs on his 60-foot ladder. Me being petrified of heights, I pulled over and asked the crew how they decide who mans the 60-footer. This piece came from that conversation.
It’s hard to know where a man stands with his creator, but at this particular moment anyway, Mike Blake is about as close to God as anyone.
Perched atop a 60-foot ladder against the brick façade of Trumansburg United Methodist Church, the stocky, tattooed 35-year-old readies himself and sets to work at the day’s canvas – the adorning trim that creeps along the roofline before cresting mid-steeple.
For some passersby on Main Street, the man in paint-spattered white clothes, more than five stories up, is a reminder to give thanks for day jobs at lower elevations. For Blake, it’s just another sunny, fearless Friday afternoon.
“I just say screw it,” the Ithacan said. “It’s what I get paid to do.”
Four crew members from Ithaca’s Bumblebee Painters have been called out to scrape, prime and paint areas of the local church that few would dare tread. Along with Blake, there’s Jon Brooks Sr., a raw, slender man with a battered black cap pulled low over his dark hair. He and Blake have known each other since they were kids and used to do roofing jobs together. “Painting is easier on the body,” said Brooks, who will turn 40 this month.
Then, there’s Jon Jr., the elder Brooks’ 17-year-old son who’s helping out this summer before its back to Spencer Van-Etten Central. A fourth guy is part of the crew, but it’s break time, and he’s off somewhere to find lunch.
“Pretty much, I stay on the 60-footer,” said Blake, seated at the end of the crew’s box truck.
“Because I let him,” Brooks Sr. replied.
Bravado is at play here, because truth is, normally guys just try to pass the responsibilities of the 60-foot ladder onto the next guy, Blake said.
“We’re the only ones who will dare climb it,” Jon Sr. said.
“It’s not that they won’t,” Blake explained. “They would just rather not.”
A sort of unwritten rule exists on the job: No one paints atop the 60-footer unless they’re comfortable doing so.
Take Jon Jr., for example.
As a test of wills, the teen sporting a bicep tattoo wanted a shot at the 60-footer during one of the first days on the job. Climbing up the backside of the church, he was doing okay before he made the crucial mistake of looking down.
“My right foot started to shake a little,” he said. “So I had to come down.”
Since then, he’s been earthbound, doing a fine job of scraping windows and cleaning up debris as needed.
That first time, Blake recalled, “your legs are shaking right at the knees. It’s all mental. Don’t look down. That’s the best thing.”
“It definitely gets easier,” Jon Sr. said, but there is skill involved. “Sometimes you’re working hands-free, so you got to be good with balance. Plus, there’s the wear and tear on your feet.”
Truthfully, Blake and Brooks Sr. wanted to paint the church’s steeple, a job requiring a bucket truck with a 120-foot reach. But another company is handling that aspect of re-painting, stealing the duo’s chance for the thrill and bragging rights that come with it.
“I wanted to get up there,” Blake said with a muted intensity.
Around 1 p.m., Blake is back at his lofty post high above Trumansburg, paintbrush alternating from his left and right hands, reaching as far as his arms will let him. This church paint job began last Monday and, if all goes well, Bumblebee’s portion of it should be completed sometime this week.
A paint-can dangles from the top rung, and though the ladder clanks and bends with Blake’s movements, it remains sturdy. Suddenly, he fetches something from a pocket, shoulders it to his ear, and continues on applying primer. Calm enough to take a phone call, must be.
The Brookses look on.
“He’s the craziest guy I know,” Jon Jr. laughs. “I’m serious.”
He tells the story of how Blake once descended the 60-footer frontwards, just walked down the rungs as if they were steps. Blake will demonstrate this later, when he’ll saunter down the ladder, chin up, with the confidence of a king. By then, the Brookses had ventured into the village to grab food during what remained of their break.
“Where’s Jon Jr.?” Blake asked.
On a previous job, as he explained, young Jon had bet Blake he couldn’t walk down the 60-footer frontwards, no-handed.
“He owes me lunch.”