The sun shone throughout the morning on Saturday, and it cast a timeless spring-in-the-city atmosphere across the neighborhood of Brown University where I was modifying a new door — manufactured with modern materials and recent engineering — to fit a very old opening.
A carpenter can do just about anything with an old door. When the rails and stiles are four or more inches of solid wood, all manner of liberties may be taken with blade and sandpaper. If one trims too much, or if rot requires repairs, new wood may be fit in place, glued, and made to blend as if the old-growth tree felled, cut, planed, and shaped by hand one hundred years ago were destined to be joined with the new-growth one largely processed by machine in recent months.
A hollow-core Masonite door is much less expensive, but the carpenter has less freedom. It consists of two sheets of pressed fibers shaped and textured to look like a paneled door and then adhered to a wood frame approximately an inch and a quarter deep; cut beyond that allowance, and the hollowness gapes dark and flimsy. The floors of century-old houses often dip and bulge to noticeable degree within the swing of a door, and depending on the material layered on the floor and the height of the opening, the installer may have no choice but surgery — cutting into the hollow parts of the door and then gluing a block between the sheets.
Thus was I employed by the street as the collegiate panoply strolled by: parents and preppies and dark-eye-shadowed lads, lovely young ladies ruined with tattoos from wrist to neck, lovelier ladies in spring dresses, professors in their conscientiously gaudy or anachronistic outfits, and men and women both with the manifest beauty of open eyes and a ready smile for strangers. The young children are the best, though; they watch intently, craning their necks as parents pull them along the sidewalk, because saws and hammers are interesting. The solid, sure things in life — doors, floors, roofs, and walls — are the province of the carpenter, and there’s something of a mysterious meddling to our tasks.
And there’s a thread across history to our practice, which I saw in the practices of others after I’d finished my work, cleaned up the more conspicuous evidence of my presence, and eaten my lunch and rumbled out of the neighborhood in my van (which now stalls at selected intersections). Along the way, peddlers stood by their tables, selling knickknacks. A man with white socks sat leaning against a bank wall playing guitar. A painter chipped away at an old iron fence, while his partner faced the other direction, leaning against a lamppost. People in their roles ever do as they do.
The old buildings have long stood on that steep hill, and their windows have reflected parades of human variety — in dress, in manner, and in occupation. The roads have experienced the evolution of vehicles. (How did horses and carriages ever manage such steep inclines?) And the neighborhood has held its character in an unspoken message from one generation to the next.
Waiting for the change of a traffic signal, brake pressed hard against the forty-five-degree pitch, I pushed a small piece of plastic into my ear and sent my voice across the state, leaving a digital message that I’d begun the journey home, and I wondered how fast I would have to drive to catch the last rays of springtime light on my own block. As they tend to do, clouds were drifting in from the west.