Perennially late to the party, I met Mike and Frank a week ago on a Monday night when I had been up for over thirty six hours and was looking for something to keep me up till nine. I had given up on watching anything on TV after that, and had almost given up on making it until eight-
Until television's Great Roulette Wheel spun one last time, and I landed on the History Channel.
And there they were. The Kerouac and Cassady of Junkdom. "The American Pickers". Out on the back roads of Flyover Country in their white van, free of drugs but flush with cash, guided on their cellphone by their trusty tattooed human wire haired pointer Danielle, who back at their store, collected leads on farms and outbuildings and sheds full of stuff no one could bear to throw away. Buildings full of "Made in America" from the era when things were last made in America. (The occasional Vespa and preserved Rolls-Royce the only exceptions). Penny arcade games, wind up record players, old ESSO gas station signs, antique mouse traps. A Duck-billed dinosaur bone. It is all out there, through the parting of the grassy weeds, right up to a door of the about-to collapse barn guarded by a geezer who seems to not want to sell anything. In go Mike and Frank picking and digging, picking and digging. Thirty feet under a mound of trash they find a miniature trombone, or an antique paint can-it does not matter. They want it.
"I can't sell that", says Geezer, "It was my Daddy's. He thought the world of it". Our boys make him an offer. Geezer looks pensive. Geezer is thinking, or what passes for it on camera. "Okay", he says, "I got to get at least a hundred". Mike and Frank look dubious. "Fifty", says Mike.
"Sixty", says Geezer, and he and Mike shake hands.
And away the Pickers go in their the white van, miniature trombone in hand, on this road trip that never ends, looking for "Man-tiques". Danielle, tied to the store, smells adventure. She wants to go picking with them. Just once. She tells them so.
Oh no. Mike and Frank want no part of it.( I don't blame or judge them. They don't want a woman in the van. I don't want a man in the house. We would get on well together.)
Diogenes looked for an honest man. I look for a happy man. Or two, in this case. And in Frank and Mike- I have found them. Men to envy, whose avocation is their vocation. Men who like what they do for a living, jumping out of their van with the enthusiasm of puppies as soon as they see that tell tale rusted metal in a farm field with an old garage surrounded by school buses. How many of us could dare to say the same, here in this country where every employer now sneaks through e-mail or data mines Facebook looking for excuses to replace the disgruntled with the timorous and obedient.
Every day, every ride for Mike and Frank is a trip down a metaphysical Route 66, a Camino Real, for those fortunate enough to get out and drive it. Junk is only an excuse. Like Kerouac's Dharma Bums, Mike and Frank are out smelling the midnight mint.
It smells like freedom to me.