remembering how I used to roll

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Michelle Roberts

Yes, I have read the famous poem about the red wheelbarrow. And the rain water. And the chickens. And how so much depends upon.

But I know red wheelbarrows, and I have a very different picture in my head.

William Carlos Williams wrote about his little wheelbarrow – the one apparently owned by a fisherman living in his neighborhood – almost 100 years ago.

My red wheelbarrows – the ones owned by the excavator and landscaper who hired me for summer labor almost 20 years ago – were less poetic.

They were rusty metal, dirty, and big.

And red. The small company that hired me each summer – to lay sod, to scrape out flower beds, to build walls and patios – was the “red one.” Most landscaping companies opt for some version of green in their logos and trucks. We were red.

We did have one wheelbarrow made of black plastic for which I had no respect.

I always thought the red wheelbarrows were the honest ones, with their yawning steel bodies and creaky wooden handles. They were more authentic. I was loyal to them.

My summers back then were long and humid and lonely and I spent way too much time thinking about my favorite wheelbarrows and preferred shovels. I don’t know what the cool kids were doing. Probably making out between lifeguard shifts at the city pool. Or smoking pot behind the record store. Revving up their jet-skis.

I doubt William Carlos Williams wasted more than a few minutes meditating over that wheelbarrow glazed with rain water. When he wasn’t writing all that imagist poetry he was busy being a pediatric physician. The man had lives to save, dammit.

Me? I had oceans of time to waste and nothing better to think about.

We had the “nice one” and the “old one.” The nice wheelbarrow was good for dirt, gravel, and rock. The old wheelbarrow was too crinkled up for all that – it would catch dirt in its many dents and creases. Over years of hard use and repair, the lip of the bucket had actually curled down like a wrinkled, rolled up newspaper.

So, while the old one was a certified badass of a wheelbarrow, it was only good for one thing – hauling the hefty concrete blocks we used to build retaining walls. If you did it right, you could balance a stack of eight blocks, criss-crossing the stack so it tied itself together. But if you did it wrong, you spilled a lot of blocks. Awkward, 40-pound concrete blocks full of sharp edges and pointy corners.

I like to imagine William Carlos Williams listening to the soft clucking of those white chickens as he stared at his neighbor’s red wheelbarrow upon which so much depended. A gentle, goofy, comforting sound.

My red wheelbarrows didn’t make soft noises. A single shovelful of smooth little river rocks tossed into a steel wheelbarrow bucket screams like a high-pitched thunder. The noise somehow makes your jaw ache.

I never got used to those heavy concrete blocks screeching against the rough, rusty bottom of the “old one.” I tried to set them exactly in place so as to minimize the jostle and scrape. But that usually meant pinching your fingers and ripping off your knuckle skin.

I bet William Carlos Williams never knew how to load a wheelbarrow when the tire’s halfway flat. Right away, smart people learn to fill a wheelbarrow heavier in the front, over the wheel, balancing the load there instead of back by your aching hands. But when the tire’s losing air, you load it towards the back, taking weight off the tire. It’s not perfect, but it makes the push a little easier.

When you’re nowhere near an air pump, and you need to finish the job, and so much depends upon your wheelbarrow, you figure out stuff like that.

Some people – like a critic named Kenneth Lincoln – say William Carlos Williams’ poem about he wheelbarrow may only add up to “a small comic lesson in the necessity of things in themselves.”

I don’t think the poem is all that funny. But I would agree that red wheelbarrows are an absolute necessity.