I met him on Portabello Road in London

I met him on Portabello road. From the outside he looked quite contemporary. Then I had a peek beyond the shiny plastic facade. A Woolworth’s, 16″ tool box circa 1990. Inside I spotted some telltale old tin containers and a hand-worn awl. I shook a couple tins and felt their heft. I knew he had a story to tell. “How much?” I asked. The young hipster looked at me quizzically, “For the lot?” I nodded. “A tenner.” “Done”, I said. I bungee corded him down to the rack of my bike and off to the studio we went. He was dense and filled with purpose and his weight altered my ride. When we arrived at the studio I spread his life before me on the table. He had been a smoker for years. He preferred Old Holborn blended Virginia tobacco. He would rather roll his own cigarettes than pay for pre-rolled. He was frugal. Growing up post war he understood the value in things. The need to repair rather than replace. His purposeful existence had narrowed over the years. Resigned to fixing lamps for the wife. Replacing doorbells and the occasional cabinet door hardware. He was often enlisted by others to do the handi-work for the absent male or the non-mechanically inclined. A door number applied. A shelf that needed support or a picture that needed hanging. The reign of the slotted screw lived large in his day but was nearing its end. A product of industrialization but predating manufacturing assembly lines. Various mixes of round headed or pan headed, slot, blued steel screws resided in the tins. Evidence of use and reuse. Some with the slots stripped out. Others bent when they didn’t comply. Why did they go back in the tin and not get tossed? It was the mentality of the time. “In a pinch it would make do.” he told himself. His drill was the old corded type. It had served him well. It was occasionally enlisted to drill into mortar to replace or install a new doorbell in an apartment complex. As with all quality bits they always made it back into their original cardboard sleeves. General titles were scratched with the awl into the lids. When I looked into the tins there was a general overriding organization evident. Mixed screws defined the arc of history. From slot steel to chrome plated Phillips. Nails, brads and tacks all lived together over several tins. Plastic anchors of various sizes and vintage side-by-side with a recently purchased set. Hooks and eyes were distributed over the entire tool box. Old ones removed and replaced ended up in various places. Hooks covered in paint from years of enamel slathered on cupboard shelves and cabinet interiors. Another box contained cable hold downs that illustrated the evolution from 2 wire copper all the way to coaxial cable. There were few extravagances evident except for the segmented ruler. Made in Germany from fiberglass it had surely replaced one that had long ago disappeared. Over the years the purpose of the toolbox became more task specific. Was that old beat up one replaced on Father’s day with the Woolworth’s one? Maybe some of the hand worn tools were scooped up by the kids after their Father’s demise? Their patina showing the use and evidence of his hand. Or maybe there was another tool bag that contained the hammers and spanners? The screwdrivers and drill. The sockets and wrenches. This was the box that could be grabbed in an instant; with just a hammer in one hand and the toolbox in the other a small job could be banged out quickly and efficiently. As I went through his life I honored him by doing what he had not had the time for. I meditatively sorted tack from brad. Slot from phillips. Bolt from screw. Anchors consolidated. Hooks and eyes combined. Every bent nail, stripped screw head and scrap cutoff was finally let go of, resigned to the dustbin. I never knew this man but by going through his toolbox I feel a closeness as though I have always known him. I have met him before in my grandfather’s old fishing tackle boxes. A deceased uncle’s watchmaker’s bench. At my father’s workbench in the basement laundry room and then in the garage workshop. At so many flea markets, yard sales and thrift shops I have met him before. Someday someone may go through my shop, my drawers, my tool bag, my life and wonder, “why did he keep that?” But if they look closely they may understand the hidden life of objects and the stories they tell. In the end it may not matter at all because somewhere a quiet voice will be heard saying, “tools down Aaron.”

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