Archive for September, 2009

Colonial Days and Nights

September 28, 2009

Louise at the Colonial Diner in Middletown, N.Y., had a great expression for a takeout order: “Put wheels on it!” Ancient. But sharp enough to draw blood, she was. Louise had been at this a while. And she’d been on her feet all day. And she probably hadn’t had a cigarette break in a while. And you know what you want when she wants you to know what you want … or she moves on to the next table.

It was like one of the favorite stories Shop Boy tells on himself: the one about the bagel shop in Brooklyn. Having finally reached the front counter one morning and with half of New York City pushing from behind, Shop Boy got a little flummoxed — I mean, there were sesame, poppyseed, wheat, salt (Oh my gawd … with butter … could you die?!?!), pumpernickel, those brown-and-white ones, caraway seeds, sunflower, and of course six kinds of lox and 23 flavors of cream cheese … the possibilities were endless.

“You. What’ll it be?” barked the oldest of the eight guys working the deli counter this beautiful day.

“Uh…,” Shop Boy stammered.

The guy waved me away dismissively. “Eyyy, who knows what they want? Next!”

Ouch. Paved over like a pothole on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. But that’s another story.

By the time one of the younger deli guys took pity on me and agreed to take my order, I’d had another 10 minutes to practice it. And Mary asks why I order the same thing every time at restaurants.

For instance, let’s head back to the Colonial Diner. The menu had lots of great greasy spoon fare on there. And breakfast dishes all day. Salads and all kinds of fixins, too.

Or so I’m told.

The top item in the center panel of the menu: Colonial Beefburger.

Louise never let me get any farther. It got so that I’d blurt it out every time she even glanced our table’s way. Still, we kept going back.

Who doesn’t love a good burger, right? And the fries were dynamite. Besides, Shop Boy was convinced that the cheesecake would keep Mary alive. See, if you couldn’t tell, Mary loves antiques, houses of a certain vintage and, ahem, printing presses that have seen better days. Stuff that Shop Boy likes to describe as “old and wrecked.” Louise was her idol. And I swear … the chair fetish. Ooh. I’m afraid to sit down in my own home.

Anyway, there’s nothing more old and wrecked than Newburgh, N.Y. Mary fell for it at first sight, even though it was a full 30 minutes down the highway from Middletown. She didn’t have much use for me at first, though. She mistook my shyness for arrogance. Also, back then, Shop Boy was not quite so old and wrecked.

But she decided to give me a break, after more than a few nights at the diner. Shop Boy worked from 5 p.m. till 2 a.m. at the local newspaper. Mary worked there from roughly 10 a.m. till … Shop Boy pulled her by the arm toward the exit. (Shop Boy should have known then that he was in for some late nights with this one. But you know what they say about love … it can’t tell time or something.)

There was no way I was letting the girl drive home without a little coffee … and cherry cheesecake. And my charms, such as they were, wore down her defenses. We agreed to date. But only for a week, setting a deadline for the next Friday when we could either chuck it and walk away with no questions, or re-up for another week.

Then it was a month.

Then a year.

Then I asked her to marry me.

Which happened 20 years ago this week, October 1, 1989.

And Shop Boy has never looked at another item on the menu since.

Bel Air Witch Project

September 15, 2009

Deep down, we all know that there really isn’t such a thing as fate. Same for omens and most other things we’re superstitious about, right? God, or whoever else stranded us here, had the kindness — but perhaps the lack of foresight — to give us humans a free will: a choice of actions and reactions that will bring us great joy or sadness, riches and fame or anonymous subsistence, etc.

All of which is to say that, when you’re a mile or so from the end of a 50-minute journey, with threatening skies and two cabinets full of wooden trays of lead type in the pickup’s bed beneath a sketchily arranged tarp, go ahead and whisper, “Whew, we dodged that bullet.”

See? Free will.

And don’t blame God when the heavens explode in a biblical downpour that not only threatens your cargo but perhaps your very existence.

It’s just a coincidence.

A little spooky, though. Then again, Shop Boy had a bad feeling about this one all along.

We had signed on to help clean out an old printshop in greater Bel Air, Md. (Pronounced locally as “Blair” — go figure. But we’ve made enough fun of the locals’ linguistics. Perhaps they’re right and we’re wrong. They were here first.)

So off we chugged for Bel Air on a hot and humid afternoon. Our mission was to pick up the aforementioned type cabinets — one for Typecast, one for the Maryland Institute College of Art — and a Vandercook No. 1 and a Chandler & Price Pilot press for MICA’s Kyle Van Horn. But first, we just had to meet the good woman behind the good man who had run the printshop so many years ago.

Doris is no witch, but she is enchanting nonetheless, with shining blue eyes. We chatted a bit as she relaxed in a sunny housedress on the shady back deck of her home, unbothered by the constant traffic on the road out front.

She said she’d been out to the garage/printshop a few days before, the first time she’d set foot in the place in a decade. It had brought back good and bad memories. Once, it had been largely her domain. While her husband, Michael, ran the linotype machines, Doris ran the tight little shop’s Kluge,  big C&P, and the Vandercooks.

