Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Tyrannical Ten Cent Pieces

In our back yard we have a broken gas grill. All during last summer's yard renovation, workers dragged it, jammed it, and stowed it in various dusty locations on our property and, as a result one of its legs fell off. This left the grill precariously tilted against a brick wall, an unused eyesore in our new backyard.

I thought now and again of starting fresh, with a shiny new Weber, but decided not to after a depressing trip to the dump with my kids.

We went to get rid of a broken patio umbrella, a garbage can lid and a bag of, well, garbage. We drove along a dirt road leading to the pit of garbage. The dump looked like a brown moonscape with piles of dirt on either side of the car, and it smelled like piney mulch, which was a surprisingly fresh smell for a dump. Gwendolyn, my two and half year old, said "Mom, this place is dirty." By which she meant, this place has a lot of dirt.

For a dump, the Palo Alto dump is pretty good looking. Mostly, it's just brown dirt, good, fresh, rich looking dirt, at that. Every time I go, the place you get rid of your stuff moves. It appears that they fill a section to a certain point, then cover it up with dirt, redirect the road, and, viola, a nice, neat, somewhat attractive dump. The nasty secret of course, is that under all the fresh brown earth is a pile of dirty garbage.

We didn't see the actual garbage pit until we turned a bend. From far away it looked like the earth had a big cut in her gut and her insides were coming out. I saw an old pullout couch with the springs popping out, gigantic wooden spools that looked like they had been used for rope or cable, tinfoil, used paper plates, and once I heaved it out of the mini van...our broken patio umbrella.

Seeing all that stuff in the rich, brown dirt, while my kids were in the back of my car refreshed my sad and worried feelings about the earth. I don't want to keep cutting her open to get rid of my broken stuff. I want my kids to grow up knowing that their kids will be able to grow up, that there will be enough air, that the polar icecaps wont melt, that we won't be flooded, that none of us will end up environmental refugees, like Al Gore says we might.

And so, I went back to my broken grill with new vigor and determination to fix the damn thing. I took the girls to the place where we bought it and we brought the broken leg with us. It's black and has a wheel at one end. I gave it to Gwendolyn, who was wearing a pink tutu and I told her she could be the boss of it--she likes to be the boss of things these days. And that kept her busy while we waited.

It took awhile, but I felt encouraged, because as the salesman was selling a $1,000 grill to a middle aged couple he explained how important it is to buy a grill built by a company that's been around for a long time, so that if they ever needed extra parts in the future, they would be able to get them no problem.

I've come to the right place, I thought to myself.

When my turn came up I showed him the leg.

Oh, the P frame grill, he said. Yeah, we sold that a couple years ago. You need the bolts and the spacers.

Then he disappeared into the stockroom for a long time.

When he came back, he had the bolts, but told me they no longer had the spacers. But, he said, you can make your own spacers with a stack of washers.

At home, I had a bunch of washers from various Pottery Barn Kids projects I had apparently incorrectly assembled (left over parts are never very good, right?). I measured the spacers that were still on the grill by tearing a piece of paper to match them. Then I stacked my washers. Perfect.

That's all I could do while the kids were up. Once I got them down for their naps I went back outside. It was ninety degrees out and I was looking forward to a sweaty fight with the grill...mano a mano, girl against grill.

I pulled the grill from the wall and felt its weight lurch away from me. It was heavier than I expected, maybe a little more than the weight of my two girls combined, which is about 60 pounds. I grabbed onto it and jammed it back against the wall.

More prepared for its heft I pulled it away again, dragged it to a more open space and laid it down on its back so that I could work on it. I carefully let the weight transfer to the ground and then let go. When I did, the lid flew open backwards. The grates and brickets came flying out like I had hit the jackpot on some paleolithic slot machine. There were grill parts and black bits of charcol everywhere. But at least the grill was stable, not threatening to throw its weight on me again.

I soldiered on.

I put some logs underneath the body of the grill, a set up which afforded me good access to the set of holes I had to put the bolts through and had the bonus effect of giving me a very smug MacGuiverish feeling. Each bolt needed to go through five parallel holes. The jury-rigged stack of washers I had assembled needed to sit between the last two holes to keep the leg of the grill stable.

