She’s heard it all


Every one of us has said it: “Now I’ve heard everything.”

Some of us have used the same phrase several times, casually emptying it of whatever meaning it may have had.

Actually of course, none of us has ever “heard everything,” or even most of everything. It is really a way of expressing astonishment: “Yowzer.” Or perhaps a kind of withered cynicism.

But Sandra Lippens may be one of a small cell of people — including perhaps mainly bill collectors — who might very well say that indeed she has heard it all. The evidence of her authority in this regard is documented on the inside of the doorway to the shed where the varied, well-used, and perfectly useful inventory of rentable tools live at Tilton Tents and Party Rentals, at the Roundabout in Oak Bluffs. If you haven’t been there, then your neighbor, or your brother, your contractor or carpenter or painter, your floor sander or your gardener certainly has been — or will be. Or someone has been married in a tent and with other ceremonial equipment rented by Tilton.

I was visiting Tilton the other day to rent a floor sander; Sandra threw the doors of the shed open for me to load the machine. She delivered the instructions, explained the cost of the sander and the sandpaper, told me the tricks to operating it, and filled out the invoice while I lifted the creature into the back of my Jeep. Waiting for the invoice, I saw that the shed doors were decorated with an artist’s bittersweet collage of scarred bits of trashed machinery, broken promises, and downright scams.

Some of Sandra’s customers have left her notes about their adventures tackling the projects they rented tools from Tilton to complete, and about their failures to comply with the rental rules. Others have delivered their complaints, evasions, and tall tales in person or over the phone. These Sandra has transcribed and added to the doors, on which she has memorialized a decades-long trail of poor excuses.

Here is one example, perhaps an Oscar winner in this genre.

“I’d like to pay you, but I know this check will bounce.” Obviously, there is an exquisite clarity embedded in this one, and it makes a warped sort of sense, which makes it a standout. Sandra wrote it on the back of the door.

Thurston “Tebby” Tilton, a builder, began Tilton in 1974. He had accumulated a collection of construction equipment that he had begun to rent to others as he turned his attention to fishing. Sandra, a massage therapist, moved to the Vineyard in 1980, and before long, as Tebby took to fishing, she took to the rental business and expanded it. She’s been at it now for nearly four decades.

“May I take these now — will be by to pay for them later — much later.Some of Sandra’s customers know themselves very well.

Sandra is businesslike dealing with customers, many of whom are not especially skilled at working with the equipment they rent, and with some who take an Island-time approach to the rent-and-return schedule. But despite the peculiar customers and the complicated tools, most of which Sandra has never operated herself, she has a wry attachment to her customers and their ways. So she smiles resignedly, charges them what each owes and not a penny less, and records the transaction in her books, and on the doors.

“I would have had it back yesterday, but the blues are biting.”

Her equipment takes the beatings, Sandra records the explanations. “You mean the blade will loosen if it hits rocks?”

Of course, the renters have their problems too. “I just woke up. I have a sore throat. Do I have to pay a full 2nd day?”

Some items she just doesn’t have in stock. “Do you rent breast pumps?”

Often, the problem has been unreliable friends. “I gave it to Joe. Didn’t he bring it back?”

There’s always an explanation for damage. “I had the shampoo hose in the driveway, and the UPS driver ran over it.”

None of which should suggest that rental customers do not have real problems that they willingly share with Sandra.

“Do you have a Phillips screwdriver so I can tighten the sheetrock screws in the soles of my shoes?”

Or the familiar undependable-teenager excuse: “I was off-island and my son didn’t return the chairs, which got rained on and mud splashed which I then had to wash.”

After solving the problems for so many folks in need of the right tool, and after listening and cataloging the sad stories and magical yarns of hundreds of Islanders, it may be that Sandra Lippens has not heard it all. It may be that the Vineyard community, endlessly inventive and possessed of a tall-tale-telling DNA, may have more to give.