My life is a delicate balance of routine and ritual. In the morning I rise, waking on a mattress on a large wooden platform suspended four feet below the ceiling and ten feet above the concrete floor of the former auto repair garage where I live. The platform is constructed of planking from the sides of old Southern Pacific boxcars. I find it quite pleasant despite the fact that there isn’t enough headroom to stand up in what I call my bedroom and I must crawl around on all fours between my bare mattress and what passes for my dresser, the top of an old cast iron wood cook stove complete with warming ovens that open out into shelves adequate to contain the paraphernalia of my daily life.
In the morning I crawl across a long narrow platform also made from old boxcars, climbing over cans of paint, sheetrock topping compound, rolls of building paper, kegs of nails, the accumulata of my time in the carpenter business. There is a stair landing I built of old boxcar lumber so I could descend to the garage floor where the coffee is always sitting just under a boil.
I heat the garage with an ancient cast iron cook stove. It is fueled by oil fed by gravity from a five gallon bucket suspended above it. I get the oil from the gas station across the street. It is the dirty oil from the oil changes they do.
Sometimes life here is not so pleasant. Frequently the oil feed to our cast iron wood stove plugs up and the fire goes out in the middle of the night. Then, after the stove cools down, the line unplugs itself and starts running oil again. Of course, without a fire to consume it , it just fills up the firebox and leaks out all over the floor. I save sawdust and chips from the chainsaw against such emergencies. Sprinkled liberally over the spill and given enough time, it soaks up the oil and can be swept up. It makes a hot, long-lasting fuel to boot. The whole procedure satisfies my sense of elegance and efficiency. Nothing is wasted; no motion, no material.
I am mostly satisfied with my life, but occasionally I get the blues about how little I have done and how little I have to show for my sojourn on this planet.
There is a cover from the Sunday Times Magazine taped to the refrigerator door featuring the Reverend Ike emerging from his Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, The refrigerator door is a place of honor, reserved for the true heroes of our culture. Reverend Ike graces it well in his immaculate pinstripe, his silver headed cane and his massive gold rings. The caption reads: REVEREND IKE:”THE BEST THING YOU CAN DO FOR THE POOR MAN IS NOT BE ONE.”
I am doing my best to follow his advice, but it seems as though I can do anything in this world but make money. I suppose I’ll always be a fool when it comes to business; business and love. But maybe I can write. But so far, no one has indicated any appreciation of my talents in that direction.
When in this sort of mood it seems that Reverend Ike looks out at me accusingly from that frozen instant of time, alighting from his chauffeured Rolls with one hand poised on the silver head of his ebony cane, the simple conservative cut and color of his suit accentuating rather than diminishing the apparent richness of fabric.
“Be rich,”he says,”like me”. Winter in Gstaad, Summers in the Peruvian Andes. Large breasted young females performing deliciously erotic acts upon your person. Be rich. It’s good. What you up to living in a damn garage, working your fool ass off? Huh? What you up to?”
I can only sigh and gesture palms upward and go off to find my copy of Walden. Thoreau is sometimes the only comfort in such a mood.
Like Thoreau, I derive great satisfaction from the elegant economy of my life. Unlike Thoreau, I have no wealthy or influential friends to pay my bail or to help me out with sinecures and stipends during the rocky times.
I often wonder how Civil Disobedience would have turned out if Henry had done time in a real prison instead of one night in the police station of a New England hamlet. I like Thoreau, but I just think that his convictions were never tried in the fire.
Still, there is a great deal of similarity in our approach to life if you make allowance for cultural and temporal differences. We are both minimalists. We both take great pride in doing without things that the normal person regards as necessities and even more pride in fashioning the necessary from other peoples discards.
As I mentioned, I heat my garage with the scraps of lumber I generate in the normal course of plying my trade as a carpenter. To these I add petroleum distillates that are no longer serviceable as lubricants. I have no heating bill and l am freed from the necessity of hauling these things to the dump or paying the sanitation department to haul them away. But when I am tempted to make too much of my native ingenuity, I think of Ole the lunatic Swede and I am humbled.
Ole the lunatic Swede
I wish Thoreau had been with me to go over to Bob’s newly bought house the day he called me to come and give him a price for cleaning out the junk. I don’t generally make a habit of doing that sort of work but Bob insisted that I come over and take a look at it at least.
It took my breath away. I had seen pack rats before, but nothing to compare with the former owner of Bob’s house, Ole Johnson the lunatic Swede.
Ole had died in the house and his estate sold it to Bob as -is, for good reason. The backyard was stacked seven feet deep in lumber, all covered and protected from the rain. The entire house, garage, shed and basement were filled with shelves and boxes packed with a vast array of plumbing parts, electrical supplies, tools, hardware, wheelbarrows, jacks, winches, bicycles, dollies, cordwood, coal, paintbrushes and a thousand other indispensible items. All the items were sorted by category of use, properly maintained and stored. The chisels were sharp; the paintbrushes had been cleaned thoroughly. The cans of wood putty were stacked upside down so the volatile vapors would collect in the hermetically sealed bottoms and not escape to dry the stuff out even though it might not be used again for years.
In addition, there were notes attached to everything explaining origin and use. I don’t know if the notes were left for posterity or because senility was overtaking the old man and he was preparing against a total loss of memory. At any rate, they have been very helpful to me since I have come into possession of his legacy.
It took me about a week to load everything out of there. Early one morning while I was working at it, the neighbor man came over to see me. He had probably been awake for about 45 minutes. That was when I had smashed my index finger between two boards and startled that quiet geriatric neighborhood out of slumber with a loud string of obscenities. I thought perhaps he had come over to see what all the goddamn son -of-a¬bitching was about or perhaps he wanted to air his views on chainsaw music at six A.M. But all he wanted to do was talk about his former neighbor. I needed a break anyway so I threw the last board on the truck and sat down on the lawn.
He was grinning.
“Ole is probably turning over in his grave right now because all his precious junk is getting hauled away to the dump.” I didn’t bother to tell him that none of it was going to the dump, it was going right up to my garage\ home. I never go to dumps anymore because I always come back with more than I went with.
“You see that up there?” he said, pointing to a big iron ring bolted securely to the header above the garage door.
“He would go down to the rail yard when they were scrapping a boxcar, the old wooden ones. He would help the boys dismantle them. Then he’d load his lumber cart full of big 2×12’s and wheel it home. Toward the last he was getting so feeble that he couldn’t push the cart up the driveway anymore so he rigged that up. Know what it’s for?”
I had noticed the ring but not thought about it before he brought it up. Instantly I realized what it was for and like a wave of warm light, my heart went out to Ole, lunatic perhaps to his neighbor but to me an indomitable spirit who would not concede an inch to the encroachment of age. I didn’t want to interrupt the story so I indicated that I did not know.
“Well, he’d get that cart down here at the bottom of the driveway, hook a snatch block to it, hook another one to the ring and winch that cart up the hill. Funniest–damn thing you ever saw.”
I could have told him that there was another ring just like that one upstairs inside the house, bolted through the wall at the head of the stairs, and that the upstairs was full of ancient cast iron cook stoves that Ole had repaired and restored. the neighbor probably would have found it amusing to imagine an eighty-five year old man winching a 500 pound chunk of iron up and down a narrow flight of stairs on greased skids.
He told me about Ole setting off at dawn with his cart whenever there was a groundbreaking for some construction nearby. He would return later in the morning with the cart heaped with good rich topsoil. There was a corner of Ole’s back yard that was set off with railroad ties and built up a good four feet with that soil. Untended this year, it grew a crop of thick, intensely green weeds, but the previous year I’ll bet the tomatoes looked like beach balls.