The Street Of Misfit Toys

July 9, 2007

There’s an old man who spends a lot of time on our street. Across the street, actually, at house in which he does not live. He has a friend there, another elderly gentleman, the father of the fellow who actually owns the house. Last summer, they spent the entire summer, the two of them, on the verandah, old and gnarled and batshit crazy, singing loudly along to songs playing on their transistor AM radio, pausing in the choruses to drink coffee and beer and growl at each other like old, toothless pirates.

The second gentleman, the one who lives there, doesn’t come out much anymore; he recently spent some time in the hospital and now just sits at his window, looking out at the street, watching the children and the squirrels and the birds. And his friend, the old man that comes to visit.

That old man still comes every day.

He comes every day, but he never goes inside. He turns up at dawn every morning, regular as the newspaper, and sits on the verandah with his transistor radio, listening to summer AM oldies, everything from Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey to Paul McCartney and Wings and, sometimes, Katrina and the Waves. He doesn’t sing anymore, but he hums along, loudly, and growls his pirate growl at the stray tomcat that lurks near the verandah steps, and at the random ghosts that, it seems, appear and disappear and reappear to him throughout the day. Some days, he paints – he has painted and re-painted the verandah steps, and has painted and repainted the verandah railing, which itself has come up and down at least three times this summer. One day, he set up a tall, spindly birdbath on the front lawn – constructed, it seems, from random bits of scrap metal – and then, the next day, took it down. He is always puttering and pottering – futzing is the word that my mother would use - and talking to himself and humming and drinking and never, ever glancing toward his old friend in the window.

This is, I suppose, how he mourns – for his old friend, not yet gone but already, it seems, lost, and, I expect, for some long-disappeared family, some long-lost love, some yesterday that lives on only in paint fumes and AM radio. I don’t know, because he’s never told me.

We don’t speak, not really. I wave and shout hello across the street when I open the door to collect the newspaper, or the mail. WonderBaby waves and shouts hello when we pass the verandah on the way to the park around the corner. Hi! Man! she shouts. Bye! Man! she hollers and he waves and smiles and growls – aaarrrr, aaaarrrr! – and she laughs and shouts, delighted at the fanfare. Bye-eeeee!

The other week, he spent hours on the lawn across the street, scrubbing some heap of pink plastic. Then, as I watched from our front window, he carried the heap across the street to our drive, and set it down. Then he picked it back up again, and carried back to his adopted lawn, and scrubbed it some more. Then he sat back on the grass, and contemplated it. It was a big, pink, battery-operated toddler car, no doubt purloined from someone’s recycling pile. He seemed unsure what to do with it.

I opened the door, and went across the street to where he was sitting. That’s a nice car, I said, gesturing to the battered pink monstrosity.

Yep. (mutter mutter mutter) Found broken fixed (mutter). Cleaned it. (mutter) Broke it. (gestures to our house.) Little one?

She’d like it, I said. He smiled, and picked it up (‘good good good aaarrrr’), and carried it to our yard. A strange and lovely and isolated gesture, or so I hoped. I didn’t really want that ugly pink car in our yard.

Then, last week, I opened our front door, and saw these:

The trucks, not the bathtub. My husband is responsible for that bathtub, former resident of our BATHROOM. Take it up with him.

Two toy trucks. Battered, but scrubbed clean, and lined up neatly behind the bathtub that should really not have spent two whole days on our verandah. Later, when I mentioned it to my husband, he said that he had been out on the verandah talking to contractors about finishing our bathroom, when the old man had rambled across the street and up our drive clutching a toy monster truck. He pressed into my husband’s arms, saying nothing, and then growled and retreated across the street. The truck was left on our front steps by my distracted husband when he left for work, abandoned to be tripped over or kicked aside. I noticed it when I bent out the door to pick up the newspaper, but didn’t give it a thought. So there it sat.

By the time I opened the door to check the mail, an hour later, there were two trucks. And now, they were lined up neatly by the door, tucked safely against the wall, the better to not be tripped over, or kicked aside.

WonderBaby was delighted. She loves trucks, and big ugly plastic things, and when she saw them she scooped up one and took it out back to put in her big ugly plastic car, which she also loves. Then she scooped up the other, and pushed it through our house, shouting vrroooom vrroooom! to the backyard where it, too, was giving pride of parking place in the front seat of her battered pink Jeep. Then she got in with them and shouted car! car! tuck! and honked the (still functional) horn.

They’re ugly, these toys. They’re big ugly plastic things, the sorts of things that I turn away from in the toy store. And they’re battered and broken and – despite the labours attended to them – a little dirty. But they delight her. They make her smile. She sees beauty in these old, misfit toys, and watching her love them fills my heart to bursting with an inexpressible, ill-understood pain-tinged joy. A happy hurt that I can’t quite explain.

