Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Knife Man

In 1985 I wrote the following story about my dad.  Although I wrote it using a fictitious narrator, it was composed with the knowledge I gained, first hand, in those days when I was a "helper". 

As my dad approaches the time for him to pass from this life to what lays beyond, from myself, all of his helpers, sons and nephews alike, and from those he served faithfully all those years who may no longer think of him but who were positively effected by his life, and, of course from his immediate family, relatives, and many, many friends, here's to you dad.  We love you and will miss you terribly.


                                                       

                                                            The Knife Man



I am standing inside my front door on a cold, October morning with a cup of hot chocolate. I’m up before the sun, awaiting Joe Pugnetti’s arrival. Today, I will go “on the job” with him, a job I’ve often wondered about in the fifteen years of our acquaintance. He pulls up in his station wagon and beeps the horn. I close the door behind me, walk briskly to the waiting car, and we begin the twenty minute ride from our suburban neighborhood to Philadelphia.

Joe is one of the nicest neighbors on our block. If I need a hand with a backyard chore, or want to borrow a tool of his – “no problem”. On most weekends he is outside working on a car, building something, painting or just maintaining his property. At those times, like today, he is rarely at a loss for a good conversation. Today, as we drive to the shop, we discuss a recent hijacking at sea.

We pull into a narrow driveway which widens into a parking area just wide enough for two cars to fit. Joe parks within inches, on my side, of an outside heating oil tank, a few strides from the shop. Apologetically, he tells me to slide out from his side.

Joe is a knife grinder. Along with his brother, they operate a small business providing knives to restaurants, butchers, supermarkets and grocery stores within the city of Philadelphia. Joe delivers the knives from a step-van truck while his brother sharpens them at the shop. Joe’s day consists of a pattern of “stops”, a different route for each day of the week. At each customer, they provide a previously determined number and type of sharpened knife while removing the dull ones from the last delivery. In essence, these customers rent sharp knives from their business. For Joe’s part, he has been delivering knives for thirty-five years, fifty-one weeks a year, 45-50 hours per week.

The shop is a small, darkened rectangle with an oily, heavy air about it. Along two of the walls are boxes of recently sharpened knives and various grinding machines, foremost of which is the whetstone or grinding wheel. Replacing this wheel of stone is done every eighteen months by three men and a winch.

The left side of the shop is dominated by the delivery truck which Joe is loading. He indicates four boxes near me and asks if I can bring them over. All are heavy but within my ability to lift. Within the truck the knives are sorted by type and stored in boxes like the four I have helped load. The wooden boxes are arranged onto metal racks, one on each side of the truck, two levels high. This storage system dominates the interior of the truck, leaving very little room for passengers. As we back out of the shop down the driveway, it occurs to me that I am stationary within a vehicle loaded to the gills with very sharp objects loosely stacked in boxes, without lids.

As we drive the twenty minutes south on Broad Street towards the first stop, the sun rises and the city begins to awaken. Traffic has thickened and people are hurrying through the streets into the stores. Joe is in and out of the first few shops very quickly. “In the early morning, no one wants to talk”, he explains. “They’re too busy”.

Joe is an excellent driver. He maneuvers down boulevards and alleys with equal ease. His parking skill is demonstrated at the third stop when he perfectly backs into a space, with one attempt, which someone in a two-door car has just passed by.

At each stop, Joe moves to the back of the truck and selects the knives. There are at least five or six different types, as far as I can tell, each with a different use. Additionally, the width of the knife blade differs as the action that sharpens a knife also removes or wears away a bit of the blade with each weekly grinding. As a result, the newest knives have the widest blades, the older ones, thinner blades, and, again, each level of thickness results in different uses. Joe carries up to ten knives in one hand, handles in the palm, blades between his fingers pointing to the ground. For stops which require more than ten knives, he uses a wooden box, without a lid. He moves smoothly through crowds, the knives seemingly an extension of his body. “I’ve never cut anyone”, he states proudly.

His hands, however, are another matter. They are rough and heavily callused with thin scars here and there. Today, he wears a small bandage on his right index finger. But he has never gone to a hospital for treatment, preferring butterfly bandages that he keeps stocked in the truck. “It’s a part of the job, like blisters on a golfer’s hands or cramps in a writer’s”.

About 10:00, it starts raining. The weather can be a negative factor in Joe’s day. All precipitation effects traffic flow, adding travel time between stops. The point is illustrated by a ten minute backup of vehicles wading through a small lake which had formed under an overpass. Also, Joe walks twelve to fifteen miles a week from vehicle to store, within stores, and back to the truck so any extreme weather increases the annoyance level. “In the summertime, this truck becomes a metal sweatbox but since this is a stop and go business, I’ve never had one air-conditioned. For me, extreme heat is far worse than the cold”.

