With all of the urgent, timely, passionate essays coming out now about COVID-19, the election, and racial upheaval and the imminent need for the re-imagining of American law enforcement, I thought now would be a pretty good time for a piece about a white guy and his lawn.
This morning, I was sitting on my front porch drinking a cup of coffee because I pay my taxes and tuck my shirt inside my trousers and I call them “trousers” and I cross my legs inside my trousers and I don’t cross myself on Sundays because I’m Jewish and a lawn service pick-up truck with a trailer pulled up across the street and up one house. I looked at my watch.
Hm, I thought, letting some coffee into my mouth. People say “Hm” just before taking a sip from their drink — have you ever noticed that? Pilots typically say, “Oh, shit” just before their stricken aircrafts hit the land or water or mountainside or whatever it is they’re hitting. Did you know that? I hope my last words are “Oh, shit”, though I doubt I’ll be on a plane when it happens. I don’t fly much.
So, I “Hm’d” to myself — or out loud, I don’t remember which, even though it was just this morning; almost exactly twelve hours ago — looking at my watch, “I wonder how long this will take.”
Three men exited the pick-up truck and immediately walked around to the little trailer. They all had neon green t-shirts on and they donned ear protection as one of them brought the trailer ramp down. One of them took an edger and sort of briskly-casually began his task along the curb of my one-up-from-across neighbor’s house. Another took a leaf-blower and started blowing shit around. In a moment, the third guy was sailing down the ramp on a riding mower, its teeth ravenously chewing grass like a pensioner at an all-you-can-eat buffet. They wrapped up their task before my coffee was cool, put their equipment back in the trailer, one of them lit up a cigarette, pulled the gearshift lever of the pick-up down three notches and they were gone. I consulted my Seiko that is around twenty years older than I am because everything new sucks.
It was 9:27 am.
I regarded my own lawn. It isn’t the neighborhood showpiece, and it isn’t Boo Radley’s house — it’s somewhere in the middle, probably, though, veering more toward that notorious residence in Maycomb County. The back yard is worse than the front — the back is where the vines and weeds grow thick and wild, where some hedges are easily twice as tall as me, and I go to the back to pick up dog shit and I look up at them with a mixture of sadness and awe.
Oooooh — Hi. You’re very impressive. How did you get so high? Will you come to life and strangle me one day like some Harry Potter shit while the basset hound looks over at me with callous indifference? God, I hope so.
It’s moments like these that make me despise living in the suburbs. Moments where I sit on the porch and I look out at the front lawn and all I can think of is what it says about me, and this house, and how we do not belong here, in the town where I was born; how I have no right to live here. I used to go to Howard’s Pharmacy and skulk around the old soda fountain counter and buy candy cigarettes with my sister. I used to get chicken and ribs from “The Little Red Hen” and Bob Campanaro used to cut my hair on Manoa Road. But that street cred will only get you so far if you don’t play house and keep house correctly. Nobody will probably say anything, to your face, but they will think it and, even if they don’t; you will, because you are ashamed.
You are ashamed of your lawn and your porch and your body and your nose and your van and your clothes and did I mention the nose yet and the neighbors know that your children don’t go to Hebrew school and you’re doing it all wrong and you’re always doing it wrong.
So I rolled out the lawn mower. It is an electric mower, with a cord, because Jews like me are afraid of gas-powered things that aren’t cars. The cord is attached to another cord and it’s very long because it’s made for mowing lawns and it wraps around trees and light poles and your feet and you are a fucking clown. My birthday is May 12th. Red shoes, please; big ones. Don’t worry; I have arch supports.
