Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Mowing Lawns

On my last trip back to Pennsylvania, I was worried when Mom told me my sister had mowed the lawn two days earlier. I’m never quite sure why people carp about mowing lawns – I love doing it, and do it every chance I get. The sound of the mower, the physical exertion, time spent in the sun, the visible sight of a finite job being completed – all these things make me enjoy the experience.

Luckily, my sister must have set the wheels way too high, because it became clear a few days later that the grass needed to be mowed again. So I did, and had a rough time as I had the wheels on their lowest setting and the grass was still a little wet from rain the day before. The mower kept conking out on huge chunks of wet grass stuck in the exhaust vent, but after awhile, it got done.

Ultimately, something like mowing a lawn is a direct connection to nature. The grass grows, with or without you, and if you want a nice clean field to walk on, you have to make it that way. With snow or leaves, you have to clean up after nature. Doing these seemingly minute things reminds you of the constant motion of the world – and your small place in it, and that you have to do something to exert control over it. But I think my true pleasure with mowing lawns is tied into the fact that I made a lot of money as a kid doing this.

I can’t remember how we got roped into mowing other people’s lawns, but I’m glad my brothers and I did. The first big client came with Dr. Heber, who lived out the road on a few acres of land – a humungous front and back lawn. Brother M. started doing this, but after awhile realized he was on an eight-hour slog every time he mowed, thus Brother .J and I were enlisted to help with old lawn mowers Dad had tinkered back into (sporadically) working order.

It would take the three of us about three hours to do the whole lawn, with Brother M. stuck with the literally shit job of mowing over the septic tank. The 70s were a weird time for septic tanks. When I visit Pennsylvania now, everyone has a septic tank, as the municipality switched over to this system a few years ago. (And that was pretty onerous and unfair. Every property owner had to pay out of his own pocket to have the tank and a well installed simultaneously – an unwelcome four-figure sum for most people.)

The only way you’d know everyone has a septic tank now is that you can see the pipe tops jutting a few inches out from the grass in each yard. Back in the 70s, the few people who had septic tanks all had the desperately cheap habit of letting the tank overflow, thus creating small shit swamps in their yards, and toxic run-off into near-by gutters. Our neighbors, the Hanlons, got on everybody’s bad side by pumping their septic tank one summer night. I’ll never forget that. We were all sitting around watching TV, probably Chico and the Man, when the most overpowering stench of fresh shit filled the air. This was like Dad, who took the most astoundingly “my god, what did he eat” dumps, taking 10 in a row and lighting them on fire.

We ran out in the streets – everyone on the block did – to realize that Mr. Hanlon had run a hose into his tank and was pumping into the street. A few of the neighbors, my dad included, called the cops, and that was the end of that. Mr. Hanlon alienated a lot of people with that stunt, as well he should have. After that, he still left the tank overflow on the lawn. It should be noted their house was next to a school where dozens of us played baseball all summer. Many of us had sneakers suctioned off our feet when we had to romp through their lawn to retrieve a rubber ball.

With the Heber’s lawn, Brother M. would find himself ankle-deep or worse in sewage sludge and clods of floating grass. It was virtually impossible to mow. All you could do was hack it down a few inches with scythe and sickle. (This was before weed eaters came into vogue.) He’d often find dead or dying copperhead snakes stuck in the sewage, craning their heads while the rest of their bodies baked in shit. He’d usually put them out of their misery with a whack of the scythe. If that sounds harsh, try picking up an agitated, shit-covered, poisonous snake by the tail and walking it a hundred yards to the nearest woods without getting bit.

I’d do this, too, eventually. In fact, I remember Brother J and I taking over the business and doing the Heber lawn ourselves, 4-5 hour mowing marathons that would find us drinking a gallon jug of water a piece and still dying of thirst by the end. The lawn was an easy mow; it’s just that doing a few acres with a push mower is a time-consuming ordeal. I looked at it as a strenuous vertical sun-bathing session that I got paid to do. The worst aspect, beyond the horrible metallic sound of a blade violently scraping on an unseen rock or chunk of wood, was the mowers running out of gas, which would entail at least 15 minutes of fruitless chord-pulling in extreme heat. Once those mowers got that hot, restarting them was a bitch. We learned the trick of unscrewing the carburetor cover and jamming a screwdriver into the gas-flow valve.

