A Man’s Cluttered Garage Holds Tools, Tires, and…Refuge

“Better to have loafed and lost than never to have loafed at all.” – James Thurber

There is an old joke that asks: “How can you spot a rich guy in the South?”
Answer: “He’s got TWO cars jacked up on the front lawn.”

Just having something that needs his attention reminds a man that he has a mission. It says that there is somewhere where he makes a difference. In this regard men aren’t so different from…well, women. That a man doesn’t always get around to fixing the car misses the point. If the car is repaired it would lose its function. A car that is running is not of help in this psychological auto-shop. The reason that the cars are on the front lawn is because the garage is filled with a lot of other things that need the man’s attention. He is in demand. In a world where we often feel we are not necessary, being in demand is a beautiful thing.

Men need a place where they can store things that need to be fixed. The higher the unattended “to-do” mountain, the more a regular guy is happy to sit and stare. Mountain climbers may climb mountains because they’re there, but most men aren’t compelled to climb and are happy just to know the mountains are there. A man can have joy in simply taking out his front door and staring at the range of things needing his attention. Feeling we are needed, we often feel fulfilled.

Wives are inevitably prepared to give their husbands a list of what needs to be done. For men, the list is enough. Completing the tasks would make men feel redundant. Men are not ignoring their wives. It’s just that men know that in procrastination there is a promise that tomorrow they will also be necessary.

When the info/techno/cyber world closes in, a lot of men mount up and ride out to the garage. There they can cuddle in the chaos of dried-up paint cans filled with nails, oily rags, and old bicycles. This is not a clubhouse. It’s better. It’s a mess. “My mess,” says a man admiring his surroundings.

This mess doesn’t have to be a garage, although a man in his garage is certainly part of Americana. A man’s refuge can be his desk in the den, the storage area in the basement, or a corner of the porch where he’s allowed to smoke his cigar. Wherever it is, it will soon be stacked with good intentions. Inevitably there will be the tower of magazines he was going to read, executive toys that will work as soon as he gets new batteries, and a broken golf club that can’t be thrown away because he can now use it to scratch his back. In my own life these are piles as in files.

This is not to say that men are messy and women are organized. Any vice has a versa. Women are as often organizing a mess as men are making a mess of an organization. What’s important is 2 that we all need a corner, a place to “putter.” For most men this is not generally a place with a tablecloth and a coaster. It doesn’t make you a real man to have a dirty garage any more than having a clean home makes you a real woman. What’s really important to all of us is a sense of place.

Peace of mind is often hand in glove with a place of peace. Early television sitcoms often had a man sitting in a garage with a neighbor. There, the men could complain about their wives, and jobs, and lick their social wounds. A man in his garage was in “the zone.” The elemental man was in his element.

Nowadays nothing is elementary. What we took for granted about being a man is no longer necessarily granted to a man. It isn’t that women are redefining men, it’s that men and women are both being redefined, and often neither can find the other without a dictionary. Search for a definition of the sexes today in almost any social gathering and you will begin by looking under the letter “A”—for argument and abuse. Personally I’m not into this “man in his garage.” I’m just as happy to putter by lifting weights and checking on my spaghetti sauce between sets. I’m less worried about whether I’m politically correct than if I have used the right amount of garlic and not burned the basil. I cook in an old sweatshirt and my spatula has gym chalk on the handle.

For some men the kitchen is their garage. Some men like the feel of a big beef tomato in the produce section while others like to look at the all-weather tread on tires. What we all need is someplace to idle in the moment. In mid twentieth century a garage was a man’s retreat.

Now men go on retreats to get in touch with emotions that they have for too long kept in the garage. Sometimes life is better if we keep it simple. Men and women both need a place where they can get together, and often stay together if they have place where they can get away from each other. We don’t need to hide from one another, but we certainly don’t want to hide from ourselves. Getting along with one another sometimes requires us to get along without one another.

Relationships need silences if we would make music together. In some relationships there is more silence than music. I knew a woman whose husband would go out to the garage whenever she began to play the piano. Over the years he lost his hearing and spent less time in the garage. His wife found his being around made her uncomfortable, and she gave up playing. The silence became their music. A friend of mine has a son who wants to be a rock ‘n’ roll star.

The boy and his friends have taken over the garage for rehearsals. The father decided to be the manager. Just so he could stay in the garage. The father chose place over peace. Garages are inevitably filled with exercise equipment. Garages are the elephant graveyard for stationary bikes, rowing machines, and barbells.

In garages, we can see earnest resolutions rusting. Postponed promises and guilt can be stored under drop cloths. These black plastic mountains also remind many of us of what we had to have and now ignore but cannot throw away. Every now and then there is a commitment to clean up and straighten up the garage. But, like with exercise, if you lie down for a while the urge passes. Many a man has taken out a chaise lounge to contemplate how he was going to tackle this project right after he took a nap.

Many of us fall asleep at the helm of our commitments. The garage for many men is a plank in the crocodile’s mouth. It holds a moment open while you sit and move a toothpick slowly from one side of your mouth to the other. A century ago men used to whittle in front of the General Store. Jokes were told, life was examined and pretense was outlawed. When you really want to understand what’s important, sometimes you’ve just got to take out the old penknife and peel off the bark.

We are all well advised not to waste time. Some of us, however, waste time by always being busy. Like those chained to the oar in a Roman galley, some of us as we prepare to disembark from our day’s labor wonder how much we should tip the “whipper.” Certainly there is an indolence in lazing, but the Romans were industrious, corrupt, and history. To relax doesn’t necessarily mean we’re being lax. Many a boy learned to be a man at the foot of a sage who sat whittling.

Kind of sad to find those days gone. Soon the same will be said about sitting in front of your garage on a Sunday, whittling a moment. Too bad. Taking a moment expands time.

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