Oregon Trail

Location: Oregon, United States

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Curmudgeon in My Midst

I have started biking to work a couple of days a week when I don't need the car. This has proven to be both invigorating and interesting on a number of levels. And I have a feeling this is only the beginning...

One day last week while looking for alternative routes, I rode by a house that had a driveway full of really nice cedar planter boxes. I was pushing it for time, so I decided to stop by another day to check them out, since I have been thinking about getting one for the deck (the only really sunny spot) to grow vegetables.

Tuesday night after work, I stopped by. Upon ringing the doorbell, a small black poodle began jumping up and down in front of the door like it was on a pogo stick and barking. A woman wearing a house coat and scooting herself around in a wheelchair with her feet finally noticed and yelled, "Jim! There's someone at the door!" then turned to me and said, "He's comin' out through the garage!" I step over to the garage and out comes a tall, elderly man wearing a plaid shirt and overalls, with bright blue eyes and a sparse, wispy white crew cut. He says, "What can I do for you?" "Well, I was riding by on my bike the other day and noticed your planters and I thought I'd come check them out." "Best darn planters in the state of Oregon!" he declares. "Well, that's why I stopped by, because they look pretty nice. How much do you want for that one, there?" "That one? Well, that one's $40. Course, it's not done yet, it still needs the cap and the trim on it." "What if I wanted one twice that size, could you make a custom one for me?" "Well, now why would you want to do that?!!! Then I'd have to charge you more for the custom work and you could just by two of those for $80!" "Good point." Silence. Then he growls, "I woulda had those ready by now but the goddamn weather has been so bad that I can't get any work done on 'em." But his eyes are sparkling and he's not really that angry or frustrated. (Remember, his entire driveway is full of planter boxes.) So I say, "Well, it looks like you've been plenty busy even with the weather." He brightens. "Let me show you what else I've got." And he showed me his work. More planter boxes with places to mount a bench. Wishing wells. Birdhouses. He has indeed been busy despite the uncooperative weather, which he continues to bemoan as we peruse his wares. I tell him he should advertise and he jerks his head back, tilts it to one side and looks at me through narrowed eyes, still smiling, and says "What are you tryin to do, kill me?! I got enough work to do around here without advertising!" "Good point," I say again. Can't argue with that.

So I commit to purchase two of the planters for $80 and he says he'll have them ready the next day if the weather cooperates. We exchange cards and phone numbers and he notices the letters after my name. "What's that all mean?" "I'm a social worker." "And you work at a clinic?" "Yes." He sizes me up. "A healer, then." And I smile because I have been called a healer before and I love it. And I reply, "Yes." "What kind of healer, then? You do acupuncture or something?" And I laugh and say, "No, mental health." "MENTAL health! Well! I need some of that!" "I think we all do from time to time". And he's cool with that, which I didn't expect, and we proceeded with our transaction. As I was leaving, we shook hands and he said, "What's your name again?" "Lydia. And you're Jim, right?" "Right. You want a good tip?" "Sure." "You like a good cup of Folgers?" "Yes." He leans in close to my ear and says, "then put some bullshit in it." I laughed out loud. "You remind me of a bunch of my relatives. My dad says things like that." "Good man. Good man." And we smiled and shook hands again and I left, my day strangely brightened by this grumpy old man with a sparkle in his eye.

Today, I went to pick up the finished boxes but first I called Paul and told him what I was up to, saying I'd be home in about a half hour or so. This time, the dog was not there to announce my arrival and the woman in the wheelchair apparently could not hear the doorbell. She finally noticed my movement out of the corner of her eye and says that Jim is out back with the dog. Apparently, I'm supposed to go out back and find him. So I do, and we miss each other and I can hear her yelling that he's got a visitor and he comes out through the garage again. "Hi, Lydia!" he says when he sees me. "Hi, Jim! It looks like the weather cooperated with you." "Yeah, it's been all right. Tired today." "Well, you've been working, it looks like," and I gesture to all of the finished boxes. He smiles at the acknowledgement of his hard work and says, "And that's not all! See there? I've been spreading the compost, too." "I see that." "Well! Let me get those boxes loaded up for you." "Hang on, let me throw on a different shirt so I can help you." "You don't have to do that!" "Don't worry, I've got it right here and I'll just throw it on over this." "Oh! I thought you were going to strip right there." "Not a chance." (Next time I will try to be more clear the first time so he doesn't have heart failure.) We load the boxes and I write him a check. "Is a check okay?" I ask. "I'm not worried about your check bouncing," he says in his crotchety old man voice. Then he brightens. "If it does, I've got your address and I'll just come and take my boxes back." "Well, if you wait until late August, there might be some ripe vegetables for you, too." We smile at one another because we are both in on the joke. "Good idea. Come on over here and sit down for a minute," he says, gesturing to two chairs in the shade under a tree in his front yard. I was glad I'd told Paul it would be a bit.

We sat in the shade and talked about sexual perverts (a neighbor girl that had been molested by her father had walked by, prompting this discussion), fishing, religion, his millionaire siblings, coffee ("Have you ever had that Dunkin Donuts coffee? Now that's good. Can't stand that Starbucks stuff.) and Minnesota. It ends up he and his twin brother were born in northern Minnesota on a reservation in a tar paper shack, lived with between 7 and 9 people there, and raised dairy cattle. After a bit, we wrapped it up. We stood up, and he said, "You're welcome to come by anytime and share a cup of coffee and some bullshit with your old friend Jim." I looked at him and smiled. "I'd genuinely like that." I need a curmudgeon in my midst.