When Workers Were Human: My Grandfather’s Decency

When Workers Were Human: My Grandfather’s Decency

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My maternal grandfather died before I was born. Yet, seventy years later, I hold his story close when advocating for the plight of workers during our COVID-19 pandemic.
 
Researching records, the Decker family line disappears quickly in the fog of immigration. My great-grandfather John came from Germany after our Civil War. As in many cultures in those days, family names were based on what work you and your descendants were destined to do. German students among you will know that Decker (shortened from dachdecker) means roofer, and leaving his family history behind, John Decker arrived penniless in Philadelphia. He took up residence in Germantown, of course, and raised his two sons to work hard at the only thing he knew.
 
And work, they did! My grandfather Frank and his brother John grew Decker and Sons to be one of the largest roofing companies in Philadelphia. My grandmother told me that on the eve of the Crash of ’29, her husband and brother-in-law were running 30 trucks, each with a crew of men.
 
You should know their route to that elevated station came from specializing in what might be called, “roofs of the rich.” We’re talking copper and slate, roofs that last 100 years. How, you ask, did two first-generation German boys pull this off? My grandmother Helen would lovingly laugh, referring to her husband Frank as ‘the hypocrite.’ You see, Frank’s brother John was a tradesman. He could teach workers the art and ran crews to perfection. My grandfather Frank’s skill was getting the jobs. He was the quintessential schmoozer of his day.
 
More than once, I heard my grandmother tell the story of Frank making his rounds through Chestnut Hill, the upper-crusty region of Philadelphia, looking at the condition of roofs on the mansions there. In those days, a man could get to know everyone and Frank knew the roof of the Spinster Mary was in serious disrepair. Seeing her in her flower garden, he pulled in and said, “Good day.” He spoke not a word about the roof. Instead, for over an hour he followed Mary around her garden, listening to her spouting fonts of wisdom and adoring each plant she was tending.
 
The hypocrite part was that Frank didn’t know a rose from a dandelion, but he gave Mary earnest attention and praise until, at last, she became tired and needed “to sup.” As Frank turned to go, Mary said, “Oh, Mr. Decker,”—those were times of manners, you know— “while you’re here, would you mind looking at my roof to make sure all is well?” Frank may not have known a whit about flowers, but he had mastered the Venus fly trap technique of business.
 
We, in the time of COVID, now understand economic disaster. When the Crash of ‘29 came, businesses shuttered overnight. The numbers of people without work exploded. But there was no safety net for the working class. Families were tossed onto the reef of misfortune like rotting bales of hay. Not only that, banks, too, were closing, meaning they had no currency to return to their depositors. The money of expendable people—those we now call essential workers—simply vanished.
 
Having come from nothing, Frank and his brother John knew what to do. In the attempt to save the local bank and its depositors’ lives, they each deposited $100,000, a total of $3.1 million in today’s currency. Some people actually got a fraction of their savings, but the bank folded anyway. Mirroring the true nature of capitalism, Frank and John’s largesse was gone without a trace.
 
But the brothers were not done. For the whole Great Depression, so that their workers’ families could stay afloat. the brothers used their personal funds to pay every man his normal weekly wage, whether he worked or nor. They also supported all of their In-laws’ families, because they, too, were out of work. Of course, then as now, roofs deteriorated. Some rich people opted for copper and slate, which helped the business putter along.
 
The war came and a few years after victory, my grandfather was riding in the passenger seat of his automobile with my grandmother driving. She told me his left hand suddenly curled dramatically drawing his attention and his final words: “Helen, look at this.” He was dead from a stroke before she could pull over to administer his nitroglycerin medication.
 
John ran the business, but without Frank, times got hard. John’s sons did not quite have their father’s determination. And squadrons of confident soldiers were eager to bury their pasts by competing with businesses of the Old School. Ahead lay two decades of releasing pent-up demand. Upward mobility was the new elixir of Capitalism. Our threadbare American individualism, languishing since Manifest Destiny had run out of real estate, suddenly had a new canvas on which to paint. After John died, the company went bankrupt and was sold.
 
We know what has happened since. It seems like lifetimes ago that owners would care for their workers as if they were family. Somehow, today’s champions celebrate our “progress,” saying we are the greatest we have ever been. This writer isn’t convinced.
 
 
 

An EMT’s Protocols for Surviving COVID-19

An EMT’s Protocols for Surviving COVID-19

 

March 25th, 2020 

The following protocols are designed for people who understand the need for self-isolation from the virus that causes the disease known as COIVID-19.* We have been given the ‘strong suggestion to stay home’, but since we in this society are used to determining our days and hours, we may not quite know how to enact what is being asked of us. To that end, I have attempted to make complex or vague ideas simple and linear. The situation is fast-changing. I will revise these protocols as necessary and any errors are mine.

 *If you do not understand the need for self-isolation, you may want to shift your sources for information to see why even the government, which at first denied this situation, is getting serious about this virus. Always seek out multiple views. 

CONTENTS: Bio, synopsis of disease, protecting 1) body 2) mind 3) and heart   

AUTHOR BIO  

EMT, Buddhist teacher of mindfulness and awareness, author, farmer, father

 

A SYNOPSIS OF THE SCIENCE: BRASS TACKS  

     [If you are already well-informed, skip ahead to learn how to protect yourselves.]  

  • ♦ DEFINITION AND COURSE OF COVID-19
  •      — COVID-19 is a disease from a novel corona virus. Novel means new. New to humans.
  •      — Therefore, we have no immunity. Only a vaccine will prevent a human from illness.
  •      — No vaccine has been developed.
  •      — This virus attacks the lining of the air passages, causing severe respiratory inflammation.
  •      — If our body is older or compromised, our immune response fills/clogs our lung’s air sacks. Breathing becomes difficult.
  •      — Infection follows into those tiny air sacks. Our suffering is intense.
  •      — As we asphyxiate, our heart stops. Death results…unless we can be treated in a hospital
  •      — Latest research shows that 20% of those who die from COVID-19 develop heart damage that causes or contributes to death. Kidneys and liver are also developing fatal conditions.
  • ♦ CONTAMINATION
  •      — The virus is not detectable by our human senses.
  •      — The virus can remain virulent for days, depending on where it lands.
  •      — The size of the virus measures 1 micron. Very small.
  •      — The virus enters our bodies through eyes, nose and mouth, and, I suspect, cuts and sores:

             1) if we BREATHE the aerosol droplets when someone ill sneezes or coughs.  

             2) if we are sneezed or coughed upon. Eyes are big doors for the spray.  

             3) if we TOUCH a contaminated surface and then touch our mouths, eyes, or nose. 

             4) It can come home on our hair and clothes and infect can the household. 

             5) Washing thoroughly with soap destroys it.

 

  • ♦ ITS VIRULENCE/POWER
  •      — Without medical intervention, it kills up to 5% of its victims. If we all get it, 5% of 330 million =16.5 million
  •      — America has 95,000 ICU beds. It has 180,000 ventilators but only 100,000 respiratory therapists to run them.
  •      — Limited hospital beds and ventilators means hospitals will become full. If the virus runs rampant, many ill people will die.
  •      — When the system collapses, all other kinds of illness and accidents can’t be treated.
  •      — Even one million people sick in a short period collapses our medical system.
  •      — Therefore do not get ill now!!!
  •      — Important: Older people and those with compromised systems are more likely to die.
  •      — When enough people have gotten ill and recovered, a herd immunity reduces future cases
  •      — At that point society will return to a new normal BUT
  •      — It is unknown whether:

             1) surviving the virus makes us immune from getting it again, or whether 

             2) the virus will mutate (or has already mutated) which could make us ill again.  

 

PROTECTING YOUR BODY, AKA ISOLATION  

  • ♦ OVERVIEW
  •      — Read CONTAMINATION above and realize that:
  •      — The virus measures 1 micron. Even N95 masks can fail.
  •      — No method is perfect. Medical staff also will become ill.
  • ♦ SO, TO SURVIVE THE BEST WE CAN
  •      — Without a vaccine or hospital care, TRY TO AVOID CONTACT WITH THE VIRUS
  •           1) Disinfect the home. If it is decontaminated** and we stay inside, we will not get it.
  •           2) We must develop and adhere to simple methods of “barring the door”.
  •           3) and we must not come in contact with the virus when outside the house. Read on.

