The Knife Grinder
Old modes of employment fade away without much notice. Sometimes all that remains is a word or phrase that lingers, a descriptor such as milkman or iceman or lamp lighter, or knife grinder. More often the knowledge that some obsolete occupation ever existed vanishes with the job, poof. When I was seven I saw a horse drawn milk delivery wagon. It is hard to believe that some old man in 1954, in Sarnia, Ontario, was still bringing glass bottles of fresh milk door to door. His wagon dripped a trail of melted ice as his horse slowly pulled the cart into oblivion. I never again saw such a thing. The horse replaced by horse-power and rubber tires; and now home delivery of milk is more nostalgic than actual.
I think of the last of the icemen and how my grandmother had not a refrigerator, but an ice box to keep her perishables cool. I never saw the iceman. But I do remember the wooden chest lined with metal. Was it lead or tin? Superman could not have seen the melting ice without opening the door, unless the lining was tin. I have an image of the shrinking block of ice in that dark box. Was I there when the icebox was hauled to the trash and a white enameled Frigidaire took its place? No.
Another defunct occupation I never saw was the ragman. A rag picker would gather discarded cotton or linen scraps, bundle his accumulated fabric and sell it to the papermill. From the rags fine paper might be made. In a way, I suppose I am that rag picker, the reincarnation of a long dead breed. The old lamplighter was way before my time as well, but in my house I am the one who flips the light switches off.
When my daughter was very young she played in the park of the foreign missions, quite close to The Bon Marche, in Paris. On three sides of the park were residential apartment buildings. One lovely morning, as I watched her play on the slide with a little English boy, Sam, I heard the regular dinging of a bicycle bell. The ding, ding, ding was not a warning. It was meant to draw attention. The last itinerant Knife Grinder was announcing his availability: “bring out your cutlery, let me sharpen your meat cleaver”. His mobile shop was a red, three wheeled bicycle, with a grinding wheel run by the turning of the same peddles that spun his wheels. A tripod stand lifted the back tire off the pavement, allowing him to sit in place as he sharpened knives. He lingered in front of each apartment building, spinning his grinding wheel and pretended to sharpen a prop, sort of a stunt-knife. No one ventured out to employ him. He rode on to the next apartment building repeating his act, working his way down the street and eventually disappeared around the corner. I felt sorry he had no takers.
One week later, at the same park, Sam had gone back to London, and my daughter played with a little Polish girl. I again heard the ding ding of the knife grinder advertising his availability. Again he had no takers. I patted my jeans, remembering my little pen knife.
Speaking of defunct work, when Emil Weddige taught me the craft of stone lithography he suggested I buy a good quality pen knife. A sharp knife is a handy studio tool and cheap knife is not worth having. He recommended a bone handled, single blade Henckels. At the point I patted my jeans, I had had that knife for twenty years. It kept it’s edge and I rarely needed to use a whetstone to maintain the edge sharp. Still, I wanted my daughter to see a rare sight, a street knife sharpener at work. Even though she was very young she might be able to look back and recall she had seen the last of a dying breed. I pulled my pen knife out and approached the man who was getting no customers. As I got closer he did not seem as old as I expected. He was possibly only in his twenties, yet could have been any age. He looked like someone who had a hard life. His face was wrinkled and motionless. He reached out for my pocket knife, clearly understanding I wanted it sharpened. He began to pedal the bike and the stone spun slowly. He laid my blade against the abrasive stone and ground the edge down at least a quarter inch. He was not sharpening my pen knife, he was grinding away the metal blade. I winced at the sad sound of my fine little knife being destroyed. I reached out asking for my knife back. But the knife grinder wanted to be paid before he would hand the knife back to me. I owed him, for his work, a sum twice the value of the knife.
I paid his ransom. Times change and some occupations disappear. I now understood why. I wish the knife grinder had gone the way of the iceman without me ever any the wiser.
My ruined pen knife is in a box in my basement. Better a dull knife you don't pay to have sharpened than a duller one you did.