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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    Heather July 9, 2007 at 1:44 pm

    Thank you for a beautiful post. It moved me to tears.

    Anonymous July 9, 2007 at 1:46 pm

    Hi–I’m a regular reader who’s never commented. Have to comment now. I had a similar situation, but our “gifter” (a junk collector by vocation–and I use that v word loosely) happened to be a wife beater with a bad temper. We’d just moved to our neighborhood, and said fellow kept gifting our little boy almost daily. We finally wrote a thank you note telling him we appreciated it but we felt very welcomed to our new home now, thankyouverymuch, and he should please not be so generous. He has since let up on the gifts,which made me more comfortable–especially after I overheard him yelling obscenities at his wife. I like your story much better–an elder pirate is much more appealing than a wife beater, isn’t it? And on a related note, I, too, watch how my little boy charms everyone, often even the cold and untouchable ones. Ah, children. Keep writing–you certainly have a way with words.

    Candace July 9, 2007 at 1:59 pm

    You are wonderful with words and I very much enjoyed reading this touching story. Please, keep us updated on what happens through the summer…I can’t wait to read more.

    Julie Pippert July 9, 2007 at 2:01 pm

    How lovely…how you told this story, and his story, a man who takes someone’s trash and makes a treasure for someone else.

    ozma July 9, 2007 at 2:12 pm

    That is beautiful.

    My daughter was carrying around a plastic piggy bank as a lovey for a while and not one but two homeless men put money in it. Maybe it is in our nature to get pleasure from giving even when we also need to take but also she is someone who responds with total acceptance and delight to everyone she meets. That might mean something to them and yes, I have so much to learn from her for that.

    Sometimes I want to shield her and pull her away from certain people but I think this is another part of her innocence I don’t want to touch yet. It is so brief and beautiful and rare.

    ~JJ! July 9, 2007 at 2:29 pm

    It’s amazing how children make others feel…they are little gifts aren’t they…children.

    Lawyer Mama July 9, 2007 at 2:34 pm

    Of course Wonderbaby would inspire an old pirate. I love her reaction to a man many of us would find a bit…odd, a bit creepy. But children, they know just what to say, just what to do. And, of course, children don’t care if toys or people are broken. They just see the fun, wonder, and play.

    Beautiful post, HBM.

    mothergoosemouse July 9, 2007 at 2:35 pm

    I love that story. Your WonderBaby really is a wonder.

    Kelly July 9, 2007 at 2:45 pm

    Thank you, so very much for writing this. It’s beautiful to read and was truly moving. In a way, your old pirate reminds me of my father (who passed on 2yrs ago). Thank you for that, too.

    Jen M. July 9, 2007 at 2:47 pm

    What a lovely post. It reads like a movie – I felt like I was there. Thank you.

    flutter July 9, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    This was absolutely beautiful and wonderous. What a sweet soul she has and he too.

    Karly July 9, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    This was absolutely beautiful. I have tears in my eyes and am wishing that I could give that old man a hug.

    Gamer Girl July 9, 2007 at 3:16 pm

    Awww! You put me in tears. This is the sweetest thing I have ever read. Children are amazing, your little girl is an angel. Hug her close for all of us.

    Jenifer July 9, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    How lovely. This reminds me so much of my best friend’s father-in-law. He frequently visits the “goldmine” aka garbage dump up at their cottage and comes home with all kinds of toys, dolls, etc. (not to mention all the other stuff, I think I counted 6 blenders, 4 vacuums, 3 lawnmowers and 5 or 6 coffeemakers in his shed)that his wife lovingly washes and scrubs and then they give them to my friend’s two children as gifts.

    Some of the toys are still in a state of disrepair, but his grandchildren love them none the less.

    Such a sweet story and you both are good people for warming to someone who appears to be less approachable.

    Phoenix July 9, 2007 at 3:21 pm

    I don’t know why exactly, but this post made me cry. Thank you for that.

    mayberry July 9, 2007 at 3:29 pm


    The baby, she is wise!

    former dyspeptic of middle european stock and still blogless in these blogful times July 9, 2007 at 3:32 pm

    Your storytelling gifts have conveyed a story that is heatrending. I think that WonderBaby and her thoughts and actions, guileless as they are, have given you the opportunity for epiphanies. Children accept things for what they are, every day is filled with wonder, filled with people of all different ages, shapes and sizes and children are indifferent to these masks. They see beyond the, at times, incomprehesible bluster, and embrace all.

    A very lovely posting.

    Very poetic.

    MsPrufrock July 9, 2007 at 3:46 pm

    Thank you for this post, it is so, so wonderful

    Smiling Mom July 9, 2007 at 3:55 pm

    Fantastic post. I hope someone nominates it for the perfect post award. :-)

    ewe are here July 9, 2007 at 3:59 pm

    How wonderful and sweet and sad all at the same time.

    In a strange way, the post reminds me of my grandfather. He and my grandmother retired to Flordia, where he took up shuffleboard. Years went by, then one by one, all of his friends that he’d played with for years started to pass on. Until he was the only one left…
    He passed away on my birthday during my first year of law school… as I was undeniably his favorite grandchild, it was somehow fitting.

    Tracey July 9, 2007 at 4:10 pm

    Oh, what a lovely post…

    You DO see beauty in small things, though. Don’t you see it? You see the beauty in how your daughter appreciates the world. You are relearning that old and dirty stuff isn’t always garbage, and that shiny and new isn’t always treasure.

    kittenpie July 9, 2007 at 4:15 pm

    It often seems like the very young and the very old share some kind of bond, unseen, unspoken.

