I made my first fortune with a lawnmower. It was a green Lawn Boy pusher without frills: no self-propulsion, no variable speeds, no easy-turn wheels. The lawn trimmings collected in a frayed cloth bag that bulged against your shins when it came time to empty it, and after several summers mowing a half dozen neighborhood lawns the smell of moist green trimmings spilling out of that bag was imprinted on my brain forever. I mowed until my shoes turned green, and then I mowed until my green shoes grew holes. Lawnmowing has an undeniable meditative quality: the noise of the machine isolates and focuses the mind. You are all turns and pushing; you are bringing order to the chaos. You are in the moment, a connoisseur of the way grass bent in different directions reflects the sunlight.
But I was in it for the money.
I charged $15 per lawn and worked harder than I probably ever have since. I was fourteen years old and making more money than the adults who handed over my hot fudge sundaes in the McDonalds drivethru, something I noted with equal measures of triumph and sadness. I began putting flyers in the mailboxes of a nearby subdivision and my mom would let me throw the mower in the trunk of her car and drive me over when a lawn was too far away to push the mower along the side of the road. When I intruded on the territory of Chris Kuipers, my old Calvinist friend vowed to work twice as hard for half as much. But soon enough we both lost our fortunes in the disastrous baseball card bubble of 1992.
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A couple week ago we were staying at my mother in law's house for the annual Tulip Time festivities and I noticed her grass was getting long. My own father bought himself a nice riding lawn mower as soon as I moved off to college, so I've never felt compelled to mow my old lawn when I visit my parents. To someone who made his bones with a pushmower, riding lawnmowers are in the same category as snowmobiles or ATVs, or those pontoon boats you see fat guys piloting across inland lakes with coozied beers in their hands (they don't make cupholders for push mowers). As I pulled the lawnmower out of my mother-in-law's garage, I congratulated myself: What a good son-in-law you are, performing this unsolicited deed. But as soon as it roared to life I had to be honest: Whatever, asshole. You're a lousy son-in-law, you're just doing this because you miss pushing a lawnmower. Admit it: you're actually nostalgic for that horrible activity that everyone hates. Freak. It's true, for the last half of my life I've been bouncing between rentals and I've never had my own lawn to mow. For the last six years we've lived in this meticulously-landscaped co-op and I've never had to lift a finger with the grass. Every week a group of burly guys pile out of pickup trucks and mow my lawn for me. It's so emasculating I actually have to wear a longer skirt on those days to hide my gigantic vagina.
So I'm mowing my mother-in-law's yard the other day, having some serious fun. I might have even been whistling, joyfully. How disgusting is that? I thought about how character building all those years of mowing were, and I wondered how I would teach my own kids about hard work and self-reliance if we're still living in a home where other people do all our hard work for us. When I was done mowing I was actually disappointed my mother-in-law's lawn was so tiny. I considered lowering the wheels and running over the whole thing again, but we were late for the clogwearing street dancers. The garage where I deposited the mower smelled like wet grass trimmings and petrol. I wanted a cologne just like it.
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Last week I stood in front of a push mower with no frills for sale at a nearby hardware store. I wanted to buy it, but didn't have anywhere to store it (we don't have a garage). Our neighbor---a Detroit firefighter who rides a motorcycle (who also lets other guys mow his lawn)---says you can't keep lawnmowers in our concrete basements without danger from the fumes. I wanted to clear a long-feral vacant lot in our neighborhood so we could turn it into another community garden, but nobody I knew owned a lawnmower. When did we all become such yuppies?
I sent a text to an old friend who lived nearby: Do you have a lawnmower? Can I borrow it? His reply: "I pay a guy to do it. I gave up chores in 2009." The grass was above my knees in places, so I bought this tool that didn't have a name but was basically an analog weedwhacker; a lame version of a scythe. A safety scythe?
After last summer's garden (part one here, part two here) was torn out so football fans could park there and drink a few Sundays each winter, I wrote, next "year when we get those boxes set up in a new lot with new seedlings soaking up the sun I'll be teaching [my kids] about stubbornness, and perseverance, and maybe even a little but about naivety." Add foolheadedness to that. Rather than just putting our old boxes in a new lot, over the last weekend we built a ton of new, higher-quality boxes and invited a bunch of our neighbors to join us this year. But before we could put down the boxes and load them with soil, something had to be done about the grass. My other friend (an architecture professor) and I were over there swatting at weeds with that thing on an eighty-degree day like a couple of extras in Days of Heaven. It turns out hard work isn't nearly as glamorous without Terence Malick's sunsets or Leo Kottke's guitar. I'd spent the previous 24 hours building twenty raised beds for the garden, and after a few minutes of reaping we were like, Fuck this Amish shit. So I borrowed a electric weed trimmer. He called his brother-in-law in the suburbs who loaned us his lawnmower for the day.
As I watched him accumulate those neat little rows behind the mower I was unable to hide my jealousy. He even admitted it was fun. He'd grown up in Miami, where he mowed all year round. Once he'd cleared enough grass that we could start setting down boxes, I enlisted his architectural expertise to do the layout. While it's true that I suck at anything involving precision, my real motivation was to yank that lawnmower starter out from under his nose and stand behind her while she purred between my legs. I pushed that old mower around for awhile, then he'd take over. There we were, a couple of guys with postgraduate degrees fighting over who got to use a lawnmower.
In the end, the lot got mowed and the boxes went down. A group of my wonderful neighbors came over to help haul 5 cubic yards of dirt into those boxes and together we turned that vacant lot into this: