Thursday, July 15, 2010

Tom Sawyer Fiixes The Shed Himself

I’m not from around here, but I’m a south Minneapolis type: a fairly hale, sixtyish, white man, with bushy gray hair and an untrimmed white beard. You see us in our gardens, at the food co-op, the farmers’ market, and you know, when you do, that you’re looking at a child of privilege -- educated -- and an opponent, in his youth, of the war in Viet Nam. Every one of us geezers voted for a supposedly ineligible presidential candidate, and to a man we promote socialism, homosexuality, and junk science.

It was either because I look like somebody who needs to be set straight about the affairs of the day, or because I was being unusually and conspicuously industrious, that strangers and neighbors kept interrupting me while I was repairing the shed door.

You can see from the pictures that the door’s bottom had a bad case of dry rot. I cut the rot off, and replaced it with a 2x12 piece of Douglas fir that I painted back in April. I screwed the new board onto the door using a particle board splint. Since modern lumber is not as thick as the original door (actually, not as thick as the lumber that the previous owner had used when he made an earlier repair --- compare the right and left doors), I needed to shim between the new board and the splint. I imagined some kind of plastic shim stock readily available at the lumber yard, but struck out. My shims are pieces of plastic Ikea cutting boards, easily cut with a utility knife, and drilled, sandwiched with the splint door and lumber. Construction mostly went according to plan, but sawing the door and fitting the new board were awkward and time-consuming, and I had to do a lot of planing, and move the bolt, after rehanging the door. It was just light out when I locked the shed and went into the house.

My first visitor was an unemployed man of fifty on a bicycle. He was looking to make some money helping. I didn’t say that I was improvising, and figured anything but take-charge expert help would be a liability. I explained that we were starting a business and living on savings, so I couldn’t afford to hire him. He took it well, and spent the better part of the next hour witnessing for Jesus and his Air Force DI father’s parenting style. It’s funny how long some people can go without breathing in. I had my shirt off. The formula for getting vitamin D is to expose your torso for half as long as it would take to get pink. Next time, I’m keeping my shirt where I can reach it.

I’m pretty shy about driving in other people’s alleys. Some people are not, and I always wonder what they’re up to. Visitor number two interrupted a tortoise-like alley joy ride in his Escalade -- the coziest lemming in the stampede -- to see what I was doing. Speaking as a man in his sixty-second summer, I’d say this was an old guy. He told me he was a Korea vet, while I wrestled the door from the pavement where I’d assembled it, back into its slot, and tried unsuccessfully to crowbar and screw it back onto its hinges.

Did you know that members of my generation gave aid and comfort to the enemy during the Viet Nam War, and that it’s necessary that we occupy both Afghanistan and Iraq until the Al Quaida terrorists learn that they’ll be better off working with the modern world than attacking us? Look at China.

Apropos of nothing, my second visitor told me that he didn’t need Social Security or Medicare. He had two-and-a-half million that he could put his hands on today if he needed it, and he was always looking for more rental property (I live next door to a duplex, and across the street from another). He said renters never take care of his property, and I’d be surprised  at how seldom he could return damage deposits. They -- his tenants -- think he’s got it easy, but he’s worked hard all his life. My confidant earned every penny he has.

My third visitor was neighbor Jerry, a guy I like, but I could see the light on the trees getting orange, and the door still wasn’t seating well enough to bolt. I would run my borrowed Craftsman power planer over the high edges, and try again. Sometimes I’d be on my back, underneath the door, with the shavings sticking to the sweat on my face. I was holding the door still by tying it to the fence with a couple half hitches in a length of clothesline. Every cycle of planing and testing meant getting off my back, untying the clothesline, test shutting the door, retying to the fence, then lying down with the planer. It was a dilemma: I needed a break, but I also needed to get the door to seat while I could still see to plane it.

Neither of my first two visitors needed conversation. I nodded and met their eyes, laughed grunted or murmured on cue. The first guy was kind of a bootless soldier, so I let him talk until he ran out and headed on to his next place. The second man really needed another perspective -- and I think we all need somebody to wise up him and his ilk -- but who knows how to give it to him. Humans are capable of seeing their folly and getting better, but I kept wishing he’d go away.

Jerry told me he was nine in ‘52. I was three. He told me about running a store. He sold liquidated products at huge discounts, but marked up several times the little he’d paid for them. Getting started involved getting stuck with a bunch of something in a deal, back in the disco years. A lot of people were selling rugs with pictures on them, pool cues, and socket sets, along Lake Street then, so Jerry tried to unload his stuff there. The cops chased him inside.

About that time, chains like Walgreen's were running Twin Cities family pharmacies out of business. Drug stores sell a lot of stuff, cosmetics, film processing, wading pools. Jerry would make a bid on a store’s entire inventory, saving the retiring owners the headache of selling it one item at a time. It worked out pretty well, and he expanded into furniture and decorative brass.

It wasn’t all French sauces, though. The health department discovered that the infant formula was past its sell-by date, and one of his employees was selling things at extra discounts and pocketing the cash. A group distracted Jerry by pretending to shop for a dinette set, while their friends stole some brass he’d been checking in. Jerry tried to stop another thief, and met with resistance. In the altercation, the thief went through the window, and Jerry faced litigation from the Urban League, who accused him of racism and picketed the store. The thief’s further adventures and subsequent incarceration put the kibosh on the legal action. Jerry said he’s not a racist, and given his clientele, it would have been foolish of him to make it known, were he.

He was getting heat from his insurance company. He’d had a series of break-ins. The thieves would smash his plate glass window and take as much as they could as quickly as they could. He tried replacing the glass with Plexiglas, but they used suction cups to pull the plastic window out of its socket. Thwack! Jerry found a buyer.

The buyer called later to ask about break ins. Jerry said, “Oh, didn’t I tell you about that?”

Jerry’s oldest son is a wheeler-dealer, also. He operates outstate, but has done some work for Jerry. He saved Jerry a lot of money when “this guy that’s kind of a crook” offered Jerry millions of disposable razors, and a truckload of white paint for a very few dollars. The son flew to Phoenix, and discovered that the razors didn’t shave, and it was lead paint.

The son has a nightclub in a resort town north of here, and once owned a lot of real estate up in lake country, living in a crazy mansion, with vacuum cleaners in the walls and a pool in the basement, built by another operator. He keeps churning his money, and drives briefly a succession of two-engined Italian sportscars, and quarter-of-a-million-dollar Mercedeses formerly owned by basketball players. Jerry had two stories about being stopped by the police in cars his son had loaned him. One was a car that was built for the quarter mile at Brainerd (bet that was fun to drive in town), and the other was the round-ball player’s Mercedes, whose windows were too opaque for the constabulary. They towed both cars, and Jerry had to call for rides.

Jerry’s out of the game now. He’s an old fart who spends weekends at the lake, and complains about the birds shitting on his car, a mid-sized rice burner.

The son worries me, though. He’s around fifty, destined to see less money to churn as he ages, and he’s going to see society claim a bigger chunk of his cash flow to pay for fewer services. He'll get stuck with one of those cars, and won't have the cash to make the next deal. It's how civilization discovers the planet’s carrying capacity for a Ferrari-driving species, but he won’t see it that way. There truly are villains and incompetents, but the real problem is the wants of individual billions creating a consensus demand for the impossible and the dangerous.

The face on the working drawing is of Emma, an artist friend.


Anne said...

I really enjoyed this!

Anonymous said...

I was glad that at the end of the essay you said who the drawing was of. I wondered right off but had you not made note of it, I would have forgotten to ask.

Nice blog. I enjoyed it.