    I was thinking this morning about eccentrics and how Pumpkinpie may not have as much exposure to them because our neighbourhood has changed since I grew up with old newfie broads, tiny withered chinese grandmas, and black-shrouded Greek elders, any of whom yelled freely at us. And I wonder if some oddness around you isn’t a plus, really.

    Ms. B July 9, 2007 at 4:40 pm

    Dear HBM,

    My colleagues think I am crazy, sitting at my desk and crying while staring at the monitor!

    I am so glad that you accepted the old man’s gifts for WonderBaby. I am sure it meant a lot to him to see he made her happy.

    Mimi July 9, 2007 at 4:45 pm

    Yes. It hurst because you can’t be that way, and she will only be that way … until she develops taste? I don’t know. These sorts of scenes move me in the ways you describe, because of their innocence, the fragility and unexpectedness of the ties they mark. WonderBaby and a crazy old man, making each other happy, inexplicably. It’s exactly what you’d want to happen, but it rarely does, and both of them are worlds away from you. Two vulnerable people, getting along.


    Ashley July 9, 2007 at 4:54 pm

    Gorgeous post. Just beautiful. I hope you don’t mind, I added it to today’s Mommy Blog RoundUp page, a blog that features the best daily mom blog posts I (and others) encounter.

    HMBT July 9, 2007 at 5:27 pm

    *typing thru the tears* you and your kid…ROCK. Arrrgh! :)

    sam July 9, 2007 at 5:32 pm

    The innocence of a child truly is bliss.

    Once again, another fantastic post C.

    Robbin July 9, 2007 at 6:16 pm

    Absolutely beautiful.

    slouching mom July 9, 2007 at 6:47 pm

    Oh, Catherine. Damn, this was gorgeous.

    So many heartbreakingly beautiful posts around the internets today. But yours and Alice’s (of finslippy fame) both made me cry.

    It’s good for the soul, to be moved to tears.

    Thank you.

    Lara July 9, 2007 at 6:58 pm

    i realize it’s a bit inane to say this, not to mention repetitive (i’m hoping you’re not getting sick of it), but you are an amazing writer. i just love reading your posts.

    MeganZ July 9, 2007 at 6:59 pm

    Fricking beautiful post! I was so moved…

    Dawn July 9, 2007 at 7:05 pm

    I always think it is because the young and the old are not really as far apart as they may seem

    SciFi Dad July 9, 2007 at 7:33 pm

    That? May be your best post ever.

    Seriously, one day I have to meet this amazing kid of yours. Seriously.

    PunditMom July 9, 2007 at 7:34 pm

    The clarity of little children can be amazing, can’t it?

    Heather July 9, 2007 at 7:37 pm

    Love this. What a great story – I wonder if she’ll remember him as she gets older.

    Beck July 9, 2007 at 8:13 pm

    Beautiful. Your elderly neighbour-visitor reminds me of my husband’s grandfather, who’s a spry old reprobate of nearly 90 and who adores our kids – he makes them wooden treasures and plays endless hands of go fish and they’re not quite old enough yet to catch the steady stream of dirty jokes. Some day he’ll just be a sweet memory for them….

    jen July 9, 2007 at 8:15 pm

    it’s simply flooring, isn’t it…how much they teach us by simply being.

    GIRL'S GONE CHILD July 9, 2007 at 8:17 pm

    Gorgeous. Just… gorgeous. Beauty is everywhere. Thank you for writing this. Your insight is so inspiring.

    mamatulip July 9, 2007 at 8:33 pm

    Wow. This is such a riveting, awesome, amazing post. It reminds me of Boo Radley.

    Niksmom July 9, 2007 at 9:00 pm

    When you parent a child with special needs, you get those sort of wonderful moments —treasures really — and learning and growth all the time. My son has taught me so much about being a better person than I ever thought I could be (or, frankly, ever wanted to have to be!). Relish the moments…they go so quickly. And find it in yourself to help WB hold on to that innocence as long as you can.

    theotherbear July 9, 2007 at 9:02 pm

    What a wonderfully written post.

    JaniceNW July 9, 2007 at 9:22 pm

    What wonderful insight you get from WonderBaby! Toddlers are so amazing, aren’t they?

    metro mama July 9, 2007 at 9:39 pm

    I love this. I too am envious of their simple, honest appreciation.

    AmandaD July 9, 2007 at 9:45 pm

    Ah, but you do, perhaps not at first glance, but you have a faith many are missing. You see through your daughter’s eyes, if only for a moment. You allow her to roam, to explore and experience, and in doing so, I believe, you are able to alight for a moment on the vision you had as a child, the belief you passed, WonderBaby’s birthright.

    leah July 9, 2007 at 10:06 pm

    Amazing post! When I thought it could not get any better two more trucks appeared! I love it and am glad it’s you. lol

    moosh in indy. July 9, 2007 at 10:16 pm

    You dazzle…aaargh.

    Granny July 9, 2007 at 10:18 pm

    I love the innocence of children and the compassion of moms who don’t throw the toy away just because it’s tacky.

    Kyla July 9, 2007 at 10:25 pm

    Oy. My heart! It aches!

    painted maypole July 9, 2007 at 10:27 pm

    Beautiful and touching. Our children can sure teach us how to love! It’s posts like these that make me mourn I didn’t start blogging when my daughter was younger… I think of all the stories that I missed putting down in to words.

    nomotherearth July 9, 2007 at 10:53 pm

    Confirms my opinion that a child’s job is to teach us the real meaning of love.

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