Tuesday, September 27, 2016
I use the word "broken" a lot. Many of the words you hear repeating in the choruses of my meanderings here are intentional. I can't say that for "broken." In fact, I was planning on calling this essay, 'On Brokenness' but it turns out that, well, I already did that in this post, which is pretty damn nice, in my opinion.
In that piece, more or less, I was speaking to a metaphorical brokenness - broken dreams and broken hearts and broken words. The emphasis was on the redemptive power and healing being broken can reveal to us.
But what of actual, tangible, broken stuff - toasters and light switches, pencil tips and easels, transmissions, carburetors, struts and ball joints, eggshells and fence posts, old hats and doorframes, window panes and water pipes, steel strings and twigs, glasses and watches, new playsets and old old guitars - and the stories they can tell? I've faced all these broken things at one time or another. I figure there are three things to do when a thing breaks - fix them, accept them or, throw them out.
All three responses answer the same call, I think. They encourage the story of the thing.
I could write a whole essay on each of examples above, which is tempting, but, ulterior motive (memories for the boys) and all, I'll focus on, say, the last four.
I can't say for certain how many pairs of glasses I've had over my lifetime. A couple dozen perhaps would be a good estimate. When we first found out that the boys needed glasses (a little late I am sorry to say) we went to get them outfitted in their first pair. Our lame-ass medical insurance did provide a new pair for each but the selection was limited.
That's not really true, there were exactly two pairs to choose from, a wire sort with nose-pads and a clunky plastic pair, oval and black. They chose the wire ones which did come in two colors. Again, I'm being kind, they were coated with a color, blue for Z and a sort of purply for N. They were in constant need of adjustment, the nose-pads so flimsy and cheap they bent setting them down, and, the thin color top coat started chipping off the first day. This is what our insurance would cover, really cheap, poorly made glasses. I suppose no one is surprised by that
In the late summer of the following year, the timeline is screwed up in my head, we decided to try something new, something a bit better made and in a style they liked. JC Penny had a sale and they chose a pair each. A black with green trim pair for Nick, and an orange and black pair for Zack They said the liked the first pairs, but I think they really liked being able to see. These though, they really loved them.
Our insurance provider (what a ridiculous word to use, provider) changed their plan and we were able to go somewhere else that showed us maybe four styles that following spring. They chose again, plastic, chunky, again. The boys then started using those originals to play ball in. They broke, these were the color-coated ones, the nose-pads finally giving up, and they went to using the Penny's pair for sports.
Zack's finally broke:
He was sad. "You're not going to throw them away, are you, Dad?"
We become connected to the things we spend time with.
The boys got watches in first or second grade, again timelines befuddle me, and Zack never really took to his, but Nick was thrilled. He eventually wore out and basically outgrew the first one and he saw one he liked, a cheap, pretty much non-functional one he saw at a local store.
He loved it, we was proud of it, he took good care of it and wore it faithfully and never left it anywhere. He was very responsible with it and, when its "crystal" cracked he was bummed but he kept wearing it. Just a few days ago he came home from school a little bummed. I asked him what the matter was and he said his band had broken on his watch. To be clear, it wasn't the actual band, which is getting cracked and wearing out where it buckles, but the the small loopy thingee that holds the band end down after it goes through the buckle. I am not familiar with the lexicon, sorry...
I'd done some research and I showed him a watch online I thought he might like. It was more functional than the "his good watch" as he called the one with a cracked face. He seemed reluctant but decided to go ahead and get it.
He loves it.
Last night as I was saying good night to them, I happened to turn around and look at the top of their dresser. There, carefully arranged, smallest to biggest, oldest to newest, little boy to tween to young man, his watches were lined up neatly, elegantly, tenderly. I thought ran through my mind, an image really, I saw a lifetime of watches, his or mine or yours, lined up on that same dresser. I imagined what a story a timeline of watches could tell. And telling it, Nick was.
It doesn't seem so long ago that my kind and energetic brother-in-law and I built the playset my mother had given the boys. What, seven, eight years ago? It's been a pirate boat, a house, a hobbit hole, a train. It's heard conversations that I could not. It knows secrets and will keep them. It has been a good, happy place for boys to swing and dream.
