Josna Rege

Posts Tagged ‘People’

14. Everett the Ice Man

In 1970s, people, Stories, storytelling, United States on March 8, 2010 at 1:19 pm

winter on Walden Pond — concierge.com

In the late 1970s, living the good life at White Pond in Concord meant living simply, practicing self-reliance, and using as little electricity as possible. Instead of an electric refrigerator we had a icebox, an old Coolerator that took  25-pound blocks of ice which we would buy from Everett the Ice Man.

Everett had a coal and ice business (coal in the winter, ice in the summer) that must have been a much bigger operation once, but had dwindled along with demand over the years and now dealt only in ice. By the 1970s there wasn’t much call for block ice except for summer barbeques, and we were his only customers who bought ice regularly for an icebox.

Everett always had time to talk, and he and Andrew would shoot the breeze for ages. I would listen, and do my best to keep up with the ice-related tech talk, but always felt as if I were on trial. Whether it was because he felt ill at ease with women or with the world in general, he tended to speak with a certain belligerence, as if daring one to challenge him.

“You know that Thoreau (he called him that Thoreau and pronounced it “thorough”) was a fraud, dontcha?”

Thoreau? The Thoreau—as in Henry David? I ventured to inquire what he meant and how he knew.

“What I said—a big fraud. Wasn’t he always making a big deal about how he was self-sufficient in that shack on Walden Pond?”

Yes, indeed he did—and it was a big deal. But why was he a fraud and how did Everett know?

“Well my grandma took in laundry and she used to go regular to Mrs. Thoreau’s place. She said that that Henry Thoreau was a spoiled brat. He wasn’t self-sufficient—not a bit of it. He used to bring all his dirty laundry back home to his mother.”

It never even occurred to us to question the truth of this tale, or to calculate whether it was even possible for Everett’s grandmother to have known the Thoreaus. Everett was a Concord native, and he was ancient: it must have been true.

One day we went to see Everett and he was raging. He had never trusted the medical profession, but because he was in a lot of pain, he had gone reluctantly to the dentist, who had removed one of his eye teeth. Now he had gone blind in the corresponding eye.

“Why d’ya think they call ‘em eye teeth,  eh? Because they connect right to the eyes. That dentist messed up good. I shoulda never gone to him.”

I’m ashamed to say that I can’t remember whether Everett recovered his eyesight fully. His business wasn’t going to be around for ever and neither was he, and we were getting ready to move to the Boston area, leaving our icebox behind.  He must have liked Andrew a lot, because one day he presented him with a gift, a set of specialized tools for cutting and hauling ice from frozen ponds, even though he must have known this would mean losing our business in the winter. But he also must have known that Andrew would actually use these ancient tools, and not just display or sell them as antiques. He was right. Andrew did indeed use the tools, and built an ice house on the banks of White Pond so well insulated that it held ice into June.

I don’t know what happened to Everett after that. Andrew’s father sold the house on White Pond and we had no call for ice tools in Somerville. But Everett surely lived on in Andrew, who, nearly ten years later on the farm in Winchendon, made his own zamboni to prepare the frozen pond for skating, using the massive blade of an old paper cutter.

 

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9. The Golden Boy

In 1970s, Stories, United States on March 4, 2010 at 6:16 am

1979: Geoff McNabola and I were driving from Concord, Mass, to an anti-nuclear meeting in Cambridge, and we were late. Geoff was one of the mainstays of the Concord-to-Worcester contingent: capable, hard-working, and bursting with energy. But he drove like a maniac at the best of times, so it didn’t surprise me when a Cambridge cop stopped us as we were whipping round the Fresh Pond rotary. Since I fall uncharacteristically quiet in the face of traffic policemen, it fell to Geoff to deal with him.

“Do you realize how fast you were going?”

The officer began with a standard script. Geoff, however, threw him right off-balance with his non-standard reply—one I could never have gotten away with:

“Officer, we’ve got to go. We’re already late for a meeting to save the world. Do you want to make us even later?”

