Tuesday, January 26, 2010

WOTD- polished

January 25, 2010 polished
When I was a teenager, back in Pleasant Hills PA, we lived in a 10 story apartment building where the average age of the tenant was something like 77 years old. It was a nice place, not like a tenement building, with a nice lobby and a club room where we once held a YM-YW Valentines party. Because the average apartment housed two people of considerable age, I found it a solid setting in which to practice my entrepreneurial skills. About every 6 months I posted a sign in the Laundry Room offering my services.

Capable 16 year-old girl willing to do laundry, polish and vacuum, cook meals and babysit.
Prices negotiable.
Call Cori 655-4547 apt. 102

I sold Avon. I had a laundry service. My sisters and I babysat. I cooked meals. I cleaned and polished.
All those businesses had their pros and cons. The pro, most often, was the two dollars an hour I got for cleaning and polishing, and the 75 cents per hour we got for babysitting. The cons included the hours of conversation I was forced to endure with old ladies who insisted I sit in their living rooms and fold the underwear I had just laundered for them. Con, I believe, is a rather harsh word because in reality I didn’t mind. I knew they needed company and I could make good conversation and found their lives to be quite interesting. Sometimes the medicinal smells of their places got to me and I made sure to chew on a piece of spearmint gum when I worked, though more than once I was told it was unbecoming for a young lady to chew gum.
On Tuesdays, Thurdays and Saturday evenings I walked up two flights of stairs and down the carpeted hall to the Soboslay’s place. Mr. and Mrs. Soboslay were kind and gentle people. They were both so short I could look down on their snowy white heads while they were standing, though their bodies were a little bent and compressed at the shoulders and it appeared that they were bowing to me when I greeted them. Mrs. Soboslay always wore a crocheted shawl and thick hose that wrinkled around her ankles. And she always wore a dress, usually one with a dainty print, and there was always a belt cinched around her tiny waist. Their place smelled of medicine, too, until I started to cook. I cannot even recall what I cooked for their dinners. I would be so much better cooking for them now. But the aroma always improved when I was there cooking. And so did my mood. I loved the Soboslays, and they loved me. At least I perceived it that way, in the shallow teenage way of feeling things. They smiled when they saw me and it made me feel good when they opened the door, shook my hand, showed me to the kitchen then moved to their recliners and watched Wheel of Fortune while I cooked. Made me feel like…I don’t know…like they felt safe around me.

One day a woman called from one of the 7th floor apartments. She wanted me to come polish her furniture. I tapped on her door, stepping back far enough for her to see me through the peephole. She opened it to reveal large antique furniture lining the walls. Tall wooden pieces with lots of history sunk into the wood. Thick, heavy curtains covered the windows. It reminded me of the old black and white movie The Haunting, though I suspect memory intensifies the reality of it. She hardly said hello, just told me to go ahead and polish away. “Stuff’s under the sink” she said, as she made her way back to the bedroom. I scrunched down and searched under the kitchen sink, finding a stack of soft cloth and a small can of Endust. I had worked a good half hour when she came out to inspect my work. I knelt there a little nervous and she looked over the hutch I had just finished. I promptly stood erect when she shrieked “This will simply not do!” I asked if there was something I had missed.
She took the dry cloth from my hand and skimmed it over the surface of the hutch. “This…” she whined, “is dusting.” She turned to face me eye to eye. “I am paying you to polish!” She took the can of Endust and headed for the kitchen, bending over and twisting her head, the way pigeons do, as she dug into the cupboard. She mumbled something I could not understand, though I have a pretty good idea what she meant.
“This,” she said matter-of-factly, “is wax. You use this to polish wood.” She proceeded to show me how to dig the cloth into the wax and scrape it out with the fingertips. She ran the wax across the wood. “Always go with the grain, never against it. And use some muscle. The more you move the softer the wax gets. When it’s worked into the wood nice and evenly give it a rest. At least twenty minutes. When it’s cool and set go back over it with a soft cloth. Again, use some muscle, though a little less than you did with the wax. Buff it, always with the grain. Fast. Fast. Buff it till it shines, till it’s polished.”
She handed me the small tin can and a pile of the soft cloths from under the sink.
I was sweating by the time I finished.
Ms. Whatshername shocked me into training that afternoon, and I needed a tall glass of water and a ½ hour of I Dream of Jeanie re-run to recover. But I have never forgotten the lesson. I know how to care for wood. Not that I do it well. But I know how. That’s worth a whole lot more than $2 an hour.

I still have my blue-green Avon bag. I actually gave it to Kate last year to use as a temple bag. It’s now rather hip and vintage. For years, when Kate was just a baby, I used that bag as my own temple bag. You could tell, walking through the temple parking lot as people made their way to and from the temple doors, who had once-upon-a-time succumbed to the entrepreneurial echoes of “AVON CALLING”. I think of the Soboslays when I flip on the TV to cook dinner and Wheel of Fortune is on. And I think of the wax woman when I rub wax into my granite counter top…let the wax cool and dry for a handful of minutes, then buff it for all I’m worth. Granite looks great polished.
Good thing I wanted a pair of ski’s when I was 16. Good thing my mom could not afford them. I found a way to buy them myself, and in the process polished a bit of good useful experience into myself.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

WOTD- Typewriter

January 19, 2010 typewriter
Before the computer became a fixture in every comfortably civilized household, the typical American home had a typewriter. Dave’s house had one. I can still hear the whack, whack, whack of thin metal arms rising up and slamming against a sheet of paper on top of a hard rubber roller. His mom, Helen, is in the small study at the front of the house, chipping away at a pile of recipes. She inserts index cards in the back of the rubber bar and rolls them toward the front, shifting and shimmying until the thin blue line at the top of the card is set directly under where the keys will hit. Her recipes are all tidy and readable and uniform in size. That was the Connors’ house.

