Archives for posts with tag: household help

SPECIAL DELIVERY

 

Due to equal parts nostalgia and habit, I subscribed to the local newspaper when I bought a new home last year. It is tossed from a car, shrouded in plastic, to the end of my driveway. Only two or three other homes in my community are similarly barraged, a far cry from the uniformity of newspaper saturation in not-so-distant memory.

A man named Calvin delivers the papers, usually. Most days, he arrives before I am awake. I first communicated with him directly only because I called the circulation department to advise that my Sunday paper had not arrived for the second time in a month, and an exasperated representative said: “Here’s Calvin’s number. He just gets angry when we call. Maybe you’ll have more luck.”

This suggestion seemed strange.

I asked: “Do you think a customer should confront someone who visits his home every day? And should you really have a hostile deliveryman?”

“Oh, he’s not mean,” said the representative. “He’s just ‘different.’ We don’t have many deliverymen these days. We have to use who’s available.”

 

*****

 

When I was little, in early 1960’s West Philadelphia, a slew of delivery and service people were connected with our household. As such, they were tangentially connected to me. As to newspapers, my family received the “Inquirer” every morning and the “Bulletin” every evening. I never met or even saw the delivery persons. I’m not sure they angled for year-end tips the way they might now with holiday cards accompanied by self-addressed, stamped envelopes. Paper routes were profitable.

Less anonymously, a man named Mr. Tribble cut our lawn throughout spring and summer and raked leaves in autumn. A woman named Naomi ironed our shirts and sheets once a week. A farmer named Mr. Abba brought milk and eggs. A franchisee of “Charles Chips” brought snacks. Mr. Davis washed the windows each spring. Mr. Brown failed to complete necessary repairs. And a succession of women including, but not limited to, Essie, Pearl, Gina and Jasmine pushed mops and vacuums with varying degrees of diligence.

Looking at this list, it seems I lived in a veritable Downton Abbey. But, in reality, we were modestly above “middle class” and lived in a comfortable, but unremarkable leafy neighborhood. My father chose to work seven days-a-week at his clothing store and, to make up for his lack of assistance on the home front, I suppose, afforded my mother the means to employ “help.”   Except for vying with Naomi for the Breyers’ coffee ice cream in our freezer, I rarely interacted with the service people beyond a nod or to say “hi.”

 

*****

Upon answering the phone, Calvin deployed alternative pleading like an experienced defense attorney.

“I’m sure you got the paper,” he said

“No, I looked all over. No paper,” I said.

“Maybe somebody stole it,” he suggested.

“I’m sure no one stole my paper,” I said.

“Well, my wholesaler didn’t give me enough copies this morning,” said Calvin.

“The wholesaler?” I said.

“Yeah, and I had car trouble, too,” said Calvin.

I recognized there was no point in expressing skepticism or being angry. “In the future, I just want the paper to come,” I said.

“Gotcha,” said Calvin. “I won’t miss again.”

 

*****

 

By 1974, when I left for college, most of the characters had disappeared, except for a weekly “cleaning” woman, the deliverer of the morning newspaper, and Mr. Tribble’s son, who had inherited his father’s lawn-cutting business. In just ten years, a revolution like the present-day Amazon phenomenon seemed to have wiped out such service providers, at least for homeowners who were not conspicuously wealthy. Supermarkets provided eggs, milk and cookies. The evening paper had gone bankrupt. Window cleaners and handymen were scarce.

 

*****

 

The next morning, I opened the front door intending to walk to the driveway and nearly tripped over a pile that included not only the local paper, but also a New York Times, a Wall Street Journal, and another local paper, the “Herald.” This abundance continued for a week. One day, Calvin included a Barron’s, another day the Financial Times. I couldn’t keep up. My reading area resembled a tornado site.

I called Calvin again.

“Thank you for all the papers. I appreciate the extras. But I can’t read that much. The local paper is enough.”

I didn’t tell him I’d already transitioned to reading the NY Times on-line. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

“Gotcha,” said Calvin.

“And you really don’t have to get out of your car and place it at the door. I’m happy to pick it up from the driveway,” I said.