With his shock of blond hair,  mischievous grin, comforting Boston accent, and easy confidence, Geoff was the fresh-faced all-American boy next door, nothing like the stereotypical anti-nuclear activist, a cross between Robert Redford without the wrinkles and a young Bill Clinton. Not even the cop could resist him. Instantly disarmed, he dismissed us with a wave of his hand:

“Go on with you then, get outta here.”

And that was it—we were free. Infuriating—but very useful.

 

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8. Bad Role Model

In 1970s, Stories, United States on March 3, 2010 at 1:51 pm

I must have had my license no more than a year when this happened, while driving our parents’ Plymouth Valiant  down Harvard Street in Allston-Brighton with my sister Sally. I was seventeen and Sally, eleven or twelve. At the Brighton Avenue intersection it seems I ran or jumped the red light, because a blinding strobe light and a terror-inducing siren soon forced me over to the curb.  As we waited, frozen with fear— it always seems an age—a Boston policeman  lumbered over and cocked his head in the window.

“Are you from the islands or what?”

Come again? I didn’t get it, so I waited some more.

“Are you from the islands or what? Don’t you know what a red light means?”

I  hastened to tell the officer  that I was sorry, must have missed it while talking, wouldn’t do it again. Servility and abjection on my part. Exit Boston Police Officer. Cue to breathe again.

But Sally, who had and has always had a powerful antenna for injustice, was furious and deeply disappointed in me.

“He made a racist remark! What happened to your politics? Your feminism? You’re always spouting on about standing up for your rights. Why didn’t you stand up to that man?”

“You’re absolutely right, Sally. But there’s a time to speak up and a time to remain silent. When a cop has caught you breaking traffic laws, it’s not the time to challenge him. Best to accept everything he says and to apologize profusely.”

This is still my firm belief. But that day I felt like a hypocrite and a bad role model.

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7. The Comic Shed

In 1960s, Books, Childhood, India, Stories on March 3, 2010 at 1:26 am

Our bungalow on I.I.T. Kharagpur’s Hijli campus was built around a central walled courtyard with a green orange tree in one corner and in the other, a green guava tree, a magnet for parrots of exactly the same shade of green. The living quarters opened on two sides of the courtyard, and another living space and washroom, originally designed as servants’ quarters, were built into the other. Since we had no live-in servants, that extra room lay vacant, until it became the comic shed.

The biggest single source of comics was my Auntie Angie in England, who faithfully packed and posted my cousin Lesley’s old copies of Princess, Jackie, and The Beano in an eagerly-awaited parcel that arrived by seamail every three months.  After the Arab-Israeli War of 1967,  when Suez was closed, the parcel took six months to arrive, now having to travel all the way round the Cape of Good Hope.

jl.incrowd on flickr

There were the coveted Archie comics from America. Knowing nothing about that strange society didn’t prevent us from identifying with the characters, my best friend Puttu taking Veronica as a matter of course and me having to be satisfied with Betty. (Shelley, an America-returned classmate who was predictably smitten with Veronica, was designated as Archie, although I doubt if he was aware of this.)

 

Classics Illustrated were treasures, most memorably Great  Expectations, with its haunting picture of the ravaged Miss Haversham still in her wedding white, her bridal veil and wedding feast hung with cobwebs. There was no need to read the original after the intensely satisfying comic, and it wasn’t until it was on the required list for my PhD qualifying exam that I actually read the Dickens version. It was okay, I suppose, but that scene from the Classic Comic still wins hands down.

 

Homegrown Indian comics were thin on the ground in the comic shed, since in the mix-sixties we had not yet seen the Amar Chitra Katha series, which emerged in 1967, mostly depicting heroes and villains from the epics and the Independence movement. The proudly Indian Chacha Choudhary comics, featuring the skinny dhoti-clad superhero with a brain faster than a computer and the faithful giant Sabu as his sidekick, did not appear on the scene until even later, in the early 1970s. There was The Phantom comic strip in The Illustrated Weekly of India, but I could never make much sense of it—it was a boys’ thing, I suppose.

