Feature Story

Stranger in a Strange Land

You Will Buy
The Last Time it Will Open
This is the Time for Decision
You Will Never See the Like
This Space I Worked
Red I Do Not Know
Emptiness I did not Deserve
The End Will be Removed
Is that the final bid

By Joe Baltz

I became an adult on January 25, 1999. I was 52 years old.

Never again would I mount the three stairs, pull open the wooden door, and walk down the sagging, creaking maple floor, feeling the wash of memories flood by, decades old, of a time and place lost forever. As John Knudson, the master auctioneer, shouted the close of the last bid, "Sold--to #34", his voice rolling through the empty two-story mezzanine cavern, and as the last item was scooped up by the last customer, my childhood days vanished. Barrett Hardware, after 149 years of business in downtown Joliet, Illinois closed forever.

Never again would I hear my mother angrily shout to my father, on a Saturday morning, "And, just where are YOU going?", and him shout back, "To Barrett's! The sink's broken!" Then, with an irritated jerk of his head to me, a seven year old boy, say gruffly, "Get in the car", and listen to him mutter as we crossed the Ship Canal, the tires whining over the steel bridge, "The sink's broken! I'm going to Barrett's! Where the hell else would I go?" It was a question everyone in this town asked.

Never again would I enter a store like Barrett's. In the 1950's, everything (that is spelled EVERY THING) was made in America. Sinks, toilets, toasters, saws, refrigerators, washing machines, clothes driers, freezers, hair driers, cameras, paint, glass, nuts, bolts, screws, nails, knives, forks, spoons, hammers, screw drivers, air conditioners, furniture, books, paper, cups, saucers and plates; everything needed for human existence was made and consumed in this country. Barrett's stocked the parts for every thing ever made. America exported coal, iron ore, grains, lumber and cotton. America did not export jobs. Imported goods came from Indiana or Michigan.

Never again would I enter that store with my father and watch him mingle with doctors, lawyers, small businessmen, tradesmen, dentists, laborers and farmers. All male, all of his generation and beyond, and all equal unto the eyes of the hardware clerk; the man who held the secret knowledge of fixing light sockets, autos, toilets and sinks. All in a group, smoking their Pall Malls, Camels and Lucky Strikes, talking politics, business, farming, their kids and, most important, what size bolt would fix that "blasted furnace blower."

Never again would I press my small face against the cool glass of a hundred year old display case with the silence of an unobserved observer in an adult world, counting the mysterious items on display, listening to the low voices discuss the nature of all things, proclaiming every solution and solving nothing. Their soft murmurs interrupted only by raucous laughter from some off color joke or two.

Never again would I be waited on by neatly dressed old men in cream colored linen smock coats, sporting a tie, and watch in wonder as they climbed the rolling ladders to fly down the wall, thirty feet in the air, searching the tiny drawers for a lead swing packing to fix a 1912 Crane shower assembly.

Never again would I, as a new homeowner, forget my wallet and say to the clerk, "I'm sorry, I'll be right back," and have him respond, "Don't worry, I know your dad. Just put your address down. We'll send you a bill." I would become, like most of us, a gray watercolor wash of a human. Nameless, faceless, a series of raised numbers on a piece of plastic, who's only worth lay in my zip code or telephone number.

As the auctioneer shouted the last "Sold--to #34" my life as an adult began. Never again would I be "My Father's Son". He would become, like all of us, a ghost memory in a world of forgotten memories. I would wait in line to have my items scanned, listen to the anonymous clerk at the Box Stores spout the corporate greeting, and become just like all the rest—a Stranger in a Strange Land.

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1 response

  • Suman Nath

    Suman Nath gave props (7 Jul 2009):

    wonderfully presented, more about encoutering stranger http://www.jpgmag.com/stories/12209

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