Men Without Women

Posted by jdg | Thursday, May 05, 2011

My wife's job has lured her away for two weeks, leaving our entire tribe in my care 24/7. In consolation, the other day I went out and bought myself a new vacuum cleaner. Then I hung my head in shame when I realized how excited I was to get home to use it.

When I was a child my dad would disappear for a week every October with a bunch of his buddies packed in an RV on pilgrimage to the massive old car swap meet in Hershey, Pennsylvania. He would always return with epic tales of flatulence and overflowing Porta-Johns, and we never inquired whether the next year we might tag along. After he would leave, my mother would always take me and my sister to Mr. Steak and then buy us each a toy at Meijer's Thrifty Acres. In keeping with this tradition, after dropping my wife off at the airport the other day we stopped at the Target built atop Henry Ford's old clay quarry/landfill. My son wanted a new Jedi thing and my daughter has been asking for a basket to fit her golden bike. I had never been in the bike aisle of a Target. There were no baskets, but still the three of us stood in awe of the offerings. Barbie! Lightning McQueen! Disney Princesses! Bikes with those two guys my son calls "Tim Finity and Beyond." Everything was so shiny and new. The fluorescent lights were so bright. I wanted the earth to crack open and swallow it all whole.

I. Memory of Childhood Stirred Standing in Target Bike Aisle

I am seven or eight and my dad is driving me across town to buy my first real bike. We turn on Harrison Street and in late spring the industrial neighborhood is already starting to take on the jungly look it wears half the year, with weeping willows along the river reaching towards cars up on blocks in the front yards of houses that don't belong here. This is a pilgrimage that generations of people in our town have taken to buy a bike from the Kalamazoo Bike Shop, owned and operated by the septuagenarian O'Byrne brothers (Johnny and Earl). It is the kind of place that makes an impression on every kid who sets foot inside. There are piles of newspapers everywhere, tied up haphazardly in piles taller than me. There are ready-to-ride bikes set up so densely the showroom is almost impossible to navigate, with dozens more bikes in various stages of assembly here and there, and so many tubes, tires, and wheels hanging from the ceiling I see my dad stoop just to get around. The only way to tell the new bikes from the used is how they sit in groups of clones that have lingered long enough in the grime to gain a patina that belies their newness under low-watt bulbs flickering in their ancient metal Holophane shades. These are all American bikes: Schwinns and GTs and AMF Roadmasters. Earl wanders over to sell us one and he looks like he's been selling them since before the boneshakers and penny farthings gave way to safety bicycles during the Garfield Administration. He's skinny in his mechanic's shirt with half a dozen pens in the pockets and a giveaway ballcap on his head. His brother Johnny is in the back, behind a hoarder's wall. In this memory he has a long white Rip Van Winkle beard and is dressed the same as his brother, sitting in a lumpy old rocking chair, eating from a gallon container of ice cream. Earl has left a spoon stuck in a gallon at the foot of his own rocking chair. There are coffee cans full of nuts and bolts and unlabeled drawers full of mysterious odds and ends. There are stacks of wheel racks and unopened boxes of ancient bike horns, papers piled on space heaters and notes handwritten on the back of cardboard boxes warning would-be customers about store policies. It smells like they sleep somewhere back there, somewhere among all that stuff. My dad and Earl settle on a used Murray with no frills, but it's black and I do think it looks so cool.

This is the kind of shop where you go in for a bike basket and they'll dig around for one and charge you the same price it was tagged in 1972. If you need a replacement generator for your 1966 Schwinn headlamp, they'll probably have one still new in its box. A few years later, I go back with my dad for my sister's first bike: white and pink with a banana seat, and a little orange flag on a pole that Earl says will help cars see her on the road. Johnny is dead now, his rocking chair empty. But Earl's carrying on like he doesn't know how to do much else. When my dad pays, Earl pulls out a wad of bills so thick in his lanky fingers he has to thumb through a dozen or more twenties just to get to the change. A few years later, one of his employees will show up for work in the morning to find Earl bludgeoned to death in the back of his shop. He was 83.

II. Memory of Late Adolescence Stirred By Memory of Eccentric Newspaper-Hoarding Murder Victim

I have just graduated from high school and I am newly befriended by a classmate I would have otherwise thought far too cool to hang out with me. He invites me to his house, an inconspicuous bungalow where he lives with his father, a man I see on this and all subsequent visits stationed in front of a television, beer in hand. This kid calls his dad by his first name and I never see him wearing anything other than a pair of generously-cut denim overalls, sort of a cross between Hillbilly Jim and Captain Lou Albano. The kitchen is a labyrinth of piled newspapers that span decades, dirty dishes, and enough pizza boxes to explain treating clean tableware like a lavish exorbitance. But the kitchen is also a necessary passage to the basement, a dimly-lit expanse completely colonized by my new friend and apparently never cleaned by anyone. I am deeply impressed. "You can do whatever you want down here," I say, and he nods. Skateboards. Video games. Porno mags out in the open. Paintball. Anything goes. I don't ask what happened to his mother, or how his sister (who graduated a few years earlier) lived among all this. I suspect that this is just how things are here now, an equilibrium reached between father and son.

Even better than this subterranean squalor is his car: a mile-long 1985 Ford Country Squire station wagon with simulated-wood paneled doors, a car that probably drove him and a million other kids to soccer practice in its heyday. He's installed two ten-inch Rockford Fosgate speakers in the backseat and in the wagon bed he unveils one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen: a horizontal eighteen-inch RF subwoofer and amps with enough wattage to drown out any helicopter that might use the roof of this Country Squire as a landing pad. It occurs to me that newspaper hoarding must be more lucrative than I imagined, or else all this might be the fruits of a well-executed bank robbery. I don't care. I just want to ride in this station wagon.

He flips a switch to turn on the amps powering that big subwoofer, and my skin turns inside out. You could mix a can of paint by putting it on the roof. It reaches frequencies so low that earthworms and centipedes wriggle free from the earth, fleeing us wherever we drive. I imagine this kid on awkward first dates, gallantly opening the wood-paneled passenger door of what is essentially a three-ton Hitachi Magic Wand. This isn't just some trunk-rattling hooptie setup. He's done his homework, dropped some serious money, and it all sounds amazing. It is perhaps the coolest I've ever felt, riding on top of all that glorious noise. At a stoplight we pull up next to a guy in a purple Dodge Neon; he's listening to a pair of cheap headphones, the kind you get free with a Walkman. We look at each other across the front seat, and all we can do is bust out laughing. 

* * * * *

I keep vacuuming the house, even though it will be many days before my wife comes home. Without her coming home every day to appreciate it, and with these messy kids, vacuuming becomes an unrewarding, sisyphean enterprise. If a man vacuums his house, but no wife comes home to appreciate it before it's soiled with child crumbs and dog hair again, is it ever actually clean? I don't know. But I've got all this time on my hands, and a sudden, overwhelming urge to put on the new Beastie Boys record and clean out the basement.