** Clothing, counters, door handles, faucets, etc. must be disinfected. Every place you normally touch. Once it is done well, the house is safe inside, unless new contamination is brought in.  

  • ♦ BODY PROTECTION: PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)
  •      — If we have made our home safe, we can relax inside it and lower our personal stress.
  •      — But how can we safely go out, when we must, for food or serious issues?
  • ♦ GOING OUT – 1) WALKS 2) SHOPPING
  •      — It is good to get air and to move. Do so away from others. Every door you touch is suspect for the virus. See gloves.
  •      — If you must be near others, EG to shop: be protected and be disciplined Read on.
  •      — If you don’t know when or how you will find yourself in a crowd, be prepared, as below.
  •      — SHOPPING: designate one person. The best person is healthiest, youngest, and most capable.
  • ♦ COVER HANDS AND FACE
  •      — EMTs use disposable gloves, N95 masks, eye shields and disposable smocks.
  •      — If you have these, lucky you. Consider sharing with vulnerable households.
  •      — If you don’t have these things, improvise, as below.
  • ♦ HANDS – OUTSIDE***
  •      — Cover them with gloves at all times in potentially contaminated locations
  •      — Use whatever gloves you have. The more flexible, the better.
  •      — FIRST, practice putting on and taking off your gloves without touching the outsides!!!
  •      — Know which stops you will make & decide in advance into which pocket to place things. See below.
  •      — When out, treat everything you handle as contaminated. It could be! I also wear a                       
  •           dishtowel in my belt like a football quarterback in the rain. I use it for odd situations.
  •      — Shopping carts—every surface. Your gloves can become contaminated!!
  •      — Everywhere you place a store item then is “contaminated.” Keep your gloves on.
  •      — Your shopping bags become contaminated inside and out.
  •      — Keep cash and credit cards in pockets big enough to get gloves into.
  •      — Put keys into a pocket that gloves will never touch, or agree to have a contaminated car.
  •      — Need cash? Use an envelope and slide it into the “bad” pocket. Easier to pull bills from.               
  •      — Keep your purse and wallet clean.
  •      — If it’s okay to have your car be contaminated, don’t take gloves off inside. The wheel!!!
  •      — If you want safety in your car, take gloves off before touching keys, latches and wheel.
  •      — Your gloves are contaminated. Lay them on a flat bag on your car floor.
  •      — Coins are great virus transmitters. Disinfect them too.

***Some experts say you cannot pick up the virus from surfaces, that it can only be transmitted via aerosol droplets. They then say, never touch your face with your hands, which undercuts the logic of their first assertion. To wit: if it can’t be picked up from a surface, you should be able to touch your face. or we should be washing our faces all the time, too. I move with the belief that surfaces carry the virus no matter what some experts say.  

  • ♦ FACE – COVER IT****
  •      — Use a surgical mask (with loops behind the ears) or sew one. Or use some kind of dust mask.

         HOW TO MAKE A MASK if you can’t sew. 

  •      —Update: many online tutorials on making masks have appeared on the internet. If you must make you own, and do not own a sewing machine consider              these instructions below:
  •      — Use a bandana or cut a sheet long enough to tie around your head.
  •      — Open a large paper clip to fit over your nose. Tape it to the outside of your bandana. (I use Gorilla Tape.)
  •      — Check for fit.
  •      — Inside, tape layers of paper towel/tissues over nose/mouth area. I use four layers.
  •      — Test it. Can you breathe easily?
  •      — You must tie it and remove it without gloves on or it will become contaminated.
  •      — If you take it off in the car, place it, outside down, on a towel if you need to use it again before washing it.
  •      — Got goggles? Use them. Work goggles. Ski goggles, eye shields. Go for it. Be a bandit for a day.f
  •      — Some people have improvised with padded bra cups. Keep thinking of good ways. 

**** Some experts advise against wearing masks unless you are ill. They say 1) they don’t work. And 2) they say they make you touch your face more often. Bolderdash to both! 

