"We're really hurting for work."
The speaker was a young man, maybe all of thirty, but maybe younger than that. He was part of a small crew taking down a tree next door. He saw me watching the operation from the back patio door and a minute or two later was at our front door, offering to make an estimate on some tree work in our own yard. In his opinion, the pine in the front needed elevated; a couple of small trees in the back should come down.
He looked at me and said "if you let us do any of it right now today while we're here, I'll give you an even better price."
I didn't have the heart to tell him that the likelihood of our hiring him or anyone else to take down the trees was slim at best. Warren does a lot of that work himself and our dollars are pretty much earmarked for other projects. I let him do the estimate and then stood outside in the cold while he did so out of sympathy for someone looking so young and so worn down.
His name was Daren and he talked his way through the estimate as he wrote it out. He had enough of a hills accent in his speech to be noticeable, so I surmised he may have grown up in southeastern Ohio.
Daren's hands were calloused and work-hardened, but his handwriting was tiny and delicate. The only place where his dialect slipped into his writing was when he wrote that the price was negotiable "a lil bit."
Daren talked about the company while he estimated the job. They had come over from Springfield, about an hour from here. They weren't getting much work in that area, so they were taking jobs farther away.
Daren said that he had a bigger truck with a chipper attachment, but that a flywheel had gone out and it would cost $1600 to fix. "I don't have that kind of money right now," he said, explaining why instead the crew was driving a pickup truck with a small trailer for hauling. He said by the time they paid for gas and for a dump to take the debris, they barely broke even on most jobs.
I told him about a local company that will take yard waste at no charge because after composting and mulching it, they sell the results back to landscapers and gardeners in the community. I volunteered to look up the number for him, telling him maybe he could dump the tree branches there on the way out of town. Daren gave me a piece of paper and asked me to write it down for him, thanking me when I brought the paper back out.
I wish I had just taken a pie or a tray of cookies from the oven and could have offered it to Daren and his crew. I wish I had a pot of coffee that I could have carried out to them. Not to play Lady Bountiful, but to let them know I knew that they were doing cold, hard work and that these are cold, hard times. But I didn't have any cookies or coffee and I couldn't think of any gesture, short of hiring them, that would have been meaningful.
Eventually they brought the tree down. The four young men sawed the trunk up, which they stacked neatly for our neighbor's fireplace, and carried the branches to the trailer. I heard rather than saw them drive off, imagining the drive back to Springfield and how much, if anything, they cleared on this job. I hoped they called the company I mentioned so they could lighten their load and save a few dollars.
I know I won't see Daren again. It was one of those small encounters that we all have - a stranger in the checkout line, the person riding the elevator at the hospital, the couple also waiting to be seated at the restaurant. All the same, I find myself wishing fiercely for better times for this young man who is trying so hard just to stay even, let alone get ahead.
I don't know what Christmas holds for Daren but I doubt it is a new flywheel. I hope at the very least it holds a year to come for him - for all of the Darens out there - that is less hurtful and more secure than the one that is just ending.
We could all use a year like that.