That she would fill the heart of this crazy old man, that she would move him, inspire him, I understand. She is breathtaking, and that she smiles and waves and calls to him every morning (Hi yooooooo! Maaaaan! Hy-eeeee!) must be like a fresh, forceful breeze, blowing the ghosts away – or, perhaps, pressing them more closely to him. I don’t know. Whatever it is, it is something good. Something beautiful.

That she has so embraced his gifts, that she so loves these dusty, battered tokens of affection, that she so delights in his incomprehensible growl and in the salutory hoisting of his beer bottle – this has taken me by surprise. But why should it? There is magic in dust and wonder in what is old and endless mystery in all that is strange and different and misfit. He is no less amusing and interesting to her than seagulls and goats and the sweet Portuguese baker lady who gives her cookies, and his gifts are no less delightful than anything that my credit card can buy. Perhaps more delightful, because they are scavenged treasure, delivered by a pirate.

She sees beauty and magic where I see age and dementia. She sees treasure where I see junk. She sees friendship where I see loneliness.


She sees far, far more and far, far further than I do, and I love this, and I envy this. From deep, deep in my heart, I envy this.

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    { 90 comments }

    TB July 9, 2007 at 11:00 pm

    How lovely.

    kooolaidred July 9, 2007 at 11:15 pm

    I smiled and teared up all at the same time. This post brings back memories for me of the little old woman across the street from me who was my friend when I was in first grade.

    Veronica July 9, 2007 at 11:47 pm

    This is one of your best. Lovely.

    mo-wo July 10, 2007 at 12:43 am

    compelling read that.

    and, kittenpie is right about the young/old.

    Oh, The Joys July 10, 2007 at 1:11 am

    Wonderful, wonderful post. Beautiful.

    Magpie July 10, 2007 at 7:31 am

    OMG – what a beautiful post. Thank you. Touching.

    Fairly Odd Mother July 10, 2007 at 8:14 am

    This is why all old people need a little person in their lives; and vice versa. Beautiful post. And, btw, I hope to spend my last days puttering around and growling too.

    Laural Dawn July 10, 2007 at 9:06 am

    How wonderful :)
    I am always fascinated when I bring my son to see his 98 year old great grandfather. They can’t really communicate, but there’s so much love between them. Love to watch it.

    Queen Heather July 10, 2007 at 9:15 am

    It takes a special child to be able to see these things. It takes an extra special parent to be able to see beyond our adult minds and from our child’s eye instead.

    Her Bad Mother July 10, 2007 at 10:11 am

    Extra-special, maybe. But whatever extra-specialness I have, I get from her. xo

    landismom July 10, 2007 at 10:22 am

    Great post, I can really visualize your neighbor and his friend.

    Andrea July 10, 2007 at 10:28 am

    This would make a great short story for a magazine. It sort of has a feel to it like that movie As Good As It Gets with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt. The beauty of life interacting to change people, to open the eyes of the sighted to see things they hadn’t previously seen.

    This is truly beautiful. Really.

    Emily July 10, 2007 at 11:02 am

    I just want to thank you. What I am writing is so difficult for me that I need a witty detox afterwards. You really help.

    pkzcass July 10, 2007 at 12:19 pm

    Lovely post. Children do amaze…their acceptance of ALL things, regardless of how they look, is sadly a gift that belongs only to the young. WonderBaby will remember him, same as I remember a very old woman who was constantly being called upon to sew up my Mrs. Beasley doll every time my dog ripped her to shreds.

    Bon July 10, 2007 at 12:40 pm

    beautiful post. that strange intimacy that the very young and the old often offer each other fascinates me, and breaks my heart.

    you have done Wonderbaby a service by writing this down for her, this piece of herself and her history and who she is in the world that she will not be able to remember by herself.

    Sarah July 10, 2007 at 12:56 pm

    I love this post! It is hilarious and yet also gave me a happy hurt in my heart.

    Aliki2006 July 10, 2007 at 1:21 pm

    Beautiful story and very moving. I had a moment like that some months ago and it was truly transformative, too.

    Christine July 10, 2007 at 2:28 pm

    Wow.

    What a beautiful, moving, heart wrenching story…on so many levels.

    My heart is breaking for that old man. He needs to be needed, to still be relevant, to have a purpose. WonderBaby gives him this. You do, too.

    crazymumma July 10, 2007 at 2:38 pm

    I predict I wil become the old woman version of that old man.

    He sounds like a beautiful soul and I am sure giving these treasures to WB fills his heart in an amazing way.

    In my estimation oh Bad one, this was your best post ever.

