The Toymaker

Monday October 1, 2012

A couple of weeks ago, Mallory and I headed to western Connecticut for her art exhibition. I love these things: I get to watch complete strangers go nuts over her work. She doesn’t mind that part of it either.

We found ourselves in Fall River where Mallory knew a café. And there it was, the Toy Maker’s Café. Inside, Mallory pointed out a large wooden carving of a motorcycle, and then we started noticing other, discretely placed motorcycle memorabilia. When I placed my order, I noticed that the cook’s shirt was branded with the names of several classic motorcycle companies. And then it hit me ... I knew this place. It had been written up in one of the motomags as a must stop when riding in western Connecticut. A framed, highly laudatory page from another motomag adorned one of the walls. This was indeed something of a holy place.

As I waited for my order, I stumbled across a quotation etched on a piece of wood. It read, "Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways - martini in one hand - chocolate in the other - body thoroughly used up - totally worn out and screaming ‘yee haw what a ride’"!

It stood me up straight. I had just made my way through 36 lectures on the meaning of life and nobody from Aristotle to the Dali Lama had made me face this stark a dichotomy. I had just ordered a Portobello/vegetable wrap. I guess I wasn’t skidding anywhere.

Good wrap by the way, and because we were the last lunch people there, the chief came out to chat. He’s the owner actually, and besides being pretty handy in the kitchen, he is also the toymaker.

He has nothing to do with the little wooden chachkas scattered around the Café. Nope, he’s a former motorcycle parts dealer who will build you a motorcycle from scratch. He said I should come back on Sunday and hang out with all the bikers who show up to swap stories, tell lies, and work on their bikes or on some common project.

When we got home, I immediately roamed around the Net, looking for the author of the pithy sentiment that caught me in the Cafe. There is a Skid in Sideways website where you can chat with several individuals about the complexities of life. Each one has a different specialty and outlook, but mostly they’ll get you looking good, up to speed, and aimed at the heartthrob of your dreams. I have done my share of that kind of skidding, mostly very out of control.

Moving on, I found lists of hypothetical authors, but no one who could actually be blamed for this particular existential reduction. My favorite "possible" was Hunter S. Thompson who was imagined to have gotten it from a member of the Hell’s Angels. But for now, it remains "anonymous."

Anyway, back to the quotation. I did find a number of versions of it on the Net, and it appears that exactly what the skidder has in his or her hands can vary a great deal (though no one had a handgun).

We are, after all, individuals. So how about it? Are you going the safe and healthy route with wraps, arugula, smoothies, SPF 45 sunscreen, and yoga? Or are you doing otherwise? Could there be a marginally wild, vaguely sensible third route?

We lost Helen Gurley Brown a few days ago. According to many, she skidded noisily in (while still looking pretty good) and also minted a number of pithy quotes aimed mostly at women or girls. In one she said, "Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go anywhere." Remove the reference to gender and we’re left with another, pretty general, admonition to motor on.

My various ramblings through the "Meaning of Life" have taken me to a lesser known, and short novel by Lev Tolstoy entitled "The Death of Ivan Ilych." Basically, Ivan is lying on his deathbed and thinking about the life he has led. He had a career in civil service, a good wife, 2.2 kids, and a lot of dinner parties with family and friends (most of whom are annoyed that his impending demise would obligate them in some way). As he ran through this list in his mind, he came to realize that there had not been any Tabasco -- anywhere. No skidding at all, not even a brief loss of traction. This fact left him thoroughly disheartened; his whole life had been "wrong."

Wrong? He also used the word "trivial." For many, the antidote for this kind of life is found in the writings of your favorite existentialist: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Camus, or Satre will do. All of them insist that you must avoid the herd at all costs, grab for as much of life as you can, and lose the excuses because there are always choices. Ilych hadn’t done any of this.

OK, then. Let’s see ... I really did enjoy that wrap, and I love watching chickens, looking into my babe’s sparkling eyes, and putting on that helmet. Nothing trivial about that, right?

Bob Engel lives in Marlboro with his motorcycles, wife, and cat.


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