“It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
Somewhere far upstream in the river of moments that is my Life, in the darkness of an early November evening in Bangor, Maine, as snowflakes the size of doilies were parachuting down to earth from an arriving nor’easter, I walked out of my overheated college dormitory and into the parking lot and got on my motorcycle.
As I drove, I used my gloved left hand to push aside the slush and fog on the visor of my helmet, and with my right hand I steered while keeping the throttle steady, with my mind intent on piloting the motorcycle through a darkly blurred world to my destination.
What urgent need would compel a 21-year-old college student to ride a motorcycle through the tricky-slick streets of a freezing winter night as a snowstorm hit town? Where could I possibly be going? To the hospital to comfort a dying friend? To spend the night with a horny girl whose parents were out of town? Had I experienced an epiphany in which a college education was revealed as unadulterated bullshit—instantly compelling me to get on my motorcycle with the burning purpose to ride all the way to Florida and begin my new life as a beach bum?
None of the above. I was going to the hardware store.
After the darkness of my five-mile ride through the gathering storm, the throbbing brightness of the store’s fluorescent lighting was stunning. But I knew what I wanted and where it was. Keeping my helmet on, I walked fast along the aisles, my sneakers, soaked through from the falling snow and splash-back of the street, making loud chirps and squishes on the linoleum floor.
When I carried the object of my desire to the checkout counter the clerk said, “A-yup. That’s a good ‘un.”
I pretended I, too, was a taciturn native and said only, “A-yup.”
In the parking lot I used my forearm to wipe the snow from the seat of my motorcycle. With a web of yellow bungee cords, I secured my purchase to the seat: A two-foot long one-foot high grey steel toolbox. Inside this hobbit-sized coffin was a removable red-painted steel tray for holding small items like wrenches and socket-heads, nail sets and smaller screwdrivers. The rest of the big box was for hammers, keyhole saws, hacksaws, files and rasps and planes, larger screwdrivers, a tape measure, tie-wraps, a magnetic stud finder, and containers of nails, screws, washers, nuts and bolts.
Not one item of which I owned.
But now I owned a toolbox. A large toolbox. A large, empty toolbox.
I went back into the store and squished along the aisles to a wall-mounted pegboard displaying hand tools. At the checkout counter the cashier took my wet money and said one word, “Stanley.”
Stanley was neither my name nor his. It was the brand of hammer I had selected.
Staying in character, I said, “A-yup.”
The snowstorm had gained momentum. Rather than waste several minutes undoing and reconfiguring the tangle of bungee cords confining my new toolbox, I unzipped my jacket, put the hammer against my wet flannel shirt, and zipped up my wet jacket.
On the slow-motion journey back to the dormitory, I tried to make my shivering body relax so I could respond smoothly each time the motorcycle began sliding or fishtailing or falling. I kept the bike upright by using one leg or the other and sometimes both at once like ski-runners, causing the two inches of snow now covering the streets to cascade over my sneakers as if my frozen feet were miniature snowplows. The concentration and work was exhausting, and exhilarating.
What had compelled me to buy the toolbox without, at the very least, having waited for the storm to pass?
I was 21 and already deeply frustrated by a lengthening list of my failures. I had failed, without distinction, at everything I had attempted in the urgent Darwinian struggle called Growing Up in Working Class America, including failing to acquire a decent education; failing to acquire money and property, either by inheritance, entrepreneurship, or theft; failing to acquire a girl who was exciting to talk to and who would also have sex with me as much and as often and as enthusiastically as my body-mind-spirit decreed, but not do the same with other guys; and failing to acquire a Master Plan and stick to it.
Into this roiling horny impulsive psyche the wind-carried seed of a single lonely thought had landed, somehow taken root, and rapidly grown: If ever I were to get control of my once-in-a-lifetime Life I must put aside the dead-end urgency of immediate gratification. I must find Purpose. I must have Patience. I must develop Discipline. I must learn to take the flying blind leap of faith that, yes, Tomorrow would come. I must begin to Invest in My Future.
What was my first action in response to this revelatory idea of investing in my future by developing discipline, patience, purpose?
