Sunday, March 6, 2011

It's Code, Not Cliche

It’s Code, Not Cliché

Butch, the owner of the local Ace Hardware, has made a practice of tapping a great, knowledgeable but inexpensive workforce -- retired old guys.

One day, after I had spent about forty minutes getting one of the old guys to cut me 50 feet of 1/16" cable, Butch approached me in the aisle as I headed toward the checkout. He wanted to know if the service I got from the old guy was OK.

"You know, Ed's 88." he said, "I like the idea of these guys having something to do besides wasting away sitting on their butts 'til they die. Still, I'm hoping the service they offer here is to the customer's satisfaction."

“It was fine”, I said. For some reason the forty minute wait suddenly didn’t seem to matter as much to me anymore.

The Ace guys talk in old man short hand. They never tire of an old joke or a good cliché. In one short(er) visit to the hardware I heard: “I don’t get mad. I get even”, and “No matter how many times he cut that board, it was still too short -- ha ha”, and, “You don’t like the weather here? … just wait five minutes”.

I don’t think that they think they’re being original, clever, or even funny by these ritual repetitions. I think they believe themselves friendly. I believe they’re right.

My wife and a few of her friends used to take their dogs to the local nursing homes each month for “pet therapy”. The more infirmed older people really seemed to respond well to the affection of a dog. The more coherent ones would regularly launch into tales of the dogs in their past. The reminiscences seemed to bring them joy in addition to helping them pass the endless, empty hours of nursing home life.

In a very short time it was evident to me, in the few times I’d go along with her on her pet therapy rounds, that the old folks had taken a real liking to my wife. By really listening to the old folks on her visits, she showed a kind of interest that meant a whole lot to those people.

I remember a story I read of a woman looking for the right nursing home for her mother who was going to require constant care. She went from nursing home to nursing home – each seemingly loving and caring, but for some reason the woman didn’t choose them. The place she chose seemed little different in any way from the many others she had rejected. When asked about her choice, she explained that it was the first place where they addressed her mother as “Mrs _______”. All the others referred to her by her first name or, even worse, as “honey” or some other sweet nickname. The daughter wanted her mother in a place that respected, rather than patronized her mother. She felt as though a woman who had lived a respectable life didn't stop deserving respect just because she lost the ability to care for herself.

I was standing in line at the post office a few months ago. One older gentleman, probably in his 80’s, was standing right behind me. Another, younger -- maybe 70’s but farm-work rugged -- was almost up to the window. The man behind me said “Hey Jack.” and the fellow up-line turned, smiled and said “Hey Ed. How’s life?”

“Every day this side of the sod, y’know?” replied Ed, and then he added, “I’m just thankful to be on my own still. After seeing Alice into Miller’s (local nursing home) before she passed on, well, I just….well, I’m just happy -- happy to be at home. Glad I still get around on my own.”

They talked a while longer until it was Jack’s turn at the window. Jack wished Ed well and then turned to the postal clerk. “I’ll have a book of those left-handed stamps please.”


  1. John, being that you're from Indiana, and I'm from Iowa, we probably have about the same breed of old farmer/old retired guys. I think old guys are lots of fun. I spent a good 5-6 years being a truck driver, and I grew up on a farm, plus I still drive truck seasonally for my cousin (who is a farmer) so I've heard (most) all the funny old guy jokes and endured lots of orneriness. Some people might be offended by the jokes, but I just smile and roll my eyes. After all, they've lived a lot longer, and probably harder, life than I have and deserve respect.

  2. I feel very fortunate to have a mom that just turned 80 and just remarried. They bought a house with a pool and a hot tub and they are having a great time. Life is good!

  3. I live in rural NC and have for 35 years it has been fun and interesting.
    Thanks for the share!
    Yep! think its gonna fire off today?
    (That means its going to rain today....)

  4. hi john,
    i'm headin' out tomorrow mornin' to get me some left handed stamps. i think men get more mellow with age and the friendly code is an outward manifestation. as the years advance, i notice some of those types of things slipping past my lips. it was a personal revelation a year or two ago when i realized that my dad's favorite insult to someone he thought was doing something stupid (most of the time, that was me), was to call them a horse's ass and when i was young and well-practiced in as many vulgar insults as i could maintain, i thought it a bit weak. <--not good sentence structure... but anyway, the revelation is that it seems to the perfect way to describe one doing something stupid.

  5. Back in the early 80's my dad worked part time in an Ace Hardware after he'd retired. He'd come home with feet aching, but wouldn't quit for a long also got him out of the house where mother was always asking him to fix something.
    thanks for reminding me of it. I've also worked in nursing homes and agree that being listened to is the touch of one human to another.