My maternal grandfather, Harry Schechter (pronounced “Shakester” in western Kansas), had a remarkable ability to find common ground with strangers. He came along on a road trip to California with my parents and the three eldest kids (of whom I was the youngest). When we would stop to eat a meal, it was always in a public park of some kind where my mom would make sandwiches with food we had brought from home. Granddaddy would wander down the street after eating, drop in at a laundromat or café, and come back telling us about who he had met there and the conversation they had shared. I don’t have specific memories of what he reported, but I do remember the “What a small world!” quality of these meetings. He found something that resonated with him in all these people.
As the momentous election looms, I am finding calm by reaching out to connect with others, re-discovering the pleasure of hearing human voices on phone calls, so welcome after countless emails and texts. Zoom calls are a blessing as well, though there have been times when I have been Zoomed out at the end of the day. I recently heard that phenomenon described as feeling like a zoombie. Good word.
When I’m not feeling curmudgeonly, I display an inherited ability from Granddaddy (and my mom, too) to chat with people I don’t know –whether they want me to or not. Most of them go along with it, and it usually brings me pleasure. A couple of encounters in the past week are worth mentioning. I’ve been walking for a couple of miles each morning now that the temperature has dropped enough to not threaten human existence. The earlier I go, the cooler it is, and the more I like it. This is, FYI, the time of year when many homeowners in our neighborhood reduce the dwindling water table unnecessarily by sowing rye grass for winter lawns. It’s attractive, but environmentally horrible. Our homeowners’ association requires us to do this. They like to pretend that we don’t live in a desert. But I digress.
On 3rd Avenue, the stretch I walk daily, I saw a guy carefully using a leaf rake to make diagonal passes over his lawn of short grass. I stopped my podcast long enough to ask whether he was trying to spread the rye seed out. (He was.) I asked how he kept birds from eating it. He said there was no way to do that, so he just spreads enough to give them a share. Then, as my grandpa said many times, “we got to talking and. . .” he told me that he does his own lawn and pool care, which is a little unusual in our neighborhood. He said his grandfather owned a big lawn mower repair company that serviced mowers and other lawn care equipment for several large organizations he named, but Ford Motors is the only one I remember — so in Michigan, I guess. He hung out enough with his grandpa to develop an interest in lawn care and machinery.
I told him about how our house, which is a few blocks from his, was sinking into the ground when we bought it in 1991, because the trees in the old orchard had been cut off at ground level without removing the root balls. He has a few places in his yard where the sinking has also occurred. He showed me this photo he found at the AZ Historical Society of the view from where his house now stands looking north on 3rd Avenue, with citrus orchards as far as the eye can see. Did I need to know this? No. Did the human contact and acknowledgement of the relatively recent history of the ground where I was standing enrich my life? Absolutely. I would also like to learn about who lived in the area of 3rd Avenue and Orangewood previously, before Europeans made their colonizing way here and displaced Indigenous people. Hmmm, maybe I’ll try to figure that out. It matters that we acknowledge such history.
Since the pandemic really cuts back on my opportunities for actual human contact, it’s surprising that I had another encounter this week with an especially interesting person, a repairer of clocks. The clock above the mantel in our family room suddenly stopped, and I knew right where to take it: to Frank, owner of All About Time Clock Repair (“If your clock won’t tic… toc to us!”). I have taken other clocks there in the past, and been fascinated by three framed photos on the wall. They show Frank inside a huge clockworks doing some repairs. He tells me the clock is in the Glendale Galleria in Glendale, CA. I’m terrible at taking photos of pictures that are behind glass, but here are my best attempts followed by a short, well-produced video from his website. Do NOT miss the sweet poem and corny jokes on this page of the website! (You will have to close the pop-up about pandemic hours.)
an apropos word of encouragement from E.B. White
A man sent a distressed letter to E.B. White (July 11, 1899–October 1, 1985), lamenting that he had lost faith in humanity. Reply from White:
Dear Mr. Nadeau:
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.
Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
E. B. White