Thursday, 11 August 2011

Demolition Man

I'm on a mission. I'm searching for a length of moulding to match the architrave lining the bedroom ceiling in my house where I've had a new built-in wardrobe installed.

I've visited The Renovators Centre, a second hand yard on Old Cleveland Road. It's very well organised. I ask for help and I'm directed to the rear of the warehouse where the skirting boards and architraves are sorted and marked. I have a drawing of the profile I need but I can't find anything which matches. "They're all different", the yard man tells me. "Every timber yard in the 192os developed their own style. You can try over the road if you're game" he says. I've run out of time and 'over the road' looks like a dumpsite so I decide to leave it for another day.

I'm back again today. I've visited three other places before returning here to try my luck. I'm ready to give up.

I park in front of the Renovators Centre and cross the road. There's a bloke sitting on the footpath at a table working at something with a screw driver. He's intent on his task. He looks like he's in his late sixties. He's dressed in a flanelette shirt and his grey trousers are held up by a piece of twine. His dirty gray hair is tousled and his skin has seen too much sun. He's sitting in full sun with hundreds of cars passing within a few feet of him. It's not an ideal work space.

His yard fronts this arterial road 100 metres before a railway crossing. There's often a line of cars idling outside his place waiting for the trains to pass. "Is this your place?" I ask. "I'm looking for a piece of moulding to match this". I show him the drawing and he pauses. "Yer might find something in there if yer've got a couple of hours" he mumbles. "Down the back , turn right, then left and go up the plank to the second level."

I see what is masquerading as a doorway and, looking inside, hesitate when I see a narrow passage barely wide enough to walk through. It's lined with old doors and window frames and steel shelving lined with boxes of every shape and size. I cautiously navigate the first room and cross an invisible threshold where the path, what once would have been a hall way or corridor narrows further and this time I take extra care to place one foot in front of the other brushing the sides as I progress.

It's getting harder to see. There are no lights, only the natural light which struggles to find its way to me via holes in the roof and the fading shaft of afternoon light following me from the road. Turn right I remind myself. I seem to have come to a dead end. I look right but its pitch black and, as far as I can tell, leads to a dead end.

I'm confused. I step back, looking for another way forward and decide to retrace my steps. Allen, as I later learn is his name, has not shifted his intense concentration from his task. This time I see he's straightening metal guides for louvres using a pair of pliers and a small hammer. Who would want those I wonder? I ask him again to confirm his previous directions and he repeats exactly as before "Straight ahead, turn right, then left and up the old aluminium painter's plank". He says this with a tone which clearly has me pegged as some kind of idiot. "That door?" I ask, pointing to the place I recently disappeared into. He doesn't answer; he simply looks at me wondering what it is about his instructions I don't seem to understand. I answer my own question with 'That one" changing my tone to affirm what is obviously the answer.

My second attempt mimics my first with the addition of some sense of doubt and dread. I have this picture of all this stuff collapsing in on me, trapping me in a landslide of discards. At the end of the corridor I again look right and can see that, yes, there is a way through, but narrower than the previous route requiring me to support myself on the miscellany of stuff as I tread carefully through the dard corridor towards a sliver of light. The walls of doors and window frames and assorted rubbish slope back from the floor on both sides, almost meeting at floor level. I have less than a shoe width to work with this time.

Turn left. Having come this far I'm not about to stop. Five wary steps along a much lighter path, eight inches wide, leads me to a sunfilled space packed full of timber lengths and open to the sky. I ascend the ramp, as directed, and find myself literally surrounded by an ocean of timber. Its as if a huge wooden ship has foundered here and I am amidst the floating flotsam and jetsam of the ruins. In one direction lengths of timber are stacked on a large storage system built from lengths of four by four, but in another direction timber is arranged in no order, simply seeming to have arrived and been dropped from the sky onto the pile. Some giant scotsman has been playing 'toss the caber'.

I feel overwhelmed as I stand in front of this mess of possibilities. A makeshift path of timber lengths leads from the aluminium ladder across the storage frame, each peice wobbling as I step from one to the next. I take out my piece of paper and begin to scan the ends of hundreds of lengths of timber mentally seeking to find a match. There are so many. I want to believe that there must be one here that matches. I pull a few out only to find each is too short or too wide and invariably not a good or even passable match. I work my way along the sections and as I go I get more and more inclined to take anything which even remotely resembles my drawing. However whenever I find what I hope might be my solution the piece is less than the three metres I need. There are lots of short pieces.

Allen is obviously a man who has never refused a piece of timber, or, as I make my way back to the front of the shed any other item of hardware or any building related object. He has boxes of old taps, screws, washers, garden fittings; light fittings hang from the ceiling; knobs, basins, handles, corrugated iron, more doors and even more windows fill every corner. Sadly there is no way anyone could possible identify any piece without considerable effort, which partly explains why Allen is sitting quietly on the footpath straightening disfigured metal louvre guides. This is the only way he can continue to have a sense of purpose. to remain in control.

I interrupt him again. "Any luck?" he asks knowing the answer. "How long have you been here?" I say, looking to keep him company for a moment. "About thirty years" he replies. I feel a sadness in him and a rising empathy in me. How has his life come to this? " How's business?" I say realising it is a stupid question. His reply is a series of hesitations. He agrees that there is not a lot of scope to sell anything from his decades of collecting. "Flat out finding anything in there" he observes. "Needs someone to take it apart and organise it.'

I return to my car over the road and decide to have one last look at the 'Renovator" collection. I find a piece with some resemblance to my drawing and it's the right width. It's probably the best I can do so I part with ten dollars fro two lengths giving me about four metres in total.

"What's the story with the bloke over the road?" I ask the yard man serving me. "How old is he?" I add. Turns out he's well into his eighties and owns some pretty significent pieces of real estate along this strip of road frontage. "He can't get anyone to work with him. It's too hard. Too far gone." Turns out he lives somewhere nearby to the Renovator man who has taken to picking him up each morning and delivering him home each evening as his charitable contribution to the world.

There is a code among demolition men. I am warmed by that discovery.


sarah toa said...

A wonderful story, Mr Hat. I have much the same salvage yard nearby. It's my favourite.
They are disappearing every day. It is the real estate and made-in-china phenomenon. So sad.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like my husband - who never threw away a screw or anything "that might come in handy."

I can't tell you how much junk we harboured for years and years ...

Jennifer said...

I'm warmed by it too. Well done Steve, enjoyed the read. Especially as I love these types of places. And that man sounds like something out of a novel, and I want to know the layers of him, what was going through his mind during that series of hesitations.