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Please, Big Mike,
Keep Building Cleveland
by Joseph Patrick Meissner


I am so tired. My legs have no feeling. For five hours in the hot noonday sun I have been mowing the lush green spring lawn. This is an old-fashioned push mower where the mower only goes forward when you push the black metal hand bar and drive forward with your legs. Also the mower has not been used since last Fall and the tank is filled with old gas that has lost its potency.

My foot stands on the mower base, my left hand clasps the starting bar, and my right hand pulls on the rope starter. Nothing. Pull again. Nothing. Another hard tug. Nothing, pull again, and something in the motor coughs but dies, again and again. Finally on the tenth pull (yes, I had pumped the gas with the little rubber button), the engine starts and I let it run for several minutes as the motor turns faster and faster.

The lawn should have been mowed a week ago when the grass had just started sprouting. Now there are clumps of little green forests all over the lawn. The mower will not cut through these. I have to press down on the handle bar which lifts up the front blade and it chops away at the jungle. You get the idea. Even worse, I do not wear my Viet Nam veteran baseball cap, and the hot sun has sapped my naked head.

Finally Sisyphus has completed the mowing labor, or is it Hercules and his twelve labors? Now comes my mistake. Having finished the lawn, I unload my oil can and the small gas tank from my car and set these into a slot in the garage. I crave an hour's rest, but there is one more labor--take the car for a wash and vacuuming.

I drive to West 65 where a hand car wash faces St. Colman Church across the street. It is run by four elderly gentlemen who look older than me, if that is possible. The price is $13 for an "in and out" wash and vacuuming. "Tips are welcome" proclaims a sign on the wall. So after my car enjoys its weekly cleaning, I pay $13 and give a five dollar tip. Is that enough? Or is it too much? I remember how happy I was as kid to get a good tip after hauling two heavy golf sacks six miles around the hilly Sleepy Hollow golf course.

Now I can go home. I can bury myself in my bed pillows until this evening

I drive west on Lorain and then turn right down the pock marked bumpy side street after West 85th. Ahead on the roadside I see a car stopped with both tail lights blinking emergency. As I pass by there is a huge muscular man with his mammoth paws on the car trunk pushing the vehicle. In the driver's seat is a young lady steering the stalled vehicle.

The car stops. The man rests, his breathe coming in short heavy bursts. The young lady-probably his girl friend or wife--gets out of the car while her right hand tugs on her skimpy black tight shorts.

I drive past and smile as I see them stuck on the road margin. Stupid thoughts flood my tired brain. There is this acute pleasure of enjoying somebody else's misfortune. Does this mean that the gods are smiling on me but frowning on them and I can delight in my divine good fortune? Is that the feeling you delight in when you pass somebody's highway accident? Why do we slow our cars and look at such scenes?

No, I do not laugh. Leave me, silly thoughts. I feel sorry for the young couple with their disabled gray coupé. But I reason, I will not rejoice but this is still not my problem. If they were irresponsible and ran out of gas, let them deal with it. This is a good lesson. It is only a few miles to the gas station. The walk will do them good. This is hard love.

Furthermore I cannot waste my valuable lawyer's time. I charge $350 an hour and why should I forego that fee for them? They could even be serial murderers for all I know. Should I risk my life to help them?

Anyway I press down my brakes in the middle of the road and back up my newly washed shiny black car. Why do this when I have already endured the heat of the day and only want some sleep?

I even think of this big guy-probably smelly and no bath in three weeks-- sitting in my immaculate new car.

I press the button to roll down the side window. A blast of hot air hits me. "Do you need help? What is the problem?" I half-shout.

"We're out of gas," the man turns toward me and I see his huge biceps sticking out like a billboard decorated with all sorts of colorful garish tattoos.

"Are you sure it's a gas problem? Are you sure it isn't something more serious like a fuel pump?" I do not carry spare fuel pumps ever in my trunk.

"No," he asserts, "it's nothing like that. We need gas. The gauge's been on E and I have been warning her."

This is ironic. Only an hour ago and I still had the gas in the container for the mower in my trunk. Now it is sitting at a distance on the garage floor next to the mower.

What should I do?

The man's black baseball cap sits backwards on his head. He asks, "Do you know where's the nearest gas station? Is there one on West Boulevard?"

"No," I respond, too quickly. "You have to go all the way down Western to 117th."

