“Cars, lawnmowers, anything with a motor. It’s in our genes.”
This particular conversation was about lawnmowers. I had never owned, or for that matter operated, a lawnmower. In a short time, though, I built a fleet of them, all useless. Terrified of gasoline, I bought battery-operated mowers, and when they failed, I turned to electric ones with cords, which were even worse.
“What do you mean, a ‘guy thing?’” I asked Calvin.
“Guys just know this stuff,” he responded.
“I could have told you how bad those battery ones are,” my friend Scott added. “You need to read Consumer Reports.”
“OK, Scott, I made a mistake. I liked the way they looked. I can’t help it. I was married to an architect for 30 years!”
“Elizabeth, you should not make decisions based on how stuff looks,” Scott, once an industrial designer, scolded.
Jeanne, an architect (whose house in our 1930s socialist colony is where the Berrigans and some nuns plotted to kidnap Henry Kissinger during the Vietnam War), piped in, “Liz, why don’t you ask me about this stuff?”
Ignoring her, still focused on Scott, I said, “Look, I agree with the guy who wrote that his mower was a plastic piece of junk that he smashed with a sledge hammer. I took both of mine to the dump. End of discussion!”
Calvin and Scott are my closest guy friends. We are all in our 60s, and we have homes in Stonybrook Colony on the Aspetuck River in Connecticut. Scott, an artist who teaches at Cooper Union in New York City, and his wife Pam, a psychologist, have owned their bungalow for over 20 years, and they are the reason I bought its sister 5 years ago. My husband Gregory had died, and I had sold the modern house he designed and was renting while I decided where to live, Weston or New York City. Over dinner one night my daughter Lili and I sat on Scott and Pam’s terrace and saw the empty bungalow next door. Built by two sisters from the Upper West Side in 1932, the houses were nearly identical. There was a shared well and no real property lines on 6 acres of land. The house wasn’t for sale, but I told Lili we were going to buy it.
“Of course you are, Mother,” she said, rolling her eyes.
I called the owner, a lawyer in the city. Stonybrook had never been to his liking; I understood why when he drove out in his dark suit and black BMW. Stonybrook is kind of shabby, with terrible roads and two crumbling bridges over the river. He’d owned the house for just a year; his wife didn’t like it. According to Scott, they used fertilizers, which could get into the well water. (Note to self: Never use chemicals if you want Scott and Pam to be your friends.)
Calvin, my other guy, is a retired advertising executive who made it big when he helped Lee Iacocca turn around Chrysler. Because of this, he views himself as a “car guy.” He quit a decade ago in his mid-50s and returned to his real passion, theological studies. He was influenced by William Sloane Coffin in the 1960s at Yale and is on the board of Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He and his wife Mary, my classmate at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1980s, live on the Upper West Side, and after my husband’s death, Calvin came out to Connecticut to help me assemble a red barbecue grill. (I confess: I liked its design.)
“Elizabeth,” he warned on the phone, “be sure you have the directions when I get out there.”
Directions are not my thing. I never bother to read them, and as a result it takes me three times longer than it should to put together all the stuff I buy at IKEA. When Calvin arrived, I confessed that I had thrown out the directions.
“Of course you did, Mother,” my teenage daughter Lili said. “Calvin, she throws everything out.”
“Shut up, you little traitor,” I commanded.
“OK, I can look them up online,” Calvin said.
Calvin is Chinese-American, as is my adopted daughter Lili, and he has stepped in as a father figure, attending her sports events in his jeans, long grey hair, and clogs.
Thanks to their connection to me, Calvin and my neighbor Scott connected in the way that guys do. Both are intelligent with interests that range from high-powered telescopes to politics to art. Soon, Calvin and Mary bought another bungalow down the road as a weekend house. I’m not even sure Mary saw it. They’re like me doing Julius Caesar: “I came, I saw, I bought.” We have a commune, with shared meals, garden tools, and refrigerators. We never lock our doors, and once I came home after a trip to find my ice cream gone.
Always on the lookout for projects my guys could help with, I decided to build a garage. Well, not actually build, but assemble. I found a carport on eBay, figuring I could put it together myself. (I have a huge collection of tools.) When I saw the thing, I realized how complicated it was and sent out a call for additional guys. Calvin and another friend from the city, Yves, made plans for a day in the country. Both brought their own tool kits, of course. That’s also a guy thing.
All I could do was stand by appreciatively with Mary and Augusta, Yves’s wife, and offer cold beers. It took them hours to get the thing up, and they were exhausted. I showered them with praise, which worked, sort of.
“Pam, I hope you don’t think I’ve ruined the neighborhood with the carport,” I said to my next-door neighbor.
“Liz, we love it. You’re amazing!” Pam is a therapist and is the most positive person I have ever known.
The one thing my guys did not do was securely anchor the tent. A tornado hit that summer and it lifted off the ground and flew over a stone wall into the woods. I watched the whole thing, and it looked kind of cool, in a Wizard of Oz sort of way. And there it sat for several months, before I found a handyman (paid) to anchor it securely.
Grass-cutting season over, I turned to leaf blowers. I accepted that I would need to use gasoline. The one I bought at Home Depot (red) was powerful, and it worked! Calvin and Scott grudgingly admitted I’d got it right this time (without consulting them). It became the communal leaf blower. And when it didn’t work one day, Scott came over and explained that oil had gotten into the starter, or something like that. I remained silent, afraid he’d guess that I had pushed that button not 3 times, as directed, but 10 times.
One day Scott told me that he uses me as an example with his students at Cooper Union. I was stunned. I have no artistic ability. He said, “I told them how you will try anything. And usually it works out. When it doesn’t, you just move on.” And over dinner one night, Calvin said our little commune had come together all because of me. Those were the nicest compliments I had ever been paid.
Oh, how I love my guys!