To impulsively drive a motorcycle through a snowstorm to buy a toolbox and a hammer. Having decided I must design and build my Life, it struck me that tools were both a metaphor and a necessity.
Returning to the overheated dormitory, a place where anything from a can of beer to a cute red-haired girl was subject to the one-word law Possession, I removed my helmet and my wet gloves, took a permanent ink marker from my roommate’s desk, then used one of his flannel shirts to wipe the dirty snow from the top of the toolbox and, keeping my frozen red hand as steady as possible, I wrote my first and last name in BIG BLACK BLOCK LETTERS on the lid of the steel toolbox.
Then I put the hammer inside.
By summer, having failed the autumn semester at the college in Maine and then failed the spring semester at a college in Rhode Island, I was living in a Bad Neighborhood in New Haven, Connecticut. I was renting an incredibly cheap, incredibly small room with a window, a shared bath down the hall, and a dozen neighbors who slept all day and were raucous all night. I spent my days working in a printing plant. I spent my nights working in my shoebox room, straining like one of an infinite number of monkeys to pound out on a manual typewriter a story that was not stupid, not oafish, not hysterically bad. At the end of each long day and night, I would place my hammer in easy reach on the chipped paint of the windowsill, get into my sleeping bag atop the naked mattress, and drift off to sleep while obsessively compulsively doing the simple math of subtracting the current balance of my savings account from the amount of money I needed to move to Manhattan, dividing it by the time necessary to earn the remainder.
One night, while working on my math problem, I was rudely interrupted by two drunken men in the hallway. They were working through the choreography presaging a fight. It was easy to imagine the two dancers on the other side of my door: Their puffed up chests; their stiff, robot-like gestures. They shouted long strung together curses that all ended with the exclamation, “Motherfucker!” Soon came the first hard shove. And the reciprocal hard shove. And then the two drunks were pummeling and grappling and throwing each other against the walls.
All at once the door of my room burst from its hinges and came sailing into my tiny room. Surfing atop the door, locked in each other’s arms like violently embracing lovers, were the two drunken pugilists. In the bright light flooding from the hallway into my room, I watched them hit the floor so hard that I thought I, too, could see the stars that were swirling in front of their cartoonishly stunned faces and wide eyes.
By then I was standing over them. Looking down. I said, calmly and distinctly, “Get the fuck out.”
Without even glancing at me, they clambered to their knees, then their feet, while, incredibly, simultaneously both slurring stunned apologies. “Oh fuck man! Sosorry! Can’t believe ‘sis! Sosorrybout the door!”
Then they looked at me.
I said, “Out.”
The next instant, they were gone.
As the quiet of the night filled the vacuum of their absence, I realized I was wearing only boxer shorts, and that neither my angry expression nor my confidently spoken command had caused their nimble and sudden disappearing act. Rather, it was my raised right hand in which I gripped my Stanley hammer.
I knelt beside my bed, not to pray, but to drag out from under it my toolbox. I opened the lid, lifted out the red tray, which now held a regular and a Philips screwdriver, and a carpenter’s metal tape measure. From the bottom of the toolbox I took out a small plastic box, opened it, and selected half-a-dozen 16-penny nails.
I raised the door of my room, set it back in its frame, and nailed it shut, carefully leaving just enough of the nail heads showing so that in the morning I could use the claw-end of the hammer to pull them out and exit the room.
Then I placed my hammer back on the cracked paint of the windowsill and got back into my sleeping bag and drifted off into sleep while obsessively compulsively doing the simple math of subtracting the current balance of my savings account from the amount of money I needed to move to Manhattan, dividing it by the time necessary to earn the remainder.
By October my downward mobility had carried me to an Extremely Bad Neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My third floor apartment looked down on Third Street, between Avenues C and D. It was the lettered Avenues that gave the neighborhood its storybook name, Alphabet City.
