Long, long ago when I was a mere child, I would visit my grandmother at her home in Baltimore. It was a typically fascinating grandparents’ home, with a dusty basement full of strange treasures, walls decorated with fading family photographs, an ancient, fruit-laden cherry tree, and all sorts of adventure possibilities for a young boy. The house had a front porch with several rocking chairs where we would sit to watch the comings and goings of the neighbors while Grandma shucked corn or cleaned snap-beans for dinner.
Sometimes, we would hear the clip-clop-clip-clop of horseshoes on asphalt followed by a deep male voice crying, “Jun-n-n-n-n-n-k!”
The horse was chocolate brown, like the driver seated on the wagon behind him. The rickety wagon creaked and moaned under a load of bed springs, old furniture, gizmos and gadgets, all heaped and tied with ropes, rattling and banging away as the old man guided the tired horse down the avenue towards our home.
“Jun-n-n-n-n-n-k!” he yelled again, and I remember my grandmother rising from her seat and briefly disappearing into the house, emerging with two chairs, their seats torn, one metal leg bent. She ambled down the steps with a chair in each hand and made her way to the curb.
The horse seemed to stop at exactly the right spot without being told, and the old black man with the silver hair and worn bib overalls climbed down from the rig and approached my grandmother, removing his grey floppy hat as he did so.
“Ma’am,” he said with a nod. Then, putting his hat back on his head, he took the chairs and hefted them up onto the already precarious load. He adjusted his ropes to hold them in place, tightened his knots, then climbed slowly back into the seat. He tipped his hat to my grandmother, who had already returned to her beans, and with a flick of the reins he was off again.
“Jun-n-n-n-n-n-k!” he cried as he disappeared up the road.
The junk man would take whatever castoffs you wanted to get shed of, somehow making a living by the adage that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.
Here in the Sonoran desert, we have our very own junkman: neotoma lepida, the Desert Packrat. Packrats build their nests, or middens, out of the cast off stuff of the desert and the people who live here. Packrat middens can be huge; according to some sources, they go through a cycle of use, abandonment and reuse that can last for centuries, with each rat generation building on the work of the previous owners.
If packrats limited themselves to cleaning up desert trash, they would be doing a fine service for humanity. But unfortunately, they have grown fonder of the stuff of human civilization than the stuff of the desert.
Modern packrats have learned to build their middens in the engine compartments of automobiles. And what a wonderful source of terrific nest-building materials they find there. Colorful wires, for instance, which are not only great for sharpening rodent teeth, but add pop to any rodent redecorating scheme. Vacuum hoses, nipped into small pieces, make excellent toys for packrat youngsters. Insulation and carpeting can make a dull packrat bachelor pad a regular chick magnet. And next to hunting and gathering, the favorite pasttime of packrat boys is partying with packrat girls.
Not only do they create havoc under the hood, but they drag all sorts of wonderful things up into the engine, creating something of a fire hazard. Pieces of cactus, sticks, aluminum foil, wrappers, whatever colorful and shiny objects catch their fancy get dragged back home.
So, we’ve been rounding up the local packrat population in our PETA-certified, no-harm-no-foul packrat jail. For bait, we hang a photo of a fetching, scantily-clad female packrat on one wall…
Actually, peanut butter works very well. Crunchy, of course.
Once trapped, I reassure the rat that he is not going to come to any harm. I then drive out into the desert and set the prisoner free, while loudly singing the popular sixties song “Born Free.” Warning to Calvinists: the following contains disturbing words. You are advised to skip this paragraph.
Born free, as free as the wind blows,
As free as the grass grows;
Born free to follow your heart.
Live free and beauty surrounds you.
The world still astounds you,
Each time you look at a star.
Stay free, where no walls divide you;
You’re free as the roaring tide,
So there’s no need to hide.
Born free, and life is worth living,
But only worth living
’cause you’re born free! —Born Free, Don Black, John Barry
And with that, I open the cage and the little packrat leaps to freedom, in search of treasures and promiscuous females.
I miss the junkman.