"Are you sure?" he challenges me, "Isn't there a station on West Boulevard?"

"Oh, that's right," I recall, "There is a Standard BP at Lorain and West Boulevard." Funny, but I never think of that station as on West Boulevard.

"Do you have a gas can?" I inquire, hopefully.

"Nahh," he grunts.

Well, I start thinking, I can go home, get the mower gas can and return.

"Maybe," he wishes, "They have one at BP." He looks at me rather forlornly.

"Okay, get in," I offer, "I'll drive you to the station." I disregard his killer appearance.

He opens the door and climbs into the passenger seat. He's a big guy, but not fat. Muscles ripple everywhere.

We drive a half block to the stop sign when we hear the wail of an emergency vehicle siren. I stop immediately at the intersection as I see the EMS truck speeding toward me from the right crossing street. Suddenly a car darts out on my left side, directly in front of the oncoming emergency vehicle. Then another leaps out. Both barely avoid a horrible collision and cross over the road. This is like cars running railroad crossings as the train rockets by.

"Oh my Lord," I exclaim, "we almost witnessed a huge smash-up." The ambulance speeds past.

We turn left slowly behind the emergency vehicle and drive down West Boulevard. I reach out my right hand while my left guides the steering wheel and shake hands. "My name is Joseph," I offer. "I'm a lawyer."

"They call me, 'Big Mike.'" He counters.

"What do you do?" I inquire.

"I am an iron worker."

"Are there any still left?" I am thinking of all the iron workers who once worked in our Cuyahoga valley, For decades 40,000 labored at good jobs in the steel mills. Now all but a few thousand are gone. Did I help put them out of work with all the environmental legal cases representing the neighborhood groups surrounding the valley?

"Are you working in the valley?" I interrogate him.

"No, I work on buildings. Right now we are building the new hotel on Lakeside, next to the Convention Center."

Good, I think to myself. Right now Big Mike is helping Cleveland.

"How long," I inquire, "have you been doing this?"

"Seventeen years." There is pride in his voice.

"We are also working on the bridge as well as another big building project."

I ponder some more on Big Mike's mission. This is all good to hear. "Yes," he continues on, "I feel so good every time I pass by a building or construction project where I worked. I think, 'I did that.'"

"Are you a union worker?" I think of my Dad who must have been a member of the Carpenter's Union for some fifty or more years.

"Yep, all 17 years." His voice again betrays satisfaction. We pull into the gas station

Mike tells me, "I want to get a plastic tank. She needs that. I told her she was out of gas. I told her several times. It said 'e' so long on the dash. But she would not listen."

"Women never listen," I console him.

"That sure is right," he quickly agrees.

He gets out of my car at the station. I think he will probably find they do not carry gas cans. I park with the car facing out of the station and turn on my latest educational CD on the Middle East.

A few minutes later, he opens the front passenger door and hops in. "Here, I got it," he sounds triumphant, holding the filled red plastic container. "And I did not lose a drop.

"Oh, don't please spill any," I beg, "My partner will smell it and that will be another problem of more complaining."

So we circle around through the traffic and drive back to where the dead car should be. "I am a lawyer," I say again. I give him my tan colored business card.

"What kind of one?" he holds the card up to his eyes and studies it.

"A good one!" I smile. It is my small well-rehearsed joke since I often get that question.

He laughs. We finally complete our driving circle and see the car. We drive behind it and park beside the road. He gets out. He holds it and his girl friend tries to take the small tank of precious fluid. She tries to put the spout into the open gas line. But the spout pops out and dumps gasoline all over her hands.

Finally, working together, they pour the gas into tank. Afterward, she comes back to my car. "Thank you so much," she says to me through the open car window.

"Yes," I admonish, "he told me you did not listen to him."

"Yes, that's right."

"Listen to the man in the future," I continue my free lawyerly advice, "Stand by your man."

She grins, "Okay."

"Thank you so much for stopping," she is grateful and I will not charge her the $350.

"That's okay," I state. I hand her my business card. "If you need a lawyer just call."

"What kind of law do you do?"

"The good kind." I get to use my joke twice today.

I then volunteer, "I'll stay here and make certain the car goes."

They both get in their car. The motor comes to life, and they drive off toward the freeway.

She is the driver and Big Mike sits obediently in the passenger seat. She waves her hand out the driver window and I hear Big Mike shout back, "God bless you."


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