1) Experts admit part of the reason is the need to save masks for medical personnel. If N95s didn’t work, medical personnel wouldn’t use them. They are NOT perfect. A homemade mask is NOT as good as an N95. But blocking any droplets from your face is good. 

2) IF you are disciplined in tying and untying your mask with clean hands and you lay the mask down as ‘contaminated,’ when you are finished your shopping, you are in better shape. Wearing masks or not, people will continue touching their faces. The habit is very strong. Best to have clean hands and a clean face as much as possible

3) Cooler heads are entering this debate. The newest point is that wearing a mask prevents you from touching your face. This will become the social standard. 

  • ♦ COMING HOME
  •      — If your house doorknob is known to be clean, don’t touch it with gloves.
  •      — Place bags on a towel on the floor, NEVER on counters unless you love cleaning them.           
  •      — Place the towel before you go out. Some people place supplies directly in a garage until needed.The virus usually dies within a few days.
  •      — Take off your outside clothes, hat, mask, and gloves. Place on another towel. Wash them.
  •      — Disinfect everything you bring in as it comes OUT of the shopping bags. Things in plastic film such as bread, chips and potatoes can be emptied into a clean bowl by cutting the bag open and then saved in plastic storage bags. With clean hands pull cereal pouches from their cardboard boxes and dispose of the boxes. Etc.
  •      — Wash your hands. It’s a good time to take a shower. Wash your hair.
  •      — Your bandana may need rebuilding each time you wash it. Oh, well!
  •      — So plan ahead and stay home for 14 day stretches…or more. The prognosis is that our nation will be in shelter-in-place mode for up to three months if we want to avert widespread medical system ccollapse and large numbers of deaths.

 

PROTECTING MIND – THINGS TO CONSIDER   

This virus calamity seems to have arrived with lightning speed. On top of that it is disrupting every station and lifestyle in our human system—rich and poor, powerful and weak, near and far, working and not. In a matter of a month we are finding our bedrock foundations destabilized.  

Add to this, the rugged preventative measure of self-isolation. Realize it is possible that the voluntary type may become mandatory. This is way beyond normal.  

Given these conditions we can easily feel overwhelmed and betrayed. We can be sure much will be written about this time and its causes. But while assigning blame may help us in the future, pursuing it now does not ease our upset or offer solutions. Consider this: to negotiate the rapid and lethal twists coming our way, we need our best states of mind, to keep our own counsel. 

  • ♦ TAKING STOCK

The one (somewhat) silver lining of this havoc is that being isolated and out of work offers us time to reflect, precious time that our overdriven lifestyles rarely afforded. True, our losses on every level come as a shock. And true, being dumped into space is also a shock to our normal way of being. We may resent the space. Funny, we always wish for it when we are working hard. Now we have it and it presents the opportunity to reflect on the change. Out of anxiety, we may become determined binge watchers of TV and movies. But it is a rare person whose mind becomes more clear from doing so. Out of habit we might use the space to focus mostly on the losses—current, pending, or feared. It is common to use anger, depression or other strong negative emotions to obliterate space. To abuse an old saying about time flying: space flees when you’re having fury.  

But space has its way of remaining unchanged and unintimidated by our moods. And when we stop, when we just stop, stop as our systems now have, we see we are alive. We are still alive. This fundamental blessing of having both a body and a mind is ours, and it is present. If we are not already sick or are not already caring for someone who is sick, we can easily feel the preciousness of this gift. With a little encouragement we might also see the space as the doorway to form new experiences with our same old body and mind. The future is not yet written or known. If we befriend our situation, we can keep our mind clear. This allows us a say in our personal future. 

  • ♦ TAKING ACTION 

Contemplation like that above is the prelude to action. First, we can take care of our household: improving the systems we can control. EG disinfecting, creating COVID checklists to “bar the door”, devising new ways of doing chores with our mates and families. We can brainstorm and draw up plans for various contingencies for both while we are isolated and for when we are finally free to go out without fear of infection. Home schooling becomes a big nut for families with children. If we have access to the internet, we can research teaching methods and materials. 

