One summer morning, the doorbell rang, and I jumped up from my coloring book to answer it. I was 8 years old, but it was 1959, back when no one would have thought that something so simple might possibly be dangerous for a child. Besides, my mother was in the basement doing the wash. The neighbor man, I think he was a neighbor man, said, "The dog is getting out from under the gate."
My natural response to the one-sentenced stranger was to let him into my house. We walked through, out the kitchen door to the back yard, and into the garage, where he looked around, opened boxes, looked under things, looked on shelves, and looked on the floor. Fifteen minutes later he walked out our front door with parts from three broken rakes and a plan.
We were a typical family of the 1950's. Mom stayed at home, and Dad worked at Westinghouse, which always seemed to be on strike. They bought a row house in Southwest Philadelphia when I was born. We were in heaven - the American Dream! But we were nobodies. We never had much money, but we had as much as the families around us, at a time when people could very publicly live within their means.
We had a garage in the back yard that could be accessed from the back alley. It was too small for an actual car, so it evolved. Its first inhabitant was a large wooden ladder, destined to be loaned out every weekend for it's natural life. A push mower appeared, then a weed whacker, then an older weed whacker. One of my earliest memories is sitting on the cool cement garage floor watching him take apart the old weed whacker. "You never know, someone may need a nut or bolt some day," he explained. Every screw and switch went into an old peanut butter jar. The silver metal shaft with the plastic handle on top was hung on a nail. The inventory steadily grew. In the summer when I was little I used to sit on the glider on the front porch, still in my jammies, and watch him when he left for work in the morning. It was a tough walk to the corner to catch the bus on trash days, and more than once, he'd return with a golf club, broken rake or hubcap that someone had put out in the trash. He'd often come home from work with things that were going to be thrown away. One day I watched him dragging a big can down the street with him on the way home from work. It was a half-full can of grey paint. You never know, someone might be able to use it some day.
Occasionally my father would think up a use of his own for something in the garage. We had many conversation pieces, which is what we called things that my Father and I got in trouble for. I recall one beautiful Fall Saturday when he and I parked the family car under a nice big tree, and spent the day painting it. He had the easy part - he used the roller, I had to trim around the edges, and I was not yet very handy with a brush. We hoped that Mom wouldn't comment on the texture, but would have been pleased that you couldn't see the masking tape we put over the rusting fender. It was an improvement! And it was now the only gray car on the street. She'd have to like that! But we were wrong, so the car became a "conversation piece".
Now we're not talking Sanford and Sons here, but the garage grew to house a large stock of metal, pieces of lamps, furniture, tools, wood, and of course jars and coffee cans of nuts and bolts and buttons and hooks. While it was a place for him to go, the attraction was the sharing. It was important to give what he could to others - it was what made the street a neighborhood - it was what people did for people. I think he was a happy person because he had neighbors. He was a nobody, but when he was in the garage looking for some used 2x4's for Mrs. Taylor, he was, for just a second, somebody, and someone good. He knew what family meant, and for him, everyone was family.
The reputation of the garage grew.
It had become not just a junk house, but junk church, and a busy one on weekends. The priest was there to listen to your problems. You had someone to talk to, someone who wanted to help. It was what he did, and I was apparently second in command. (It had to be me; my mother would never set foot in the garage for fear of being captured and disassembled by it - fingers in one jar, toes in another!)
He could come up with a fix for just about anything, usually a stretch of the imagination, but a noble try. Someone would have a toilet problem and leave with a weed whacker part. They could be having a problem snoring - weed whacker part. Pet problem? They'd leave with a brick and an idea. As the neighborhood grew older, questions changed. "What can I use to make an extra railing for the steps going to the basement?" One day I saw a set of louvered doors leave - neither of us knew we had them!
As he got older, he got to the point where he often didn't recognize the people around him. Every day he'd go out to the garage. Maybe he was looking for something - something that he could use to fix himself. That's what kept him busy every day until the end, patiently looking for a thing and an idea that would make it all better.
If you ever find yourself driving around Philadelphia, and you have a good eye, you might find this street. Probably the people who live there now can't even tell you why their downspout is held together with copper wire and a golf club, or where the Christmas wreath made from a hubcap in their basement came from, or how long the bird feeder made from a coffee can has been in their back yard. If you find this street, you'll know. He took care of them all with the riches he had - all lovingly kept in the garage of the nobodies.