My possessions included a Raleigh Super Course bicycle, which, in another few months during the surreal 1980 Manhattan transit strike, I would ride tantalizingly close to the speed of light; my sturdy Remington Rand manual typewriter; and my steel toolbox, which by then held my hammer, screwdrivers and an assortment of other hand tools purchased at yard sales. My home furnishings were simple: a metal folding chair and folding card table I had found on the street. Whenever I set the twenty-pound typewriter on the table and began finger-stabbing its keys and slapping its return, the table would sway like a seasick skyscraper in an 8.3 earthquake.
In the vast acres of time-bombed architecture that was Alphabet City, there were no grocery stores. But every five blocks or so, there would be a bodega, often without even a sign over its door. These bodegas had wood plank floors that creaked when stepped on, and rows of shelving supported by cinder blocks. On the shelves were boxes and cans and jars of processed foods that were all two years past their expiration dates. Over time, a fine grey powder had been deposited on the containers, as if they had been dusted for fingerprints. Looking closely at the powder, one could indeed see imprinted there, the tiny dance charts of rats’ paws. Cha-cha-cha! Yet, walking to the back of any bodega, passing by the ever-vigilant owner standing beside the cash register with one hand resting on a lead-filled night stick, you were sure to find a huge, gleaming stainless steel cooler, filled with cans and bottles of ice-cold beers and malt liquors and sodas. The humming, powerful machinery of the refrigerator was the throbbing aorta of each bodega, and by extension, the customers who depended on it.
My entertainment, my education, and my exercise were all liberally provided, free of charge, by the city—each time I walked. And I walked everywhere, day and night, measuring distance in 20-block multiples. And as I walked the city would, like an overly solicitous restaurateur, push at me an endless menu of accidental entertainments to choose from, every item on the menu guaranteed to amaze and astonish. Being 22 and broke, alone and healthy, horny and restlessly exploring the city that was New York in late 1979, was far, far beyond anything I could have imagined. And exactly what I craved. The city had me agape.
Sometimes the carnival would come to me. Like the time, as dusk settled heavily over Alphabet City, a Checker taxi stalled in front of my building. The big blocky body of the cab took up half the street. But that was not a problem, as 94% of the cars in Alphabet City were abandoned, or without wheels and resting atop cinder blocks. I watched from my opened third-floor windows as the driver of the taxi raised the hood of the big car, made a cursory and cursing examination of its engine, then slammed closed the hood, put his hands on his hips, and looked around. I could read his thoughts as clearly as if they were printed inside a white bubble above his head: “Where the fuck am I going to find a working pay phone in this godforsaken wasteland?”
He then calmly surrendered to Fate. He performed the formalities of turning on the flashing yellow emergency lights, rolling up the windows, and locking the doors of the taxi. Then he set off on the next leg of his Life journey, exiting, stage left.
Moments later, entering from stage right, came more than a dozen young children. They swarmed over the hulk of the taxi as if it were the carapace of a dead bug and they were ravenous army ants. They tried to tear off the rear view mirrors with their bare hands, but could not. So they grabbed small pieces of brick and cinder block from vacant lots and smashed the mirrors, the headlights and the blinking tail lights. But the dead taxi remained stubbornly intact. So the children appealed to three men sitting at a table on the sidewalk, engrossed in their 24/7 dominos game. The men came and stood near the taxi, smoking and conferring. A decision reached, they took up their civic burden of educating the next generation. They produced a crowbar and a baseball bat. They demonstrated to the oldest boys, by smashing a passenger side window, how each tool should be used, keeping head and eyes averted to avoid injury from flying glass. Then, patting the boys’ shoulders and nodding encouragingly, they handed over the crowbar and bat.
From my third-floor vantage I watched the children swarm back over the taxi, altruistically sharing the crowbar and bat to smash every window and dent every inch of fender, hood, trunk and door. One boy climbed to the roof of the cab and used the bat to smash the Off Duty light, while others industriously used knives and sticks and their bare hands to rip open the upholstered seats of the interior.
When everything on the taxi that could be ripped, smashed or broken had been ripped, smashed or broken, the three elders stepped in to expertly pop open the locked trunk and collect the spare tire, jack, fire extinguisher and small toolbox inside. They raised the hood and removed the car’s battery, filters and other prized giblets. The evisceration completed, they produced a red can of gasoline. They showed the excited children how to distribute the fuel over the ripped up upholstery and carpeted floor.
