Hardware High Revisited

  Jerome Shea       December 7, 2008      Weekend Wonk

I realized a couple of years ago—and with no small bemusement—that the deep satisfaction that I once felt in a hardware store I now feel equally in an office supply store. At first blush this seems a comedown. The macho builder has been downgraded into the scholar, the teacher, the writer, the man who deals not with hammers and saws and socket wrenches but with legal pads and ring binders, paper clips and post-it notes. I guess this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, I have earned my living with my brain rather than my hands for many years now. I just tested this out with a walk around the campus bookstore. Sure enough, as I paced the rows of fresh, virgin notebooks, presentation folders, enormous spring clips, big rubber bands, and all the rest of it, as my eye settled on all the pens, swoopy and sexy as Ferraris, and all the seductive colors, the old feeling deliciously returned. Home Depot and Office Max are the same to me now!

And probably for the same reasons: the Promise of the Project, the thing accomplished. An essay or a well-planned presentation is no less an achievement than a dog house or an end table, I would protest.

This truth—call it the Office Max insight—recalled to me an essay that I wrote a quarter century ago, and which you will find below. I am grateful to my old friend Barrett Price, the guiding spirit of Century magazine (now, alas, defunct), who encouraged me to recycle my Century stuff. I must add that it is a strange feeling to revisit the past this way. The” new puppy” is Moxie the Wonderdog, now of blessed memory, as is Cunegunde, our ’67 VW bus. So too is Century magazine, one of the classiest acts this town ever saw.

“Hardware High.” Enjoy.

Sex, a friend once observed, is really just a sublimation of a man’s most basic desire: to browse forever in a good hardware store. There is truth in that, as surely as the first cave man was probably more interested in making his stone ax than in using it, more interested in testing sticks for the handle than in testing his strength on an ur-bear. On a recent bright Saturday given over to fencing the new puppy’s yard, I got a dose of this primal satisfaction.

And even if my friend is wrong, the satisfaction is still basic, and other reasons readily present themselves. Calvinism, for one. A man goes to a hardware store because he has a Project Planned. Before the day is out, he will have Built Something. He will have put his hand to something that he can ever after put his hand on, justifying that space of time. And it may be a special treat for someone who makes his living more with his head than his hands. In any case, one is bolstered by the refreshment of morning and the old lure of dungarees and sweatshirt and coffee warm in the gut.

But these reasons presume too much and too little. Walt Whitman, that canny old cataloger, could tell you what elates you. What makes you grin and twitch in a hardware store is no more or less than the bedazzling bunch of things in that Eden, things drowsing in their bins and crouched on their shelves. Look. Carriage bolts, stove bolts, machine bolts; Mor-tite, Lok-tite, Ev’r-tite: potions to caulk the very air with; drill bits, ax handles, junction boxes, fuse boxes; door stoppers, sink stoppers, rust stoppers: heart stoppers all. No metaphysics here, but mauls, mattocks, and miter boxes; things that glisten and things that glitter; things shapely, things lumpy, things straight and things angular; eighteen sizes of door springs lined up grade-school file; files—flat, round, and triangular; galvanized nails, finishing nails, corrugated nails, flooring nails, roofing nails; pipe fittings; cornucopias of conduits.

Just so does it beckon, lavishly stocked and eternally present. All the icons are there in holy waiting, and have been since you first lugged home the crumpled bike frame or pocketed proudly the crunched gas cap.

So off you go then, your old microbus full of furring strips and chicken wire, bolts, nuts, washers, hopes, and hinges. The world, for this one morning, has gone sane, the creation is all in whack. Perfect whack.

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