The Phantom (The Illustrated Weekly of India, September 2, 1962)

All these assorted goodies, interspersed with brightly-colored candy wrappers, were strewn several layers thick over the floor of the comic shed, and neighborhood children would drop by to enjoy them, entering quietly and often unannounced through the courtyard door.

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5. Idolizing Princess Anne

In 1970s, Britain, Stories on March 1, 2010 at 11:57 pm

HRH Princess Anne, 1973 — dailymail.co.uk

Before Princess Di there was Princess Anne, Charles’ younger sister.  And in 1973, long before Prince Charles and Lady Di’s wedding in 1981, there was the wedding of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Philips. Anne was a decent type, albeit quintessentially horsey (she even rode for the British Olympic team). Her wedding to the gallant captain whipped up a decent amount of excitement among the British people, or at least, among a certain segment of them.

A representative of that segment lived in our house in Tufnell Park. I can’t remember his name or I would tell it to you, but he was a postgraduate student friend of our housemate-landlord Nick, and a nerd before the word had entered the vocabulary.  He guarded his private stock of bacon jealously in the common fridge, passed mildly sardonic comments on the savage tribal customs of the string of young hippie types who either hung out or lived there (this in reference to nail-painting and ear-piercing), and he was in love with Princess Anne. He hung a nearly lifesize poster of her on the inside of the lavatory door as wedding fever mounted, and adored it with utter absence of irony. As she was quintessentially horsey he was quintessentially English in a vague, dishevelled, tolerantly narrow-minded kind of way. He wouldn’t have hurt a fly, but I don’t think he ever thought of us as anything but curiosities passing through.

Nevertheless, his observation about savage tribal customs stuck with me, and I have often found myself repeating it as my own when people ask me why my ears aren’t pierced.

 

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4. The Tree House

In 1970s, Stories, United States on March 1, 2010 at 3:39 am

courtesy of Mike Hill

When I first met Andrew, his and Michael’s tree house was already the Mach II. They had built the first one at 14, and in the new model they had worked out all the bugs. When one thinks of a tree house one usually imagines the common backyard variety, with a deck, railings, and perhaps some rudimentary shelter overhead. This was the deluxe edition, equipped with all mod cons.

The tree house was a two-storey octagonal structure built around the trunk of a tall pine, with a removable ladder up the trunk and a double trap-door entrance complete with barbed wire to keep out intruders. The  lower floor had a circular counter and bar stools, a kerosene stove, a sink with running water, electric light, and a record player. There were record-lined shelves running along two of the walls and posters on the others.  Up the ladder, the next floor consisted of two platform beds built around the trap door.  The rising heat made it toasty warm up there year-round.  One more trap door led to the roof, where the water tank was mounted, and where the electricity came in, siphoned off the nearest pole, and a crow’s nest.  There were no windows in the walls, each of the eight on each floor made of a full sheet of plywood painted forest green on the outside, and it was delightfully cosy on stormy nights, as the tree house swayed in the wind.  The only difficulty was having to climb all the way down into the woods to pee, especially in the dark; perhaps Mach III would have had a composting toilet.

Andrew and Michael’s tree house was the stuff of legend, even during its time. It was writing to Mick Jagger about listening to the Stones in the tree house that got him curious enough to call us. But that’s another story.

