The Lives of the Dead

Some of the most interesting people I meet are dead…

Archive for the category “poverty”

The Fix-it Man



“Action Man” by Jeremy Richardson via Flickr



In my life, I had a special talent  – I could fix anything.  Anything except one important thing; and this came to define my existence.

In the crowded city slum in which I lived,  being adept at repair was very useful.  The people – my family, friends, neighbors – were among the poorest on earth.  Buying something new was an unimaginable luxury.  Everything we owned had been either been donated, discarded by others and repaired by us (for example, a broken umbrella, a worn pair of shoes), or it was it was an object of pure invention, cobbled together from other things.

Having nothing, needing everything forces one to be very creative, to find solutions in unexpected places.

I had a rudimentary education.  I was schooled only until age 10.  I did not have very much access to books, but I read everything I could find —  from old newspapers,  discarded magazines, flyers announcing elections or new rules or a statement from the government.  I was curious about everything and reading offered me windows into other worlds.

Even as a very young child, I was fascinated by how things worked. I observed the manifestations of physics in my everyday life – the way the wind blew scraps of paper in a certain way so it always collected in the same places; how the pitch of a roof might affect the average temperature inside the hut.  I was curious why objects or plants or animals behaved the way they did.

While in school, I started turning discards into functional items —  mainly junk into toys. I could often trade them for something I wanted or needed more.  By the time I was twenty, I was already known as the Fix-It Man, the creative problem solver in my section.  I was good with my hands and instinctively understood the alchemy and mechanics of things, the best uses for and the limitations of various materials. I would mull over a challenge, visualize the problem in all dimensions, and eventually the solution would appear in my brain, fully formed.

I was a marvel at repairing broken tools and household items using whatever was at hand. If I saw something in the street or in the garbage which might have some useful function in the future, I picked it up and took it home. A rusted piece of metal junk might still have useable screws or wires.  I let nothing go to waste.

By the time I was in my early twenties,  I made my living  by not only repairing people’s broken things, but by creating useful objects out of waste. Two large cans with a long tube made of smaller cans became a stove that vented outside.   I figured out a way to magnify the light of a candle by placing it inside a clear glass,  then placing that glass inside a larger jug filled with water.  When the only light you have in the evening is a candle, doubling the output means you can use one candle instead of two.   When you’re poor and living in a dark shack, light is a luxury.  It means twice as many hours of light.

Meanwhile, I never stopped reading whatever I could get my hands on – books when I could find them (usually cheap paperbacks, but occasionally a school book).   I particularly liked instructions for devices and appliances that I would never actually own.

I admit I was an odd fellow. I saw the world differently from others.  People appreciated my talents, but they found me strange and off-putting.  I wasn’t one for idle conversation.   I didn’t have a lot of friends. I was far too shy to approach a woman, and in my oddness, they did not approach me.

One afternoon, I was delivering a repaired bedframe to a customer in the next section.  It was large and awkward, and it blocked my view making it hard to see where I was going.  I nearly ran into a young woman, about my age. I avoided catastrophe only as the last moment when I managed to swing the frame out of the way.  I was instantly dumbstruck by her beauty.  She was fancier than any other girl I had seen.  She wore a clean dress and nice shoes that both seemed new.  Her black hair was smooth and shiny, pulled back with a comb that sparkled in the sunlight.   I fell instantly in love.

She found it curious that I was carrying a bed frame. She laughed and she commented on it.  Although my heart was pounding and I was flustered, I managed to tell her that I was the Fix-It Man, and if she ever needed anything repaired, she should seek me out.

Later, I asked others about her.  Her father held a bit of power in very local politics.  While they were hardly wealthy, her family was far higher than mine on the social scale.  I gave up all hope that I would ever see her again.

Then,  one day, she came to me to have her shoe repaired. It was as if heaven had opened its gates right into my shop.

I did my most artful, meticulous work, in the hopes that she would return again some day.

And she did, from time to time.  In addition to bringing me things to repair, she sometimes bought me things she was discarding which she thought I might find useful.  I would sometimes make her small gifts – works of art made from scrap —  which she seemed to appreciate.

I believed she liked me.  I felt that she respected my talent. She found me curious and intriguing.  But there was nothing more. She was willing to be my friend in this very limited way, on her terms.  I don’t know if she knew how much I loved her.  I never dared tell her.  I knew there was no possibility of anything more between us, and I didn’t want to frighten her away with my desire or make her feel uncomfortable.

Eventually she married, to a man with even a bit more status than her father.  She had children.  But still, she brought me her broken items for repair.  When her children were old enough, even they brought me their possessions to be repaired or commissioned new things built especially for their needs.

I watched her life from the sidelines.  It was as if I had just a torn corner of a magazine page and had to imagine the rest.  In my mind, her life was pure happiness and joy.  That is how I preferred to think of her.   I lived in a state of perpetual longing and sadness for what I could never have.

I went on, until I was quite old, repairing lanterns and chairs and cooking pots.  I was, to all who knew me, The Fix It Man.   The irony was lost on them: Inside, my heart was irreparably broken.



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