On Saturday of Labor Day weekend, Rich and I went on a ramble through rural New England. Our destination was the Nike outlet store in Lee, Massachusetts to buy sneakers with our family discount. Our oldest daughter works at one of the Nike stores in Colorado.
The journey could have started on Route 91 South but we like to take the roads less traveled and we needed to pick up a headlight at a junk yard in Greenfield so we headed south on Colrain Road out of Wilmington, Vermont.
In Jacksonville we passed a house with a pretty garden and noticed our friend, whose name is also Richard, out on the front lawn. Vermont Rich is a stonemason and was there to help a widow who needed some repairs done on her chimney. He often helps her and doesn’t charge for his time. It was her husband who taught him the craft of stonemasonry.
Labor Day weekend is the holiday that celebrates the American worker, but here was our friend repairing loose bricks and sweeping the chimney.
In late August 2011, almost six years ago to the day, Hurricane Irene barreled into Vermont as a tropical cyclone. Downtown Wilmington’s Main Street turned into a raging river. The only other recorded hurricane in Vermont’s history was back in 1938. It has no name, back then they didn’t give hurricanes names.
Many people lost their homes and businesses. Many historic covered bridges were destroyed. Due to extensive road damage, dozens of rural towns became isolated. We were still living in New Hampshire at the time but our friend was everywhere with his backhoe and his chainsaw and his talent for many helpful survival skills. Six years later three prominent buildings in downtown Wilmington are still empty. One of them recently got an artistic facelift with the artwork of Chinon Maria, a local girl who is now a street artist in New York City.
A lot of Texans are spending their Labor Day weekend recovering from the mess Hurricane Harvey left in its wake. Helping your neighbors isn’t just the Texas way. It’s not just the Vermont way. It’s the American way. The United States of America.
There’s a stonemason in my new novel, Under The Same Sun:
“Leo Heaton is a regular guy, a builder of stone walls. A man who pays his bills on time, enjoys a beer or two after work, and always uses his blinker. He’s lived in this small corner of New England all his life and believes in the American Dream along with the ideals of freedom and justice for all, despite the fact ideals don’t always ring true. His twin daughters are his pride and joy, although this morning they are not assisting him in his pursuit of happiness.”
The junkyard in Greenland was only open 10 to 12 on Saturdays. We got there at 11:30 but the place was locked up.
My stories come from the places I’ve traveled, the jobs I’ve worked, and the people I’ve met. Woody Guthrie once said, “You can’t write a good song about a whorehouse unless you’ve been in one.”
You also can’t write about a junkyard unless you’re familiar with one. I am. I was the bookkeeper at an Epping, NH auto salvage business for ten years. They were just one of many clients I had when I ran my own bookkeeping business. There was also an art gallery on Newbury Street in Boston. I’m familiar with it all, the high and the low ends of the American economy. At the gallery I worked at a desk surrounded by expensive artwork, including a few Salvador Dali’s and beautiful pottery made by Brother Thomas.
At the junkyard I sat at a desk in a large garage filled with old car parts, tires, and an auto mechanic’s tools of the trade. It smelled of oil, grease, dust, and wet junkyard dogs of which there were a half dozen or so on any given day. After a Christmas fire burned down the building and a good part of the junkyard, I worked in an old trailer salvaged from the wreckage. I had to rummage through smoked out paperwork and records, rusty paperclips and soot, to recreate the bookkeeping records and find the insurance policies.
Both of these settings, the art gallery and the junkyard, ended up in Life Is All This.
The Epping junkyard owner was Hungarian. His hands and arms were covered with rough red patches and he always had a wad of cash in his pocket. On Fridays he’d peel off a couple of hundreds to pay me. Real life experiences often get mixed up and manipulated into fiction.
From Under the Same Sun:
Leo owes Carl money for a used transmission he found for the girls’ car. Dealing in used auto parts is only one of the skills on Carl’s long, checkered resume. He left his job at the casino a couple of months ago.
“The commute and the hours were killing me,” he said.
Years ago he owned a seafood shack down near the shore, close to the Rhode Island border, until he got into a twin lobster pricing war with the diner across the street.
