I walk into the local hardware store: Rob is standing behind the counter; one of his colleagues is carrying around several cups of tea and handing them out to the various assistants. I greet Rob and make some lame joke about having been missed out from the coffee run…
“What can I do for you?”
“Can you order me a tub of Cascamite, please”;
“Half a kilo…”
He makes a note in his order book:
“It’ll be in on Tuesday”.
“Great! Thank you” and I walk out.
By any means not an unusual interaction: the sort of thing that happens millions of times a day all over the country. Not unusual for me either: I go into that store several times a month for similar errands. A couple of other details to flesh out the picture. The store in question is not a small corner shop nor a large chain store. It’s an independent store that serves the local construction trade with hardware supply and tool rental, including heavy plant machinery. It has a good reputation for service, technical expertise and range of products.
But that day it seemed extremely significant for me. Because as I walked out I had a memory of another errand, some 40 years ago.
A boy of 10 or 11 walks into the local hardware store. It’s only a couple of minutes’ walk from his house but it’s a big deal: this is the first time he’s done it on his own.
The shop is very busy. Men with greasy hands, or covered in plaster dust, walk in and out, talking some arcane language, made of technical jargon and grown men humour… (I love the scene in “Grand Torino” where Clint Eastwood teaches a shy young man how men talk). He waits. And he waits. And he waits. After what feels like several hours (and might have been, who knows?) the store clerk finally addresses the boy: he’d thought the boy was there with one of the tradesmen and had ignored him up to that point. The boy finally gets to buy a pack of blades for his fretsaw and goes home.
That’s what struck me as I walked out of the TCL store: I’ve become one of those grown ups. I knew the store clerk by name, I could make conversation with him. He didn’t need to ask me my name or account number to process the order – if I’d asked him to deliver it, he would have known my business address.
I’m over 50. I have been working as a professional furniture maker for over 15 years: first as a maker, then as course manager training apprentices and finally I’ve been running my own business for some 6 years.
But so much of the time I still feel like that little boy in the hardware store. Shyly looking around myself, surrounded by “real” men that know what they are talking about. I am very aware of how much more than me some of my colleagues know about timber and furniture making. How some talk much more confidently about business matters. How others have much better design and drawing skills. And at those moments I can easily end up feeling small, ignorant, uncertain…
Lately I completed a major commission for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. A set of benches in oak: bespoke seating for a garden in Stratford-on-Avon where Shakespeare’s house used to be, known as Shakespeare’s New Place. To deliver it I ended up hiring an articulated lorry some 15m long and putting together a team of 20 people to help me load and unload. I’d never had dealings with a truck hire company: I reached out to my contacts for advice and one of them replied very confidently that I “needed a 2 ton flat back”. That’s how real men talk. I could tell that a “2ton flat back” is a lorry but I wouldn’t be able to pick one out of a lorry line-up. And for a few days I was that little boy again. Too scared to phone a truck hire company for fear of sounding stupid and ignorant of things that a “real” man of my age “should” know… And finally I did it and the rep was really helpful and we discussed my requirements and hire charges and insurance matters, all grown-up like and matter-of-fact.
Those of you that follow my blog will be aware that much of my journey in the last few years has been about identity. Who am I? why and how do I do what I do? That’s the significance of the epiphany in the hardware store car park.
That I am a man: grown-up, capable, competent, confident. And I am a man: unsure, shy if not downright scared, needing help and support from other men. It’s taken me years to start to understand that. It’ll probably take me more to fully accept it. But I have been very very lucky. From my teenage years onwards I have had friendships – with men my age and older, and nowadays, younger – where I have been able to have these sorts of conversations. I’ve been in men’s groups for over 20 years and I have been privileged to see the vulnerability, the pain, the fear that these men don’t (and, more often than not, can’t) show in their day-to-day professional, grown-up personas. And yet, I still feel bad when I fail to live up to the John Wayne/Clint Eastwood macho model of manhood I was brought up with…
I guess I’m not quite done growing up, yet.