“Are you sure?” asked Calvin.

“I’m sure,” I said.

“You’re great,” said Calvin.

I hung up the telephone basking in the approval of my newspaper deliveryman. Though I’d never met Calvin in person, I felt like I knew him. But I was also questioning if I WANTED to interact with my newspaper deliverer.

 

*****

 

Not long after, I went out one morning to retrieve the paper and found none. I wondered, as I stood, empty-handed, not for the first time, if continuing my subscription was worthwhile. My mind reviewed well-rehearsed arguments: “I can read any paper I want on-line for less than paper delivery.” “Less paper and gasoline is better for the environment.” “I won’t have to call Calvin anymore.”

At that moment, a rattletrap SUV raced down the street, its fenders scratched and dented. Exhaust belched from the rear. Calvin had arrived.

“Sorry I’m late,” he shouted, as he pulled up.   “Sorry. Car Trouble.”

Seeing the car, I believed him.

Calvin appeared to be of an indeterminate age between forty and sixty-five. A gold front tooth nestled among several open spaces. He hadn’t shaved in awhile.

“Are you Sanders?” he asked through the open driver-side window, as the car idled like an asthmatic.

“Yes,” I said, taking the paper from him.

“I need a new car,” he said. “But since I bought this damned paper route….”

“You bought it?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Calvin, a far-off look in his rheumy eyes. “Thought it was a good deal.”

I immediately contemplated the last person who’d invested in a Moto-Foto franchise around 2005 or, as the expression goes, “Whoever bought the last ticket on the Titanic.” I didn’t know what to say.

“Maybe it will get better,” was the best I could muster, my tone and forced smile almost certainly giving away my doubtfulness.

“Don’t know,” said Calvin, slowly shaking his head. “Don’t know ‘bout that.”

No words filled the moment, just car exhaust.

“Well, nice to finally meet you,” I said.

“Yes, “ said Calvin. “Have a good day.”

He drove off. One thing had become clear: I will continue to subscribe to the local paper for however long it lasts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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IRONING

Preparing to go out to dinner with our daughter, Sarah, her boyfriend, Matt, and his parents for the first time, I am more careful than usual in selecting my outfit. Though assured the restaurant is “extremely casual,” I garner my wife, Katie’s approval by selecting long pants instead of shorts, shoes instead of tennis shoes, and a brand-new polo shirt instead of a golden oldie.
“This is nerve-wracking,” I say. “It’s like going out on a first date.”
“That’s silly,” says Katie. “It’s just dinner.”
“This is a rite of passage,” I say. “We’re now old enough to meet our kids’ romantic partners’ parents with all kinds of freight attached. We might know these people for the rest of our lives.”
“I hate to tell you, but we’ve been old enough for a long time,” she says.
Fresh out of the package, my purple (Sarah’s favorite color) shirt is
creased.
“This needs ironing,” I say, hoping Katie will volunteer.
She doesn’t bite. “Make sure you use steam,” she says.
lroning is a rare activity in my life. Several times a year, I enter the laundry room, open the ironing board, and semi-competently run the hot appliance over a shirt or two. I’ve never mastered the liquid, however. I’m always wondering about technique: “Do I pour water on the shirt? What button do I press to get steam?” lf only I’d paid attention as a child, I would be an expert.

Throughout my early-mid 1960’s childhood, on Tuesdays, Naomi presided over our basement rec room. She was what was called “an ironing lady.” Though she was probably in her forties, I always thought she was elderly, since she stood on solid, black “old-lady shoes” and wore compression stockings that bunched up around her shins. Heavyset and dark-skinned, Naomi also apparently wore a variety of wigs. I would never have noticed such a detail if her style, color and length didn’t change nearly every week.
We’d had a succession of “cleaning ladies” when I grew up. We weren’t wealthy to the extent that we had full-time help, but it was typical in our middle class neighborhood to have a once-a-week cleaner. Among the several I remember were toothless Essie, who could not be understood; beautiful-accented Pearl from Trinidad who was incredibly kind; and, Corinne, black as night, who always came to work in a meticulous uniform of white stockings and black top fringed with white lace, and who proudly told us she’d once worked at a Dupont estate in Delaware.
Each of these women, and numerous others whose names I cannot recall, moved in and out of our lives within a year or two. The one constant was Naomi. She held dominion over the basement; at least, that’s how I viewed it.

