YES, VIRGINIA ! There Are Still Real People Who Do Real Things !

| June 3, 2011 | Comments (0)


When I was a kid  half-a-century and more ago, the busy main street a block from our house was full of tradesmen’s shops.  There was no supermarket and nobody had ever heard of malls.There was the butcher in whose window hung lines of sausages, rows of plump, freshly plucked chickens and mounds of rosy red hamburger. Sometime my Grandmother would send me over to him to get marrow bones for her soup. His showcase was lined with juicy pork chops dressed with sprigs of parsley and decorated with little frills of cut-out white paper. There were usually large birds – turkeys and ducks – laid out for festive occasions.  Everything was fresh; no frozen stuff in that shop.

Next door was the shoemaker whose huge blackened hands were always busy at a machine,  stitching, cutting and polishing. My shoes would visit him every few months for a re-soling. I only stopped wearing my oxfords when my feet got too big for the Size 4 that I wore when I was 9 years old.

What I could no longer wear because I was growing too tall and gangly, we passed on to relatives or gave to the local church. Today people turn their noses up at used hand-me-downs.  A few years back, when I retired and no longer needed office clothes, I tried to give my suits , jackets, shirts and ties  away and was told that people would feel insulted if they were pro-offered used clothing. “Vintage” does not exist in my neighborhood ! 

Further down the block were the tailor shop and the baker’s. I remember my Mother had an evening dress made by the seamstress in the tailor shop. It took weeks to finish and  was a thing of beauty,  mint green crepe with lots of sequins. I think she wore it once and then it hung in the closet for the next 30 years until she passed away. But a thing of beauty had actually  been created and made on our street by ordinary, real people ! 

Today my neighborhood has a Main Street that bears no resemblance to the place of my youth when stores housed business that really made things. Gone is the cobbler’s shop; today when your shoes wear down a bit, you don’t have them repaired, you throw them away. Who ever heard of re-soling  pair of $200 sneakers?  The tailor and the German butcher are also casualties to “progress”. They closed  a few years after the trolleys stopped running.

The old movie palace on Main Street has been transformed into a supermarket. But there are still traces of its ancient grandeur. Recently on a shopping trip, I made a wrong turn by the cat food aisle and found myself in a cavernous storeroom which had been the cinema’s main theater. The soaring arches and gilded columns were still in place as was the vaulted ceiling with its celestial frescoes, all looking down on cartons of toilet tissue and hundreds of mops. Sic transit gloria.

As I pass the store fronts on my way to the train, I see a nail salon, a cell phone store, a pizza parlor, a tax preparer’s sign and a “department store” that advertises itself as the Plaza 99-Cent Emporium. Nearly all of the items  for sale – I saw nothing for 99 cents – are made in China and are imminently disposable. I did find a coconut-scented vaseline made in India which I use for dry skin  therapy during the winter months.

The coconut odor in that unguent is outrageously exotic reminding me of Hindu temples. One temple in particular comes to mind, the Rat Temple outside of New Delhi which is dedicated to that noble little animal. At feeding time huge vats of milk are offered to the temple’s rat population. Thousands of the creatures come for a meal. I remember going there with a sophisticated European woman who told me she had seen everything and that nothing could surprise her. When we entered the temple and she saw the multitude of tiny diners silently lapping away in contented unison, she fled the place screaming. Never say you’ve seen it all till you’ve been to the Rat Temple!

This past Memorial Day I visited the countryside north of New York City and was taken back to a seemingly simpler time and place. My host, a spry 90 year-old farmer living in a 250 year-old clapboard house surrounded by picturesque fields, reminisced as we drove to some of the old villages in his county. As we skirted  newly planted acres of hay and vegetables being worked by laborers, he recalled perilous, U-boat infested voyages he had taken in 1940  in the North Atlantic as a merchant seaman ferrying supplies to Britain as part of Roosevelt’s Lend Lease program.

Later we talked to a  farmer on his tractor, spent a pleasant half-hour with a visiting electrician and had dinner with my friend’s nephew, a carpenter. He described an archeological dig he had participated in as part of a government-mandated project to assure that ancient, buried remains would not be disturbed by modern construction works. Living in the city it is easy to forget that there are still people who actually do useful things. We hear too much about networking, Wall Street  wheeling-dealing, PR and focus groups. What does all that mean and add up to anyway? What are those people really doing ?

After a morning planting seedlings in my friend’s vegetable garden, I began to feel a bit liberated from the urban bubble where everything seems to come from “somewhere” but precisely where we city dwellers don’t know or seem to care. While out-sourcing is a reality of the modern international economic order, we must take care that our minds are not similarly transported to distant,  unspecified realms leaving us anchorless and drifting, urban robots and zombies feeding at fast food troughs.

A trip to the country every now and then should be obligatory therapy for all us city dwellers. And if you’re really motivated, a visit to the Rat Temple might not be a bad idea !

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