Mary complimented Doris on what was a pretty rare achievement back then, a woman who was a trusted partner, someone without whom the shop couldn’t function. A printer’s printer.

“Oh, I wasn’t a printer,” Doris said. “I just ran the presses.”

(Shop Boy got a chill — I mean, that’s what I always say!)

And as she talked more and more about working out there … I gotta tell you, it was getting a little creepy.

She looked at Mary, then back at me.

“Just don’t let her get you into that 3 a.m. business.”

I gasped and turned to Mary, who wouldn’t make eye contact, then back at Doris.

“Oh,” Doris said wistfully.

And suddenly, even as the skies grew gloomy and humidity began to close in all around, it was clear as a sunny day. Shop Boy was standing before his doppelganger … Shop Girl. Singing my life with her words, she was.

We even found — stuck behind a drawer — a neat little cheat sheet for sorting type that is eerily similar to the one Shop Boy drew up. I probably should have run screaming.

Instead, Doris wished us luck (especially Shop Boy), and waved as we headed for the garage.  The basic plan on the lead type was to empty one cabinet of drawers, load it into the truck bed, replace the drawers, then back the other emptied cabinet up against it to secure the trays from sliding out during the bumpy ride back to Baltimore. Then, reload the trays into the second cabinet and strap a two-by-four section against it to keep its drawers from sliding around. Sounded like a snap.

Or was that Shop Boy’s back?

Now, I couldn’t tell you the font (Barnum or something), but I can tell you the point size: 72. Whole big, full drawer. The 48 point was no picnic either. Oof! Drawer after drawer after drawer of this stuff. And soon we were soaked to the skin with sweat, a funny bit of foreshadowing in retrospect. Mary and Shop Boy threw a tarp over the cabinets, weaving a thin rope through the eyelets and tying the whole thing down just so … so-so, anyway.

We figured it’d be fine unless it really started to rain.


We also figured we’d better get going. But you know how that is. John, Doris’ musician son, began telling fascinating stories of his dad, his mom and the road. We’d probably still be there if not for the thunder that began rolling in the distance. And if not for Shop Boy’s eloquent answer when Mary got a little too interested in an old guillotine cutter and started making those cooing sounds.

“Are you crazy? Get in the truck!”

Besides, Shop Boy was a little spooked by what was behind the cutter: a brown sack covering all but the feet of …

“Is that, like, the Virgin Mary or something?” Shop Boy asked John.

Swear to god — oh, sorry — it looked like the statue had been kidnapped from wherever it had stood blessing passers-by and shipped off to Abu Ghraib. Saints alive.

“Oh, they’re all over the place in here,” John said.

Turns out Doris had a side gig repairing religious statuary, and in the years since her health had failed her they’d been in limbo. Shop Boy looked again at the Virgin, whose deteriorating feet looked like they must be sore.

Angry spirits. Just what we needed.

Well, by the time we’d said our goodbyes, it was looking like the skies would burst open. Lead soup was on the menu for sure. (At least maybe it’d clear off some of the mouse poop, right?) I pointed the truck toward home and tested the brakes a few times — between the light rain and all that lead in the back, stopping distances were all Mary could talk about.  I was thinking about how long it takes to get the mildew smell out of old, wet, wooden trays.

But the downpour didn’t come. And somewhere just outside of shouting distance to Typecast Press, Shop Boy relaxed.

True story: I’m sure I’ve told you before, but in Denver, my colleagues called me Rain Man for my ability to pick absolutely the wrong time to take a walk for lunch. The two- to three-minute, out-of-nowhere torrential downpours would leave me a wet rag sloshing back to the newsroom. That’s how rain works in Denver and much of the West: three minutes of hell and high water, then back to our regularly scheduled sunshine.

It rains differently in the East, but this was something else.

“Pull off!” Mary shouted. “You can’t even see! You’re scaring me!”

Shop Boy pulled into a gas station, figuring that by pulling up tight to the pumps, we could get some cover from the flimsy canopy. And it worked. A little. At this point we had no idea what the load in the back looked like. But we could hear the tarp whipping in the wind, and we of course feared the worst. Because the rain wasn’t close to letting up.

After a while, we just couldn’t wait anymore and decided to go for it. The storm was still roaring as we drove into the parking lot, so we decided not to unload and just backed the truck under a tree. Then we dashed to Mary’s car to go grab some dinner and wait.

Finally, the deluge ceased. Fat and happy on southwestern breakfast dishes, we rolled back toward the printshop, backed the truck up to the loading dock, and pulled back the tarp. Well, torn and tattered — and poorly arranged — as it was, the tarp had somehow kept the water off the cabinets.

It was like the rain had never touched the back of the truck.

Who could explain it?

Maybe it was Doris, the Virgin Mary or whatever hooded saint in the garage who had seen fit to spare this very old stuff. Maybe it’s just Shop Boy’s fate to keep amassing tons of equipment and lead, thinking I’ve finally finished, then seeing another pile where the previous one stood.

The Sisyphus of letterpress. A curse on my very soul for ever asking the gods, “Why me?”

I mean, if you believe in all that.

But we know better.