Enemies of Reading

What others called waste, I played with on Saturdays: How getting down to nuts and bolts helped me lose my mindset Part one.

by Hugh Gilmore
Posted 9/17/21

Finnegan's Furniture Store in Darby, PA, seemed hardly the place for mind expansion when I went to work there at 18. In fact, there was little room for expansion of any kind. Every piece of space was …

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Enemies of Reading

What others called waste, I played with on Saturdays: How getting down to nuts and bolts helped me lose my mindset Part one.

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Finnegan's Furniture Store in Darby, PA, seemed hardly the place for mind expansion when I went to work there at 18. In fact, there was little room for expansion of any kind. Every piece of space was crammed with used furniture we'd carted away from the exploded lives of the post-war working class. Deaths, divorces and sudden departures had provided the stock that filled the store to its 20-foot ceiling.

When Mr. Finnegan – Harold – was out and I was in charge (at $1.00 an hour, twice my Fitzgerald Mercy Hospital kitchen rate as a pot washer/tray boy) and free to explore the narrow aisles, I'd pass in never-satisfied wonderment through stacks of dining room tables three to four high, next to piles of sky-reaching chairs made of wood, then chrome, then leather; next the living room armchairs, all like varied beasts in zoo cells; then turning a corner: rows of end tables, book cases, round stools, whatnot shelves; and next: standing carpet rolls, mattresses, bed springs and frames and headboards of every kind. Turning the next corner, under the large window stood the marshalled squads of carpet sweepers, vacuum cleaners, food-mixers, toasters and other appliances.   

Most specially, I remember the memory cartons. On a quiet Saturday afternoon – looking twice since I'd never asked "may I?" – I'd open an unexplored carboard box of personal items – ­ “go-alongs” from someone's home to the store. Inside, I'd find stationery boxes and powder puffs, expired drivers' licenses, rosaries, employee badges, tarnished clay marbles, bobby pins, bullets, a four-leaf clover embedded in plastic – emptied-drawer stuff like that. Inside the stationery box were stamp-canceled envelopes containing handwritten letters and photographs. Some of the letters were romantic, exciting a young man's heart; some boring. Some sad. Too often sad. Like a picture of a man with a soldier's cap, chatting away, waiting for war's end. Such a photo was sometimes paper-clipped to a single-column news notice of his death. Maybe a black-bordered funeral card too. The end. Of the story. I looked up the first time I read one like that, wondering which table or chair, or rug even, had been his stage props.  

After a while I'd wondered if it mattered. Does it ever matter in any junk store? Matter, when it all washes up in a twisted post-flood heap? Matter when offered in a resale pile to the next generation? Especially when, this time around, the seekers come in this store because they can't afford new? Oh yes, Darby, old Darby, my Darby, the Darby of my mind, where the debris of lesser lives, first useful, then turned "retro" and went on to be displayed in millenials’ apartments.

That was Revelation Number One. The books I was reading in freshman year college had inclined my mind in such a way that opening a dusty box of letters and photos, in a quiet, empty junk store, on a quiet fall afternoon, was like reading a novel. A person's life could be reconstructed by knowing the thing's they'd touched.

That's as much as as I, at eighteen, could fathom. I did not know then that the stories I wrote in my head about other people's lives reflected how limited my own small world was. Darby: small world. Irish: small world. Catholic: smaller. 20th century white male: way small indeed.    

THEN ONE DAY: Mr. Harold Finnegan snuck up and caught me dawdling in a story box. I sensed him and turned and looked up. Solemn as a betrayed confessor, he said, in his long-suffering tone, "Follow me." He went downstairs to the basement, where all the tools, and parts of tools, and things you use with tools, were stored. Everything was stacked in piles, like upstairs, but the bits were smaller and far more numerous.  

Next to the staircase, three fat cardboard fiber barrels with steel rims, stood open, filled to their lips with nuts, bolts, screws, and washers of every kind, size and pedigree. An unsorted, randomness. A demonstration of the common sense that ran cold as mold in thrifty Finnegan's blood. Everything in his world was possibly worth a penny or two, and in the 52 years he'd lumbered the earth, Mr. F had picked up every stray bolt he'd found, and pocketed it till day's end and dropped it into a catch bin. The three barrels each stood 35-inches tall and 24-inches wide. Maybe 20,000 bits of steel and brass squirmed tight inside.  

I'd seen these bins every time I'd gone down there, but until that moment they'd seemed like stagnant pieces of stage scenery, like stale cacti on a western movie set. I waited to learn my fate. Big Harold picked up a handful and balanced them in his palm, then sighed, and dropped them back. Perhaps wanting to wreak universal order from our local chaos, perhaps hoping to slow down my growing enchantment with stories, he turned to me and said, in his slow, sad, baritone, "I'd like these sorted out. You might as well start now." And up he went.

Why me? I wondered. But at that moment some unused gates in my brain shuddered and opened, throbbing for what might come next. I felt strangely happy down there, alone and eager in the gloom.

Next: Part Two, the conclusion.

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