TAKOMA PARK - Larry Hodes had the do-it-yourself concept, the steel pipe and all the time an early retirement allows, yet something was missing. He went looking for it on a recent Saturday at the local tool lending library.
Where else to spend such a sublime spring day but inside a trailer the size of a large Dumpster, fenced in chain link and barbed wire? The sun didn't shine on these many saws and hammers, nor on the workbench where Hodes spent hours pursuing visions of a dolly to wheel his canoe from place to place.
"It's not a high-precision job. If my dolly is three-eighths of an inch under, it's not going to hurt anything," Hodes said to Walter Rave, who for 17 years has been the Takoma Park tool librarian, perhaps the only person in Maryland to hold such an office.
A big man with a gray beard and ponytail, Rave was standing over a vise, helping Hodes set the rig to cut threads into steel pipe one arduous turn at a time.
"This end is good. It's ready to have threads cut in it," said Rave, gripping a metal crutch in his left hand as he stepped into the paneled library "office." Here he presides amid a minor riot of papers, steel cabinets, chalkboard, reference books, homemade shelves: "My infinite crud," he called it.
At 60, Rave reports heart trouble and painful blood clots in his leg, to say nothing of anxiety about the future of the Takoma Park Tool Library, which celebrated its 25th birthday last year. In annual budget discussions, the City Council has considered cutting the program before and is doing so once again.
"If the city wants this to continue to exist, it will," Rave said. "I'm tired of having a sword of Damocles hanging over my head."
It's an apt metaphor for a tool library, considering the metal implements dangling everywhere. There must be 1,000 hand, power and garden tools in the place, most of which were in the collection when Rave became librarian. Rave scrounged some from neighborhood trash and has accepted donations over the years.
Folks borrow tools and return them - or not. Or return them broken. Rave figures his old office chair offers him a view of human nature - a decidedly mixed picture.
"I have a list of people I'm trying to be watchful of," said Rave, who can work himself into a lather talking about chasing delinquent borrowers.
"It makes me angry when I have to do it, when I have to be on the phone begging people to be responsible," he said. "I shouldn't have to do that. Their parents should have done that."
After Rave's prodding with two phone calls, the person who borrowed a $73 jigsaw due back April 2 returned it Saturday. The same day, and after one Rave call, an $86 lawn mower due back April 23 was returned. The borrowers were given back their checks written to the city for those sums, as deposits are required for any tool worth $25 or more.
Before the deposit policy was imposed, around 1990, somebody borrowed a $90 belt sander and left town, Rave said. "I can't get them in North Carolina," he said. "Hell, I can't get them if they're in Takoma Park."
None of this behavior quite conforms with the public profile of this city of 17,000 people, famous for progressive politics and a commitment to social justice. Check the City Council agenda for the occasional appearance of signature Takoma Park items: "Interviews - Free Burma Committee; Interviews - Nuclear Free Committee."
This is the sort of thing that attracts someone such as Ria deNeeve, who said she moved to Takoma Park from Montana six months ago "to be part of a peace movement."
She popped into the tool library on a recent Saturday morning in hopes of borrowing a hacksaw - or something - to liberate her trail bike from bondage at the Takoma Park Metro station. About a month ago, she locked the bike there, then lost her keys in Washington.
"Is it a Kryptonite lock?" asked Rave, opening a discourse on carbon-infused steel.
It turned out deNeeve didn't have proper identification, and no one borrows anything without proof that they live here.
Nonetheless, said deNeeve, casting a look around, "it was nice to see the library. This is cool."
The question now is whether the City Council will consider the library cool enough to continue the program by allocating about $14,000 for next year, much of that for Rave's salary and benefits, with a few hundred set aside for tool replacement and repair. Rave works six hours Saturday and six hours Sunday, as weekend-only library hours were adopted in March.
The tool library budget is hardly stupendous in view of next year's $17 million projected city expenses, but skeptics among the mayor and six council members say they'd like to see more evidence that even this modest sum is spent wisely.
While acknowledging the library "does fit the Takoma Park ethos," Councilman Doug Barry said that when the council considered the fate of the tool library last spring, it seemed "a lot of money for not a whole lot of service to a whole lot of people."