The Magazine

Take My Mower, Please

David Skinner, lawnmower man.

Aug 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 45 • By DAVID SKINNER
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How to know when you've made a spectacle of yourself? The first hint that I had gone from unremarkable though odd--my natural state--to publicly pathetic came when two young men, complete strangers, drove by my house and called out to me and laughed. I noted their out-of-town baseball caps, bearing the logo of a team I was pretty sure hadn't made a serious pennant run in decades, and their generally vulgar demeanor. I mean, Who taught these guys to slouch in their car like that? Still their condemnation lingered in the air. "Aww," they had said, "you're really saving gas now, Dude."

This was a reference to the lawn mower I was pushing, an American-brand reel mower. It is the old-fashioned kind without an engine.

Last fall, my wife Cynthia and I moved our children and our things into a new house, actually an old, somewhat beat-up house that needed work but offered us more room and a nice-sized yard. By nice-sized I mean it's big enough in the back for a game of whiffle ball and in the front for maybe a round of bocce.

It was fall, though, when we closed on the property, and the cold weather was coming on faster than any urge to cut grass. Having pushed a Sears gas mower over many neighboring yards as a child, earning maybe eight bucks a pop for what always seemed like the sweatiest two hours of my life, I entertained no illusions about the pleasures of this quintessential suburban chore.

And since reaching the age when it was possible to be a snob, I had come to regard the noise of mowers, weed-wackers, and leaf blowers as the great curse of living in the suburbs, well deserving of the kind of goody-two-shoes regulation I usually deplore. I mean, Where is the pleasure of life with a backyard if every Saturday from breakfast until dinner you have to listen to the revving of machines, the coughing of motor exhaust, and the nasal wawa scream of outdoor electrical appliances designed without the slightest concern for anyone's peace and quiet?

I asked a friend in the city about the engine-less push mower he'd bought for a postage stamp of grass in front of his townhouse. He'd bragged about it at dinner when he first bought it. But now his story had changed. He didn't think the little mower worked very well. In fact, he said, I could have it if I wanted.

One man's garbage, as they say.

I haven't figured how to achieve exactly the crew-cut grass length I prefer, but my friend's old mower does a fine job of slashing the many varieties of grass and weed that cover my long-neglected yard. And it works quietly, with an understated whirr no louder than a broom sweeping, allowing me to cut the grass while my children nap inside.

Lugging it hither and yon, I find myself daydreaming about an old man who used to cut lawns in my neighborhood when I was a kid. On a big yard across the street from our house, he'd push a lawn mower almost exactly like mine, and then he'd carefully clip and prune the edges like a barber. Afterwards, nothing would look out of place, and Queenie, that was his name, would return all of his equipment to the trunk of a beautifully maintained sixties sedan--an old Ford Falcon I think, black with bright red interior--and drive away.

Apparently I myself do not present quite the image of stern landscaping dignity that old Queenie did. My choice of mower, in addition to inviting the ridicule of passersby, has caught the attention of the neighbors, a rather friendly and solicitous bunch, and more than one has offered to lend me his own gas-fueled mower. They don't seem to believe me when I say I prefer my own machine. I am, in fact, becoming a little defensive on this point.

One recent hot Saturday I went to work on the grass around lunchtime. I was soon in a sweaty lather. Watching me from the shady cool of his porch, my neighbor Stewart, who has fast become a family friend, could not take it any longer. He rushed down to the curb, his brow wrinkled with concern, his hands pleading for surrender, and implored me to, please, borrow his power mower and be done with it. I politely declined, of course, not saying what was really on my mind, that I may be a spectacle, but my neighbor, boy, is he a buttinsky.

DAVID SKINNER