 

PROTECTING HEART – COMMUNITY  

This is extending out, beyond our personal worries and concerns. Beyond ourselves, clarity allows us to see our family and household partners afresh. With a clear mind we can help them when they struggle with these same conditions. The truth may very well be that, as with other plagues throughout history, we all will lose someone dear to us to this disease. So let us take the have time now to call those people who are more vulnerable. Perhaps an older woman we just met who lives alone. Or someone worried about money. Or someone who can’t make a mask for themselves. Or someone caught in a huge apartment building afraid to go out. We have gifts. Now is the time to share them. Yes, it may be mostly on screens—computers and phones etc. But we can help some other family with their homeschooling through Skype or Zoom. If we are a mechanic, we can take calls from people who have car trouble, helping them determine how serious it is and perhaps finding them someone to fix it. If we are prudent about protection, we could go fix their car ourselves. We can help people with their taxes. This is a time of creativity which when combined with caring for others is the best of humanity. Let’s come out of this time closer together and wiser about how to live in this world. 

É MA HOH!   

Thomas Henry Pope © 2020   

 

 

 

Amadeus Transports

Amadeus Transports

Berkshire Time 5/19/12

 

Sometimes, when success emboldens a playwright to reach beyond the ordinary, sublime work results. Such is the case with Amadeus, Peter Shaffer’s drama about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, now playing at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge New York.

Though many have seen the film based on the play, sitting mere feet from formidable actors transports us to the palace drawing rooms and destitute flats of Eighteenth Century Vienna in a way that film cannot. And what a journey it is. In two acts we witness the life and death struggle of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri, court composer to Emperor Joseph II, who vie to present their best art to the world. In the process, art itself is examined, as are fate, talent, ambition, intrigue, family responsibility and devotion to God. Mozart’s seemingly effortless genius is naïvely drawn into war with Salieri’s persistent mediocrity and murderous jealousy.

The fictitious narrative takes place in the last hour of Salieri’s life as a flashback to his youth when the even-younger Mozart arrives on the scene to compete for funds from the city’s royal and wealthy patrons. Mozart’s innate freedom to break musical convention allows him to compose circles around Salieri, However, this same tendency expresses itself as flagrant disregard for social mores. In short order, Mozart’s tasteless behavior threatens the very relationships he needs to survive. Being well trained, Salieri realizes how his employment and position in history are threatened by Mozart’s gifts and he succumbs to using guile to destroy his foe. In the ensuing battle we see, and hear, Mozart composing his finest work against great odds.

Hubbard Hall’s antiquity—high ceilings, wood floors and velvet curtain—enhances our flashback to the time. While the proscenium stage is used for vignettes in the palace, opera houses and Bauhaus, where such distance is appropriate, the intimate work of the play takes place amongst the risers. The set centers on a grand piano and, to our great delight, both lead actors play some of their music live. In one of theater’s most challenging roles, John Hadden (current Artistic Director of Hubbard Hall) turns actor. As Salieri, he embodies the essence of longing, deceit and jealousy. His emotive power and stamina are true to Salieri’s ambition. In the vast ranging role of Mozart, Miles Mandwelle moves with confidence from childish brilliance to broken soul. Besty Holt, as Mozart’s wife Constanze, deftly shows a woman being honed by the failings of both men, turning from selfish girl to strained wife to saint and finally to exploiter of her dead husband’s work, with which profits she takes care of her children.

In fabulous period costumes by Sherry Recinellas, the supporting cast plays multiple roles as dukes and derelicts, grand dames and gossiping ne’er-do-wells. They create operas, complete with onstage audience, numerous plays within this one play. We follow them all, hating the inevitable conclusion. Was it consumption, syphilis, poison, broken heart that killed Mozart?

Excellence as we see here is not random. We are fortunate that Jeanine Haas (Artistic Director of Pauline Production Theater Company in Massachusetts) jumped at the chance to direct this complex show. The lighting and choreography delight the eye. And all through is Mozart’s music, which steals every show . . . except this one. 

