I never knew his name. My parents did. They knew him well. He was a friend to my stepfather, a pillar of my neighborhood, a person the adults all respected. We just called him The Old Man.
The Old Man was grouchy. As I look back on him now, I can see that he was never mad at us. We could cut through his yard on our bikes, throw them over his fence and climb it to get to the alley. He didn’t care. We could sit on his stoop and even make forts under his porch and he never said a word. But he grumbled about almost everything else and yelled at cars parked out in front of his house.
His garage sat open all the time and we would hide on the other side of the alley and spy on him. He would sit on a gnarled stool at a desk in the back of his garage and lean over with a magnifying glass and stare at the subtleties of a newspaper. This makes me think he worked as a print master at the Milwaukee Sentinel. He had stacks of papers in his garage and he pored over them constantly.
One day my father called him a lucky bastard because The Old Man had retired. His fingers would no longer be stained black. His preoccupation with the paper would come to an end and he would from that day forward “Sit on his ass and pull a pension.” The men of the neighborhood begrudgingly respected him and hated him in equal measure.
The first day of his retirement he took out his chainsaw and, while the other street rats and I watched, he cut a hole in the side of his garage. It was a rectangle about four feet tall and five feet wide, and he cut into it without saying a word to us, to my parents, or to himself. He cut his hole and by the end of the day he had a window installed. It had a sliding glass that would open it half way, and without breathing a word of explanation, he walked inside and went to bed.
Talk and whispers, and the neighborhood came to him asking questions but he said nothing.
The next day he borrowed Tommy’s dad’s truck and off he went. He was gone all day. When he came back, he had more building materials. The next day he went to work. He pulled his old desk out of the back of his garage and set it next to the trash cans outside by the alley. He set fire to the newspapers that had collected over the years in an ancient oil drum down the street, and The Old Man started building. Saw horses, hammers, and nails. Sanding and staining, and when he was done, he had a workbench with cabinets over it. He scooted his gnarled stool back in place and disappeared into the house.
We didn’t ask. By now we knew he was working on a project. He had a dream he was not sharing with anyone. And when he borrowed that truck again and disappeared into the city, we never asked where he was going. The neighborhood just waited for the next refrain of The Old Man’s song.
For we knew he was up to something special. A dream he had been cultivating for years. It was his passion. It had been for the forty years he had worked every day. The final reward for a life of work and diligence.
He came back with a truck load of boxes, closed his garage door. We snuck out beside his house to the garbage cans set there and from around those cans we saw him unloading his boxes into the cabinets he had built.
The next day he worked all day on a short little piece of wood. It was about five inches high and nine wide, and he carved and sanded and painted until it was done. He hung hooks outside his garage window and he hung up the board he had been working on all day.
All it said was “Closed.”
I remembering laying in bed sweating in a bedroom too poor for air conditioning that night staring at the ceiling and thinking about what that sign meant. If it was closed then it could be open. If it was open then it would be providing some service.
The next day I woke as soon as I could. I barely looked at my breakfast I was so prepared to rush out to the street. When I was finished shoveling down my food and I had barely chewed it, I was out the door, had my bike, and was pedaling my way to the house of the Old Man.
When I got there the sign read Closed, but we all stood outside the window, a dozen street rats staring at the window and wondering what was about to open. He tottered out of his house and grabbed the paper on his stoop. He looked at all of us and smiled, and I realized I had never seen this man smile before. He pushed his way through us and grabbed his sign. He flipped it over to the other side that read “Open!” And he ducked into his garage and slid his window open. He looked down at all of us with a look of pure glee and spoke very softly, as if saying a thing too precious to say out loud.
“One at a time. No shoving. No yelling. I will hear no cursing while you are here. I will tolerate no fighting. If any of these things ever happen, the store is closed.” He gave us a stern look. “Am I understood?”
He reached into his desk and pulled out a small paper bag. He reached into his cabinets and took out a few pieces of candy. And he handed it to Kate. She was a quiet little girl with an angry mother and a drunkard father, and when he handed her her bag of treats, he cried.
We all craned our necks to see what was in there.
Swedish Fish. Bazooka Joe. A Tootsie pop. and one Jolly Rancher. We all got a bag. We all got the same candy.
In the days that came after, parents showed up concerned. They threatened to have the candy tested. Same threat we always heard at Halloween. As if there were mysterious candy labs all over town where the common man could go to have tests done on this sort of thing. There was a bit of fist shaking, and a few parents forbid their kids from coming to the Old Man’s store, but for the most part he was trusted. We had been living with this man in our neighborhood for a decade. We knew him, had had him over to our house.
We knew this to be a good man. We knew this was just an Old Man’s dream of making kids happy.
He would later add picnic tables to his yard. He would bring out big garbage cans. He had an awning put in to shield us from the rain and he never talked to us or came out of his garage. He never touched us or asked us any questions.
Just candy. Just love.
I think about the Old Man every now and then, when my back starts to ache and my fingers swell from working. I think of his song, of the tune he played of love and generosity. About following a dream, no matter how humble, and about never giving up on that dream, no matter how long you have to wait for it or how much work you have to do to get it.
I have writer friends who have reached for a humble dream. A friend of mine named Richard Nell quit his job so he could write a brilliant book called Kings of Paradise. He saved up his money, and though I’m sure many thought him insane, he chainsawed a hole in his garage to pursue his joy.
M.L. Spencer has been carving on her sign for years now. After hard hours of teaching school, she hangs up her sign saying: The Rhenwars Saga. She has put the work in. Day in and day out she has bent over the desk looking at her papers.
Like the Old Man down the block from my house, C.T. Phipps has been working his world day in and day out. Writing one word after the next, drawing closer with every publication to the big dream.
There are a lot of people out there like that Old Man, a lot of people who worked until they could make their dream a reality. They did the insane thing and though no one ever understood what they were doing they went after their joy.
That Old Man gifted candy to us every day as long as we would follow his rules. Every month we got new toothbrushes. And when he died, he died happy.
No one will understand the strange dreams of man or woman. No one will be able to see why some of us do what we do. But when I think about the ones around us who work for our dreams and who live them, I think about Swedish Fish, Bazooka Joe, a Tootsie pop and one Jolly Rancher.