“What’s money? A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.” – Bob Dylan
For five years, we’ve been living across the street from a man who I’ve never spoken to before. Though I’ve seen him countless times meticulously tending to his front lawn with a push mower that’s been around at least as long as I have, I’ve never done anything more than give him a quick ‘Hi’ or a wave while running by.
Yesterday, that changed. With my dog on leash, I crossed the street and noticed him coming around the corner with that rusty mower. His short, staunch body muscled it’s way across the lawn, the old blades turning like a trusty old friend.
“Good morning!” I exuberantly said, breathing in the smell of honey suckle and the freshness of the morning sun.
“Hello there!” he replied, giving me a smile.
I couldn’t just drop a conversation now that I’d been the one to start it. I scrambled and spat out, “I have to ask you about this push mower of yours. We’ve been contemplating purchasing one ourselves. How bad is it, really, to mow with?” I asked with a grin.
“I wouldn’t have any other mower,” he said with a pause. His dark eyes glistened as he squinted at me. His calloused hands met his brow and wiped away the sweat. “I’ve been mowing with it since I was a kid. It’s the reason that at 59 my doctor at the VA says I’m still in pretty decent shape!”
I chuckled and introduced myself. He did the same. Then we conversed for a good long time. The lawn mower conversation gave way to other mechanical tools that he still utilizes despite society’s best intentions to modernize him. I learned all sorts of things about him.
That he was one of 13 kids (you read that right). His family moved to San Jose when he was young, settling in a nice working class neighborhood which has seen its share of changes over the years. When his parents died, he got their old pre-Victorian home and has faithfully tended to it ever since, remembering how he used to pass his days as a kid by tending the garden and drawing with his sister out back. He was very proud when recalling the day his dad- a Mexican immigrant- pulled into the drive with a shiny, red Buick convertible in 1964. He used to wash it until the chrome sparkled and cruise along Santa Clara Street with his brothers.
He served in the Army during Vietnam and came back home to work as a steel cutter. He had no college degree but that hasn’t stopped him from making some rather ingenious mechanical tools and inventions. He once had a job nearby at IBM where a team of young engineers had created a mechanical process which proved inefficient, costly and detrimental to the health of the workers manning the machines. Noting the insufficiencies, he fabricated a new model which worked seamlessly, saving the workers time rolling out each piece while keep them from hurting their backs. “They paid me $100 for what I created” he confided.
Maybe because I interview people for a living, or maybe because I’ve been craving new perspectives on life, but I kept listening intently to his stories and asked him questions to gain new insight. His six decade’s worth of experience seemed to roll off his tongue, with each new tidbit of information giving way to another story and another contemplation.
He clearly went from job to job at many periods throughout his life, and his lack of formal education proved to be a barrier along the way. But nothing deterred him. Instead, he did that which pleased him- that which made him think, which made him problem solve, which made him create- on his own time.
“I’ve widdled hundreds of tobacco pipes, ” he said with a glean in his eye. “I’ve sold some to friends, but mostly I just give them away. A few people told me later they were offered a thousand dollars for them!”
His pride, though contained, was evident as he told me of his other creations. “I also got into sculpting back in the 70s. I made a gorgeous little sculpture inspired by Greek mythology for my niece once. When her house burned down, it was one of the only things that remained because it was made of soapstone.”
“But my prized possession, Bonnie, would be the copper violin I made.”
At this point, I’d heard so much about how he had gone through life always pursuing his creative genius (despite the very real practical considerations that undoubtedly nagged on him) that I could almost muster enough belief that he had, indeed, carved some elaborate violin of copper. But something about my look must have given me away as a skeptic.
“If you have another minute, hold tight… I’ll be right back!” And with that, my new friend ran into his house like a kid anxious to show off his new Christmas toy, returning moments later and toting a case that indeed looked like that belonging to a violin.
He made his way over to me and my dog, placing the case on the corner of a bench on his patio with care. He popped the locks, one by one, and unfurled the coverings inside to reveal the most astonishing amount of glistening orange metal I’ve ever seen.
“Whoa,” I uttered, staring at this instrument that sure enough looked exactly like a violin.
“It plays well, too,” he said, taking out a bow and playing a few chords. “This I did completely myself- I didn’t use none of them stickin’ kits. That’s not the real deal.”
“It’s so unusual!” I said. “Why copper?”
“One of my brother’s had just done a job and had some remnants remaining of copper. I told him, ‘ Look, I’d love to make a violin out of metal. Can I use some leftover copper?’ And he gave it to me. Took me about 300 hours to craft.”
The fact that it was a genuine, playable violin was enough to impress me. But the detail and thought he put into this thing that would eventually be tucked away in a box to show the random stragglers like myself who inquire about it was beyond belief. It was Anton Chekhov who said that he wrote some of Russia’s most beloved plays “for the drawer”… that is, for himself. And here, this man standing in front of me who had painstakingly devoted so much time to a single creative project also did it for something well beyond that which comes from outside affirmations.
The entire thing shone bright, from the decadently curled copper scroll to the chin rest. Carefully etched along its body were magnolia flowers. “I used to do etching. Mostly on plexiglass… plexiglass is really good for etching plus it’s cheap. So I thought I’d etch some flowers on this to give it life. It came out really nice. Wasn’t hard at all.”
Put me to shame. This man- not a success by the world’s standards- had nonetheless offered so very much by way of his own careful cultivation of creativity. I left with my dog soon after to take that walk we hadn’t yet taken, recalling Chekhov’s comments and letting them settle heavy on my brain.
I had been searching for some answers yesterday, and found that my neighbor had an invaluable one to share. No matter what life tries to dictate to us, we have the choice to live the way we want and pursue the things that are dear to us. We aren’t caged, no matter what confines we find ourselves in. Beauty simply exists where we allow it to, whether or not other people recognize it.
And so that boxed violin may sit for many, many years unagitated by the world and still glistening orange from its dark home. But I won’t forget it.