The Living Room
My father wore suits his father had made on a treadle sewing machine. His first language was Yiddish.
My mother was born on the run, her parents fleeing the overthrowing of the Ottoman Empire and the ensuing anti-Jewish oppression. Her father was a coppersmith. She typed seventy words a minute on her black Royal manual typewriter. Her first language: Ladino.
The living room of our apartment in the Bronx was my father’s domain. He sat there smoking cigarettes in the dark and sometimes wrestled with me on the couch. There were two windows facing the courtyard where the backs of the tenements faced each other and clotheslines threaded the air. You’d hear people yelling out their windows at an unknown person named Gail to turn her rock and roll music down.
A prominent piece of furniture in the living room was a radio/phonograph that played 78s. It was twice my height and made of wood.
The radio had a glass dial that lit up green.
I was two or three years old when I entered the living room holding a small wooden mallet, feeling very important. When you are two or three years old and you put on a fireman’s hat you are a fireman. You are not pretending to be a fireman or playing a game. Even if you don’t know what a fireman is, you are a fireman. In this case, my mallet made me a mechanic.
Tools were used by adults, so they were important. They were used to fix things. Fixing something meant interaction between a tool and an object, the tool powered by the person.
My idea was to fix the glass radio dial with my hammer.
The Tool Box
My father was an officer in WWII and came back from the war with an M-1 rifle, a stack of photos he’d taken of terrible things, a rubber club used by the Gestapo and a wooden ammunition box with a broken leather handle and a latch you had to learn how to use.
Inside the box were tools. There were a coping saw, pipe wrenches, screwdrivers and two small hammers whose heads my father had cast in night school.
The tool box was a box of magic. Opening it was like opening yourself to the mysteries of the universe. And the tools inside were not weapons or ghosts. The tools were made of light and steel. They were mysterious answers to impossible questions. I wanted to look at them and touch them and be the person who knew how to use them. Inside that box of war were objects for making things right.
My mother was a master typist. She mended clothes, darned socks, embroidered, knitted, crocheted. She tapered the legs of a new pair of pants with needle and thread, made cuffs and took in the waist. She did the layout holding pins in her mouth.
The Truth of Glass
I had my own mallet made of wood. This is my only memory of using it.
I walk into my father’s blue domain carrying my little hammer focused on the glowing green glass. I am a grown up man with an important job, to fix the radio.
If you can remember the first time you witnessed injustice you know how I felt when my hammer broke the glass.
All of my intention was for the good but the result was bad. I had damaged the thing I had meant to improve.
I don’t know if I was punished for breaking the glass but year after year the radio remained, standing there with the terrible converging cracks.
Is it too far a stretch to say that the result of my reaching up and swinging my hammer at the glass set in motion a lifetime fashioned to right the wrong?
In that moment I learned something about the material: glass, and about the tool: the mallet.
To become a craftsman there are the things you must learn. How the tool works, what it can and cannot do and the truth of the material you are working.
Why do I say the truth of the material?
I mean its nature. I mean its structure, its limitations, its texture.
If It Ain’t Broke
Around age twelve I built my first piece of furniture, not realizing then that it was a ritual object.
What I built was a stool to help my grandmother reach the Passover dishes once a year on the very highest cupboard shelves.
As I learned to use tools I began taking things apart. I never heard the expression, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”.
My policy as an adolescent was more along the lines of, “If it ain’t broke, break it.”
Not that I intentionally broke things. I just loved taking things apart that were working just fine. Often they weren’t the same once I managed to get them back together again.
Was I trying to recreate the smashed glass to redeem the act? Was I trying to contact the feeling I had when the glass broke in order to resolve it?
In my wood shop I experience that same feeling daily. Never does the tool do exactly what I ask it to do. It betrays me again and again, just like the little wooden mallet did when I was tiny. But my well used tools have the same magic as my mother’s needles, her thimble, her darning egg.
Today I don’t have to open the box that carried the bullets in war to use the hammers my father made, or the coping saw. They hang from my tool rack in easy reach.