Erik Crosier mourns how the information age has brought about the demise of one of his favorite markers of masculinity: the toolmen.
As a boy growing up in the great state of Indiana, Sears was a symbol of masculinity. Really, it was a Mecca for grease-stained believers with faded jeans and calloused fingers who made a weekly pilgrimage to the shopping mall, a place they’d otherwise avoid the way the average person takes the long way ’round the landfill. You’d find these men hovering around the door a good fifteen or twenty minutes before the place would open. The crisp morning air was full of cigarette smoke and grumblings, talk of a new cordless drill that was needed or the router bit that was going to pull the project together. Some of the men, like my father, would have young sons in tow. It was from these days of wandering among the riding mowers and table saws that I formed an opinion of what it meant to be a man, even if I knew there was more to it. Men went to Sears, I reasoned. Men bought socket wrenches in both metric and SAE. When there was a problem with a man’s house or with his car, he tried to fix it. Men…well, they went to Sears.
It was around this time when I was also spending a lot of time listening to (though I probably shouldn’t have been) the raunchy radio program and Hoosier institution, The Bob & Tom Show. One of the guest comedians the show hosted was an up-and-comer by the name of Tim Allen. The routine Allen used for the show centered on the connection between men and Sears. In his estimation, the two were linked to the point of synonymy. Speaking for men on the whole, he said “Sears. Damn right, Sears.”
This routine was a favorite of mine and I thought the comedian had a lot of talent. So I wasn’t surprised when not very long after his appearance on Bob & Tom, this Tim Allen fellow landed himself a television show, the sitcom Home Improvement. I was thrilled to see that Allen’s main character, Tim the Toolman Taylor, and his sidekick, Al Borland, were loving nods to the home improvement gods of PBS, Bob Vila and Norm Macdonald, men my father idolized something like a football fan following his favorite players.
Sears. Bob Vila. Home improvement and Home Improvement. The Toolman. These were formative concepts of masculinity in my early years and helped to forge the man I ended up being. But importantly, it wasn’t just through the direct influence of my father that these components became a part of my estimation of manliness. These elements were everywhere in our culture. Tool commercials were regularly on television. People seemed to have a general understanding that men fixed things and disliked dancing. Men went to Sears.
Somewhere along the line, this seems to have changed. I’m not a television person and I stopped watching it almost entirely over ten years ago – so maybe my disconnect from this cultural barometer forced me to miss it, but it seems like one day I woke up and men no longer went to Sears.
Of course, there are still tools. And PBS continues to air home improvement programs. Sears, too, is still operational. But times have changed and so have perceptions. Among the changes in perceptions of masculinity that pains me most is the disappearance of the toolmen.
To me, it seems that this is a combination of two factors: first, a shift in cultural masculine ideals and second, people’s natural aversion to (and I would say fear of) wearing fundamentally different hats in life. A case in point: one time in grad school, a classmate buddy of mine had to give me a ride to the auto parts store to buy an alternator for my old truck. My friend was astounded that I was going to put it on the truck myself.
“You can do that?” he said.
Well, of course I could. Just because I was in a liberal arts graduate program didn’t mean I couldn’t change an alternator. Anyone who has done so knows it’s a dirt simple operation: little more than changing a light bulb, except you gotta use a little elbow grease.
With this example in mind – this bafflement that a person can balance changing an alternator and getting a master’s degree – it’s perhaps not surprising that the toolmen have disappeared from our cultural awareness. After all, it’s a softer world now than during my formative years. At that time, Starbucks was a word most of us had never heard, but just the other day I saw a gruff, mustachioed guy who could have easily been mistaken for a toolman walking out of Starbucks clutching a towering concoction with a three-inch cap of whipped cream on top.
Whipped cream. Damn right, whipped cream.
Perhaps I should have seen it coming, though, even without watching television for so long. After all, Sears made a distinct effort to distance themselves from their toolman image in their 90’s marketing campaign called, “The Softer Side of Sears.”
I’ve found myself looking for the toolmen. I’m sort of like a birdwatcher looking for an elusive, endangered species. Its defining characteristics: dirty hands; worn patches on the knees; an unshakable faith that he can fix the car, the wall, the radio…
I’m glad to say they’re not extinct yet.
You’ll find them in a garage. In a front yard cursing and smacking a lawnmower with a screwdriver. And, yes, you’ll find them at Sears. But you won’t find them on Twitter. You won’t find them in commercials. You won’t find them as characters in the latest movie at the Cineplex – that is, unless they’re comedy relief.
Knowing these men still exist is comforting, but I hate to see a group lose its voice, its place in the cultural awareness. These men aren’t hip to the trends of social media, but they have a voice. And it should be heard.
As for me, I like to consider myself a master at straddling the line – and I think you should too. Yes, I teach online, eat organic food when I can, and even occasionally go to Starbucks (for tea, mind you!), but I also fix things around the home, swap out car parts, and visit Sears. So while I might write erudite articles like this for the Internet, often times I’ll be typing them with grease-stained fingers.
photo by zombieite / flickr