Precisely 28 seconds after I put Mara down to bed this evening, our automatic garage door jumped its rails with a loud pop and sproing. Angela had just pulled out of the garage on her way to work, and since she couldn’t stop to help, I was left with a suddenly not very sleepy four-year-old and a gaping hole in my house.
We’ve lived here a year and a half and although we’re pretty tight with the family immediately nextdoor, we know most of our neighbors only to say hello to. This is one of those things about suburban life that I grieve. Time was, neighbors depended on each other. Some cultures still operate that way, but in middle-class America money has replaced community. The ethos is, each household is a self-contained kingdom with everything it needs. But to the extent that this is true, it is largely enabled by technological advancements many of which are beyond the ken of the layperson who uses them, and the fault in the logic becomes blindingly evident when things break down. If the garage door had no motor, just a canvas strap from an old parachute like my dad’s garage door when I was a kid, it would have been a non-issue. Here I was, though, trying to figure out how to disengage the motor arm to unjam this “convenient and automatic” garage door, which is an excessive two-cars wide and heavier than I can lift by myself, because if I didn’t find a way to lower it I might wake up in the morning to find that I’d held an involuntary garage sale.
I’m not a fan of two-car garages, or even one-car garages. Our old craftsman cottage had a rickety 1920’s carport in the back with no doors on it. We used to hang bunches of oregano from its rafters to dry. The house presented its front door to the sidewalk and looked welcoming. Here’s a picture of it. When that house was built, the thinking was that cars were to be tucked away. That idea sat well with me.
But this thing about driving the automobile, with its exhaust and combustive violence, into the structure where we sleep and eat, into our home, into our “tent”, has always seemed untenable to me. I love our new “mid-century” house for what it is in my life, which is… the place where my family nestles, where my daughter feels her security and her roots, where my wife waits for me and where I wait for her, the place where we play, and talk, and share our journey together. But when we moved here, one of the things I didn’t like about the house, as a structure, was the fact that the double garage door is its prominent feature. I didn’t want to be the kind of person who enters and leaves his house through the garage, like Batman. I don’t believe doing that honors the house or the neighborhood, or even the body. It honors the car. Angela agreed, but she was the one who had to unhitch our two-year-old daughter from her five-point Britax car-seat harness and keep her from toddling into the street while simultaneously toting the groceries up the steep front steps in pouring rain. It wasn’t long before we were accustomed to the convenience.
I got Mara out of bed and put her in her boots and coat, so she could watch me pushing and tugging and trying to get the door wheels back into the tracks, which didn’t work. More muscle was definitely in order, and more smarts wouldn’t hurt either, but the folks nextdoor were not available. So Mara and I walked across the street — her little hand in mine (I LOVE being a dad) — and knocked on the door of Paul and his wife, Anne.
It so happens I had walked over there just yesterday while Paul was working on his front porch and inquired about his project. We had introduced ourselves a few months ago and waved a few times since, but I had not done much voluntarily to dispel that self-sufficiency that keeps neighbors from being involved with each other. I told him yesterday that if he ever needed that third or fourth arm, to let me know. He appreciated the offer and said likewise.
Now, that pledge seemed providential.
Anne said Paul had just left work and would be home soon, and that she’d send him over, he’d be glad to help. Mara was eager to be in on the event — I bet she’ll remember the breach of her evening protocol for a long time. She didn’t want to sleep, but I convinced her to go back to bed and “rest” until Paul came over. I told her she could get up again when he got here, but she was asleep when he arrived.
Paul is pretty good with stuff like garage doors hanging in midair, I can tell. He figured out what was keeping it from moving, and we got it untangled, lifted back onto its tracks and closed in short order. I gather he is some kind of engineer, but in truth we haven’t even got to the point of asking each other what we do for a living. Now that the door was closed and the emergency over, Paul took a sort of broader look at the situation and expressed a kind of admiration for the way the garage door was put together, the way the builders had thought about how to keep the wood from bowing, and how their idea had worked for the last four and a half decades. “It’s pretty cool, really,” he said.
I looked again at the door that I had — oops — just been cursing under my breath, and saw it with a new eye. I decided I like Paul. Like we could hang if we didn’t have a four-year-old and a five-month-old, respectively, and a million projects taking up all of our time.
I’m not glad the garage door fell down, but I’m glad for neighbors like Paul.