I spotted the problem right away. The sliding doors in the old Southern house I was remodeling would barely budge, and, when I looked closely at the overhead track, I could see that the wheels of the doors' rollers were worn down to nubs.
Sixty years of wear and tear...
The clerks at my town's hardware store took one look at the metal roller I offered them and began to laugh, telling me that such mechanisms were once the finest in the land but no one had seen their like in years. Their only suggestion – a long shot, they admitted – was to telephone Addkison Hardware in Jackson, Miss., a venerable establishment, one of the oldest and largest in the South. Try to speak with Mr. Putman, the store's longtime manager, they said. He knew every box of tools and fasteners in the building. He was the grand old man of hardware.
I imagined a 1940s office cubicle with Mr. Putman at his desk – a green visor above his glasses and black armbands on his starched white shirt – ordering window panes for the White House or outfitting pipeliners in Patagonia.
The next day, I phoned Addkison, wondering if the switchboard operators would put me through to Mr. Putman. I thought I'd probably have better success phoning Henry Kissinger. But somehow, after a few moments, a polite grandfatherly voice spoke in my ear, "How can I help you?"
I began stammering out my request. I was a carpenter in Monroe, La., I explained, and I'd been given his name.... Hurry up, I told myself. This man might be on the phone with the governor of Mississippi, and here I was bothering him about a door in Louisiana.
Mr. Putman asked me if I happened to have the door roller nearby. Was my roller a Cardovan-Mulkesey 1499-DCX (or some such name)? Yes, it was, I gasped.
"That's what I thought," Mr. Putman said. "Well, I don't have any here in stock, but Charlie Westerby in Milwaukee has two cases of them. What I'll do is call him in a moment and send you a pair this week. They run $39.95 the pair. When you receive them, see if they fit, and, if they do, you can mail me a check here in Jackson."
"Mr. Putman, sir," I said, "that's wonderful news, but, well, uh, you don't know me. Don't you want a credit card or a money order or some kind of bank reference?"
"No, no," he said, "that's fine. I've got your name and address. Let's just see if this works and if it does, you can send me the check. I'm sure everything will work out. And if I can be of any help to you in the future, please don't hesitate to call. It's been very nice meeting you. Goodbye."
I looked down at the telephone in amazement. A week later, the parts arrived – a perfect match for my door. I immediately sent Mr. Putman a check and then, a little later, tried to wrap my thoughts about the strangeness of this business transaction. A man who had never heard my name in his life, who didn't know that I even existed, had taken the time out of his schedule to hear my somewhat outlandish predicament – and then had gone on not only to solve my predicament, but all the while accepting as sole bond and surety the word of a stranger on the telephone.
Was it all those clichés about the South – friendliness and openness to strangers – coming true after all? Or was it simply his vocation as a hardware man?
I didn't know the answer then, and I still don't, but today I never pass a hardware store without feeling a small jolt of happiness: all those bins and drawers of cotter pins and leaf hinges, all those soldierly rows of shovels and rakes, and somewhere arranging and ordering it all, a hardware man like Mr. Putman – gentleman and man of honor.