The Letterpress Mafia

You can’t hide from letterpress.

How far had we gone? So far away from everybody we know that Shop Boy could actually wear his cowboy hat without fear of having one of you see me and laugh.

Look, it’s for sun protection. Shop Boy ain’t no cowboy, as any of the folks at the Dallas airport who looked at me, as I merely carried the hat, with “oh right, you’re a cowboy” looks. Bah.

It’s sort of like the time Mary took Shop Boy to the menswear department to buy a suit for a wedding we were invited to attend. She immediately fixed upon a dark charcoal, pinstriped, double-breasted suit. Nice.

Till I put it on … and Mary started squealing. I glanced at the mirror and nearly tore a seam.

“Where’s the violin case?” Mary chortled.

The salesman was a bit put off by the two hyenas mocking his merchandise, but good heavens, there it was before our eyes. Shop Boy the mobster.

True story: Growing up in Cranston, R.I., right next to Providence, young male grandchildren of immigrants were taught to fear two things: God … and Raymond Patriarca, and not necessarily in that order.

Patriarca was the “reputed” crime boss of New England, running the mob from the cozy, Italian-American confines of Providence’s Federal Hill neighborhood. Pretty neat place, actually. When you pass an archway with an inverted, gilded pineapple attached, you are there. Mary just calls the place Pineapple Hill.

But whatever we call the neighborhood, we say it with respect. Because for all we know, that pineapple is hung upside-down as a warning to other pineapples not to mess with the mafia. There’s a funny old state slogan (not endorsed by the chamber of commerce): Rhode Island — lobsters and mobsters.

OK, another funny one, from a Don Bosquet cartoon of a highway sign that reads: “Welcome to Rhode Island. Keep your smart remarks to yourself.”

With their stories of mob mayhem, our parents probably just wanted to keep what they thought were their squeaky clean kids out of some of the more, um, adult Providence neighborhoods. We weren’t squeaky clean, but we listened enough and did watch enough TV crime news and mob movies to believe that if you got crossways with the mafia, well, you could run but you couldn’t hide.

So here Mary and Shop Boy were on a nice, relaxing baseball journey to Tucson, Ariz., and we gotta go looking for trouble.

Didn’t have to look long.

Turns out there’s this guy (there always is) with a letterpress printshop in a lovely, nowhere place in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains partially ringing Tucson that’s called, appropriately enough, Catalina.

OK, so it was at Shop Boy’s urging that Mary sought out Jim Irwin of Letterpress Finesse. It is in Catalina that Jim keeps a printshop in a tiny cinderblock out-building that lost half its roof in the last windstorm. The cactus and odd desert plants are everywhere, huge, weird and blooming, the view of the mountains is breathtaking.

Jim’s got a Vandercook 4T, a beautiful old C&P and a Kluge, plus a power paper cutter and a bunch of cuts and old lead type in there. There’s a rack at the back of the shop where Jim’s rollers are protected from the rare Tucson rainstorm by an old, extra polymer sheet from Boxcar Press that forms a sort of awning — Mary’s kind of place, I figured.

Now, Mary elbows me in the ribs if Shop Boy speaks too well of our competitors in this global economy. But geez, what Jim Irwin turns out of his little shop is just astonishing. A pro, this guy. Still, Shop Boy can only imagine what the poor man was thinking as we rolled up, Mary’s mom and dad — Wayne and Mary Mashburn — in tow, for an impromptu tour.

He was a heck of a lot more charming than Shop Boy’d have been, let’s put it that way.

So we shot the breeze a bit, got a little advice on rust from a guy in the Place That Rust Forgot — Electrolysis? Oh, yeah, Shop Boy’ll be doing that — and Mary and Jim quickly started dropping names of letterpress folks they knew, knew of, or had worked with. Dang, do these people all know each other?

Made Shop Boy a little edgy, to be honest.

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