When I came home from school on Tuesdays, I opened the basement door and went down to say “hello.” Once, when I was six or seven, I forgot to do so, and Naomi came upstairs, found me in the kitchen, and asked: “What, you’re too busy to say ‘hello’? You’re too important?” I never forgot again.
Visible at the bottom of the stairs was a green and white-checkered linoleum floor, a low, seven-foot ceiling, knotted-wood paneling, several old couches, and a black-and-white television with rabbit ears, that often failed to hold the picture horizontal. In the middle of the room, presiding over the ironing board, with a pile of clothing nearby, stood Naomi. While she worked, the iron hissed and sighed, like an old, asthmatic man struggling to reach the top of a flight of stairs.
I don’t recall many specifics from our conversations. Naomi asked me about school. I probably volunteered information about my little league baseball team. But I do recall she had opinions. Though she watched soap operas on the old television much of the time, she also watched news programs.
“That Nixon, he’s a nasty one,” she said.
Another time, she declared: “Vietnam is a waste of our young men.”
I’d never heard a cleaning lady offer an opinion on a subject not related to grease removal or vacuuming. I respected Naomi for her outspokenness.

The only gripe I had with Naomi concerned coffee ice cream, a staple of my diet. My favorite brand was Breyer’s, and we usually had a container in the freezer. Every Tuesday, I noticed, the half-gallon took a significant hit. When I was about eight, one Tuesday morning before I left for school, I built a barricade in the freezer around a brand-new ice cream carton. It was the first thing I checked when I returned home that afternoon. As I’d feared, Naomi had managed to remove the ice cube trays, packages of chicken and other food I’d placed in its way, found the ice cream, and made a monstrous gouge in the block.
Since I was always at school or camp when Naomi had lunch, I didn’t know if my mother had told her to help herself to the contents of the refrigerator, or just dessert. All I knew is I was angry Naomi felt entitled to systematically root through our freezer to get at “my” ice cream. I knew she knew that I had tried to hide the ice cream. Yet, she’d intentionally defied me. I recall our conversation that day was short and strained.

When I was ten or eleven, a transit strike hobbled Philadelphia’s buses. The first week, Naomi didn’t come to work. But the second week, with a pile of dirty clothing growing unmanageable, I overheard my mother arrange a taxi to pick up Naomi. At the end of the day, when it was time for my father to take Naomi home, I asked to go along. From the back seat, I watched wide-eyed as we traveled to a neighborhood I’d never seen before. The row houses were tiny and the side streets so thin only one car at a time could fit.
“Make sure your door is locked,” said my father, at one point, his words hanging in the air like a dark cloud.
There were bars on every corner and men hanging around, smoking and drinking out of bottles barely concealed by paper bags. I recall being petrified we would suffer a flat tire from the pot-holes and trolley tracks that blighted the streets.
Naomi stared straight ahead. The ride might only have taken twenty minutes, but it felt like hours in the silence. Finally, pointing to the right, she said, “That’s it. Turn there.”
My father carefully swung into a dimly-lit street. Midway to the other end, Naomi said: “That’s good. Thank you.” She got out, and we watched Naomi slowly climb a flight of stairs and disappear behind a small, wooden door. Several of the neighboring houses were boarded-up.
“Do you want to move to the front seat?” asked my father.
“No, thanks,” I said. “I don’t mind it back here.”
What I really meant was: “I’m afraid to step out of the car.

Naomi continued to work for my parents until I went to college, though her visits were less frequent. My mother said she drifted out of our lives due to health issues. I’d looked at her more sympathetically after that ride to her home. It’s not that I wasn’t aware her circumstances were difficult, it’s just hard to picture for a youngster without actually witnessing it. Nothing really changed in our conversations as I matured; but I never attempted to hide the ice cream again.