Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Our icebox, and a little story to go with it
After posting the picture of our 1951 Hotpoint, I thought why not turn back the clock a few more decades and post pictures of a real icebox. This wonderful piece was converted to its present use many years ago by my mother. The icebox itself came from the house in the story that follows.
A Tiny Piece of Fresno, Another Part of Me
The biggest cockroaches I have ever seen were the shiny monsters that skittered out from beneath the old claw-footed bathtub in my grandfather’s cousin’s house in downtown Fresno when our family was there to button up her affairs. Assuming she bathed occasionally, she sat in that tub while those creatures in their sturdy shells multiplied and went about their business.
When Roxie died almost thirty years ago, she left some uneaten ground meat in a frying pan on her stove. There was a wooden spoon in the pan, and the simple chair she had been sitting on put her within easy reach. To travel from room to room, she followed a narrow path that wound through a half-century’s accumulation of debris. At first glance it seemed a mess, but there was a kind of rhythm to the arrangement. I got the idea that whether she was looking for a candle or a particular piece of sheet music published in 1924, she knew exactly where it was: in a dishpan on top of the cardboard box full of colorful wool socks that had been knitted by hand in the Old Country, or around the corner from the tablecloth-and-old-letters department in a shoe box near the window seat.
Chances are, my grandfather had brought her the meat. I saw Roxie only once, when she was about eighty. It was hard to picture her in a grocery store. He and I had stopped at her house one day because he was looking for a couple of boards. While he was rummaging through a woodpile half-buried by weeds, she came outside to say hello. She smiled at me and said, “He looks like you, Harry,” and my grandfather said, “He ought to,” though he and I both knew it wasn’t true. One thing was immediately obvious: Roxie was nuts, but in a pleasant, harmless way. Her thin gray hair went here, her eyebrows went there, and her semi-laughing speech failed to harmonize the two. She didn’t invite us in, but was definitely pleased that we were there. I didn’t know that if we had gone inside, there would have been no place to sit.
“So,” I thought. “Here’s another relative. It makes perfect sense.”
Once upon a time, when the twentieth century was still wet behind the ears, Roxie’s father Tateos ran a little Armenian restaurant in Fresno. Tateos was married to my grandfather’s mother’s sister. The unpainted house on Van Ness had been the family home, probably after Tateos and his bride had suffered through three or four squalid rentals owned by suspicious landlords who hated Armenians and thought they were from another planet.
I think my grandfather was unofficially in charge of Roxie’s welfare. It would have been just like him to bring her groceries and look in on her from time to time. It’s possible he even paid her small utility bills. Certainly no plumber was needed to keep her bathtub, sink, or elevated toilet tank in working order. Come to think of it, I don’t remember a washing machine. She must have used her tub.
Once, while we were taking a break from Roxie’s cockroaches and dust, my father and I decided to examine her cellar. The house rested on a foundation of rough-cut redwood lumber, still in perfect condition. I was expecting some ancient jars of grape leaves and jam and a skeleton or two, but all we found were a few crude empty shelves and spider webs. Considering the convenient downtown location, if it were today, a homeless person would be living there. It might be a week before Roxie found out. Then again, if it were today, the house and its fascinating Old World contents would be condemned, along with their owner, as a threat to the sacred laws of uniformity.
For me, our dear cousin represents another piece of a complex genetic, cultural, linguistic puzzle. In other words, her presence in the family tree helps explain why I function poorly as an adult. I can’t help admiring her, because she lived a life in that dimly lit, petrified abode — a life every bit as legitimate as the ones hustling by in the street or on the sidewalk, or fussing about in the nearby department stores and office buildings. In my opinion, it was a saner life than the kind led by the suit-clad drones who saw only monetary value in the piece of property she left behind, and who couldn’t wait to dismantle and pave over her little patch of history.
It makes me wonder: If I were left alone for that many years, would I end up living the same way? I can say no, but what would it prove? What would it mean? That I am ashamed to admit Roxie’s lifestyle holds a certain appeal? Or that I am afraid that once I’m living it, I wouldn’t know the difference, and would be only a city ordinance and a bulldozer away from oblivion?
Only time and circumstances will tell. As for those who feel secure in the accidental arrangement of their lives, I wish them well.
From Songs and Letters, originally published May 21, 2005.
In the Forum: tantalizing Twain.