Part Three of our tour of American Eccentrics takes us to a neighborhood in rural Tennessee where the market could bear almost anything, including a cracked lavender commode, neighbors who ordered 2,000 loaves of bread a day and some horsing around in nearby Mississippi. Furthermore, it will be clear to any thinking patriot that the Incident of the Heirloom Pickax could only happen in this country, and that therefore our case for the recognition of the singularity of the American experience is proceeding in a logical and convincing fashion.
"Loaf of bread?" cried Mrs. Danvers, trying to hand me one over the fence.
"No thanks," I said, since there are times in your life you don't want a loaf of bread, and one of those times is when you're on all fours pulling Bermuda grass out of the irises.
But the new neighbor persisted:
"You may think it's funny, asking you if you want a loaf of bread. It's perfectly fresh. We have a pig parlor out in the country and buy 2,000 loaves a week."
That explained what had been rather a mystery in the neighborhood. A truck stopped in front of the neighbor's house every Friday with (I know now) 2,000 loaves of bread. Children always got into it and ate some, followed by thousands of sparrows. We thought it odd, but now we knew.
The bread also explained, in part, a severe rat problem in the neighborhood:
"I don't know if you've noticed more birds since I began the bird sanctuary," the neighbor went on, not offended that I had declined a free loaf.
"Bird sanctuary?" I ventured.
"Yes. Ever since we paved the lawn with asphalt for the cars to park on, I felt it was a bit bleak, so I started the bird santuary. I take three loaves a day, dividing them in half, and set six piles of bread out for the birds."
Since 10 cars parked on this asphalt, it was not clear exactly where the birds were supposed to sit while eating their sanctuarized bread. We never saw any birds, but then neither did our neighbor, it turned out.
"I've never seen the birds myself," she went on amiably, "since I'm gone all day. But every day all the bread gets eaten, so I know they come."
It was the only time, in that neighborhood, that we ever saw rats the size of Dalmatians.
The new neighbor was an ingenious, if possibly ecentric, woman. At the time, her house would have rented for perhaps $250 a month. She hauled in about $1,200 a month from people who rented rooms, however. These were people mostly from rural Mississippi, moving up north to Tennessee, and someone had given them our neighbor's name.
It was very much as if you yourself moved to Moscow. You'd want the name of some good reliable landlady before you got to the strange city.
This woman, in two examples of genius, made apartments out of the coal bin in the basement and the little room where formerly baby chickens were brooded. There was also a little den off the stairway landing and this too had been converted into an apartment.
City regulations required every apartment to have its own toilet. This did not bother our neighbor. She bought God's own plenty of toilet bowls and installed them all over the house -- the den, the coal ben, the dining room. Every space in the house big enough for a cot was turned into an "apartment" with its own little toilet bowl.
No telling how many people were jammed into that house. Some neighbors complained and the housing inspector came out.
"I did not rent rooms to anybody," said the woman with a straight face, I guess. "You must know, officer, that I own rental property in this city and have frequent need of workmen. Now here, in my own house, I have a plumber in residence, a roofer in residence, a furnace man in residence and so on. But these are not roomers. They are my staff, which I use to keep other property in repair."
The housing inspector fell for it.
Waste not, want not, was one of the guiding lights of this new neighbor's life.
Finding she had an excess of toilet bowls (for an example) she set out two dozen of them on what had once been the lawn, with a sign saying they were for sale.
To the amazement of everybody, people actually came and bought them. All except one, a lilac ceramic object that was severely cracked.
Unless you called it sculpture or put flowers in it (both quite possible in modern America, of course) it was hard to see what anybody could do with a cracked lavendor toilet.
But one day someone came up and bought it, too.
The jackass-maker in residence -- not that we knew his title at the time -- erected a board fence around what had been the peony garden and could be seen coming and going very busily. One day the fence fell down and we could see:
There was a pile seven feet high of little plastic jackasses hitched to little plastic carts. The maker of these art works had acquired a mold, and spent his days making them for people to buy and set on the lawn, filled with potted geraniums. We felt his productivity outstripped the demand. It was said there were 2,000 little burros in the great storage mound.
Another new neighbor -- for the neighborhood was changing somewhat -- was a very agreeable man indeed who was an authority on heating systems.
He came to call once. Various topics of conversation were attempted. Silence settled in -- sometimes you think you may be trying too hard, and it's best to remain silent and let the other guy think up something to say, himself. b
"You got a furnace?" he said.
"God, yes," I said, with undue enthusiasm, and he spoke animatedly of furnaces he had known.
"Like to see it?" I said.
We went to the basement. To my delight (for I had not been sure) the furnace was just where it had been when I last saw it about 12 years previously.
I turned on the lights and kicked the furnace, as you kick the tires of a car. We stood about and for 10 or 15 minutes talked about the furnace. As far as I know there was nothing special about it, but you'd have thought we were viewing Abraham Lincoln's cradle or something equally numinous and historical.
This neighbor had a wife, a pleasant woman indeed, who was a whiz at buying automobiles. They had four cars, though only two of them drove.
"How silly," they finally concluded (as the rest of the neighborhood concluded before them). So they sold one.