A Short History of Love & Shoes

A Short History of Love & Shoes

Vermont Magazine January 2009

Way back in 1958, Anthony Napolitano was polishing a customer’s shoes in a Bennington cobbler shop when he heard the news that the most beautiful woman in the world was arriving in New York Harbor. Without hesitation, young Tony put on his best suit of clothes and got his brother to drive him to the city to make sure he was there when she walked down the gangway. His mind was full of dreams of holding her in his arms and never letting go.

To make a long story short, Rosa was the last person off the boat. To make a short story long, one has to talk about family, Italy, immigration, the Great Depression, World War II, honest work and good fortune.

In the early 1900’s, Tony’s parents emigrated from Italy to work on America’s railroads. But in the 20’s, when the work dried up, they left their three American-born children with relatives in upstate New York and returned to the little town of Moiano, southeast of Naples. There, Mrs. Napolitano gave birth to another son; Anthony. The year was 1927.

In the Depression, Anthony’s brother Domenico—sixteen years older—found work in a Troy, New York hardware store. One day in 1936, a wealthy Bennington businessman named King came into the store, asking where he might find a good shoe repairman and, having apprenticed for a cobbler, Domenico offered to repair Mr. King’s shoes right there. Mr. King was delighted with Domenico’s work. The way Tony tells the story, Bennington needed a shoe repairman and Mr. King set his brother up in business in the Feinberg Building on Main Street. To seal the good fortune, he filled the shop with state of the art machinery. All Domenico had to do in return was to call the business King’s Shoe Repair. In a time when repair of all things was preferable to buying new, the business thrived. It didn’t hurt that Domenico was also a ‘people person.’

Tony continues, “When I was just 18, right after The War, I graduated from the Police Force Academy of Torino. I tell you, it was a dangerous time to wear a uniform.” He explains that, stinging from years of fighting and a humiliating defeat, Italians were both hungry and angry. Crime was rampant, and both ordinary people and the syndicate families took their anger out on policemen. Many were murdered.

In 1953 synchronicity struck. Tony’s contract with the police was due for renewal and Domenico’s partner in King’s Shoe Repair decided to leave the business. It being time to have his own shop, Domenico bought a building around the corner on North Street. It had two apartments above and he wrote a letter to Tony asking him to come to America.

“Growing up in Italy,” Tony says, “I kept hearing about brothers and sisters in America. And I didn’t want to be a policeman any more, so I told him, ‘Okay.’”

A small problem developed while Tony was waiting for his immigration paperwork; he met the most beautiful woman in the world. So what’s a man to do? For Tony it was a no-brainer. He married Rosa and—it being true that love makes people blind—she was willing to live with his parents, while he took the boat to America “to check it out.”

At first Tony shined shoes all day long. “Everybody had their shoes shined in those days.” He waves a hand toward the shoeshine bench, which still dominates one wall of the shop on North Street. It’s big enough to seat three customers at once. “We were open on Sundays. It was a big day, because people came in before going to church.” After three months, Domenico started Tony working with the machinery, and he loved it.

Two years passed. When Tony knew he would stay, he sent for Rosa, but with all the paperwork it took another eighteen months for her to arrive.” Rosa, a sweet woman with a warm smile, joins us. “I didn’t know a word of English and I hadn’t seen him for almost four years. I was nervous. That’s why I took so long getting off the boat.” That, and the fact that she had to carry all the baggage for two people. You see, she brought her daughter Maria, almost three years old, to meet her father for the first time.

“The policeman on the dock told me, ‘Sir you can’t go through there,” says Tony about seeing Rosa on the gangplank. “Well, I pushed right by him and ran over. And we’ve been together ever since. Fifty-one years. We moved right upstairs into the apartment next to Domenico.” The brothers worked together for ten more years, until 1968, when Tony bought the business and the building. He and Rosa remodeled the upstairs into one apartment that has served as their home ever since.

Downstairs, however, King’s Shoe Repair looks the same as it did in the fifties; old wood floors in the open area where you walk in, the shoeshine bench where conversations of joy, gossip and politics echo from the past. The shelves for new shoes anchor the far wall and, of course, there is a special green chair where patrons sit to have their feet sized. A high service counter cuts the room in half and, behind it, a modern cash register (from the sixties) shares space with a workbench worn from countless repair jobs. Its surface is buried in tools of every sort, thread, pieces of leather, an anvil and a vise. Behind that, the massive, black machinery from 1936 still hums like a Cadillac. In the adjoining room are several stitching machines. The tasks lie there as they did at the end of the day on Saturday ready for a man to pick up on Monday.

