The smell of grass
On the lawn with Stinky and me
by Chris Barry
I spent the summer laboring behind the handles of an 18-horsepower lawnmower with triple blades and a 56-inch-wide cutting swath. My colleague — a 17-year-old named Stinky — wielded a weed-whacker. Together, we maintained the grass of the super-wealthy on Peaks Island.
The days were long and hot. And it sucked working for rich folk addicted to well-coifed ground. The island elite — who spend 300 grand on a summer house without blinking — watched from their decks, sipped cocktails, and pointed out single stalks of grass missed by my blades. The summer people appeared concerned whenever I got too close to their expensive vehicles with out-of-state license plates and Peaks Island bumper stickers. Sometimes their fears were well-founded.
Consider the case of Rich Guy, a short New Yorker with a swimming pool and monstrous house. At the start of the season, the island woman who maintains the pool asked me to be extra careful. “They get very angry if any grass is in the water,” she warned.
Then on a hot July day, Rich Guy’s brand new Mercedes was parked near the pool. No one was home to close the sports car’s windows. I had to cut the grass. Do I blow the clippings toward the pool, or the vehicle?
I chose the car. Rich Guy came home soon after and discovered my handiwork. “You fucking idiot. You filled my car with grass,” he screamed. “What the fuck were you thinking?”
I stared dumbly. He wanted an answer. “The lady told me not to get any grass in the pool,” I stammered.
“Jesus Christ. How fucking stupid can you be?” he yelled. “Stay away from my cars.”
Aside from moneyed schmucks like him, it was a decent job. I didn’t have to wear a necktie or slave behind a computer or flip burgers. I lost 20 pounds and my forearms became bronzed. I made some cash.
We worked for a small landscaping company on the island. Some people say the Bossman is cheap, but he’s been generous with me. He pays 10 bucks a yard — regardless of the acreage or the number of workers. Since some lawns are the size of doormats and others are larger than football fields, the pay averaged close to $15 an hour. Bossman uses the wage plan to prevent loafing. It certainly encouraged us to work faster and more efficiently.
The benefits of the job were more than financial. Working outside on an island meant we were almost constantly surrounded by natural beauty. Our clients were scattered across Peaks, so the view was always changing. Plus, the sea breeze and breathtaking panoramas of the back shore granted me an occasional respite from Stinky’s aroma.
My comrade-in-mowing was perhaps the brightest, and dumbest, 17-year-old I’ve ever met. While he could converse intelligently about the Constitution, history, music, math, and science, he made countless bonehead moves. For instance, on more than one occasion, he’d pick me up in the truck after lunch and we’d head to a lawn on the other side of the island. Then, he’d discover he was barefoot.
“Where are your boots?” I’d ask.
“Gimme a second,” he’d say. “Let me think about it.”
Stinky had other issues. He drove too fast. He thought he was smarter than me. He couldn’t fill the weed-whacker without spilling gas. And he smelled terrible. If there was ever a perfect candidate for forced application of deodorant, it would be Stinky. It wasn’t that he was dirty — he jumped in the ocean daily and bathed almost weekly — but his body emanated the worst stench of rotting socks and chicken salad.
(Jake, Stinky’s older brother by a year and a half, was our immediate boss. Jake didn’t reek, even after a lawn collapsed beneath him while mowing and he fell into a cesspool. He was up to his waist, almost, in a pit of human feces and he still smelled better than his brother.)
We had fun, though, Stinky and I. He’d tell tales of high school and I’d tell sea stories from my days as a sailor. We’d joke how young and stupid he was and how old and decrepit I am.
But Stinky’s gone. He left over a month ago to attend a private school in Western Massachusetts. But his presence lingers. On muggy or damp days, I smell him through the fabric seats of the mowing truck and I smile. I’m glad to have known him and glad he is gone.
Now I’m flying solo. I cut faster, it seems. Or at least I make more cash each day. The mower and I have bonded as a team. (Though I still don’t get along with the weed whacker.) We know each nook and ledge of the 70 lawns we tend. We dance across slopes and crests of hills, gracefully cutting circles and stripes, alternating paths, and, where appropriate, cutting patterns into the turf.
Alas, my efforts are just temporary. The grass grows, or the pitter-patter of rich children’s feet mar my manicure.
I dream of next season, thinking I might strike out on my own. Not as a lawn boy, but as a lawn artist. I want to experiment with blade height and cutting directions. I want to play with paint (non-toxic of course), create landscapes of color and texture. I want to design flags and slogans, portraits and sculpture, using grass as my canvas. I want to incorporate a sort of abstract-dadaist-impressionistic theme in my work. I want to be the Jackson Pollock of lawn painting. All I need are the right yards and generous clients.
Chris Barry writes a media column for the Phoenix. Email him at email@example.com.