Bel Air Witch Project

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.


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One Response to “Bel Air Witch Project”

  1. pimashburn Says:

    I laughed out loud…this is your best narrative to date. And that really means something, because you spin an excellent yarn. I hope this means you’re getting a little extra sleep??? (Having people around to feed you ain’t so bad either.)



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