Cinema and television teach us that grouchy old men who speak their minds are to be trusted. There’s an attractive — and dramatically useful — turn of story in an overly masculine ego trying to protect a vulnerable and charitable nature underneath. The fact that such men endure obvious pain to talk with foolish ordinary people is an indicator of their better selves. I’m thinking particularly of Curly Washburn in City Slickers, whose maxim about focusing on “just one thing” is wisdom I wish I’d come across early in life, but also of the grandfather in Heidi, Lou Grant from Lou Grant and Mary Tyler Moore, Grandpa Hoover in Little Miss Sunshine, Grumpy from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (sic), and take your pick of John Wayne’s or Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.
Mara has already learned this. I took her with me one Saturday morning a weekend or two ago when I took my gas-powered lawnmower, a machine that I loathe, to a Repairer of Small Engines on Beacon Hill, which for you out-of-towners is one of the seven ancient hills upon which the city of Seattle was founded. It is one of the more southerly hills, fully across town from where we live.
The repair man, whom I’ll call Jim, was a grouchy old man, though I would not say very old. He had hawkish bushy eyebrows and a white moustache, like a more tidy Mark Twain. He was hard of hearing to begin with, and disinclined to listen to a middle-aged suburban weenie to end with, so there you go. He flopped a pad and pen onto his workbench and told me to write down my contact info. Then, after instructing me to fire it up, and after listening as the mower instantly conked out, he said it was probably the diaphragm and told me he’d get to it by tomorrow. Thirty-eight bucks.
I tried to express delight that it would be so soon and so reasonable. But Jim didn’t want to hear me speak. Maybe he assumed I was complaining. “It won’t be today. I’ve got two others ahead of you, and then this thing,” he gruffed, not quite kicking a large rider mower sitting in his driveway. “That thing’s a monster.”
I dithered for a minute until I realized he had no further use for me. He hadn’t said a word to Mara. “He seems like a nice man,” she mused as we walked back down his driveway.
This was the second home-based lawnmower repairman we’d visited. Upon some pretty stout recommendations, I had taken my mower to someone even further away a few months ago, a non-grouchy, even friendly person who’d given it what he called a complete tune-up. The first time I’d used it after the tune-up it worked fine. The second time, it started choking and gave up completely in the middle of the patch of clover that comprises our backyard lawn. I didn’t want to travel so far again; it’s a lot of time. And anyway, I get a yucky feeling when things like this happen — I know I should let a small businessman make it right if he missed something or forgot to put the whatsit back on the thingamajig, and maybe he would fix what was wrong without even charging me, but he’s already sort of one notch into the doghouse. Plus, his abbreviated hours on weekends made things difficult.
I called a lawnmower place on Aurora North, just a short drive away, but they said they were booked for two months. I could hardly believe it. Who’s booked for two months? Like these people are so well regarded that citizens with lawns to mow will wait for 60 days for their mowers? I wondered if there was some epidemic going around, a lawnmower virus, something in the gas, or maybe the End Times really are here and small engines are failing in droves.
But in the end I dialed Jim’s number and asked if he could look at it sooner than two months. He said bring it down.
After dropping the mower off at Jim’s, Mara and I stopped at a playground we’d seen near his house, a large, beautiful park called Maplewood, where we asked a mail carrier who had parked his truck in the parking lot to take lunch if there was a good local burger joint around. He said there wasn’t a single place like that on all of Beacon Hill, which I found hard to believe. But he was right. We ended up patrolling the hill back and forth before finally giving up and heading up to get a burger in our own neighborhood. True, we stopped at a yard sale and bought some hats, but I was still surprised when we got out of the car at Burger Master and my cell phone was ringing already and it was Jim telling me that he’d finished and I could come and get the mower. He was open until eight.
Mara was torn between going back with me to get the mower and walking to Mighty O Donuts with Angela and Millie, but I would not say she was very torn. I ended up driving back to Jim’s by myself.
He was in the same humor as before when he emerged from the back door of his house. There were no lawn mowers in his driveway, but he opened up his garage and I saw a line of mowers spooned up like shopping carts, and that big monster of a rider.
“What was the name?” he asked.
I told him my last name, and he pulled out my mower. “Start it up,” he said, and then went about trying to find the diaphragm he’d pulled out of it, which he said was the worst he’d ever seen. Certain of his words seemed to rumble with a raw edge, as though Yosemite Sam were saying them. “Worst”. “Seen”.
The mower started up beautifully. I let it hum for a second and then shut it down and started writing a check. He couldn’t find the old part. He seemed eager to use it as a visual aid in teaching me what old gas does to such a delicate organ, like someone trying to deter people from smoking by showing them a smoker’s lung.
“You gotta use gas with fuel stabilizer,” he hollared, and then he said it again. I imagined his neighbors at their dinner tables hearing him out there and miming it along with him. “I tell this to about four hundred people every year, and mostly it’s people that I’ve told before. Gas goes bad after a few weeks. You gotta use fresh gas and you gotta use fuel stabilizer.”
“You won’t have to tell me twice,” I said in an attempt to appease his ire, but he shot back with a snort, “Well, I’m not gonna remember YOU next year.” A wan smile held my face for me while I tried to figure out what his rejoinder could mean. He went on crabbing about how you should store the mower over winter with no gas in it, let it run out.
“What kind of fuel stabilizer should I use?,” I asked, hoping my interest in immediate compliance would calm him down. “Is there a particular brand? Would I get it at a hardware store or at like a NAPA Auto Parts?”
“It’s fuel stabilizer!” he screamed. “You can get it anywhere.” But then he stepped into the garage and shook a plastic quart bottle of Sta-Bil fuel stabilizer. “This is just one brand. You can get it at any auto parts or Home Depot.”
Feeling that he was softening, I pressed on in my quest to redeem myself as the imcompetent owner of the mower with the most abused diaphragm he’d ever seen. Even though he seemed to be edging away, I asked for clarification. “So, the gas that’s in the mower now I should dump out, right?” If I’d thought about that question for a moment I would have asked anything else, like what his favorite color was.
“No!” he snapped. “That’s fresh gas in there!”
“Oh, right, because you changed it out…”
(This was structurally an exact repeat of the scene in Broadway Danny Rose, where Mia Farrow’s character tells Woody Allen’s that her ex-husband got shot in the eyes, and Woody says “He’s blind?!” and Mia says “Dead!” and then Woody thinks out loud, “He’s dead. Of course, because the bullets go right through”. The only difference is that Mia was not yelling.)
“Of course I changed it out! I had to to replace the diaphragm.! That’s what I do!”
“Well,” I said. I was unable to absorb any more cantankerosity, so I turned to the mower and began wheeling it to the back of my car.
He turned away. “I was eating,” he said. “That’s why I’m in a hurry.”
I noted silently that he’d told me to come get the mower and he’d said he was “open” until eight o’clock.
“Sorry,” I said, but he had already disappeared toward the house. I shouted “Thanks!” over the top of his garage. I felt like adding “…you grumpy old fart” but really, I was very pleased. People who can fix mechanical stuff with their hands are a national treasure, to my lights, and if these Keenan Wynns and Walter Matthaus and Burgess Merediths manage to stay in business, you know it’s for all the right reasons.