Drawn to hardware stores like kids to candy shops

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This time, the neighborhood e-mail alert was not about a missing cat. A newcomer needed a handyman, or "handy person" as he said, enlarging the field. I e-mailed him the name of a pro who unstuck our garage doors, the folding kind abandoned by the Yellow Pages. But in my dreams the recommended name would have been mine.

It's not being good at fix-it, it's being transfixed by it. Take the other day, for instance.

"It's like a candy store in here," I said, my eyes bigger than my Social Security.

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"Just be careful what you eat," said the grinning proprietor. He seemed to have dealt with superannuated youngsters before.

My quarry at the neighborhood hardware store was a replacement for what I held in my hand, a broken screen-door catch. But, for big boys who never got over their Erector sets, not even black jelly beans are better than being among ranks of wrenches, bins of nails, shelves of glue, and everything else you can think of to make things work.

"It isn't doing it," says a 3-year-old granddaughter summarizing whatever is wrong with whatever she's holding up. Motivation enough for someone easily diverted to the playground of minor repairs.

Some might think I failed to rehabilitate the tape measure she held up with the case empty, the spring sprung, and the 60 inches of tape trailing on the floor. But it was more fun than golf to rewind the tape while keeping the spring from uncoiling again. And I may yet figure out how they connect.

Mention hardware in the 21st century, and people assume you mean that which runs software. I go for that kind of hardware, too. You can keep the aerobics video; I have the exercise of finding why the computer screen warns that a particular part is "not found or damaged."

But hardware, old-style, is where you discover that the little item in your hand is called not a door catch but a strike plate, and, yes, it is available for a door 30 years old. The two screws (supplied) don't fasten through holes but slide through slots, letting the strike plate be aligned exactly. Mute testimony to the unsung infrastructure on which civilization depends.

What a break not to have accepted the all-purpose substitute at the chain hardware store downtown, but to hold out and find the real thing close to home. Still, a chain hardware store is where I found the handy kit for the garden hose, so the sprinkler can just be plugged in instead of screwed and unscrewed every time.

But swiping my credit card the right way and getting a printout receipt never made me think of a candy store. As I did on that hardware day, surrounded by temptation, waiting to pay my $14.76 for items handwritten on the bill. The strike plate was $2.04, a bargain for mute testimony.

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