I’m standing in the home goods aisle of an Ace Hardware, my hands propped on my hips, as I consider this important purchase. In a display of anxious-faux-maturity, I’ve gone so far as to get the ‘sales associate’ from the register to join the deliberations. He’s a pudgy faced, scraggly-bearded man in his twenties, or thirties, … or maybe even early forties, in matching-ish, navy blue sweatpants and sweatshirt; the former forced down, and the latter forced up by his considerable girth, to expose the waistband of his Tommy Hilfiger underwear, and his fish-belly-white, hairy, bulging stomach.
Amongst all the useful, or dangerous, or usefully-dangerous, objects available on the shelves of Ace Hardware, the ‘sales associate’ and I are spending a few moments, of debatably, quality time staring at irons: Not the sort of irons members of Trumpity’s inner circle now wear while commuting from their prison homes for further plea bargaining; nor the kind used while golfing, or scaring away Canadian geese; but clothes irons, the kind used for the occasional de-creasing of shirts, pants, or even a handkerchief, a seriously neglected, usefully-dangerous piece of drapery – but that’s a topic for another day.
“Now, is this a good iron?” I hear own voice ask, as I point at a black and silver object sitting innocently on the shelf.
My consciousness is acutely aware that, I am not only in the wrong place to purchase an iron, but this is the wrong human, in the wrong place, to seek advice from on the general topic of iron purchasing.
“Dunno. Never ironed nuthin’,” the ‘sales associate’ throws out, with incautious honesty.
At this point in my life, I have enough faux-maturity to admit that I have a nasty hardware habit. Mostly this plays out in Ace or TrueValue stores, smaller, local, preferably older businesses, where undiagnosed-depressives like myself can blend in with the undiagnosed-depressive ‘sales associates.’ I linger in the aisles for way too long, while innocent members of the general hardware-needing public dart in to get a key cut, pick up a tube of I’ll-probably-never-open-this-but-it’s-good-to-have-around caulk, or buy an odd-sized bolt to fix that unfixable kitchen cabinet door. I also suffer from a minor related condition, which requires that I spend too much time in Home Depot’s power tool aisle, or can be seen contemplating their fleet of lawnmowers for a little longer than the average male-lawn-mower-contemplater.
Thus I spend way too much of my, ever diminishing, time on this planet shuffling slowly along narrow, dusty hardware aisles; hand weighing tools (tool quality being directly proportional to tool weight) that I will never need; reading instructions for repair kits that I will never use; and wondering how household items like irons and kettles, and bathroom and kitchen cleaners, and, for mercy’s sake, sewing materials, ever got onto beloved shelves that once carried such true “hardware” as insanely flammable solvents, exploding wet batteries, and rat poison that paralyzed rodents at a whiff.
As with most things in ones make up, this particular prob…., thing is a product of my childhood.
Almost fifty years ago, while holidaying at my grandmother’s house in a tiny village in Leitrim, my four-year-younger sister and I would get dispatched around eleven-ish in the morning, a fifty pence piece clutched in my responsible-older-brother, sweaty palm, to buy sliced ham for lunch.
“Don’t pay for fatty ham. The ham they’re selling now, ‘tis a sin against God!” my grandmother would rail, uselessly; for we never got to see the purchased ham until she unpacked it on the kitchen counter under her discriminating eye.
The reason for this obfuscated food purchase was that the ham was bought in the local hardware shop: From behind an enormous stack of red-oxide gates, glistening shovels, pickaxes, and sledgehammers, coils of barbed wire, and bales of raw-wood fence posts, we could hardly make out the slicer buried behind the counter, surrounded by boxes of skull-and-cross-boned emblazoned rat killer.
Every pre-lunch time I stood there, the sweaty fifty pence piece in one hand, my five-year-old sister’s hand in the other, peering through true hardware at the rhythmical lean-in, lean-out, slicing of the shop owner, a man of few, but pleasant, words, who gained near-saintly status for donating a kidney to his brother, a priest, and thus from whom we regularly, and laconically, purchased rat poison, weed killer and ham.
Such retail transactions only grew more confusing to my nine-year-old mind when we went “shopping abroad in Drumshanbo” – the nearest town. For these trips “abroad,” we scrubbed our faces, and dressed up in our Sunday best: Blue shirt, grey jumper, blue pants for me; flowery, pink dress and stockings for my sister; Granny in a long dark coat, with a feathery hat, staunchly fastened to her hair by several long pins, that, should the need arise, could also be employed as an assassin’s weapon. There one particular Saturday afternoon, we journeyed first to the drycleaners to drop off a winter coat, that, with the benefit of faulty memory and a little knowledge, would seem to have been heavy and long enough for comfortable service in the Siege of Leningrad. It’s worth noting that dry cleaning, in a climate where it seemingly rained three hundred and seventy days a year, was a process as inscrutably close to alchemy as we, in the West of Ireland, would ever come. Thus, while, literally, dropping off the siege-worthy coat, the alchemist herself, taking a deep drag on her cigarette, leans over the counter, and through her mustached lip, whispers to granny a lead on to-die-for sponge cakes that were being sold out of … you guessed it, … the local hardware shop.
Down Church Street we click-click-clacked to the sound of the stolid heels of granny’s shoes, on a fervent hunt for “the best kind of sponge cakes, light but heavy too, … if you know what I mean.”
We enter the hardware shop, to the sound of a doorbell tinkling. It’s an old fashioned shop, filled glinting-dangerous farm tools, towering stacks of white plastic 10-10-20 fertilizer bags, the obligatory shelves of cross-boned weed and rat killer, all in behind a high counter, requiring retrieval by strong armed staff. Leaning on her bare, muscled forearms, is what, in today’s anonymizing vernacular, I could refer to as the ‘sales associate,’ but back then in the West of Ireland was simply known as the ‘woman of the house: A stocky, short-grey-haired woman with deep set, slanted eyes, set in flat cheeks.