I started in the back, where no one could see me, because — strange, for a theatre-major — I don’t like an audience. I tried to make straight lines, but I was never very good at that. I’m not an artist. I push the mower with anger, like I’m shoving a bully, trying to shove him away from me. Like I’m trying to push the door to the Crisis lobby against the very strong, young male patient, trying to shut the door against him to prevent his escape attempt and he has both hands on the door and I’ve got both hands on the door and we’re both pushing and I’m sweating so hard that it’s sliding down my nose and into my eyes and it burns and it’s so disgusting and my forearms tremble and of course he forces the door open and we fall down onto the lawn together, onto the thick, wet grass and we’re falling and we’re rolling and we’re rowing and is
Four years ago, probably, when we lived in another house in another time, I bought an edger, because I was sick of grass sprouting up like Larry Fine’s hair all around the edges of our little patch of lawn. I broke the edger the very first time I used it and, ashamed of my horticultural and mechanical ineptitude, and not wanting to admit failure — another failure — to my wife, I put it back in the box and I shoved it way into the back of the garage, into the back of my cerebellum, into the back of the back of my back. Out of sight, out of light, out, damn edger. Will this lawn never be trim?
To hard-to-access edges looking as short as I can, I use manual hedge-clippers. On grass. And so you may see me, in my short-sleeve collared shirt, and my T-R-O-U-S-E-R-S, on my knees, Father, on my knees, cutting fucking grass with a pair of hedge-clippers. Because I broke the edger. Four years ago.
There is bamboo in our backyard and thick, tall grasses that I don’t know what they fuck they are but they’re thick and tall and overgrown and, today, I decided that they had to go. So I took the hedge-clippers and I Psycho’d the everloving shit out of them. I called plants “motherfuckers” hotly under my breath. Now, that’s not very suburban, is it?
The front lawn was cake compared to the back, but I was tired by this point. It was nearing ninety degrees and I was covered in sweat, not because mowing the lawn is particularly hard, and not because I’m a lawn hero or a grasshole, but because I broke the edger and I broke three glass objects on the tile kitchen floor this week and the children write down whenever I break something on the calendar because they think it’s funny and half the time I think it’s funny too and the other half of the time I think I have MS. And the cord is wrapped around the tree and caught on fallen twigs and twisted around my clown shoes. The Benny Hill theme plays. Lights. Camera speed.
Probably at least hypomanic now, I grab a lawn-and-leaf bag and start shoving fistfuls of the long, coarse tall grass from the back that I’d hacked down that is splayed all over the freshly-cut lawn. Pieces of it slice through the skin of my left thumb and my right wrist as I stuff it into the bag.
“Good,” I say, out loud, wiping a smear of blood onto the outside of the brown bag. Fucking good. You deserve it because you’re a bad boy. I am off the chain now, scurrying around trying to pick up every single nasty length of grass and cram it as deep down into the bag as I can, like a teenager trying to hide his cum-crusted tissues because his mother is knocking on the bedroom door.
Evidence of shame.
Shameful ants on the kitchen floor. Shameful sprickets in the basement. Shameful papers on the Amish cabinet. Shameful pictures that haven’t been hung. Shameful thing in the mirror. Shameful barbecue that was ignored for over a year because you were afraid of propane and blowing up the house and the neighborhood. It’s funny; the Mayor of Philadelphia, its Fire Commissioner and Police Commissioner didn’t think twice about blowing up a fucking rowhome in 1985, but you couldn’t bring yourself to press a button and make goddamned hamburgers in your backyard.
And I tell myself I’m tired of it; tired of worrying about how long the grass is, or my nose or my penis or my list of things-I-have-to-do and things-I’ll-never-do — I tell myself it doesn’t matter. That only Love matters, in the end and, in the END end, not even really that, but I tell myself a lot of things while the mower mows and the edger sits, inert and broken in the back of a different garage and the coffee is cold out on the front porch and my Seiko chuckles as it lets me know that this little vignette took an hour and twenty-four minutes.
In Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, the Stage Manager stands by a trellis and watches Editor Webb sweat in that gentle, turn-of-the-century New Hampshire way and casually remarks that, “One man in ten thinks it’s a privilege to push his own lawn-mower.” It’s hard to tell if the sometimes inscrutable Wilder thinks Webb’s a hero or an asshole, though it’s probably somewhere in between. Like my lawn. Like yours. Like my brain. And yours.