|Drawing by Denis Shaw|
In 1980 I'm new to La Honda, but already word is getting out that I'm a handyman and that - lo and behold - I actually return phone calls. A pipe is leaking outside my neighbor Cindy's cabin. She asks me to fix it.
I can't find a shutoff valve where Cindy's water line comes out of the main.
"Typical," Cindy says. "I'll call Bob." Cindy explains to me that Bob is the town of La Honda's one-man Department of Water, Road Repair, Swimming Pool Maintenance and Public Works.
After the call, Cindy tells me, "Bob says the shutoff valve is just four inches from the water meter."
"I can't find the water meter."
Cindy calls Bob again. She rolls her eyes and tells me, "Bob says the water meter is just four inches from the shutoff valve."
Cindy calls Steve, the former owner of the cabin. Steve comes over on his Harley and leaves it idling while he pokes around with his boot. "The meter used to be right there," he says. "It's gone."
"What could've happened to it?" I ask.
Steve shrugs. "Welcome to La Honda," he says, and he rides off on his Harley.
I patch the leak with a pipe clamp. It will work for a while.
In the afternoon I go to the swimming pool. La Honda has this nice old pool that was built in the 1920's. The filter system (maintained by Bob) is barely functional, but that's a different story.
In the shallow end, a little black girl is playing on an inner tube. Three white boys are taunting her. "Hey Crackerlips," one boy says. The other boys join in calling her Crackerlips. The girl ignores them.
I've never heard this particular racial epithet before, but I know one when I hear one.
Several mothers are lying nearby. All of them are white. Nobody is doing anything.
I grab one boy by the shoulder. He seems to be the ringleader. "Hey!" I shout. "Cool it with those names! They’re ugly. She has just as much right to be here as you guys, and if anybody has to leave it will be you guys."
They cool it.
But why did I have to do it? I wasn’t even the closest, and I wasn’t in charge of the boys or the pool.
One of the mothers rolls over and smiles at me. "That's Gracie," she says, pointing at the little girl. "She eats a lot of crackers. She always has crumbs on her face."
"Oh. I'm sorry if I—"
"They shouldn't tease her. Her mother's gone all day. I try to watch out for her, but she doesn't wash her face, and then she jumps into the pool."
A minute later in the shallow section Gracie slides out of the inner tube, bounces off the bottom, comes up on the deep side of the divider rope, and takes off in a splashy dogpaddle toward the far end of the pool. The mother who had spoken to me says, "Oh shit." She jumps up and runs along the side of the pool.
The lifeguard is on her feet. The pool - everybody there - even the teasing boys - become absolutely quiet. All eyes watch as one small body in a very large pool makes slow splashy progress across the deep end.
Gracie's movements lose whatever grace they had. She paddles, panicky now, desperate, but she is still moving forward.
At last she reaches the far end of the pool. Clinging to the ladder, Gracie looks up at the mother reaching down to her and says in a small but firm voice: “I need to work on that.”
In the evening, Frank comes over to my house. Frank's a mason. I called him six months ago about doing some tuckpointing on my chimney. He says, "I guess I shoulda come over but I forgot." He pauses, scratching his ear. “That is, I didn’t forget forget, but I 'forgot.' If you know what I mean.”
He means, he remembered but he was busy. And of course he never called me. That wouldn't be the La Honda way.
That was 1980. La Honda is less of a rural backwater these days. The citizens, including children, are as feisty as ever. The local tradesmen have learned how to use the telephone - and the internet. The town maintenance department is now run competently and professionally ... by a prankster poet.
(If you're interested, here's a link to a portrait of La Honda that I wrote in 1982.)