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Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Place In the Heart

The store is in a slightly seedy streetcar suburb built in the forties. Out front are two display windows framed by shiny black tile. On the tile are painted in crisp clear script of multiple colors many names like GE, Singer, Pfaff, Lewyt, Kirby, Eureka and such. The display window on the left is chock full of vacuum cleaners of all shapes and sizes, uprights, canisters and the old style tank types that look like some Buck Rogers rocket ship. In the other window stand a white washer and dryer with vacuum cleaner accessories lying at their feet.

When you push the door open the bell jangles obnoxiously. The hydraulic hinge, at the last second slams the door shut so it rattles the plate glass. The floor is brown and black tile and you can tell the building is long and deep as soon as you enter. Rows of vacuum cleaner bags are neatly arranged on the pegboard wall to the left. Refrigerators of various colors line the right hand wall; side by sides, “over/unders” and twenty year old Frigidares with rounded corners and chrome lever handles like a fifties car door.

Washers, dryers and stoves of white, harvest gold and olive green form a back-to-back center aisle. At the rear of the room is a waist high glass counter filled with out of date sewing machine parts. In it are plastic cogs for decorative “zig zag” machines, spindle bobbins no longer in use and antique boxes of needles. When you step behind the glass counter you have to turn right then quickly left like some little Alice in Wonderland trick to make way into the bowels of the old building.

The smell is musty with dust, buffing compound, sewing machine oil and aerosol paint. Two large workbenches line the wall on the left. They are covered in a low pile carpet stained with age and sweat. Large mounted vices stand prepared to grip and hold firmly. High shelves with many drawers and cubbies hold screws, nuts, bolts, needles, more bobbins and electrical connectors. Everywhere the eye travels there is an endless myriad of sewing machine, vacuum cleaner and appliance parts. Repaired items stand tagged and ready like a testament to diligence and resourcefulness: a product of a man’s hands and mind, like some kind of mini autobiography.

You continue past the benches to an eight-foot tall door covered with a cracked and aging mirror. When you push it creaks and moans opening smoothly on well-oiled hinges. You can hear its weight when it slams back shut bouncing a little as you walk up the concrete ramp into a huge and dimmer space.

Here the ceilings are twelve feet high or more with unpainted and exposed rafters. The temperature has risen noticeably. Cinder block walls stained with mildew house transom windows way up high. A row of eight to ten old Singer treadle sewing machines waits incongruently in silent patience on the left wall. The aged oak cabinetry contrasts in a somehow pleasant way with the decorative satin black wrought iron base and treadle. Ten-foot high wooden shelves like an endless world of pathways are spilling over with even more parts stored in drop front cardboard boxes and neatly labeled. These shelves are lined up thirty feet wide and fifty feet deep like some child’s haunted dream of a high walled maze.

To the right is a work area with a drain and a bare light bulb hanging down to illuminate the labor of him lying there under a washing machine tilted back, leaning precariously. He is reaching into the guts of the machine, concentrating and biting his tongue while peering over the bifocals on his nose. He wears a denim apron with shined black shoes. I continue down the narrow passage created by this menagerie towards the back doors. They are two large wooden affairs that you pull inward stepping out onto the small concrete loading dock on the alley. You can feel and smell the urban history here. The winos always gather under some bushes behind the restaurant four doors down.

Sometimes they will see him taking a break while he smokes a cigarette. When they approach he will give them one of the cigarettes and maybe a little change from his pocket. His voice will change like he is talking to a child. They’ll respond with heads humbly bowed as if they somehow believe in him. Then each will turn back into their worlds somehow knowing something that is forever left unsaid.

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