Twenty years have gone by, just like that. Like the blink of an eye.
I was a union electrician and made good money, especially with overtime. We were always busy, especially with overtime, except during the recession. But it was hard on my knees, on my back, and on my liver. We often quit work early and headed over to O’Shaughnessy’s on the west side before I caught the train out to Long Island.
But I had to give up the hard drinking after I retired when Katherine warned me, “Lonnie, I can’t take your crap any more. If you don’t find something to do with yourself besides getting sloshed every day, I’m gonna walk out on you. I swear I will.”
And I knew she meant it. I certainly wasn’t going to cross her when she had her mind all set.
I was always good at working with my hands, so I signed up for an adult education wood-working class in the local high school and learned how to build a small bookcase out of plain slabs of pine. The smell of sawdust and wood shavings, glue and stain and urethane and actually building something useful – I’ve got to admit, it turned me on.
It felt good creating – penciling a rough drawing, figuring out the dimensions, buying the right amount of raw lumber and then turning boards and moldings into a completed piece. At a garage sale, I picked up a couple of Craftsman power tools – a circular saw, a lathe, a jig saw and a drill – and set up a workshop in the basement. It was nothing fancy at first. I carved out just enough space for a pre-fab worktable, a set of shelves and a pegboard to hang up small tools.
I decided to build a medium-sized cabinet for the upstairs bathroom above the commode. We always needed more space for toiletries and toothpaste, for soap and cosmetics, for bottles of hydrogen peroxide and rubbing alcohol. And it couldn’t be too deep because you could hit your head when you stood up.
I installed adjustable shelves, primed it and then painted it with glossy white waterproof paint which glistened when the sun hit it just right. Several weeks after I’d screwed it into the jousts, it was almost filled up, and I felt so good every time I walked into the bathroom and there was my cabinet – something I built with my own two hands.
Much of the furniture that filled our house was scratched and stained and rickety. When the kids were young, and even when they were teenagers, we couldn’t think of a good reason why we should go out and waste a whole lot of money on new furniture. The kitchen cabinets were rusting and tired. Our bedroom set was creaky. Our whole house seemed to be marking off time – truth be told, much of the way I often felt. But a part of me sometimes screamed that this just wasn’t right. It wasn’t right for me, for Katherine, for us. And I remembered how downhearted I was when we visited with Mom and Dad in their house in Brooklyn and it always struck me how dusty and drab and old everything was and smelled … and how dusty and drab and old they seemed to be.
So I decided to start building some more new furniture, one piece at a time. A queen-size bed set wasn’t difficult, except for working with cumbersome pieces of lumber. I kept it simple, but I preferred to look at my minimalist designs as elegant. I stained the oak wood a lighter color, hid tiny reading lights in the headboard, and made sure to make this bed extra sturdy, unlike the time the kids came rushing in when our mattress collapsed and crashed to the floor.
Next came a six-drawer dresser for Katherine, which I designed to fit right under the windows that flanked the chimney. Everything had to line up perfectly. I was teaching myself joinery, but not without some disastrous results. I learned from my mistakes and I eventually finished it. I used high end hardware, not like the Ikea crap that quickly falls apart. I stained and urethaned it to match the bed. The brushed nickle-silver pull handles added to the look I was going after. And Katherine loved it. She loved the deep, wide drawers. She loved how smoothly the drawers opened, and how they – she used the word “magically” – closed with the softest touch.
Then I decided to build a nine-drawer tallboy for myself – a four-over-five, which I constructed to match the dresser. It was to fit up against the wall next to the large closet in which I had already installed a set of shelves and galvanized steel pipes for hangars. Although this project was somewhat larger in scale, I continued to use the same carpentry techniques I had been learning from the adult ed class, from library books and from watching woodworking shows on Channel 13.
Most important, once I realized – and I still can’t get over the fact that it hadn’t popped into my thick skull sooner – that I was no longer on the clock, I was able to shift into a lower gear, to slow down and smell the roses, as Kathy put it. I could take my time and enjoy what I was doing, and be in the moment with what was becoming my art. I experimented with different woods and finishes, and I picked up special tools to work on complex joinery techniques. After all, I had months, years, and with any luck, even decades. I could knock off whenever I wanted, although, like the workaholic I had always tended to be, I sometimes pressed on.
Or if I felt like it, I could stop right then and there, shop-vac off the wood shavings and sawdust, then hop into the shower and feel like I’d accomplished something that day. Then I’d grab a beer and sit outside, or sit with Kathy in the kitchen and a have a large mug of coffee. Sometimes we’d go out and enjoy a leisurely dinner. Life was good.
It took months and years, but I got the bedroom furniture done and the walls painted, and then filled up the living room and dining room with new furniture We pulled up faded, ragged carpeting and had the original oak floors refinished. My China closet was a work of art, with glass-inlaid windows and built-in lighting, but my masterpiece was the dining room set – four formal regular chairs, two upholstered arm chairs and – I’ve got to boast – a gorgeously finished and extendable dining room table. It’s so shiny, you can see your reflection off the top.
I built new kitchen cabinets, too, and we bought a set of stainless steel appliances. We also hired a contractor to put in a new tile floor in the kitchen and refurbish the bathrooms. Kathy finally got the claw foot tub she’d always wanted.
During all this, to enlarge my workshop, the years of accumulation of detritus in the basement had been slowly moved out to the garage, or just moved out permanently on bulk pick-up days. Now my workshop takes up almost the entire basement. But truth be told, and I’m sorry to admit it, I’m hardly down there anymore. My body has slowed down and has gotten soft in some places and hard in others, and makes creaking noises like that old bed we threw out when I started out what turned out to be my two decades-long mission.
Kathy and “her girls” – four or five other retired teachers from her elementary school – had gone out to have brunch and I needed to get out of the house and get some air. So I took a walk along the creek, next to the reeds. I spotted a bearded guy walking towards me with a large tan terrier ambling along, off leash. I usually get pissed off because a lot of jerks walk their dogs off leash and they’re definitely not under control. I hate it when the dogs come running up at me.
But this guy’s dog seemed really mellow. He trotted over, stopped, sat down and stared at me. Stared right up at me! When I slid my open hand down, he stepped nearer and before I knew it, I was petting his head, then scratching behind his ears. This dog was a character, for sure. He should’ve been running for mayor.
The guy and I started talking – about his dog, about his being lucky enough to be on a paid sabbatical for a year, about his need, according to his therapist, to not isolate himself by watching daytime television or playing on the computer but, rather, to make sure he spent some quality time around people.
Then he asked, “You’re retired, right?” And I nodded and he said, “I hope you don’t mind my asking, but how do you spend your time these days?”
How do I spend my time?
I paused and sighed. And then I said, “Well I used to make furniture and I did a lot of carpentry work but not so much any more. I mean, what’s the use?”
He mouthed the words what’s the use to himself but he looked embarrassed when he realized that I had noticed. I’d gotten pretty good at lip-reading because my hearing’s not what it used to be. But I’m getting along pretty good despite my age, despite my aches and pains and my slowing down. There’s not much I could do about it anyway. So I just have to accept it.
But still I asked myself, then shook my head: what’s the use?
The guy and his dog continued north towards Merrick Road while I headed down to the boat basin.
I wondered what he was trying to get out of me. I wondered if he’ll ever get the answers he was looking for. I hope that in some way I’d helped him.
Rev 9 / March 7, 2019
March 7, 2019 Copyright © 2019, Lloyd B. Abrams