It's broken now.
It would be presumptuous to try to tell its story. It would be inadequate, inaccurate incomplete. I'll let it tell its own. With the help, I hope, of two grown men who grew up inside it, for whom it got smaller, for whom it pined and wasted away.
I can tell this last story, though, for it is indeed mine.
I broke my guitar once, again timelines are sketchy for me, and I couldn't afford to get it repaired. I'd dropped it right on the bottom of the body. This punched the strap peg into it and cracked the tail block and treble braces. It would've taken a luthier to fix it and I knew it would cost in the hundreds. I had another guitar at the time, a big box Alvarez in a grand auditorium size, so I started playing it more. I set that little dreadnought triple-aught aside and it waited.
The time came and I needed it again. Someone I knew knew, of all persons, a luthier, and I got in contact with him. My oldest brother said he'd help with the cost so I made the arrangements.
I remember going to him in a small shop in an industrial part of Norwood. There was a garage door and another door to the right which led to a little office and desk. I noticed there were curtains on the garage door windows, red checkered and dusty. He sat at an old timey desk, a big clunker of a thing that looked like the teacher's desks in my hometown schools, smoking a cigarette and staring up into the smoke and rafters. I like a man that stares into the smoke and rafters...
He asked to see it and I fumbled about trying to get it out. He finally grabbed the case and just set it on the desk, on top of the papers and bills and nuts and bridges and ashtrays and years old desk calendar. In what appeared to be one savage motion he cut the strings off with a pair of worn-out Craftsman dykes. A hideous "Bloooooong" echoed off the cinder block walls. He grabbed the long end of the strings all in one hand and deftly unwound them in one fluid move and then stuffed them into a gray metal trash bin, acquired, clearly, from the same classroom as the desk.
With a pair of bent needle nosed pliers, he pulled out each peg and placed them in an empty - not clean, empty - ashtray, letting the string ends just land on the desk. With the pad of his middle finger he tapped around the sound hole of the guitar and then around the edges on the box. The sound was satisfying and whole and round.
"I'll give you a thousand dollars for it, " he said.
Now, I was still stunned by how roughly and unceremoniously he'd treated the thing. I thought he didn't like it and just wanted me gone. Now, on top of that confusion he was offering me a lot of money for a guitar I'd paid only two-hundred dollars for just around two decades before - with a case.
"I'd really hoped you could just fix it..." I stuttered.
He seemed to not hear me and started saying things about how it was probably one of the last hand made guitars in this series and that Yairi himself may have handled it and how I was lucky to have it.
At the time I didn't understand.
I do now, well I think I do. Either a famous magical guitar maker named Yairi dude had something to do with the crafting of my guitar and by sheer dumb luck I stumbled upon it, or God had placed it my care.
He softened a bit, finally, and said he could fix it for six-hundred dollars. I said alright and left it to his care.
A few weeks later his wife called me and said it was ready. I went to get it. I entered his office to the ding-a-ling of the entry bell above the door. He stuck his long pony-tailed head into the front room and smiled and motioned me to follow him back.
Now I have been in sacred places, in fact I once dreamed of building one for myself, and I knew this was one. It was about the size of a two-car garage lined with work benches against the outside wall and the back. A long blocky table made of four and two-by-fours, topped with what appeared to be a single thick piece of oak, ran down the middle of the room. The inside wall was all peg-board. Templates and tools and clamps and much more I didn't know what was, hung, hovering on it in wild disarray.
This beautiful disarray was evident everywhere. Guitar cases - twenty, thirty - were lined up in no particular order under the back bench. On the bench itself, I can only guess was a kind of "boneyard," guitar necks and broken spruce tops and large scraps of neck stock were piled high into a jumble almost sculptural in quality. The bench along the far wall had guitars in different states of undress, open, exposed. Clamps and pegs in the bench top held bent pieces of wood and a gentle looking miter box sat at the far edge, supervising.