I had never taken such a close look at my grill before, and when I did, I realized that the main body of the grill, which heated up to 15,000 BTUs, stayed upright thanks to twelve 1/4 inch bolts, tightened in against twelve 1/2 inch plastic spacers. This project did not seem like a good one to solve with a do it yourself solution, like my inaccurately measured stacks of washers.

But by now I was curious to see if I could do it, and plus, the heat made me feel a little more stubborn that usual.

I ran a test on my first bolt. I threaded it through the first couple of holes and had to wiggle it a bit to get it through the last one, but it went through easily enough. I pulled it out, put it through the first three holes, stacked my washers on between hole four and five, and jammed it on through the last one. I screwed the nut on loosely onto the end of the bolt and stood back to admire my work.

I felt a rush of hopefulness. I was actually going to be able to do this.

I could already feel myself starting to fix other things that I wouldn't take to the dump. The applause of my fellow man was starting to ring in my ears, congratulating my good work at keeping this vulgar piece of refuse from landing in the Palo Alto dump.

Only two other bolts stood between me and doing my part to save the planet.

I started with the second bolt and immediately saw that there was a problem. With one bolt in, none of the other holes lined up properly. I took a different perspective and looked through the holes from inside the grill out, and indeed they were not lining up. In addition, the last hole I would have to thread the bolt through was difficult to see. A metal groove came up over the hole, and it seemed like I'd actually have to disassemble the grill some more, just to twist the nut on. The third set of holes looked similarly awkward.

Buoyed by my hopeful feeling, I tried to thread the bolt through anyway. It didn't work. The zig zag the quarter inch bolt would have to travel might have doable if the bolt was, say, made of playdough. Even if I could get it through, I was stymied by the way the last hole was hooded by steel. I had no idea how I would screw the nut on to the bolt.

I looked at the mess in front of me, the brickets, the grates, the charcol spew, and mouth of the grill which looked a lot like a dinosaur's jaw that had come unhinged, and felt angry.

The grill had cost me over $500. Three bolts and three spacers, representing in cost probably less than a dollar, had rendered it unusable. Was I really going to have to buy a new grill to enjoy a grilled hotdog this summer?

While I found the idea of spending more money on an equally shoddy piece of equipment irritating, I was really crushed by the fact that now I had this steel carcass on my hands. Sixty plus pounds of garbage.

Sure I'd look for some organization that recycles steel and gives new life to old crap like my grill, but really, that wouldn't solve the problem.

I wanted to abandon my broken grill in the driveway of the store where I bought it. If they made such a flimsy product, they could figure out how to get rid of it. But again, that didn't really solve the problem. If I took it to the dump or someone else took it to the dump, it ended up at the dump all the same, polluting my kids' future.

I was caught in a cycle of consumerism, and there was no easy way out. Over time, and with enough money, I had become accustomed to the practice of buying something new when the old one breaks. But the trip to the dump with my kids had woken me up to the absurdity of it. I saw how the old stuff clutters my house, how much work it is for me to clean it up, and then how once the clutter is out of my house, it just ends up in the ground. In one rotation of the cycle my house might end up functioning a little better and looking a little cleaner but, then the the Palo Alto dump would be that much more full.

And while I felt guilty for having participated in the cycle, working on the grill made me realize, it wasn't just me. So often, the products we buy are built with a short life span. Computers, cell phones, toaster ovens, and it turns out, some gas grills just aren't designed to go the distance. It's sad to say, but I had gotten used to my stuff having a short life span. Not only that, before going to the dump, I was actually looking forward to possibly buying a new grill. The companies I bought from and I had a nice symbiotic relationship going. They would build stuff that broke in about two years, send me a catalog, and then I would get something shiny and new for my house.

In the end, what was more depressing than the realizations about myself as a consumer, was the view into the fact that that there was a whole world out there designed to keep me in the cycle of wanting and buying.

Well, not this time. Our family is going to hop off the consumer gerbil wheel. We're just not going to have a grill. Instead of hotdogs we'll be having sandwiches. We'll enjoy our new grass and the satisfied feeling that at least this once we have stopped they cycle. We still have one grill headed to the dump, but we won't have another.

1 comment:

  1. Just when I was getting all excited about my new shades... a little guilt sets in as to what actually happens to the old ones. I'd like to think that because I'll be dropping them off at the Goodwill, they will end up in a house that really likes and needs them. But there's a really good chance they'll end up in that heap of dirt you wrote about where old crap goes to die.