The last tinkles of the bell fade. Granny stands on one side of the shop, with the ‘woman of the house’ on the other. They stare silently across the room at one another, barely containing their mutual distrust.
We children, in our crinkly Sunday best, are clearly interlopers in her world of sharp tools, poison and flammables, and thus we try to occupy as few of the black and white tiles on the floor.
But somehow over those few moments of staring, the Leitrim women silently commune; eyebrows rising and falling, slight, sideward head nods imparting even more knowledge.
“A … a sponge … is it, you’re looking for?” the ‘woman of the house’ finally breaks and engages in verbal communication; compensating for resorting to mere words by forcing her thick eyebrows to their crescendo.
“Yes,” Granny clips, “a large sponge, with strawberr … .”
“And cream?” ‘the woman of house’ cuts her off. “She does a lovely fresh
“Yes, yes, of course, cream.”
“She whips it herself – pursonally!”
Granny nods in contented satisfaction, a thin smile forming on her lips. For her,
consuming sponge cake without cream, freshly whipped to within an inch of its lactic-life, lay somewhere along the Catholic sin continuum of venial-trending-to-mortal.
Granny’s name was scribbled, incautiously, on the side of a brown bag, a fifty percent deposit paid in coins snapped heavily onto the counter. A week later, we returned to pick up a ten-inch sponge cake, with a filling of sugary smelling strawberries, and mercilessly whipped cream.
With Jeff Bezos single handedly turning retail on its head, the lines of just where you go to purchase the objects allegedly necessary for life are growing blurrier by the day. Now a Neanderthal like myself can go accessory shopping at the pharmacy on the corner. I actually buy all my belts in Walgreens: “3 for $10.” High quality plastic belts, manufactured, just for me, in Vietnam. They last about one month and then crack or delaminate so badly, that even I’m ashamed to be seen in them: Onto the next $3.33 belt! In Home Depot, I buy eight pairs of gloves for $10, and over the course of a winter, lose them one-by-each, until in April, all I have is one mismatched pair. I’ve gone into hardware stores for a can of paint, and come out the, proud-ish, owner of a new sweatshirt, a tee shirt, one time even a high-vis work jacket.
Once upon a simpler time – which was actually infinitely more punishing than today’s crazy world, but now, wrapped in the faulty memories and emotions of childhood, seems to have been a great time altogether – the hardware shop was a symbol of solidity and purpose in life. Things broke at home, or on the farm, and men, or boys, were dispatched to cavernous hardware shops, which smelt faintly of saw dust, metal and carcinogenic chemicals. In the mazelike aisles, undiagnosed-depressives – which BTW passed as “that just life” in the simpler time – but ultimately helpful, store men got you exactly-what-was-needed. Their eyes lit up momentarily, when the exactly-what-was-needed is located. What’s more is, when you got back with exactly exactly-what-was-needed, those there knew what to do with it, and fixed the problem.
Now we are permanently lost in hyper-space, with various Mr-Fix-It’s just an email-text-PM away, and thus humans have developed a confused relationship with the hardware shop. Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert cartoon, was onto this twenty years ago. In one of his cartoons, he has Dilbert explain how for enjoyment, he spends his time walking around hardware stores.
“Oh yeah,” the smart-bitter, high-stacked-hair, woman cartoon character responds. “I am aware of this condition, it’s called the Stupid Guy Thing.”
A few years ago, hot out of a divorce, and rebuilding my home-life one barely-used appliance at a time, I visited the local TrueValue Hardware with my nine year-old daughter to purchase a hair dryer.
“Really?” she says on the drive over, trying, and failing, to get her mind around my retail strategy. “That’s where you buy a hair dryer? In a hardware store? I would’ve thought you got them in … .”
She’s momentarily silenced by the realization that she’s never thought this thought before, and there may, in fact, not be a truly logical place to buy a hair dryer: In which case, my advice is, as always, head to the hardware store.
“Hair dryers we have,” Skye, the permanently stoned, film school dropout, working the TrueValue register tells us.
He nods way too fast, distorting his scraggly-goateed-face as he tries to remember where appliances are located.
“Yeeaahh, we gotta a couple of sweeeeet dryers in … aisle … four, …, no five,” his legs tightening, he rises off his stool, and claps his hands together with theatrical gusto. “Four it is, … or five. You can’t miss ‘em.”
In aisle seven, amongst the kettles, hand held food mixers, and coffee grinders we search, in vain, for a hair dryer.
“See, I told you,” my daughter crows, folding her arms tight, setting her face into a pre-adolescent this-is-sooo-ridiculous look.
“Well,” I sigh, my gaze already wandering around to more usefully-dangerous shelves. “Let’s get this food mixer thing, we don’t have one of those either
“No,” she hisses in an urgent whisper. “The guy will think we’re weird.”
“No, no, let’s just get it, what’ll Skye give a damn.”
At the register, there is damn giving.
“Heh man, you know that … eh,” Skye now appears even more stoned than when we entered.
His stool grates across the bare concrete floor as he stands up. Holding the box carefully in both hands, he closely examines the food mixer images.
I feel nine-year old eyes burning into the side of my head.
“No,” he says aloud, but to no one.
He shakes his head a lot.
“You know that, eh,” he’s still examining the box, “that this part…tic…ular home appliance can…not,” his stoner eyes look up from the box, stare at me, then briefly at my daughter, then right back to me.
“Or, at least, … should not …,” he angles his head imploringly at me, “be used as a hair dryer.”