Sometime during this long performance, I had instinctively picked up my hammer. I held it in my hands, relaxed, but alert, as the climax of the play approached.
One of the three elders, standing 15 feet away, sucked his cigarette down to his fingertips, and deftly flicked its glowing orange dot through the window and onto the back seat of the deconstructed taxi.
For the briefest moment, a flash of fire engulfed the interior of the vehicle—and the next instant a column of fire came roaring up to the level of my three-story windows.
I reflexively jumped backward and raised my hammer. Heat and black smoke followed the flames upward, a full second behind.
My Irish-Catholic upbringing had taught me a prayer for expressing profound amazement with God’s complex creation. Staring into the ragged edge of the flames dancing at the level of my third-floor windows, I whispered it.
“Holy fucking shit.”
By early spring I had shrugged off the absurdist joke of my two-year lease and left Alphabet City behind. I did not have to go far to completely change my world. I landed just one neighborhood over, in the East Village. It was a multi-ethnic, multi-gastronomic, overflowing Petri dish of avant-garde artists, actors, musicians, and asylum or opportunity seeking immigrants from every dark nation on earth.
There is a technique all savvy Manhattanites employ in pursuing the three essentials of urban happiness (a better job, a better apartment, a better lover), and I used it: I told everyone I met—everyone—what I was looking for.
Walking past a reasonably tidy five-story brick tenement on First Street, I saw a man with a black beard and black felt fedora emptying a small garbage can into a big garbage can. I told him, “I’m looking for an apartment.”
The man said nothing but, while tugging on his beard, he scanned me from head to foot for a full three seconds. Maintaining my friendly smile, I pretended not to notice his intense scrutiny. I obeyed the prime directive of negotiation: He Who Speaks First Loses. Grabbing his beard with both hands, the man looked up into the sky, then down at the sidewalk, shook his head side to side, and finally looked straight at me while slowly releasing a world-weary sigh.
He told me that he owned the building. The garbage he was emptying had been left behind by a tenant he had just evicted. Two days later, I was living at 46 East First Street.
Compared to Alphabet City, living in the East Village greatly lowered the odds of my becoming either the intended or accidental victim of a violent crime. Nevertheless, every day all around me, other lives were coming to sudden violent ends. Like the police officer waking a man sleeping in the subway stop at Houston Street, and moments later being shot to death with his own gun. Or the aspiring actor and writer, Richard Adan, who, working nights as a waiter, would die on the sidewalk outside of the Bini Bon restaurant. The person who brought Adan’s life to a sudden violent end was a career criminal turned writer named Jack Abbott, who at the time was the protégé of a career writer turned egoist named Norman Mailer. Curiously, inside the same moment of infinity during which Jack Abbott was plunging a knife into Richard Adan’s chest, the giant presses of the New York Times were printing the next day’s edition that contained a glowing review of Abbott’s new book and worldview, In the Belly of the Beast.
I was 23 and had already lived in small and large houses, and for a summer in a barn, and for a winter in an unheated A-frame in the woods. I had survived semesters in college dorms; and three months in a trailer with four other sporadically employed and continually partying young men on the beach in St. Augustine, Florida. I had lived in tenements, hotels, motels, cars and vans, and in sleeping bags in fields alongside Interstate highways. But now, with a habitable apartment in a city I had no intention of leaving any time soon, with a weekly paycheck, with a half-filled toolbox, and with the idea on my mind and the desire in my heart, I decided to undertake my first ever Home Improvement.
My shoebox apartment was on the top floor and in the back of the five-story building. The back wall had two big windows partly blocked by the fire escape and overlooking a small, lifeless courtyard. There was a long exterior-facing wall in which a previous tenant, probably out of boredom and using a serrated kitchen knife, had gouged many holes. Shining a flashlight into the holes, I could see what appeared to be beautifully rusty reds and glowing oranges of the underlying brick wall. But covering the brick was 70-year-old wood lath, which was covered by many layers of plaster, which were covered by many layers of hard white enamel paint.
