Free Wood

 In the very blue-collar, ethnic, upstate N.Y. community I grew up in in the ‘50s, a lot of back yards and areas around small businesses looked like this. Typically they were semi-chaotic arrangements of scrap lumber, crates, machinery, salvaged building components, wood piles, poorly built sheds, trash-burning barrels, old cars that usually didn’t run and all manner of potentially useful junk.

 All that stuff surrounding the house was good stuff—stuff the owner just knew he could do something with, that he would need one day or that he could sell or trade. The world outside the fence (or property line) was an uncertain prospect, but inside the property there was control of one’s destiny and—the all-American opportunity to make something out of little more than nothing. This particular yard was/is in Sandwich Township on Cape Cod—I ran across it while photo-wandering during our recent visit with my step-son. It really brought back memories.

One old Italian guy lived on my walking route to (elementary) school in a house that today would be condemned. He had a lot more going on than what I just described—I think he was running a junk yard out of his home and property. In addition he grew tomatoes and had a great Concord grape vine near the back of his property. 

 On my way to school in the early fall the grapes would ripen and it was very easy to reach over his shipping pallet fence, liberate a big bunch and eat them on the way to school. Some of the other kids did it too. I don’t remember anybody getting caught and yelled at or chased off—I don’t think he cared. I suspect like a lot of home gardeners, he grew more than he could use.

 He had a part-time job—he was a crossing guard at the cross walk on the street in front of the school yard. Do they still have crossing guards these days?

 He was short, probably 5 foot 4, old with big bushy eyebrows and a bushy white moustache and always wore old, out-dated clothes. I don’t ever remember him speaking—he always just motioned to us kids—“Come on,” “Hurry up,” or “Wait”—and motioned to traffic to stop and go.

 Looking back now I see him as a gentle, marginal sort of man—close to the end of his working years—leading an almost invisible life in that last place on earth. At one time in his life—when he was a young man in another country—he had the dreams, limitless potential and immortality that is the birthright of all young people.

 In the early 1900s he was processed like cattle, with crowds of other immigrants through Ellis Island. He lived a few years with relatives who had preceded him to this country in New York City or its environs and for the next 50 years he would work at brutal, menial jobs for little more than pocket change.

 He learned to speak English passably well but never lost that strong accent. He found out quickly you must never complain and absolutely never question any authority. He learned to be passive and to be grateful for enough food to live to work another day. After all, he was being allowed the considerable privilege of living in the “land of the free, home of the brave.”

 Because of his subservient attitude and mentality—and because he had a foreign name and an accent–he was a third class citizen. If he had children they quite likely grew up as fairly mainstream ethnic Americans—somewhere between second class and regular American citizens—if they graduated from high school and knew the right people.

 By the time he got too old to do the kind of work he used to do—he had accumulated a social network, enough property and enough knowledge, to scratch out a subsistence living. He knew bartering, did odd jobs and—in this affluent, practical land—he learned how to pick up useful junk and sell it. And he grew tomatoes and grapes in his back yard.

 He knew he would die a third-class citizen, but with all its faults, this was America where even a third-class citizen with an accent and a funny name could own property. Maybe outside the fence the world was an uncertain prospect but inside the lines one had control over one’s destiny and the all-American opportunity to make something out of little more than nothing.

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2 Responses to “Free Wood”

  1. Carole Kipp Says:

    I loved this story. It sounds so real.

  2. orion Says:

    Hi Carole–thank you for commenting. It means a lot when people take the time to share their thoughts. Sorry to be so long about responding. My computer has been sick and I’m just now getting back on line. I hope you’ll continue to follow the site. Again–thanks. Orion

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