Second-Hand Bricks

Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

I am hunched on the edge of the concrete slab, summer sun scorching my neck and shoulders unrelentingly. I am chiseling, with hammer and file, the mortar off of salvaged bricks. I curse each time a brick breaks under my chisel; that’ll be a dock in pay. It’s August in Texas; I’m fifteen years old.

It sounds like a scene from a post-apocalyptic, dystopian teen novel, but I’d chosen this brutal prisoner’s labor. The concrete slab was our front porch, and the bricks had been reclaimed from the demolition of the front wall of our house. Dad was paying us a quarter a brick to clean off the old mortar so he could reuse them in the addition he was building, but you only got a nickel if the brick cracked in half. Our younger cousin, JulieAnn, had already been fired from brick cleaning for breaking too many.

The addition was designed to give our family extra space now that my sister and I were teenage-sized, with gaggles of teenage-sized friends we brought home to take over our one living room. My parents were tired of being banished to their bedroom. Dad completed the project, with the last coat of peach-colored paint on the walls, in May of 1994 after I’d been off at college for two semesters and my sister, Bonnie, would be out of the house in a few short years — just in time for my parents to rattle around in a place that was now too big.

Dad honestly didn’t care how many bricks we cleaned; he offered the monetary incentive and left us to our own devices. He didn’t micromanage us or yell when one of us broke a brick (to our surprise), and he rationally “let JulieAnn go” for her clumsy cleaning, without a note of reproach in his voice. As I remember, Bonnie cleaned more than I did. I was fifteen and eager for the money, but I also had a boyfriend with a car — places to go, things to…well, places to hang out, anyway.

I didn’t think too much about the legacy or metaphor of brick cleaning at the time. My dad put us to the task to save money and also because it would have been difficult to find new bricks to match the original ones. Mostly though, my father hates to waste things. Throwing something out when you can clean it, fix it, reuse it, offends his very nature. In our house, there were flip flops repaired with twine, a washing machine with a weird metal knob replacing the plastic one we kids broke, and a manual-transmission vehicle that started without the clutch engaged. By the time my sister and I were budding teenagers, we took things like chiseling mortar for the sake of frugality as a matter of course. It was weird to our friends but not to us.

Just today, however, I was reading a chapter of Walden, “House Warming,” and came across an account of building a chimney with used bricks, and I was excited. Granted, I had to go back hundreds of years to find camaraderie in brick cleaning, but still. Let me use this opportunity to quote Thoreau and seem much more cultured and literary than I am:

My bricks being second-hand ones required to be cleaned. The mortar on them was fifty years old, and was said to be still growing harder; but this is one of those sayings which men love to repeat whether they are true or not. Such sayings themselves grow harder and adhere more firmly with age, and it would take many blows with a trowel to clean an old wiseacre of them.

Henry David Thoreau

I started reading Walden because a novel I was reading — blasting through fervently, actually, and ignoring everyone in my house – frequently referenced it. I’m not blasting through Walden but reading it more like you would poetry or philosophy – a few pages here, a chapter there, accompanied by a lot of pondering. I have been delighted to discover Thoreau and I are philosophically similar in a lot (but not all) ways. I’m surprised I have that much in common with a nineteenth-century man who never had children and died when he was younger than I am now. But like me, he reveled in nature and simplicity, he was a writer, and apparently, he cleaned bricks.

Thoreau took a much loftier approach to his mortar chiseling than I did, sweating over the quarter per in-tact brick I would get. He would have pitied my working for coins when I could’ve been toiling to my own ends. In a way, I was, as it was the roof I lived under that my dad was expanding. I, of course, didn’t see it that way. I was fifteen. I wasn’t helping improve our homestead; I was after money for movies and snacks.

Now, 30 years later, I can more easily see Thoreau’s and my dad’s view of things — brick cleaning and otherwise. Because while I was occasionally motivated by the almighty dollar in my youth, the older I get, the less excitement I’m able to muster about a couple of bucks, which is unfortunate because you know, capitalism. Now I prefer to do a lot of things myself instead of hiring someone, who admittedly, might do it better and faster. It’s money-saving, but the real reason I cut my own hair is that it’s simpler. I don’t have to make an appointment or drive anywhere or torture myself and a relative stranger with soul-killing small talk.

This is why I clean my own house (a.k.a, why my house is so fucking dirty); why there’s a hole in my bathroom showcasing visible bathtub plumbing that has been there so long I don’t see it anymore; why we have inside doorknobs on outside doors replacing the ones the kids broke. There is satisfaction in repairing things ourselves. The downside is, there is always shit waiting to be fixed in our house; the backlog is like, eons. We’ll probably fix that gaping hole full of PVC plumbing in the bathroom when we decide to sell the house in ten years. Probably. Because, unlike Thoreau, we can’t spend lazy days fishing at the pond and tending a fire for hours to cook our catch. We have kids to take to soccer, a geriatric dog to drag around the block and Everests of laundry to wash and never fold or put away.

But even if, like Thoreau, I could build my own little cabin with second-hand brick chimney upon the idyllic land owned by my financially independent good buddy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, I wouldn’t. Thoreau himself said his two-year stint by the pond, second-hand bricks included, wasn’t about making a map by which all people should live. He only sought to prove (primarily to himself, I suspect) that it was possible — if you lived simply — to work for yourself, to work very little and to be contented for it.