I purchased a new, highly specialized tool; a heavy iron bar about 18-inches long with one end flanged and slightly curved, designed for ripping, clawing and pulling down. The other end was sharply tapered to a point, designed for ramming penetrations. Using my hammer and this sinister new tool of deconstruction, I began tearing down the plaster and lath covering the long exterior-facing wall, determined to expose all those beautifully colorful bricks.
The landlord lived in Brooklyn and the building did not have a superintendent. Living in the shoebox next to mine were seven illegal Chinese immigrants who, when not working long shifts in the restaurants of Chinatown, were utterly absorbed in smoking cigarettes, drinking expensive hard liquors, and taking away one another’s paychecks in round-the-clock games of poker and Mahjong. They would be the last people on earth to complain. About anything. Still, I ripped down the plaster wall as quietly and as stealthily as possible, being careful not to fill the garbage cans in front of the building with the telltale plaster. Instead, I would wait for the cover of darkness and carry plastic shopping bags filled with debris a block or two away, throwing them into the first unlocked dumpster I could find, feeling like a prisoner of war secretly tunneling out of the stalag.
Slowly, sweatingly, cursingly, I removed a thousand pounds of plaster and sickly grey wood lath.
When the full wall was finally exposed, the bricks were all chipped and cracked and nearly colorless. The gritty grey cement between them was porous and in many places it had disintegrated, leaving peepholes on the world outside.
In the five years I lived there, each and every day of the long hot summers the bricks of that wall would absorb and store the nuclear energy of the sun, then, through the night, slowly radiate that heat into my apartment. Each and every day of the long cold winters, the frigid wind would charge through the fishnet brick wall to overwhelm the one puny steam radiator as it banged, clanged, whistled and struggled heroically, while failing pathetically, to warm my open-air apartment.
I moved from that apartment after a strange, disruptive, unsettling event.
I fell in love with and married a beautiful, brilliant, bold woman. My once-in-a-lifetime Life made a 180-degree change in direction. I went along for the ride
Our home was a 900-square-foot co-op apartment on Main Street in an artificially conceived, state planned and funded, cloned-from-Indiana neighborhood on Roosevelt Island. There, in the middle of the East River across from midtown Manhattan, we enjoyed spectacular views. Hot water was abundant and unfailing. Central heating over-warmed us in winter and central air-conditioning over-cooled us in summer. On my birthday, my wife replaced my 20-pound manual typewriter with a svelte 10-pound electric one. Our building had a pool and gym, both of which we never used, and a team of Puerto Rican doormen who all, for some inexplicable reason, spoke English in grammatically perfect and complete sentences, but with thick, aristocratic, Castilian accents. My morning commute began with a short, dreamy walk along the sidewalk just inches above the tidal rush of the East River as shuttle tankers and tugboats with barges passed just a hundred yards from me. Near the base of one of the towers of the giant Queensboro Bridge, I would board a red cable car that would take me, soaring gracefully and dreamily, high above the East River and across to First Avenue. From there I would float-walk across rush-hour midtown to my office on West 57th Street where I would continue my daydream, moving through a day spent failing to sell color printing to overworked purchasing agents for large corporations.
At home I used my hammer and the tools in my toolbox to put up shelves, install track lighting, and hang framed prints of Edward Hopper’s lonesome New York scenes. I constructed a beefy frame of 2x4s and anchored it on the long wall of our living room above the credit-card-purchased furniture. From that frame we hung a six-foot by four-foot, 125-pound mirror, framed in gold painted and ornately carved wood. We found the mirror in an antiques store on Second Avenue, but it would have been more at home in a brothel in Nevada.
After a handful of years, it became apparent that the whetstone of Manhattan was no longer sharpening us, and had begun, instead, to wear away our metaphorical metal. So we packed up our separate histories and moved to a kinder, gentler urban jungle. San Francisco.