“The guy kept lowering his price. When he got to $3.99 for twin lobsters and threw in a free bowl of clam chowder I was sunk. He was a lobsterman and I was buying my lobsters from him! No way could I compete with that situation.”
In addition to the used auto parts, Carl grows and sells Christmas trees, plows driveways in the winter, grows marijuana in his basement, and breeds boxers.
“How much do I owe you?” Leo asks.
“Five hundred for the transmission and thirty for the tree minus the beers you bought me last week.”
Leo hands Carl a wad of cash – a couple of hundreds, two fifties, and a lot of ATM twenties. Carl fans it then shoves it in his pocket.
“Aren’t you going to count it?”
“I worked the blackjack tables for years. I know it’s all there.”
Every line in the above excerpt is fiction but it has a connection to real life. Maybe some day I’ll share all the stories that led to that exchange.
We had slept late on the Saturday morning of the three day holiday weekend. Rich had been working hard all week; climbing ladders to paint a house with high cathedral ceilings.
The owner of the junkyard probably gave up on us and decided to get a jump on his Labor Day festivities. So we continued on and took Route 5 South past Deerfield Academy, a prestigious private prep school where the well-to-do send their children to be socially polished and primed to enter an Ivy League college.
American flags on telephone poles snapped with the breeze. Trump signs tacked to a barn greeted us in the asparagus farmland of Hadley, MA as we rolled on through to Northampton where gay pride flags fly and Black Lives Matter.
In Florence we stopped for a grinder – Italian for me, roast beef for Rich.
Sunday we laid low. It rained all day and we had a fire burning in the wood stove. We reminisced about twenty years of Labor Day parties on Cape Cod’s national seashore and watched rock ‘n roll documentaries. I was multi-tasking, reading New York Times articles and other writings about work in America. After all, it was Labor Day so the media was on topic. But brace yourself, one of the upcoming debates during the budget talks will be taxing our 401K savings upfront – when we have the contribution withheld from our paychecks. We won’t be hearing a lot about that from the media after the holiday is a sweet end-of-summer memory. So pay attention. If taxes are taken out at the time of the contribution instead of when we retire, that means that over the years we earn less money on our savings. Don’t let the bastards fool you.
We cooked a lot over the weekend. We made homemade pizza, grilled scallops, stuffies, and ahi tuna, had lots of fresh local veggies, drank bloody Marys, cold beers, and crisp Sauvignon Blanc.
I told my husband about a young boy I saw in the Nike store. The place was packed. Shoeboxes lined the floor and sat on half the seats people need to try on shoes. The employees were everywhere, straightening things out, smiling and helpful. I thought of our daughter working lots of hours on this very American holiday weekend.
The young boy was arguing with his mother. “Go ahead. Buy it,” he said, his lip curling into a surly sneer. “But I’m not ever going to fucking wear them. They’re fucking ugly.” I listened to them argue back and forth while I tried to find a pair of sneakers I liked. Then I waited for a seat. Two Indian women where standing next to me. One sat down to try on the same style sneaker I had chosen. She moved some boxes to the floor and in her lilting accent said, “Here. Please. Sit down.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“But of course.”
Meanwhile, the young boy kept swearing at his mother. The shoes were not the ones he saw in a magazine. They probably hadn’t made their way to the outlet stores yet. His mother looked like she could burst into tears at any moment. Her hands were filled with shopping bags from The Gap, Sun Pac, American Eagle, and other outlet stores, most likely filled with back to school clothes that were busting her monthly budget.
The Indian woman shook her head and looked down, embarrassed by a stranger’s behavior.
Oliver Sacks once said, “The most we can do is to write —intelligently, creatively, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.”
Ever since I wrote my first novel and started blogging, that’s all I’ve ever tried to achieve.
We finished the weekend stacking firewood and listening to Dire Straits. Mark Knopfler writes lyrics like few other musicians. His songs tell heartfelt, real life stories. I once heard him in an interview share the story of all the jobs he worked at before he began to earn his living as a musician. He said was glad he had done all those things.
“It gives you sympathy for other people’s lives,” is how he summed it up.
Yes. But of course.