Tony and Rosa finish each other’s sentences. “He works all the time,” Rosa says. “I tell him he should slow down.”

Tony rolls his eyes good-naturedly. “What would I do up there?” he says pointing at the ceiling—the floor of his apartment. “I love to work. I got to keep moving.” Rosa smiles and nods. The love of a twenty-year-old Italian beauty still fuels the gesture. “I love repairing things for people.” His hands show his excitement. Beautiful workman’s hands. Strong and flexible, though he confesses that they’re a little stiff these days. “You name it, I can fix it. Hammocks. Suitcases. Tents. Anything. It makes me feel so good.”

“Baseball gloves,” Rosa says. “And harnesses. He sharpens skates, too.”

“That’s right. Things were slow once, so I figured out we could pick up a few bucks by doing skates.”

Rosa is comfortable in the shop, but she says ‘no’ when asked if she repairs shoes, too. “I do other things. I do tailoring and special projects. On the machines out back.” Her favorite is an old Singer treadle sewing machine, much older than either her or Tony.

“She replaces zippers,” Tony says proudly. “The heavy duty metal kind, on boots that come in and winter jackets.”

When conversation turns to the shoe business today, Tony explains that the quality of shoes is terrible. America sends its best leather overseas so foreign craftsmen can make fancy shoes for their own people. “And we buy the junk they make,” he says shaking his head. “You wouldn’t believe what they use in shoes nowadays. Plastic and cardboard. But, of course, I repair whatever people want. I once had a woman come in who said, ‘I can’t bear to throw out these slippers. They feel so good.’ They were just cloth and cardboard. Falling apart. There was nothing there, but I fixed them. I gave them back to her better than when they were new. She was so happy.”

As for the current recession, Rosa says that actually more people are coming in now than usual. And Tony shows no signs of wanting to retire. In fact, his goal is to become the oldest shoemaker in the history of the United States. But about the long-term future, they grow quiet. Neither can see it with clarity. Only a handful of people in the state repair shoes nowadays. “We would love to have some young person come in and learn the trade, Tony says, but it’s hard work. You have to be strong, and persistent and take pride in what you do. You have to be personable and be a problem solver.” He looks out the window as if trying to see a viable candidate. “The hours are long, and young people want to make a lot of money. You don’t make a lot of money in shoe repair.”

They agree on the keys to a successful business: service and honesty. “If you tell them it will be ready Tuesday,” Tony begins, “it has to ready Tuesday.” And Rosa finishes, “Otherwise they won’t come back. We’ve never needed to advertise; our customers do it for us.”

Tony recalls, “One day a woman called about losing her wallet somewhere in town. She had left it on the counter and I told her I was holding it for her. It was full of money. A year later she told me that she was surprised to see that money.” He smiles. “You have to treat people right. And people like to be greeted when they come in.”

Let’s be honest. Warmth is not a problem for Tony and Rosa. Talking with them feels like the prelude to sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner. “The best part of the business is the people. It’s like a big family. You have to understand, we don’t have much family here. So our customers are our family. We are still devoted to Italy and to the old ways, but Vermont has been good to us. We love this state. We love being here.”

 

 

Blue Uniforms and Yellow Jackets

Blue Uniforms and Yellow Jackets

Yellowjacket

 

Anderson Valley Advertiser   6/20/2015

I blame Yellowjackets. If they hadn’t stung me two years ago this week I’d never have become an EMT, sitting long shifts every week in the Anderson Valley Ambulance Barn waiting for impermanence to flex its muscles on the fate of our neighbors.

I was out raking hay by hand on that nice June morning when four of them little suckers roared out and stung me for scraping over their nest. I did the normal things: ran away cussing, ripped off my shirt to facilitate their retreat, and struggled with humiliation to be laid low by critters that weigh less than a gram. Then after admiring how my hand was swelling up where two of them had hit me, I got hold of myself and went back to raking. I’m over six feet tall. I’ve been stung many times. I can handle this. Stand back.