The center bench was surrounded by industrial style carpets on the cement floor, the black ones you roll out in places of high traffic and over speaker wires and power cables. The surface was much neater than the others, covered in a tan carpet. Two guitars, their necks supported by little purple pillows, sat like offerings waiting for attention.
One notices everything in a sacred place all at the same time. I suppose because we can handle it. The light was not from the industrial florescents above, which one might have expected, but from incandescent bulbs in rusty cone fixtures hanging from the ceiling above, in blatant mockery of the tubes so close by. Clamp lights were clamped to the benches here and there and an old steel utility light like the one my Dad used to work on an old Chevy, shone down on the row of cases. It was as though the room were lamplit, yellow through the tobacco stained bulbs, uncertain, subdued.
Have you ever used a piston ashtray? Mechanics often used them, solid and heavy and true. There were several, full and overflowing, on all the side benches, none were on the center table, but long scars lined the short edges where a cigarette had been left and burned the old oak. The smell of tobacco mixed with a hint of pot smoke mingled with the wood smell of the whole space. The smell was so urgent, like incense, I could taste it, almost see it.
I'd not noticed, but on the outside and back walls, higher up than you'd expect, were a row of glass block windows. It was a wintry afternoon and suddenly the sun burst in, low and angled, and spotlighted the saw dust motes and incense trails. Just off in the far right corner was another door, one of those with a window in it, the glass was painted. I am sure it was a utility room where the furnace lived and a utility sink and perhaps a toilet, but, somehow, at the time, I imagined it as a sanctus sanctorum, a special place.
"I think I've got it right over here, Bill," my host said, leading the way to the cases in the back. I stopped, waiting for him, taking in the room, and him. I was surprised he knew my name right off.
He seemed so different than when I had first met him. His hair was back in a ponytail, streaked with gray. He wore a leather apron, stained and aged, jeans and a tattered flannel shirt. Without hesitation he grabbed the case and carried it toward the center table. There was just room for it on a corner.
"It's a fine little guitar, man." He opened the case. He'd polished it and the new strings glittered in the low light. It seemed different. He pulled it out, put his foot up on a battered two-by-four rail that ran, about knee high, the length of the table. Even through my bewilderment I knew it was there so he could play the instruments he created, repaired, renewed.
He played the harmonics, all of them, in a funny back and forth way that, when done, formed a complicated chord that floated with the dust and smoke. He did a short flamingo flourish, and handed it to me.
"Play something," he said and then smiled as I put my boot on the rail.
I am, and shall ever remain, a mediocre guitar player. I had nothing in my repertoire to impress him, nothing to make this clearly resurrected piece of wood and string sing.
I looked toward him to say I didn't know what to play.
"Play anything," he said, before I'd asked, "You play a ton of good songs, judging from the cheats in your case. Play some Dylan."
I did, Easy Chair, in fact, better'n I'd ever played it. The room's acoustics were lovely, the sound of the strings and my voice together came back to me and I heard myself playing the song as I sang it. I finished and sort of just stood there. Whole, somehow...
"That guitar suits you, suits your voice."
I understood what he meant. He took it from me, played one last C chord and tenderly set it back in the case, careful not to touch the strings. That chord kept ringing, I suspect it is still.
He ushered me out, saying he had work to do. The door played its short, final hymn. It wasn't until I'd reached my truck that I realized I'd not paid him. I went back. The door was locked, the office dark.
He sent me a bill a few days later. It was for three-hundred dollars.
It took a broken pair of glasses to help me understand the beautiful sentimentality in a little boy's heart.
It took a row of watches, one broken, on a dresser to remind me that stories must begin somewhere, and it is often in the heart.
It took an old, run-down and rotting playset to remind me that stories sometimes forget to end because they linger and change in time's crucible of memory.
It took an old cracked guitar to show me redemption, sacredness and Hope.
Thanks for coming around and listening to my long windedness. I appreciate it.
Just now, as I was editing and spellchecking all this, I checked the word "luthier" because the Blogger platform didn't recognize it as a word. I highlighted it and went to check it on Google and this was the first result. Yes, it is him...