Then they bought another, so they were back to four. Then we looked out one day and there was the one they had sold.
"Aren't you surprised to see Old Lizzie back?" asked the neighbor, and we said yes, we were surprised.
"Well, I had it for years and was crazy about it. It was my very first car," the woman went on, "but we had too many cars so I sold it as you know.
"What you don't know, however, is that the man paid me $600 for it when we bought this other car. Well, the other day I was driving past a used-car lot downtown and so help me there was Old Lizzie with a sign saying she was only $200.
"Well, at that price I couldn't pass her by. Think of it. I sold her for $600 and bought her back for $200. I made $400 on the deal and got Old Lizzie back."
The husband, for his part, was not so clever buying cars, but was a great man for home improvement. He decided to sheathe the house with shiny white aluminum siding, which he proposed to nail over the soft gray-green split wood shingles that had formerly been the exterior finish.
The aluminum came in long strips.
The neighbor would position and mount a ladder, balancing a long hunk of the aluminum that was supposed to look like a white wooden board.
Tappy-tap, he would nail, tappy-tap. He reached farther and farther to the side, tappy-tapping all the way.
About twice a week his reach exceeded his center of gravity and he'd crash down in some spiny (but on the whole providential) juniper bushes.
Sometimes nothing happened (following these disastrous falls) until early evening, by which time it was evidently clear to both the neighbor and his wife that a doctor should be consulted.
Off they'd zoom, in one of their many cars, to see a doctor an hour away down in Mississippi.
"Would it help," my wife once asked, "to use the hospital emergency room that's only four blocks away?"
"Oh, I'm sure it's a good emergency room," the other woman would say. "But we don't know the doctors here.
"We do know the doctor down in Mississippi, so we just go on down there."
They had other Mississippi loyalties, too.
"I know you wonder," the woman once said to my wife, "why we have no furniture in the living or dining rooms, and why we haven't done anything about the packing boxes. After all, we've been moved in for two years.
"But by the time we drive down every day to feed the horse, I declare I don't know where the day goes."
Sure enough. The horse lived three hours down in Mississippi. Every day they got in the station wagon with the big sack of grain in back and drove three hours down, visited and fed the horse, and three hours back.
One neighbor, who did not believe this, went to see for herself. She rode down with them to feed the horse, on the pretext of desiring an excursion in which she could pick blackberries.
"It's exactly as they say," she said on her return. "There isn't an actual road so you drive across a field.
"The horse sees them quite a ways off and comes whinnying up making tremendous noise [here she imitated whinnies and snorts]. And they see the horse and get excited and start calling to it [another good imitation] and then they finally meet, and the horse sticks his head through the window and they holler for him to hold on till they get the car stopped and get the food out. It is all pretty exciting."
Though it did rather shoot the day.
Once I was digging to plant scilla bulbs in the fall when yet another neighbor called over:
"You need a pickax. Come on over, you can use mine."
I did use it and suddenly it began to rain. I set the pickax against the wall and the next day resumed digging. For some reason, I washed the pickax before I returned it.
"Oh you washed the pickax," the woman said.
"That was nice of you. You know, I felt real bad when I looked out and saw the pickax out there in the rain."
"Oh," I said, "I'm awfully sorry. I didn't think. I didn't think the rain would hurt it."
"Of course the rain wouldn't hurt it," she went on, "and you mustn't mind me. It's just that it's an heirloom pickax."
"An heirloom?" I said.
"Yes. It was Daddy's. One of the few things we have from my family. He was High Sheriff of the county, you know."
"Really?" I said. "High sheriff."
"Yes," she said. "We lived in the jail. I know that sounds funny, to live in the jail. But it was fixed up real nice."
My own wife said one day -- having looked out the window and noticed our bird-sanctuary neighbor chasing the roofer-in-residence with an ax:
"We are living with madmen for neighbors."
"Don't be absurd," I said. "You grew up in one of those polished little towns in Virginia and you don't quite have the background for Tennessee and Mississippi, that's all."
But there were times -- such as the day the neighbor's fence fell down to disclose the 2,000 synthetic jackasses piled up in a heap -- I almost agreed.
Yet there was nothing eccentric at all about these admirable people. They met and solved their problems, whether practical, esthetic or whatnot. It's just that the problems were different from the usual ones in America.
If you have to buy a dozen toilet bowls, say, and find they're cheaper if you buy 25 at once, then of course you have extras.
And if you have 13 extra toilet bowls, counting the lilac-colored one with the bad crack, it makes perfect sense to sell them. And why pay a middleman? You can sell them yourself, out on the lawn.
In the same way, if you have a pig parlor and 2,000 loaves of bread a week and the pigs only need 1,900 loaves, why not share with your neighbors? And the birds? Why should you not establish a bird sanctuary, in partial atonement for paving over the lawn with asphalt so the electrician-in-residence, etc., can park their cars?
Likewise, if you have a horse three hours down in the country -- well, you can't bring him to town, what with all these crazy laws we have nowadays, and you sure can't let him starve. Eight hours a day to feed the horse is a lot of time, mind you. But what can you do?
Now that I no longer see these people, I see more than ever how right I was explaining them to my wife.
Compared to the folk of Washington, they were sane enough.