Running with mowers

UW climbing wall

I had just come back from four months in Bend, Oregon. The reason I was back is for another time and place. The reason I was there in the first place is even more involved. I had come back to Seattle and because I had a good relationship with Gregg’s Cycle I was able to get a job pretty quickly. This was good, but I needed to move out of my friend’s closet so I needed another job. Only a few years out of college, I turned to the University of Washington Daily. In it there were always odd jobs to be found. Everything from paid psych experiments to political canvassing.

I was taking some time to climb the UW climbing wall, and while resting I lay in the grass with the Daily held between me and the sun. There was a lot to see. Should I call the “sales associate needed”, or maybe the “start your own business” listing? I knew I didn’t want to work in food service: I hated the pace and feeling like if I didn’t go fast enough I was going to disappoint someone. Finally I decided to call the ad that said, “Cash for mowing lawns. 3 days a week. Ask for Aaron”. Sounded about right and because I had just spent a good amount of time working mostly outdoors it felt right to try to stay outside. I called and asked for Aaron later that night.

He picked up on the first ring. He sounded busy, and was quick to say, “Sure, let’s see how it works out. Can you meet me tomorrow at Zoka?” At eight the next morning, my coffee drink in hand, I sat on the bench and waited. I didn’t wait long. Soon I heard the staccato sounds of a 70s VW bus and watched as Aaron pulled to the curb and waved me in.

“I’m Aaron. Good to meet you. Ready to mow some lawns?” And we were off. Turns out we would mow a lot of lawns that day. Eight to be exact and all in about four hours. Aaron had this down to a science. He had his route mapped out for timing and efficiency, he knew exactly when we’d need more gas for the mowers and he had a specific way of mowing.

“OK…” he said when we got to our first lawn together “… this is how it has to be for this to work out.” His doubt of my abilities was evident. With that proclamation he started his mower with one pull, and before it had time to come to full speed, was jogging with his mower in front of him toward the far edge of the lawn. When he got to the end he re-positioned his mower and, with the smoothness of a lap swimmer, reversed and started pulling backward toward me. I almost started laughing. The sight of this lanky man in faded blue jeans with crazy curled hair tufting out from behind his glasses and industrial hearing protection, running toward me pulling a mower, just about undid me. Was he serious?!

“Let’s see what you’ve got.” I took a quick look at him. He was serious. He motioned to the mower and as I approached the mower I could tell that he wasn’t expecting much. So, while mowing lawns was not my career of choice, I was determined to show that I could mow with the best of them. I started the mower with one pull and, like Aaron, got started just as the mower was getting fully revved. I followed his line perfectly. With just a wheel width into the stripe that he had painted on the lawn I made sure to overlap but not waste an inch of mower width. With a speed that bordered on ridiculous I moved to the far edge of the lawn and and in one smooth motion reversed my field and brought the mower back toward Aaron. He stood on the sidewalk, arms crossed, with a small smile on his face. I shut the mower down as I reached him and looked up.

“Your mower is in the van. You do the back; we should be done at the same time. When you’re done, come around and put your mower in the van. Nice work.” I nodded, pulled my mower out of the van and got to work. I don’t know why it was important to me that summer to mow lawns to best of my ability, but it was. Aaron expected a certain standard of mowing and even though I had never met the man before I wanted to meet that expectation.

We mowed lawns together for the next few months. I can still drive one of the routes that we took to mow lawns. Three days a week, four hours a day and all before noon. I learned a lot that summer and very little of what I learned was about mowing lawns. Turns out Aaron had been a professor of English (if I remember correctly) at the University of Washington. By the time I met him he was living a simple life. He had a few rental properties and he mowed lawns. And he was brilliant. The kind of brilliant that might be exhausting to live with but perfect to mow lawns with. With only minutes between lawns we talked about everything from literature to politics. It was like live twitter. Each sentence short, to the point and pithy. It was only at lunch that we were able to expand on any particular discussion. Lunch took exactly 20 minutes.

I didn’t expect much when I called that number in the Daily. Maybe a bit of cash, a way to work outside and a little exercise. I did not expect that running with mowers for a few months would be as fulfilling as it was. At that time my life outside of mowing was complicated. Relationships were seen as life changing, work was seen as career building and my thoughts were riddled with the types of doubts that kept me up early into the morning. Mowing was simple. The hard work kept me grounded. The conversation between lawns exercised my mind and kept the doubts in their place.

Running with mowers was exactly what I needed.


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