21 January 2008

Autobiography: stapling and car parts

I just finished reading an article about poor handshakes, which brought me back to a couple of handshaking lessons I was taught when I was kid.

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree

The thing is, Dad’s always had a handshake on the weak side. Anymore, it comes from professional and social habit, but at the bottom line the closest he gets to being the garrulous good ol’ boy is his atypically generous support for a broad interpretation of the Second Amendment (itself complicated).

The point is that when I was a kid, I didn’t know how to shake hands worth a damn.


The first clue toward a different way of shaking hands came from Poppa Joe, who tapped me for some DIY tedium six weeks before my tenth birthday. He was over at the apartment to ask us if I could spend my weekend with them — never a problem since I loved staying over there, and in any event their house was only a few miles away from the apartment. I could’ve walked over there with ease anytime I had an invitation (though at the time I was just getting into the habit of hoofin’ it at length).

The point to the request was to put me to honest work the following day, as my grandmother had leased a new space and was due to move into it in just over a month. Since the merchandise at issue was yarn and thread, the entire south wall of the store was due to be covered in several hundred cubic-foot display boxes — all folded and stapled into shape by hand.

[My mother’s parents are the sort who achieve inner calm by making things with their hands; I take after my parents, for whom writing has been the path to the same result.]

Preparatory to this, Grandpa wanted to know hard I could squeeze, which is a valid question when you’re only nine years old and being called upon to spend an entire Saturday with a heavy-duty stapler in hand.

…So he takes my right hand and tells me to give him the firmest handshake that I can. I comply. He frowns.

“I don’t know if your hands are strong enough.”

I start feeling a bit crestfallen, then realize why I’m feeling the impulse to giggle.

“Uh, Grandpa? I’m left-handed.

As I recall the next day’s work was tedious as hell, but went well enough.

Eight months later, beside a classic Chevy pickup

The school year following the shop’s move to a new space, I started at a new school. I wouldn’t develop social grace around my contemporaries for another four or five years, and I didn’t relish the thought of coming back to an empty house, so often I would stay on the school grounds for another hour or so after school let out, reading in the library or shooting basketball. Because of this, and because I was no stranger to the principal’s office, I became well-liked by Mrs. Anderson, the school’s lead admin assistant. One of the afternoons I stuck around, her husband dropped in to take her home; she’d christened her own car the “Navy Blue Lemon” because it spent so much time in the shop despite the fact that it was a late model.

Mr. Anderson had a project car, a classic ’57 Chevy with white paint but no finish. I very nearly became a gearhead at first sight. After I was done ooh-ing and aah-ing over the truck, and after he threw around the obligatory atta-boys, he asked for a handshake.

I game him one.

“Ben, you can do better than that.”

I gave him another handshake. The reply I got to that was…

“You’re like an Oldsmobile.”

Given my ignorance of cars, I was mystified — and feeling more than a little snappy, because I knew it wasn’t a compliment, even if I had no idea why. “How’s that?

“…No clutch!” And he looked me in the eyes with a smile running from ear to ear. I was turning a bright shade of red, but even I couldn’t help but laugh.

I gave him a third handshake, and really put myself into it.

That one turned out with bit more success, and I’ve given deliberately firm handshakes ever since.

…To everyone but Dad.

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