You can't pick your neighbors. And it would be boring if they were all completely well behaved, without any strange little idiosyncrasies. You learn to love "Watches TV In His Garage All The Time With The Garage Door Open Man." You come to be fond of "Decorates Every Holiday With Lighted Lawn Art -- Even The Obscure Ones Like Boxing Day and Dental Floss Week -- Woman." And what neighborhood would be complete without a "Two-Stroke Engine Man"?
You know what a two-stroke engine is, right? There are big internal combustion engines like the ones on automobiles and eighteen-wheelers (four-stroke engines) and then there are the cute little versions that come in gas-powered edgers and chainsaws. Two-stroke engines.
Bright and early every Sunday and holidays, Two-Stroke Engine Man is out in his backyard with a tank of gasoline and some motorized appliance. He fires it up and he's off! Grass? Gas mower! Leaves? Gas blower! Edging? Gas edger and then gas powered weed trimmer. Hedges? Gas hedge trimmer! Trees? Gas chainsaw! While the rest of the neighborhood is sensibly trying to sleep off their weekend or holiday carb binge, Two-Stroke Engine Man is out there slaving away in his yard. When there's no scrap of greenery left to prune, cut or blow, he moves on.
"What's he doing now??" my husband demanded last three-day weekend. "He spent all yesterday morning mowing the yard! He can't possibly have anything left to do out there!"
"Power washing the stucco." And the windows. And his covered patio. And the driveway. And then using a paint compressor to do his trim.
Once a month, Mr. and Mrs. Two-Stroke have professionals come over to do their air ducts and their carpets and their drapes. Their house and grounds are always spotless, look perfect, and they are so much better to have as neighbors than "Plays Rap Music Without The Bad Words Bleeped Out So Loud Your Little Kids Can Hear The N-Word Across The Street In The House With The Doors And Windows Shut Kid." It's cute when Two-Stroke Engine Man fires up another gadget and my daughter comes and asks me, "What's that noise?" It's not cute when Without The Bad Words Bleeped Out Kid fires up his woofers, blasting slang for ethnic people and women all over the place, so that my three-year-old asks if the song is about "Ho-Ho" (her word for Santa Claus), then says "What's a [bleep]?"
Anyway, we thought for a while that Mr. Two-Stroke had a lot of pride in his yard, but over the years we've come to understand that he just has a thing for two-stroke engines. My father has speculated that the reason we don't hear him fire up on Friday nights is because he goes to a little bar frequented only by people with the same peculiar passion. "Hey," he says to someone. "I just got a new gas powered blow dryer so my wife can do her hair faster in the morning."
"That's nothing," says his new friend. "I hooked up a go-cart motor to my inhaler. Wanna see?" He depresses the plunger once. Vrunn-nanunnunnunn! Twice. Vrun-nanununnn! Three times and brammmmmmmmm! the device roars into life. Exhaling, the guy puts the inhaler to his mouth and depresses the trigger. Braaaaaaap! The engine roars! A ten horsepower mist of medicine is propelled into his lungs with enough force to knock him backwards on the floor!
"Fantastic!" says our neighbor. "What can you do with my aquarium pump?"
"Bring it over to my place and we'll have you hooked up with a ten-gallon Jacuzzi in no time! While you there, you can see the power-flush system I rigged in the bathroom. I threw my plumber's helper away, because I can flush an entire cat down the toilet with that baby!"
But alas, not every tale has a happy ending. With gas prices pushing $3 a gallon, things have been quieter from Mr. Two-Stroke Engine's yard. He seems subdued lately. Not himself. He hasn't been humbled to the point of asking to borrow our little push-mower yet, but the raucous sounds of joyful internal combustion have definitely grown less and less frequent.
I asked him the other day what he planned to do because of the gas prices. With a grim, but optimistic look he told me he was waiting patiently.
"For what?" I asked.
"Fuel-cell lawn mower technology. Maybe nuclear power."
You gotta dream.
Comments and engine specs to Alex.Queen@gmail.com.
This article first appeared in the August 28, 2005 issue of the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.