I’m not gonna go live off the grid. I like cell phones, Netflix and having neighbors. But I do seek to make things simpler by cleaning my own metaphorical bricks when I can. When the work is for my own house or my neighbor’s and not meaningless labor to make widgets or advertise said widgets for a corporation who will then pay me so I can turn around and pay someone else to fix my toilet, even when it’s hard, tedious or maddening, it feels good. So I don’t want to buy anything, sell anything or process anything, but maybe I am okay with cleaning bricks, as long as they’re metaphorical…me, Lloyd Dobler, my dad and Thoreau. Good company.

My Mom, The Fixer

Throughout my childhood, my mom was The Fixer. You had a problem, yo, she solved it faster than Vanilla Ice, no revolving DJ necessary. The vacuum would start emanating that burned-motor smell, and she would spend the next half-hour sitting on the kitchen floor, vacuum cleaner upside down, with a screwdriver in her hand. She’d take it apart, clean off the gobs of hair wrapped around the rotor, retrieve whatever plastic hair tie had clogged it, reassemble it and finish cleaning the floor. “A clean machine is a happy machine,” she would say.

Put a package on it!

My sister and I liked to draw at the kitchen counter when we were little. Mom would be in the same room, cooking or doing science experiments in the sink or whatever moms do in the background when you’re six years old and self-involved. Ma, the meatloaf! I never know what she’s doing in there.

We’d invariably make a mistake — the cat’s tail was too fat or we left an “r” out of “Merry Christmas.” We always went straight for the markers, never learning from experience to write it in pencil first. We’d wail that our life was over because of this egregious error; now, we would have to start all over, and we just didn’t have it in us to face the blank canvas (manila construction paper)again. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Mom would swoop in with a fix: “Put a present over it!” Thus, our artwork was littered with random, brightly wrapped packages with red bows, smack in the middle of words, trees and cat’s hindquarters to unsubtly cover our mistakes — kind of like a kindergarten version of Japanese Kintsugi.

Mom applied the same technique to our clothing. When holes appeared in the knees of my jeans way before I’d outgrown them, she covered them with the assorted patches she kept in her sewing stuff — rainbows, hearts, flowers (presents). Until that is, I reached sixth grade and patched knees became too horrifyingly uncool for school. She sewed up the holes my sister accidentally cut in the collars of her shirts while trying to rid them of every millimeter of itchy tag full of size designations and washing instructions with a pair of safety scissors. Once, my sister cut a hole in a nightgown my grandmother had made, viciously forcing it to part ways with the detestable bow on its front. Mom fixed that, too.

Put it in a box.

Mom was also a pretty good fixer for teenage hearts that had been shattered into a million-billion pieces causing much weeping to sappy Richard Marx songs. When I broke up with my first serious boyfriend and was wringing my hands over what to do with all of the memorabilia of our relationship that had adorned my room for the entire nine months of our coupling, Mom knew what to do. I didn’t want to look at that shit, but I couldn’t bear to throw it away, so she brought me a box. We put all the precious things — dried flowers, saccharine love notes, mason jar full of deflated balloons (a story for another time) — inside and stashed it in the back of my closet where I would find it several years later and toss it without a second thought.

Break out the lug wrench.

Mom is in her best form when annoying and unpredicted problems arise. She’s good with a flat tire. One year, she changed no less than six of them, each time on her way home from work. My dad accused her of running over nails on purpose, which made perfect sense. I’m sure she was just itching to wrench off lug nuts on the side of the highway in the dark after working ten hours at the hospital where she’d, incidentally, been fixing things all day.

In a crisis, Mom is cool as a little Fonzie. She’s the one you want first on the scene of a car accident and first in line to fix a ruined bridesmaid’s dress an hour before the ceremony. When my sister’s best friend’s mom exited stage left to go live in New Hampshire with her boyfriend, leaving two kids and a hapless ex-husband behind, my mom helped pick up the pieces. She shuttled those kids to and from school, dance classes and soccer. She fed them when necessary. She sprinted down to their house to shut off the malfunctioning burglar alarm all. the. time. Because no one was home and they didn’t want to have to pay the security company for yet another false alarm. “Stay calm now, fall apart later,” was her motto.

Pass down the skills.

My mother is the reason I calmly handled a tire blowout while driving a child-molester-sized van full of day camp kids 65 miles an hour down I35. She is the reason I fix the holes in my adult jeans, though now they show up, relentlessly, in the butt along the back pocket seam where my trunk junk can’t be contained by mere denim. She is why, when my toddler fell and hit his head on the tile so hard he started passing out and throwing up, I didn’t explode in a volcano of dysfunctional hysteria while trying to keep him awake on the way to the ER and instead pressed that rising panic down so I could function for my son.

Luckily, he was okay. Fortunately, I didn’t have to find time to fall apart later because I was so relieved my kiddo wasn’t permanently brain-damaged (though it was a little hard for the doctor to assess since he’d just started walking and moved around like a drunken college student already). It’s a good thing, too, because that kid is ten now, and he’d look pretty funny with a red and green-bowed Christmas package on his head.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. And thanks for always keeping our shit together.