In 1997, my father-in-law Dale and his neighbor Tony, sitting around the remnants of my wife’s college graduation party, looked up at the canopy he’d rented for the occasion, discussed the cost, and decided, as much for their own amusement as to make money, to start a business charging for the temporary use of tents, tables, and chairs for parties and events.
These are not camping tents—the basic structure is an interlocking aluminum frame, covered by a vinyl canopy, ranging in size from 10-feet square up to a 20-foot-by-40-foot rectangle. It gets put up, then strapped down to metal ground stakes or cement barrels to keep it secure. Early on, there were lots of business partners and plenty of available labor—it was a neighborhood thing—but as time went on, the cast of characters changed, and the mainstays sought help elsewhere. It became a multi-generational family affair, which is where I come in to the story.
Over the past 15 years or so, I’ve been a part of it all, beginning every April with setups for rowing (crew) races at Princeton University, and ending in December with a tent to cover the animals at a Living Nativity in Trenton. We’ve set up a lot of tents and delivered thousands of tables and chairs, in all kinds of weather—windstorms, rainstorms, hailstorms, snow, stifling heat, and cold that made you wonder if an ungloved hand would stick to the metal frame pipes.
For a few hours each week, I’ve gotten to know much of Hamilton and the surrounding towns, one backyard at a time. Regular annual events and repeat customers are familiar anchor points during the quickly passing summer months. Every year in late October, we take a flat-bottomed boat ride across Lake Carnegie in Princeton, setting out from Shea Rowing Center with tent apparatus loaded, and head out to a small clearing in the woods off the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park towpath; for me, this marks the end of the season just as much as Labor Day. We work on an alternate calendar, including an every-four-year rotation of graduation parties, where kids who you’d swear just graduated high school are suddenly finished with college degrees.
I would later wash my hands, of aluminum dust and the whole idea of X-rated surprise parties for nonagenarians.
Weird stories are inevitably accumulated during such a long history, but one that immediately comes to mind as an example required traveling as far as we ever have for a job, about an hour north on the New Jersey Turnpike. (It was actually about a 45-minute drive for most vehicles, but our 33-year-old box truck, nicknamed Betsy, is restricted by a governor that limits the top speed to about 60 MPH.) We suffered a flat tire on a small stretch of no man’s land between the Turnpike and a local highway. Neither AAA nor the Turnpike Authority claimed the area as their responsibility, and I vividly remember jogging through Perth Amboy just after 6 p.m., looking for a tire place that might be open—to no avail.
By the time we got the tire fixed, it was dark. We proceeded to the customer’s house, later than expected but ready to set up two large tents in the backyard; he was giving a surprise 95th birthday party to his mother. The best part was, she lived in the same house with him and the rest of his family—she just rarely looked in the backyard, hence the surprise. Actually, the best part (or maybe we’ll just say the “most interesting” part) was that the guy also hired a midget stripper for his mom, because as he succinctly put it, “she’s into midgets.” I would later wash my hands a bit more vigorously than usual, of aluminum dust and the whole idea of X-rated surprise parties for nonagenarians.
To top all that, the homeowner’s electrical service caught fire from a lightning strike, about two minutes after we got there. Determined to finish without further delay, we ignored the rapid accumulation of emergency service vehicles around the house, set up our tents and skedaddled, arriving home well after midnight.
Sometimes, people will generously bestow a tip—usually this comes in the form of cash. But sometimes it’s greenery of another kind, as when we were each given a banana plant sapling by a regular customer whose backyard looked like a little piece of the tropics had been transplanted to New Jersey, complete with tiki bar, palms, and yes, plenty of banana trees.
Except for the occasional job squeezing a 20-by-30 tent onto a 20-by-28 deck, tent work is hard physical labor but not too mentally demanding—pretty much the opposite of writing. It’s also unlike writing in that it involves working alongside other people, getting out in fresh air, and being reliably compensated for one’s efforts.
One reason I’ve done it for so long—other than the fact that we do have fun most of the time—is that it provides a kind of balance, a yin to my everyday yang (or vice versa, I always forget). One definition for yin and yang describes them not as opposites, but as complementary forces interacting to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. This seems true to my experience; I wouldn’t want to do tents 40 hours a week, just as writing without these often strange real world interactions would seem barren and uninformed.
As our tent crew has gotten older, there have been a few concessions to age and improvements to the process. We now use a gas-powered jackhammer instead of a sledgehammer to pound stakes, and we get our directions via GPS after years of following vague descriptions and recollections (“You know, the guy with the three cars and the dog…make a left at the big tree”).
Keep your eyes open this summer (and your ears, the truck’s rather loud), and if you spot the Great Cover Ups crew, feel free to beep or say hi. I’d go on, but it’s time to wrap things up—duty calls, and these tents won’t assemble themselves.