Many times, I’d be there in my skimpy 70s shorts, my balls nearly hanging out, white tube socks pulled up to my knees, pair of chlorophyll-stained sneakers, tan as any surfer, cursing over a dead mower that wouldn’t start. But you know what? To get through that, drive back home, unload the mowers, sit in the backyard in the cool of the evening, sipping Kool Aid, with $10 in my pocket (the job went for $20, which seemed like a lot of money to kids back then), and the knowledge that I’d be driving to the local mall in an hour or two to buy a few albums – a nice feeling.

There were other lawns. The next worse was a woman just up the road from the Hebers who had a pretty non-descript, shady lawn, save that it had a “rock garden.” This meant a bunch of decoratively-painted rocks placed into a ridge on her lawn – it was about 15 feet long, four feet wide. The problem we had with the rock garden was that we had to get down on our hands and knees to pick out grass and weeds from between the rocks, making sure to leave any colorful flowers or heather untouched. What a pain in this ass this was. It would take an hour to mow the lawn, then three more hours to clean out the rock garden. On our hands and knees, or leaning on rocks for leverage. Couldn’t use gloves either as they’d make our fingers too clumsy to grab the small weeds. Thus, we’d leave the place with sore knees and backs, small scrapes and cuts on our fingers. The rock garden only happened once a month, but we dreaded it.

Even our own lawn had its problems, namely dogshit. God bless cats for having that internal radar to know to shit in a box. I prefer dogs for their personalities, but if only they knew how to shit like cats. Running over dogshit with a lawnmower is not a sweet proposition. The terds are cut and flung over the lawn, leaving the mower, and maybe you, smelling like dogshit. So, before every mowing session at home, I’d have to shovel the numerous mounds of dogshit from the lawn, and, man, that was no fun. We kept the stuff in an old tar bucket, then once it was full, bury the contents in the backyard. It was sort of a dogshit stew in that tar bucket – the contents somehow liquefied over time. A real nightmare would have been one of my older brothers chasing me down with that bucket and dumping it on me.

What I remember most about lawn mowing is that deep-summer zen, the same feeling I’d get distance running. The heat would add to it. Anyone who’s done any prolonged cardio workout knows the feeling – your body is under duress, but it’s also working at peak form, pumping out sweat to cool down, the repetitive action lulling the mind into a sense of calm. People would never believe me when I’d tell them how relaxing it was to run seven miles in 85-degree heat, but it was. The same went for lawn-mowing, along with that sense of isolation the sound of the motor would bring. The outside world existed only in passing, a wave to a friend passing by on a 10-speed bike. Even now, if someone starts up a piece of equipment like a lawn mower, I can sleep straight through it, so long as the sound remains steady. You couldn’t hear anything outside it, you had to concern yourself only with what was directly in front of you, and that was a visible square that shrunk to a smaller box with every passing lap, until there was nothing but a freshly-mown lawn, and the smell of it mingled with hints of gasoline. A perfect little world.

And a pocket-full of dough afterwards. I can trace back my relationship to money and work to allowances (believe it or not, a quarter a week ... how in the hell I did anything with that amount of money is beyond me now), but it wasn't until lawn mowing that I got the first taste of comparatively big money. A strange thing about me, work and money -- maybe good, maybe bad. I've found that so long as I feel productive and useful, money's not a burning issue in my life. Sure, I could use more -- most of us could. But I'm not driven by money -- I'm driven by the concept of work. You better believe, when people work with me, they're pretty happy that there's one person around who is more interested in getting shit done than in fucking with them in some sense. I enjoy working, and it's surely a detriment to me that I don't insist on climbing a money ladder to ensure my self worth. That may not seem like much of a distinction, but from what I've seen, it's a huge one in terms of the difference between ambition and work itself. This all goes back to mowing lawns, and the simple pleasure I got, and still get, from being able to take stock in a job well done, and knowing the whole process will need to be done again, and again, and again.

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