ALBIE ARRIVES EARLY IN THE morning, kicking up swirls of dust with his pickup truck. He unloads his tools and starts to work. He paints and he mends. He does carpentry and electrical work, plumbing and gardening. He can pave a driveway or rebuild a barn or, it is said, even fix a TV set. Albie is a handyman.
There seems to be no job the world can throw at Albie that he cannot do. Tom Wolfe might object, but Albie -- not some investment banker -- is a Master of the Universe. He does not know how to buy and sell securities, and he has never taken a company public. But the men who do those things sooner or later come to Albie, or people like Albie, and they follow him around like puppies, understanding that what he does is genuine and of great value. Maybe they wonder how they get paid so much for doing so little while Albie gets paid so little for doing so much.
Albie is short and old, retired from whatever job he once had. He wears his hair short and his pants low. Everything about him, even his heavy walk, suggests that gravity is a greater force for him than for other people. He works for a fellow I call, Spanish style, el padro'n -- master of several houses, a couple of cottages and much land in the place where I spend part of the summer. I have one of the cottages. Albie turns the water off in the winter and on in the summer. Albie put in the dishwasher. Albie fixed the frame for the bed. Albie renovated the barn across the way, turning it into a squash court for a man who never plays.
Albie touches things the way the sculptor Auguste Rodin does in the movie "Camille Claudel." Lumber is his marble. His fingers roam the surface, searching out . . . what? Imperfections? I don't know. I think it's just his way of saying hello, of approaching the wood as a person might a horse, settling it down. I think his fingers see what his eyes cannot.
Something about Albie says that he understands his power, the authority of a man who works with his hands. He senses that I am lost around wood and tools, amid the jargon of carpentry and without the basic knowledge of how things are put together. He senses too that I would like to know these things, that I and men like me envy Albie for his, well, mastery of things basic. This, like being able to survive in the wild, is masculinity -- what men once did, what men should do. Better, it is quiet, individual work -- no memos, no meetings or conferences. You are alone with your thoughts or your lack of them. This has to be freedom.
Once, I suppose, the country was full of Albies, men who worked with their hands. Now, the people Albie works for do the most complicated things, things Albie probably does not understand. They float bond issues. They negotiate contracts and end marriages and produce movies for which they have gross -- not net -- deals and represent people who, for some reason, cannot speak for themselves. These activities bring them swell cars and summer homes and swimming pools from which they can see the ocean. But they cannot do what Albie does, which is build things out of wood or, even, lay a brick patio. Albie does those things, and they watch with wonder.
The other day, Albie made a little shed for the house up the road. It was for the trash cans. If I had needed such a shed, I would have bought one -- or tried to. But Albie made one. It had three compartments, one for each can, and it opened from the top for putting in trash bags and from the front so the cans themselves could be removed. Albie made it so each lid worked perfectly. He made it so the lids hinged one way and then another. It looked good.
But Albie wasn't finished. He painted the little shed green and let it dry. I went out to look at it, amazed that a man had made it, that it had not been bought somewhere. I put my finger to the paint and pronounced it dry. The work was done, I thought, but the next day Albie came back with a machine and roughed up the paint. Every so often, he would feel with his fingers, searching out what he could not see. He was adding another coat, he said, although to my eyes it did not need one, and, in truth, it could have done without it. That is not the way Albie works, though. He makes things by hand that do not look handmade, if you know what I mean.
Sometimes I look around my office. The simplest things are beyond me. How is a pencil made, or a pen? How do you get paper from a tree or ink from . . . well, from what? I could not make my coffee mug or the pushpins in my bulletin board. Forget the computer or the answering machine or even the telephone. I know how to use them, not make them. Should they break, someone else comes to fix them, but even that person knows only one thing: the computer, the phone or the answering machine.
But Albie is the polymath of our little compound. He is master of all he surveys, if only because at some time he either built it, repaired it or took it apart. The fuse box, the brick patio, the barn, the big house with the pool and the little cottage (sigh) without one, these are all Albie's creations and they hold no mystery for him. When, someday, Albie retires from his retirement, he will gather his tools, place them in the truck and drive off, leaving behind a swirl of dust and several people who wish they knew what he knew. Not for a moment, I suspect, would Albie prefer it the other way around.