December 6, 2013

J.P. Devine is looking for Barney the handyman

The problem is the once-ubiquitous handyman has faded from the American scene.

I can get my house painted inside and out, new windows put in, a complete roof remake. I can get my lawn mowed, raked and seeded. I can have a new boiler put in, the basement redone, floors polished and my dog groomed. But I can’t find anyone to fix a drawer.

The drawer is in the upstairs bathroom. It’s part of an oversized vanity, much like my own. It has two big drawers, hers and mine. Wouldn’t you know that it’s mine that’s broken? It appears that the sliding fixtures have detached somewhere in the back, and the drawer sort of hangs there like Quasimodo, who has forgotten where the bells are.

I tried fixing it myself and for a piece of time, it worked; then, like everything else I’ve fixed in life, such as my daughter’s tricycle, it came undone and it’s hanging there.

The problem is the once-ubiquitous handyman has faded from the American scene.

There was a time when I was younger, back around the time Franklin Roosevelt defeated Wendell Willkie, that the landscape was sprinkled with handymen. It was an honorable profession, almost like being a bus driver or school janitor. Every American neighborhood from St. Louis to New Orleans, and Waterville had one or two.

When not working fixing porches, banisters, window sashes and cellar doors, one could be found up on a ladder somewhere or sitting in a corner table at the local diner, sipping soup or munching on the daily blue plate special. He had a universal costume — old blue jeans or work khaki pants carried over from the last parts of his First or Second World War uniform.

Maybe he had a worn leather fading bomber jacket worn over a denim shirt, and he looked like an older Tommy Lee Jones, wearing that stained old fedora, slumped over a bowl of soup or standing on the corner, trying to light a Camel cigarette in the wind.

In my childhood, I knew such a man. His name was Barney, and he lived with his mother on the top floor of a two-family flat across the street from the Catholic church.

Barney walked with a slight limp favoring his right side. One of the firemen at the firehouse said it was because that’s where he carried his tool box. Mr. Schneider at the drug store said that he had lost the lower part of his right leg at Pearl Harbor, and that was sad, he said, because he had been a great baseball player in high school.

In the late ’30s, when I was old enough to start being aware of things like that, there were men and boys everywhere to fix things. But then my father died without saying goodbye, and Pearl Harbor was bombed and suddenly the family handymen were gone. Then somewhere around 1944, Barney was there, limping down Soper Street with his tool box, and all the widows and blue and gold star mothers were hiring him to patch up their neglected homes.

It worked like this. If my mother got tired of stepping over the broken board on the back porch, she would send me up the street to Barney’s house. I would knock on the door, and his mother, who worked for Father Keating across the street, would come to the door wiping her hands on her apron that had pictures of autumn leaves on it. You remember things like that when you’re a strange, lonely little boy with no brothers around.

I would ask her then, “Is Barney home?” He never was. She would tell me where he was working in the neighborhood, or that he was having chili for lunch at Auel’s cafe on the corner. Then I would go there and find him and tell him that my mother needed him.

He would listen to me and nod, and say he’d be over.

Sometimes he would give me the extra oyster crackers that came with his chili.

So here I am, some hundred years later, with a broken drawer and no Barney; and my brothers, who were always good at fixing things, are all gone to the other side.

I asked around today, and everyone said they were all busy plowing snow or painting a house or building one. If you have a Barney in your neighborhood, let me know. I’ll walk over and see if he’s home.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.
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