Joe symbolizes the work ethic which built America; he is on his route every day, healthy or sick. He shares this value with the predominantly small businessmen who comprise his clientele. Also, Joe emphasizes the personal aspect of his service. Frequently he emerges from a store laughing aloud or calling a “Take it easy” over his shoulder. At other times, I catch the end of a conversation about politics, sports, even basic philosophy. They are blue-collar opinions emphasized with gestures and rising voice levels. “I especially enjoy the social part of the job. My customers encompass all ages, races and opinions, and in dealing with such a wide range of people, it makes me a better person, a bit more tolerant. Also, when it is time to raise the prices, my customers accept it more easily. We understand each other”.

This relationship can also pay off in a more serious way. At lunch, Joe relates a story of getting jumped by two “young punks” after money. One slammed his hand with the knives against the truck while the other rifled his pockets. They got less than they might have because Joe’s customer burst from his store waving a gun. Joe’s savior was a Korean grocer who spoke little English but knew Joe as his knife man.

This kind of potential danger via the cash and carry aspect of the business is Joe’s biggest concern. “Every year there seems to be more senseless violence. I worry about myself but mostly I worry for my family. I still have four kids at home, and one is only five years old. Who’ll take care of them if some dope-filled junkie kills me?”

When we finish eating, Joe walks to the counter to pay our bill. He is 6’2” tall with an outdoorsman’s upper body, yet I recall the hurt in his eyes, the hurt of a sensitive person who worries about the uncontrollable dangers of life.

By one o’clock, the sun is out again. I go into a few stores to watch Joe in action. He walks purposefully, stopping at various stations within the store, exchanging sharp knife for dull. In dank, dark basements, he roots around for knives. In the hectic kitchens he blends in and out of the chaos, even exchanging hellos with some of the busy workers. I am more in the way than useful, but in those few shadowings of Joe, I witness a form of artistry in the way he performs his job.

Later in the day, Joe lets me “serve” one of his customers by myself. He hands me a box with five knives, tells me to put four at the butcher block and the smallest one at the register. “In this area, many store owners keep a sharp knife with the cashier, to discourage robbery”, he explains. Inside, I am initially attacked by five sets of eyes, but they relax with I exchange the knives at the butcher’s block. At the register, I am given the last knife along with their payment, and asked with some sarcasm if I am the helper today.

Back at the truck I recount my experience and ask him about the helper comment. “My kids and my nephews have been my helpers in the past. I start them at eleven or twelve, and they assist me in the summer and on days off from school. I can’t pay them much money, so by sixteen they get a real job. But in those few years, I am able to experience something that few fathers can – I can take my kids to work, to work”. He turns to me, taking his eyes off the road for just an instant. “It is a very rare opportunity; to have your son’s be a part of your world, of the world which supports them and the entire family. They may not understand it as it is happening, but I know it will stick with them forever”. Joe turns his head frontwards again, but before it has turned completely, I catch what I think is a small tear at the corner of his eye.

This brief glimpse of Joe, the father, underlines even more the hurt he exhibited at lunch. Being able to properly take care of his family is Joe’s biggest concern, his prime motivation for working.

Back in the shop, we unload the truck. Joe sharpens a few saws which is a minor part of the business. He relates his pole-climbing days in the Army as the saw sharpener scrapes between each and every tooth. As retirement approaches, he sometimes regrets not going to Philadelphia Electric or the phone company to make a career from the skills he learned in the service. There is no grinder’s union or pension to supplement his future social security checks. Only the judicial use of the lump sum gained for the eventual sale of the company. Also, Joe’s brother will retire before him, so Joe will need to perform both aspects of the business for a number of years. It will be even more hard work at a time when age will begin to take its toll. At this point in his life, it would have been easier to have worked for a large company. “I did not go to college, never even finished high school, so I emphasize education to my kids. I am a bit sad that none of them will take up the old man’s business but very glad that I supplied them with the opportunity to choose their own paths”.

On the way home, Joe makes one last stop at a local restaurant in our area. He walks across the lot from the car somewhat slower than this morning but comes out smiling and a step faster. He tells me a joke the cook just told him and we share a big laugh at its punchline.





3 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this wonderful tribute, Joe.

    As a kid, I remember your dad once took me to the cutlery shop and all that you describe. When I worked in Center City, I more than once ran across Joe on his route around town.

    There are many memories of Joe piling all of us kids in the back of the Chevy wagon and going for ice cream, or somewhere. Picnics at Green Lane and so many family gatherings over the years.

    I could always count on Joe for a new, or old joke and good, thought provoking conversations.

    He, your mom and all the family are in my thoughts and prayers during this difficult time. Trust that he is comforted by the love and devotion of his family who he so dutifully served.





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  2. Written in 1985, this wonderful piece of writing is no eulogy, but a tribute to one still alive. More people should practice what you have done, Joe.
    I will say a prayer for you and your family.
    Lincoln

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  3. Tom/Linc,

    Thank you both for your comments, thoughts and prayers.

    Joe

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