    NotSoSage July 10, 2007 at 3:09 pm

    This was indeed a beautiful, thoughtful post. It’s funny how truly you recognise the cliche that you see the world anew through your child’s eyes when you become a parent. We have a similar old man across the street whose voice, I was sure, would scare off Mme L, but she is madly in love with him and screams his name every morning should he happen to be outside.

    former dyspeptic of middle european stock and still blogless in these blogful times July 10, 2007 at 4:05 pm

    Mulling over your latest posting made me recall life as a four year old.

    Across the street at the corner house lived a widower, Mr. Jones. He was about 85. He lived simply, he had made his money through owning a taxi cab company. Unlike the neighbours, he actually had a maid who looked after him. It seemed, to my eyes, that they really weren’t that far apart in age.

    I can’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember sitting in one of the rocking chairs he had on his verandah in the summer evenings. His maid would come out from time to time and offer fresh fruit — cherries, plums and other tender fruits. I think it was there that I first tasted cherries — my mother was not one for fresh produce but for pies, cakes and cookies — and negotiating the first pit in my mouth. The tangy-sweetness was a revelation.

    Damselfly July 10, 2007 at 5:24 pm

    Aw. Sounds like she’s teaching you, though…

    wordgirl July 10, 2007 at 5:39 pm

    The shabby beauty of the used item cannot be discounted. This is such a lovely lesson and more zen than you realize. To see the use in something, despite its worn exterior, is clearly an ability your child has. By accepting these gifts, you also elevate the purpose of the elderly man across the street and it brings balance to the universe. How wonderful.

    Animal July 10, 2007 at 6:30 pm

    DAMN! You are a fine writer!

    *sniff!*

    Rock the Cradle July 10, 2007 at 7:07 pm

    In what unexpected ways do we learn from our children.

    This was absolutely beautiful. Thank you. And thanks to that wonderful old pirate, who has inadvertently touched so many more people than he can know.

    Gurukarm July 10, 2007 at 8:58 pm

    This child of yours is truly an angel on earth. Truly!
    I love imagining her calling out “Hi! Man!” :-)

    FENICLE July 10, 2007 at 9:41 pm

    I’ve never commented here before…but read often.

    You see such life & beauty if small things. It’s a great perspective to have and a wonderful view to take in.

    gingajoy July 10, 2007 at 10:12 pm

    lord, woman. that is one hell of a post. i love it so much, and it’s exactly what i need to be reading right now. makes me want to start writing writing writing something substantial and meaningful like this.

    i’ll get on it.

    so pleased to call you my friend, lady.

    tallulah July 10, 2007 at 11:19 pm

    Thank you. Your gift for the written word is just what I needed today to keep me in perspective of what is true and lovely.

    Mama's Moon July 11, 2007 at 12:57 am

    This was beautiful, and really, has helped me to view things in a different way as it seems I’m going through something similar with my parents and their ‘old, pirate’ ways. Thank you for sharing this, as I said, it was beautiful.

    Miscellaneous-Mum July 11, 2007 at 5:46 am

    Perfection.

    petite gourmand July 11, 2007 at 10:19 am

    beautiful post- it’s amazing what we can actually learn from our children.

    isabel_kallman July 11, 2007 at 12:30 pm

    Inspired by Alice and Henry, You guys did a good thing.

    Diane July 11, 2007 at 1:51 pm

    Oh, so beautiful! Thank you for a quiet, reflectful moment in an otherwise hectic day!

    scarbie doll July 11, 2007 at 2:01 pm

    Haven’t been here in a while. Loving the new look. Now I can read you from work again. The tell-tale green was like a magnet for my boss. Plus it hurt my tired, sleepless eyes.

    Anonymous July 11, 2007 at 3:02 pm

    read often – never comment… My husbands grandfather is not well liked by his children.. Growing up as immigrants there were always difficulties and often the father was rightfully or wrongfully blamed.. I see an older man who smiles huge when i walk into a room (even though he is blind he always knows it is me) who hugs me tight and puts five dollars in my pocket, who always tells me how beautiful his wife is and laughs and sings with joy.. I tell the family that he has a gentle soul and they role their eyes at me. Maybe he wasn’t a great father, maybe he tried and maybe he didn’t – but in old age he has softened and he is a giving caring man.. Your neighbours friend reminds me of him.. YOU with your baby made that mans day. You for accepting.

    Nancy July 14, 2007 at 8:36 am

    How do you write two amazing posts in a row like this? breathtaking and so very sad.

    Noe July 17, 2007 at 2:14 pm

    it brought me to tears… :)

    Ana August 3, 2007 at 6:33 am

    Simply beautiful!

    mcewen August 3, 2007 at 11:43 am

    Still works second time around – great reminder.
    Cheers

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