Rake, rake, rake. . . And what’s that? I lean on the handle a minute and feel my heart racing and my armpits starting to itch, where I know they didn’t sting me. Is it the heat? No, I thought. Must be adrenaline. But what about this feeling woozy? I blew right by the sign that I thought a shot of scotch would be just the ticket to settle me down, even though it was before noon. Mind you scotch, though a lovely drink, is something I save for company and Christmas. Well, 4th of July, too. Anyway, I set off for the house, thinking I was clever to be so creative and present.

But my lady is smarter than me. (Duh, she a woman.) Next thing I know I’m in an armchair, taking Benadryl and preparing to look bright and balanced to fake out the ambulance people who she’s called all the way out to the Deep End on a Sunday. I’m only partway through putting on my calm face and working up my story when firefighters in helmets and full gear and folks in civvies are walking in, radios on their hips blaring to some dispatch called Howard Forest, and hitting me with questions. I’m ready to give my speech and, damn, if they’re not talking with a helicopter circling overhead, trying to figure out the best place to land.

Okay. Now I want to die. Maybe that will teach them a lesson for making such a big deal of things. Though I’m not sure how that’s going to salvage my dignity with Valerie, who’s wringing her hands in a way that makes me think she wants me to die, too. And that should have been another sign. She rarely has a murderous thought.

Then the boys in ambulance-blue uniforms come in with medical bags along with a fellow named Don who gave off an aroma of apples, and they’re poring over me. I’ve got a blood pressure cuff on and some weird medical squeezing thing my finger and they’re flicking a flashlight in my eyes like I’m a drug addict. The only thing that keeps me from calling my lawyer is the fascination that I know a lot of these people. Mark, a damn fine builder is the lead EMT and Charlie, the tree surgeon, is the driver. What are they doing wearing ambulance uniforms and how come I didn’t know about their secret lives? And I do yoga with Kyle who has come in case she’s needed and there’s Martha smiling in the back having rumbled down the long dirt road from the mountains. For a second I presume they’ve all come for the religious service I didn’t know I was about to give.

I look for the microphone and instead they slap an oxygen mask on me, though I hear them say that it doesn’t look like I have sign of—and they use some long medical word—yet. But that they should take me to the ER just to be sure. I look at my lady and she’s nodding, right as I hear that the helicopter has landed down at Handley Vineyards. And I realize I haven’t sheltered my meager funds or updated my will the way I’d meant to.

The story would be better if I had really died or needed some four-inch needle jammed into my heart to bring me back from wherever it is that the White Light lives. But it turns out I’d had my first ever allergic reaction and my body handled it pretty well, with the help of Benadryl. And after a sweet ride with Mark in the back and watching him carry himself like a medical angel, I hung out in Ukiah Valley Medical Center’s ER, where I seemed stable enough to the staff to barely make them look at me. Very anti-climactic.

Still, with the sheen of my invincibility gone, I was now set loose on the slippery slope leading to death, and to prove it came home with two Epi-pens in my pocket to give me twenty more minutes of heartbeat if I ever got stung again and fell into full-fledged “anaphylaxis”—that’s the word they used—all for the low, low cost of $180 after the medical discount. (Valerie had been smart enough to sign us up for the ambulance membership—the best deal insurance deal in modern America, so the trip was free.) Gradually I realized I’d been missing some basic clues about how this valley operates. A whole darn volunteer ambulance service operates here 24/7, made up of people you see in the stores, at the Grange Pancake breakfasts or wine tastings. They show up when you need them and leave without any fanfare. Cool, I thought, as I flew back East to take care of things in Vermont.

While there, we heard news that Mark had a stroke, a bad one, and Charlie fell out of a tree and would be months in rehab. I did some quick math. If they’re all volunteers, they would need people. Which is how I entered the world Emergency Medical Services where I have met a wonderful set of women and men who do miracles and who blush when you raise the point with them. They study hard, train regularly and give big parts of their lives so you can have longer ones yourselves.

Our number is 911. Nothing personal, but we hope never to see you.