A Master's Touch
By Richard Cohen
Condensed From Washington Post Magazine
As Printed In Readers Digest December 1990

      Albie arrives early in the morning, kicking up swirls of dust with his pickup truck. He unloads his tools and starts to work. He paints and he mends. He does carpentry and electrical work, plumbing and gardening. He can pave a driveway or fix a TV set. Albie is a handyman.
      He is old, with a slow, heavy walk. He wears his hair short and his pants low. He works for a fellow who owns several cottages, one of which I rent in the summer. Albie turns the water on every spring and off every winter. He put in the dishwasher. He fixed the frame for the bed. He renovated the barn across the way.
      Albie touches things the way sculptors do, with authority of a man who works with his hands. Lumber is his marble. His fingers roam the surface - searching out what, Iím not sure. I think itís his way of saying hello, of approaching the wood as a rider might a horse, settling it down. His fingers see things his eyes cannot.
      The other day, Albie built a little trash-can shed for the neighbors up the road. It had three compartments, one for each can, and it opened from the top so the trash bags can be put in and from the front so the cans may be removed. Each lid worked perfectly, the hinges precisely positioned.
      Albie painted the shed green and let it dry. I went to look at it, amazed that a man had made it, that it had not been bought somewhere. I put my finger to the smooth paint. Done, I thought. But the next day Albie came back with a machine and roughed up the paint. Every so often he would probe with his fingers. He was adding another coat, he said, although it looked good enough to my eyes. That is not the way Albie works, however. What he makes by hand does not look homemade.
      I am lost around wood and tools, and without the basic knowledge of how thing are put together. How is a pencil made, or a pen? How do you get paper from a tree or ink from . . . well, from what? I know how to use the objects around me - the answering machine, the telephone - not make them. If they break, someone else fixes them.
      But nothing in Albieís world holds mystery for him. Because at some time he either built it, repaired it or took it apart. the fuse box, the brick patio, the barn , the cottage, these are all Albieís creations. I envy his command of things basic which, like the ability to survive in the wild, it seems to me that men once possessed, and should possess.
      The people Albie works for do complicated business, float bonds issues, negotiate contracts. Albie does not know how to buy and sell securities or take a company public. But when men who do those thing need sheds built or patios laid, they come to Albie, or people like Albie, and follow him around like puppies. They understand that what Albie does is of genuine and great value.
      At the end of the day when Albie gathers his tools, places them in the truck and drives off, he leaves behind a swirl of dust and at least one person who wonders why Albie gets paid so little for doing so much. But then again, his is quiet, individual work. There are no meeting or memos. He is alone with his thoughts, And he is master of all he surveys. A fine definition, I think, of freedom.

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