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3. The Horn Player in the Cupboard

In 1970s, Britain, Stories on February 28, 2010 at 7:49 am

When Andrew and I went to London in the autumn of ’73, we were trying to get as far away as possible from the U.S.A. But things—and people—have a way of following you, and so it was with us. On the very plane trip over, Andrew thought he spotted a man from my class at university, and sure enough, it was he. (Soon afterwards, we were to run into him again, at the very first party we were invited to in London.) We rented a room in a run-down house in Tufnell Park and soon learned that not only was one of our housemates American, but that she was from Brookline, and lived not a block from my parents on Harvard Street. We didn’t hold her origins against her, of course, and apart from the rotting pheasants she hung in the upstairs landing and the apple chutney she made that exploded through the dirty jamjars she had salvaged from skips, she was a very good roommate.

One day our Brookline High School classmate Conrad Bergschneider showed up at our door. Somehow he had found out that we were in London and had tracked us down. He was looking for a place to stay and  ended up staying with us, in a former closet that Nick, our housemate-landlord, called a bedroom. The trouble was that not only did the closet lack an electrical outlet, so one couldn’t see in it at night, but its dimensions were barely four feet by six feet and Conrad was a giant of a man, much taller than it  was long. He had to sleep with the door ajar and his feet sticking out.

It soon turned out that Conrad played the French horn. He used to practice in his closet. Muffled blasts buffeted the closed door and shook the creaky old plaster-and-wallpaper walls. And inside Conrad had to bend his head and back over his instrument, his elbows held as close to his sides as he could manage, trying to be considerate. He was a gentle soul. He never complained, but began to spend more and more of his time in our room, gradually unfolding as he emerged from the closet until he finally reached his full size.

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2. The Leather Welding Jacket

In 1970s, Stories, United States on February 28, 2010 at 7:17 am

Eve’s Brookline High School friend Weezy had graduated Harvard with Eve and become a welder, as Eve had become a scene painter, stage manager of traveling street theater, and general mistress of all trades. Weezy was the only female welder working down at Quincy shipyard, early mornings, hard work. The jet of flame from the welding torch routinely burned through her clothes and she needed serious protection, so she came to Eve for help: Eve, who, like her mother, could make anything to order. One of them had a favorite jeans jacket, and  Eve set out to copy it in leather.

First she took apart the denim jacket at the seams and made a newsprint paper pattern. Then she pinned the pieces to a soft, heavy sheet of smoke-blue leather, and cut them out with a large pair of tailor’s shears. Somehow she managed to stitch through all those layers, making the seams double-strong. And the end product was not only tough and ultra-serviceable, it fit like a glove. At Weezy’s request Eve stitched on a extra patch of leather along the left forearm, because that was the place most exposed to the flame as the right hand held the welding torch. The men at work must have been impressed. I remember Weezy saying that  someone had asked if Eve could make a jacket for him as well.  If she had wanted, Eve could probably have gone into the business of making jeans and bomber jackets for the entire workforce in Quincy shipyard.

Weezy gave up welding long ago, but although we’ve lost touch, I hear that she is now an advocate for organized labor, working tirelessly for social and economic justice. I wonder if she still has that leather jacket.

 

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1. Letting Go of the Clutch

In 1970s, Stories, United States on February 28, 2010 at 6:28 am

Dan always used to joke that he had never been the same since the clutch of our milk truck had fallen on his head. Andrew and I had a 1950 blue-and-cream International Harvester milk truck, and we needed to drive it from Massachusetts to New Mexico to bail out our friend Michael from hospital. But first the truck needed a new clutch, and Dan and Andrew set out to install it by themselves. Somehow, because Dan was strong and  hunky, he got under the truck and heaved the clutch into place. But somehow, either it slipped, or Andrew let go, or Dan himself let go,  and this massive chunk of metal hit Dan on the head. If we were 24 and 25 at the time, then Dan was only 22. And ever since, he said for years—joking but perhaps not altogether—he’s been a little off his head.

But our trusty milk truck, with its just-installed clutch, trundled all the way to Albuquerque and back, at its 50 mph maximum speed.  It ran amazingly well, considering its age; and as we approached St. Louis, the city of its manufacture, it kicked into some magical new gear and began running like a dream, more smoothly than it had ever done before.

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