Urban man meets match on a lawn in suburbia


IT WAS A MILD December day, one of the last chances before winter hit that a guy would have to suck the leaves off the lawn with a power mower. I stood on my parents' yard in the suburbs of Kansas City, trying to look like I knew what I was doing, like I was a guy with suburban skills. Like I wasn't too dumb to figure out how to attach a leaf-catching bag to the lawn mower.

There were power mowers in my past. I grew up using them. However, in the intervening years I had left the grasslands, and moved to a Baltimore rowhouse. There, instead of a rolling greensward, I had cultivated clumps of grass trimmed either by a push mower, or in dry years, a pair of scissors.

Out in these spacious suburbs there was plenty of room to swing a rope, especially if the rope was the starting cord of a power mower. I looked down at the gleaming metal machine, and felt like a stranger in a strange land, a push-mower guy in the land of four-cycle engines. The surroundings were familiar, but the turf-battling equipment had changed.

For instance, the yank-and-swear method of starting the power mower was gone. It had been replaced by a new, stand-up-straight procedure. I stood behind the mower's handle, and pulled the cord toward me, as if I were opening a kitchen cabinet. As I pulled the cord I had to keep my hand clamped down on the throttle mechanism on the mower handle. It only took me about five minutes to figure out that without your hand clamped on the handle, the motor wouldn't start.

Fitting the leaf-catching bag over the lawn mower's chute, however, was a big challenge. This canvas bag was a vital component in my mechanized effort to "rake" the leaves. Instead of removing leaves with a hand-held rake, the way I do in my rowhouse back yard, I was attacking them with the suburban guy's best friend, the power mower.

The mower's blades would chew up the leaves and spit them out a chute located down by the mower blades. The bag would fit over the chute, and and before you could say, "God bless gasoline and half-acre lots," the leaves would be off the lawn, mulched, and sitting in the bag.

Snapping the leaf-catching bag onto the mower was one of those suburban-guy skills I had lost in my years of rowhouse living. I had become an urban guy, a dynamite parallel parker, but a lousy leaf bagger.

I positioned the leaf-catching bag six ways to Sunday on the lawn mower, but couldn't come up with one way to get the bag's opening to fit over the mower's squarish chute. Quickly I got that same stomach-churning feeling I used to get back in high school geometry class when I was supposed to insert a rhombus into a parallelogram. Or something like that.

I had an insight. Maybe I had the wrong bag. Sure enough, I had been trying to fit the leaf-catching bag that belonged to the household's old mower on the the chute of its new mower. In homesteads on the grasslands, mowers come in multiples. I snapped the new bag on the new mower, started the engine, and began sucking leaves off the lawn.

After a few trips around the yard, the bag was filled with leaves. It needed to be dumped. In the small yard behind my Baltimore rowhouse, I simply dump a pile of leaves in a plastic bag, the kind we put everyday trash in. I stick the empty bag inside a battered metal trash can, stuff in the leaves.

But out here, there was leaf-dumping apparatus. Leaves go into "lawn bags," not trash bags. Both are plastic, but lawn bags are larger than trash bags.

Moreover, the lawn bags receive their leaves while sitting in their lawn bag holder. This contraption consisted of a two-wheeled cart that looked like the dolly a deliveryman uses. At the top of the cart was a removable metal rim formed into a rectangle. I slipped the empty lawn bag over this rim. The empty bag billowed in the wind, its "mouth" was held open by metal clips fixing it to the rim.

Slowly I emptied the leaves from the mower bag into the plastic lawn bag held in the lawn bag holder. Soon I had this big-to-bag transfer down pat.

When it was time to close the lawn bag, I had trouble. I pawed through the lawn bag box, looking for the twist ties, the kind I use to tie trash bags. I found none. But on the bottom of the box I found an illustration showing how to tie the lawn bag to itself, thereby creating handy-dandy handles I could use to tote the bag.

It turns out no twist ties are necessary provided you have mastered another suburban guy skill, origami for lawn bags. Eventually I got the bag shut, but never did manage to create any handles.

After several hours of "raking leaves," the mower ran out of gas. I figured it was a sign to call it a day. The lawn looked good. It was green and virtually leaf-free.

I lined up the bulging black lawn bags at the edge of the glistening green lawn, and felt a sense of accomplishment. The stuffed bags were my trophies, signs to the passing world that a man had battled a yard on this spot, and had won. I was only a visitor to the suburbs, but I felt as if I might fit in, if only I could learn to tie a lawn bag.

Pub Date: 12/07/96

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