In San Francisco, free from the incessant stressors of New York, we rented a one-bedroom apartment where Jones and Washington Streets crossed at the very top of Nob Hill.
There, with the happy clanging of cable cars and chattering of multilingual tourists as the soundtrack of our new lives in the most romantic of American cities, it turned out that the only tool I would use would be a book.
How to Do Your Own Divorce in California.
I left my heart in San Francisco and moved the rest of me to Portland, Oregon. I brought along my bicycle, electric typewriter, and a poor man’s therapist: a small library of self-help books. All the books were heavily highlighted, underlined, and covered with my excited, unintelligible marginalia. Each book presented the reader with a fully-conceived, unique, proprietary, systematic solution to a fundamental problem: How to stop being a putz and start being a mensch.
After several months in a nondescript downtown apartment, another strange, disruptive, unsettling event happened. I once again met and fell in love with a beautiful woman—but she was also a mother.
When I met Jack, her 4-year-old son, I didn’t know how to greet a small boy. Jack neatly solved that problem by thrusting his small hand upward. I reached down and took it. He then vigorously shook my hand while looking straight up into my eyes and loudly stating his first, middle, and last name.
I asked his mother, “Is he running for Congress?”
She said, “He’s never behaved like that before.”
As we walked to Pioneer Courthouse Square, the thought occurred to me that when we are 4-years-old, probably 71% of everything we do on any given day we have never done before.
While Jack’s mom and I sat on the brick benches at Pioneer Square and ate sandwiches, Jack ran fast in a small circle in front of us. He would stop running only when his mother called him over to take a bite from a sandwich she held to his mouth. Then he would resume running fast in a small circle in front of us. To observe a 4-year-old human being walking—let alone, running fast in a small circle—is to have revealed before us the dicey, albeit evolutionarily powerful, maneuver that is bipedal locomotion, and which has rightly been described as controlled falling. While he ran fast in a small circle, Jack would sometimes erratically flap his arms, as if he were a bird with a broken wing trying to fly away. Watching him made me queasy, and I lost my appetite as my mind filled with gory images of this small boy cracking open his eggshell skull on the bricks. This vague nausea, I would in time discover to my dismay, is the subtle yet ever-present emotional state of a loving parent or guardian.
When we left the Square, Jack insisted that I carry him. Lifting him up, cradling him in my arms against my chest, I asked, “How’s that? Comfortable?”
He didn’t answer. He was asleep.
And, in another strange, disruptive, and unsettling event, I fell in love with him, too.
Romantic relationships that lead to cohabitation, especially when children are involved, are often consummated with the shared undertaking of a home improvement. I applied for a passport to my next new life by using my hammer, a ferocious wire brush, and assorted scrapers to prep and then paint a front porch. After the porch was painted, I moved in. My toolbox had already settled onto a cluttered workbench in the cellar near the washer and dryer.
Any competent real estate agent can determine the dimensions and market value of a house. But only those living in it can determine the dimensions and value of a home. An unspectacular house can be a deep and ore-laden goldmine of a home. In my journey, it has struck me more than once that the happiest people I meet, whether in boom times or bust, are those who by luck or wisdom invested more in relationships than in real estate.
Over the handful of years I lived in the small house with the freshly painted front porch and the two people I loved, and soon, two large dogs that I loved, my toolbox on the workbench in the cellar became filled to overflowing with tools; and the tools were so continually in use by all three of us that its lid was never closed.
Which is why, when it came time for me to leave, it seemed only right that the toolbox and all its tools must stay behind, as a gift, but also as a coda for my greatest failure.
Fifteen years before, I had set out on a motorcycle in a snowstorm to purchase that toolbox and hammer, compelled by the urgency to possess purpose, discipline, and a plan.
Although I had failed to acquire any of those powerful tools, I had acquired one deep and abiding understanding: Tomorrow will indeed come. And it will come with or without me.
Perhaps this is patience.
When I moved from Portland to San Diego, a city where I knew no one and had never been, I brought along my dog, Newton; a bicycle; a second-hand laptop that had replaced my electric typewriter; and my memories.
The only tool I carried was a Swiss Army knife.