After Mr. Finnegan, owner of Finnegan’s Furniture Store in Darby, PA, trudged upstairs, leaving me alone in the basement, I turned and looked again at the three tall barrels.
After Mr. Finnegan, owner of Finnegan’s Furniture Store in Darby, PA, trudged upstairs, leaving me alone in the basement, I turned and looked again at the three tall barrels. They were filled with piles of nuts and bolts and other hardware odds and ends that he’d told me to sort out. I was 18 then and dismayed at first. I’d never been asked to do something like that before. Instead of moping, though, I felt some never-used brain circuits come aglow and urge me to start, in the way a muscle tells you it needs stretching.
Finnegan hadn’t said why or how I should sort this bunch of hardware. I guessed he wanted to be able to use them and that I should put “like with like.” From the nearest barrel I picked six screws, the kind that take a nut, and put them on the long table I’d cleared. They were all of the 20-threads-per-inch kind and a 1/4-inch in diameter. They'd be pile number one.
But, wait: they were not the same lengths. Two of them were an inch long, one 3/4 of an inch, and the three others an inch and a half. Should I keep them as one pile or split them into three, based on length?
Then I noticed the screw heads. There were both Phillips and slot heads. I looked at the barrel to see if there was a coming tendency. I saw another complication ahead: many of the screws had nut heads. Now the questions was: should I start new categories based on head type?
What would suit Mr. Finnegan's future needs best? Hardware stores shelved clearly labeled boxes for each item type. That was impossible here. I decided I should lump together all the screws that were 1/4 – 20s. Forget length. Forget head type. If sufficient mass arose, I’d refine the groupings. Surely, much more variety awaited me in the barrels. Okay. I'd make just one pile of 1/4 – 20s. Decision made. Only about 19, 994 to go. I was really enjoying having to think like this.
Wait. Three of the screws had nuts already screwed on them. Should I unscrew them and start a separate nut pile? Maybe, but half the nuts were hexagonal, the others square. I looked at the crammed barrels and knew that if I got too specific I’d have umpteen piles I wouldn't be able to keep track of.
Despite the complexity that rose at each decision point, I felt happily engaged. I worked right through lunch, feeding my hunger to keep picking, discovering, sorting and classifying. I felt I was winning the battle.
That’s a strange thing to say, I guess, considering my “opponent” was a clump of inert, mundane objects. But I felt I was bringing order to chaos. My own thoughts and actions were solving a problem. A limited one, but this kind of executive power was new to me.
When I wasn’t working at Finnegan’s, I was making the long commute by trolley and subway to La Salle College in Olney five days a week. I was the first in my working class family to go to college. First among my Darby crowd. My pals were heading off to factory or construction jobs. My home life was terrible, ruined by poverty and my father’s nightly drunken rages. I knew I had to get out. I was also tired of sensing that there were better things to taste and know than what Darby provided. The only control I had over my own, or my family’s, troubles was the same one forced on peasants and working class people since time began: plod on. Ignore the lash. Don’t hope. Endure.
I learned another thing when I worked on those barrels at Finnegan’s. I learned that the less one knows, the easier it is to lump everything one sees into a few, small, limited categories. This applies, most importantly, to judgments made about people and how they should live. A man is a man. A woman is a woman. Each should dress, talk, love, behave, choose their life’s work, or art, according to narrow, pre-set historical modes, based on their biological anatomy. Ridicule, laws, muggings and murder are used to keep everyone in line. Same with skin color. Same with religious “choice.”
Sad to say, my first day working on Finnegan’s nuts and bolts barrels was also my last. Next time I came in, Mr. F. needed me for some furniture deliveries and pickups. Other chores came up after that. I never got to resume that pleasant delirium induced by that task of sorts thousands of nuts and bolts in a barrel. Ever since, I've been like a dog waiting for that particular stick to be thrown again. I even dream about it. The job awakened something in me I have yet to define.
I did find out, though, that I like, and am even good at, large messy jobs that require lots of detailed sorting. I finished college and more. And left Darby. I’ve missed that place, too, but that wall sealed back up quickly once I’d managed to slip through a loose seam.
Hugh Gilmore is the author of the memoir "My Three Suicides: A Success Story." Available on Amazon.com.