Handymen

When I was a kid my dad worked in an office.  His tools were the telephone and the Dictaphone, not the hammer and the nail.  So, if a cabinet handle fell off my mom called the Handyman to come and fix it.  What my dad did was abstract and I never really saw him in action, just a dapper suit outgoing and a slightly more rumpled suit incoming.  But what the Handyman did was fascinating and I loved to follow him around the house, watching him use tools and fix things.  The Handyman was also a loquacious sort and a guy who talked straight at kids instead of down to them.  Needless to say, I really liked the Handyman.

I remember one night, late, the doorbell rang and it was the Handyman.  He was in a strange state, shuffling from one foot to the other, weaving a bit and speaking like he had three or four cat’s eye marbles in his mouth.  My mom came to the door and spoke with him outside so that I couldn’t hear; then she came back in, went to her purse and went back out to give him money.  I can’t remember if she ever explained that he was drunk, but she did say that she liked him too and that he needed money and that she trusted him to do some work later to earn it—as things were always breaking.

It might have been a season or two before he came back, and I remember riding with him to the hardware store to get more paint.  These were days somewhere between Norman Rockwell and Norman Lear, and so it was okay for young boys to ride around town with the Handyman.  This was when he told me that not only was he a sometimes housepainter, but he was also a “real” painter of paintings.  He even claimed that he had been friends with Winslow Homer, and that old Winslow had personally given him a painting before he died and that it was worth a lot of money (but he hoped never to have to sell it).  Even if I’d known then that Winslow Homer died in 1910, my poor sense of time, easy gullibility and affection for the Handyman would have allowed me to still believe the story.  In fact, I like to still believe the story.

It’s sometimes sad that we live in an era of horrible headlines, when trotting around behind the Handyman through a humid Chicago summer, past paint-smells and the buzzing of a million cicadas in swaying cottonwoods and arching elms, was so diverting—the simple, non-creepy, wholesome fun of a bored kid and a boozing-artist-raconteur-Handyman just hangin’ out.

I suspect it was my affection for the Handyman that primed me to have a soft spot for Schneider in One Day at a Time, when it glowed on the 70’s TV screen of my suburban bedroom.  And thus it was a virtual brush with greatness when I asked the lady behind the counter at the public par 3 golf course the other day if that was a celebrity having a golf lesson on the first mat of the driving range.  I’m generally terrible with spotting celebrities, having been in oblivious conversations with stars of screens big and small only to later learn that they were stars.

I actually thought the would-be celebrity was Tony Roberts from old Woody Allen films (as I always picture him driving through Beverly Hills in a convertible with the protective suit to keep the rays out), but I learned that the near-by golf student was Pat Harrington—Schneider himself, hitting real golf balls in the warm January sun of LA.  Growing up in Chicago, when I see Brady Bunch era stars I get a strange surreal feeling, as if I’ve tumbled through the looking glass of that old, unflat, TV.  I was too discrete to disturb Schneider, but I had to smile to myself, seeing him without tool-belt or TV sit-com swagger.

The lady at the desk told me that he was in that show with Mackenzie Phillips, and then I remembered that Mackenzie Phillips, on top of all her other troubles, hit my father-in-law with a car in the year before he died (of an unrelated heart-attack), causing him to need leg surgery, pins, wheel chair ramps… and that after falling down the stairs and breaking his collar bone.  Fun.

Then I realized that my father-in-law was a writer and producer of “Bridget Loves Bernie,” the highest rated show ever to be cancelled (due to hate mail about the Jewish-Catholic relationship)—and that Merideth Baxter (the star of my father-in-law’s show) was the actual daughter, and single-parenting inspiration for, the creator of One Day at a Time.  Later that day I told my wife that I saw Pat Harrington and she told me that he was very nice—having met him because her dad cast him in a play he wrote:  “The Only Bathtub in Cassis.”  Thus when I was a kid thinking that Schneider was a larger than life quirky Handyman, my future wife was actually meeting him as a very nice actor in her dad’s play.  These synchronicities reinforced my feeling that we’re all linked through our collective children—that sometimes we might be “fathered” by the Handyman, or “mothered” by random people who caringly cross our paths in childhood.

In the vanished world of my childhood, where handymen fixed things that I could understand, while my dad never touched anything like a hammer or a screwdriver, I formed by ideas of the world from TV shows and movies that seemed more real than my life.  In the mundane and yet magical LA of my adulthood, if there are Handymen, I don’t meet them—when the cabinet handles get wobbly, I get my inner Schneider on and get the toolbox.  In LA, the Handymen are actors, and the tool of choice is a seven-iron, or maybe a wedge, and the better you do the worse you get to dress.

So here’s to remembering what the world was like back when we were constructing it for ourselves; quaint twentieth century times when I was virtually riveted by the doings of the milkman, the garbageman and the Handyman—real people who did real and clearly understandable things.  There will come a time when our kids are grown, and they will look back and compare and contrast the world they live in as grown-ups with the world they lived in during childhood.  “Drake and Josh,” “MTV Cribs” or “Entourage” will be but quaint old shows that informed their world, standing on the foundations of “Teletubbies,” “Arthur,” and, horrifically, “Barney.”

While the signifiers change, the magic of childhood remains very much the same.  Children and the child-mind they carry are a window through which we might see our own world once again as infused with magic, synchronicity and surreal potentiality—a way of seeing that might helps us see the sacred in all our collective children, and reawaken the pulse of life spirit within ourselves just in case it has fallen too deeply into a nap.

Namste, Bruce

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3 Responses to “Handymen”

  1. Laurie Says:

    Lovely

  2. Nicki Says:

    Wonderful and, in its own way, amazing the circle of connections.

  3. April Says:

    You always hear politicians talk about how things were better and easier back in the day. But with every decade, there have been terrible events and a fear of something. It’s simply that childhood can be magical…even if it’s not, if that makes sense.

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