But we were the Hansen’s. I guess our house was not typical. Anyway, after Dad left we didn’t have a house. And we never did have a typewriter that I know of. We moved to the apartment on East Bruceton Road and Mom went to work so we could have cupboards full of Campbell’s Soup. It makes me pause now, thinking about those years when canned soup filled our teenage bellies, because Mom was such a great cook. She could feed all the little hungry mouths hunkered around her table with a sack of Idaho potatoes and a block of butter. And if she had real time and real money to buy other things, she could whip up the yummiest feast my vivid imagination could ever conjure! Gingerbread, and toffee squares for treats. Crispy Fried Chicken. Tender roast beef that fell apart in strings, smothered in delicious hot gravy beside chunks of golden roasted spuds and strips of pumpkin-orange carrots with deep dark edges that had been steeped in beef juices in the oven while we were at church. Mmmm, yesss-irrr-eee. Smell it now, walking in the front door of our old house on Old Clairton Road. Run up the stairs and shimmy out of our Sunday dresses, flipping our shoes off our feet and into the closet, pulling on some pants and a tee shirt and running downstairs hoping Mom had not yet opened the oven to check on the progress. If you happened to be there when she leaned over the open oven door and lifted the lid off the old iron pot, you might get a sampling of a strand of beef and the second half of a chunk of carrot. That smell, on a Fast Sunday, was heavenly torture. Once I covered my nose with a dishtowel so I wouldn’t suffer the aroma of temptation. We changed our clothes and set the table extra fast the first Sunday of every month, Fast Sunday, and there was an unspoken agreement among us kids that whoever said the blessing prayer made it short and sweet. There had been a handful of years in my childhood when Mom was at home and we had these kinds of meals regularly. I call this the sweet spot of my youth, and I am grateful to have had it. I knew the softness of the skin of the woman who bore me, and I knew the sound of her voice after school. When she had to go to work to support us (this was in the days before they could garnish a man’s wages and make sure his children were fed) I knew who she was, and I knew she loved us, and that made Campbell’s Soup sufficient.

When it came time for us to turn in our Term Papers in high school, we had a bit of a problem at the Hansen household. There was no typewriter. Even if there had been a typewriter I would have been in trouble, because I didn’t know how to type. Libby took a typing class, and so did Ann Marie, but for some reason it slipped out of my class schedule. To this day I have to look at the keys on the computer to see what I am typing, and the backspace key is the most often used key on my keyboard. By the time I was a senior teachers required a typed term paper, at least 10 pages long. Through my whole primary schooling I had been permitted to hand write all my papers, so it was a real blow for me to have to figure out where and how to find a typewriter and then figure out how to type my paper on it. This was more of a struggle emotionally than most people will allow themselves to imagine. It slapped as a reminder that I was different. My circumstances were different, and my talents were inferior, and it sealed in my mind that I did not fit in. Seriously, how sad is that, that I should let the lack of a typewriter and typing skills lower my sense of self? And yet it was the case.

My angels must have known about this struggle, because one day, sitting at my desk in English class, I heard TeriLynn Green mention that she had already completed her paper and it went super fast because her dad had an electric typewriter in his office that had a ball head with all the keys on it that spun around as she typed. Having learned by that point that sometimes you just needed to jump in and do something scary instead of thinking about it, I asked her if maybe I could hire her to type my term paper. She suggested that if I read it to her she could just type it and she would not charge me anything. To this day I think of Teri Green as a good and kind Christian. She had no idea what a struggle this issue had been for me. No one did. Heck, I don’t even know where Libby or Ann Marie typed their papers, and I don’t know why we didn’t talk about it. But I do know that Teri Greene was a kind and gentle reminder that the world is not always meant to be a hard place. I took my stack of index cards with my quotes on it and I randomly wrote my term paper on the fly. I was in a funky place that year. They have given it a definition now days, and treat it with anti-depressants. But back then it was just my own funk.
I did not get an A on that paper. Nor a B, C, or D. Mrs. Emmerling wrote a great big red F on the top of my paper, along with a paragraph about how ill prepared I was and how it was obvious I had not read the book (she was right) and how disgraceful it was that a supposedly “good Mormon girl” lacked the integrity to do the work and be honest about it, and she had expected so much more of me blah, blah, blah. She never talked to me again. She never called on me. Her husband, who was the Student Council Advisor, and I was student council president, refused to meet with me. They were Born Again Christians. I was one of those cult Mormons.
I’ll tell you what, when I think Christian I think about that term paper. It was graded by the advisor to the Morning Prayer Group at TJ High, who hated me. But by golly, it sure looked good if you squinted your eyes. All those block letters lined up beside each other. Footnotes sitting at the bottom of the page like front door steps. God bless TeriLynn Green for her kindness.

Sunday I made one of Mom Connors’ recipes. I dug it out of the red cookbook Ann Marie made for us for Christmas years ago. I had made copies of all those note card recipes after Mom Connors had died. Jilly got the cookbook, but I have my copies. I look at the tidy list of ingredients and the instructions following it and I imagine her short Roy-daughter fingers jumping across the keyboard of that old typewriter in the study on Rolling Green Drive in Bethel Park PA. There’s a pot of beans baking in the oven, and a Pirates game on the TV in the living room. The drumming of the typewriter keys ticks away the time and we are all home and we are all safe and all is right with the world.