A Man for All Seasons

Man for All Seasons Column final

The stars were the hardest part, he tells me, showing off the American flag he has painted on the side of a haphazard-looking shed, an agglomeration of boards, lattice and scrap plywood that sits smack in the middle of the wide, muddy space. When stencils failed him in his quest to neatly frame the nation’s firmament, he says, he used a cookie cutter to “get ’em right.”

Surprisingly, the “water shed” is as solid as the man showing me around his community garden plot at Walker Farm. He is P.J. Russell, and he resides in Providence, but it’s out here that he really seems to live. On the day I visit, the 70-year-old is in his element, walking straight and tall and projecting like a character in a Turner Classic Movie.

Russ, as he likes to be called, talks about working the soil, growing peas, tomatoes, garlic, watermelons and other things. Rotating his crops so he doesn’t exhaust the soil. Relishing the hard work he’s plowed into this 83-by-42-foot plot for a decade now.

We take the stairs to the “upper floor,” a reinforced plywood roof with gutters to channel precipitation down into industrial-size blue plastic barrels. In this offseason, if you could call it that, Russ has already collected about 200 gallons of snowmelt and spring rain to use during summer dry spells.

From the top of the shed we can see Hundred Acre Cove and its marshes. In the summer, he sees everything — sailboats, osprey and the rising green of the 20 or so plots of his Walker Farm neighbors. “I know everybody — ‘Hey you want a hamburg? You want a hot dog?’” he half-pantomimes. It is a very social place.

We head back down, past the protective boundaries of his kingdom lying in wait, rolls of wire fencing that he’ll install to keep out crop-stealing pests, some on four legs and some on two.

Russ is grinning as he picks up his saw and starts through a board. “Work” isn’t a word he uses for his labors out here in the place where life comes out of the ground and the stars shine even on the brightest days.

“Eat, play, garden, exercise,” he says. “The outside — tons of stuff to do.”

copyright 2017  Kris Craig / The Providence Journal / 2 Much Time design

Putting It All Together

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‘Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.’

— J.M. Barrie, author of ‘Peter Pan’

Standing on a ladder inside the Strand building in downtown Providence, Joseph Bautista was framed inside a small opening in a very big brick wall as he worked to replace a window on the building’s Mathewson Street side. I didn’t get more than his name, didn’t ask if he was a window guy, a builder or a carpenter specializing in the installation of windows.

But this much I could see: He labored on a ladder, Sisyphus with a saw, scaling the rungs again and again to fit a brand-new window into the 102-year-old wall. He sized and fit each board, nailed it in place and headed back down for another piece until the window was more than just panes. And then on to the next.

He reminded me of my late friend and neighbor Bob, a regular guy who learned a trade young and worked hard at mastering it. Bob knew floors like nobody I’ve known, and he was insanely good at installing and fixing them, mostly the industrial kind — carpet, wood, tile, vinyl — in places as big as malls and as small as my kitchen. To me, Bob was the Tom Brady of the conjured world we walk on, a master of all that is uniformly and beautifully flat.

Last year Brady signed a two-year contract for $41 million.

There’s no Super Bowl in the trades. Guys like Joe or Bob never make millions even if they’re the very best at window or floor installation. Their victories are quiet and often unseen. But they are victories still, everyday triumphs of astute perception, seasoned analysis and measured response.

Their fields are altogether different, and every Tom, Bob and Joe has his own game, his own playbook. But each knows both the joy of a play well executed and the pain of a botch. Maybe that’s why so many will be watching the Super Bowl on Sunday night. Maybe, beneath the height of the stakes and the froth of the spectacle, what they really hope to see is what they pursue at work every day: a job consummately well done.

copyright 2017  Kris Craig / The Providence Journal / 2 Much Time design