Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The promise of history, habit and ritual


Ritual is a benefit for a regular guy.

Doing the same thing, over and over again, holds your place in the world. It allows you to recognize change. With it, comes a promise for tomorrow.

Make the coffee in the morning. Walk the dogs. See to it that the lilacs are watered. Mow the lawn. Work every day. Not just chores, but with a purpose… a history … a filter through which you can look at life. No wonder, ritual becomes a ritual for some.

Six days a week, almost precisely at 7:55 a.m., the light blue 1964 International Scout, loaded to the hilt with aging red dogs and nice old man with a history of his own, arrived and parked at side entrance to the hardware store in Dolores, Colorado. Merton Taylor would be wearing the same “uniform” as the day before… denim painter’s pants, a grey work shirt with button-down pockets, and crepe-soled, moccasin styled, split-leather, high-topped, work shoes and dented and stained mouse-colored Stetson. The dogs would disembark from the vehicle in precisely the same order everyday, all five of them. Jason, Feathers, Cindy, Christa, and Sarah.

Most of the time, for more than seven years in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, I would be waiting there for them. Merton would hand me the keys and I would head to the front door to unlock it, as he gathered boxes of newspapers, paper work and miscellaneous crap he had brought from home to the store that day.

Collectively, we would hit the various lights, unlock the side door and back slider, and I would head out to the incinerator to empty the big freezer box with hand holes cut in the sides. We had dumped all the trashcans in the building in there the night before. If there was no new snow to shovel, depending on how many of us were doing chores, one, usually Merton, would scrub the bathroom fixtures with a toilet brush. Another filled the big three-gallon mop bucket with a little bit of Tide, and hot water, from the outdoor hose bib under the indoor sink there in the corner. We would place the “mop wringer of death,” (a long-handled lever contraption that could explode a water melon if placed in the wringer carriage and squeezed) and wheel it up to the front door.

Every single day that I worked there during that time, we mopped the ancient oaken, hardwood floors, stem to stern — taking care on cold winter days to avoid the steel plate under the side door, lest the mop would stick and freeze. Around the two sides in front aisle, up by the office, register, nail counter to double doors just before you went in to the backroom. A red-handled mop and a splintery unpainted one that, when unused, hung over a shelf made just for that purpose on one side, above the stairwell to the basement. If you were not careful, and failed to wring them out good when finished, it would drip most of the morning on the bottom two steps.

Merton had been in the navy during WWII and would ‘teach’ new recruits the exacting method that the floors were to be mopped, with long, sweeping motions that covered the most floor, with the least duplication — or he would come to expect old hands at the chore to do so.

One of us would make the coffee (always in a percolator, none of this new-fangled Mr. Coffee crap technology) and another would do the dishes, which consisted of eight to ten coffee mugs (used by the regulars almost every day) scrubbed and placed on paper towels that covered the bottom of a silver tray.

In the evenings, it was a similar routine in reverse. Rather than mopping the floors, however, we would pour carvous oil out of a 5-gallon container and into clean sawdust that was kept in a 55 gallon drum with a metal lid at the bottom of the stairs. We mixed our homemade sweeping compound in an old coal bucket with a coal shovel. Then we spread it on the same floors, and would take to it with long-handled push brooms.

When it was close to quitting time, I would ask Merton for key to lock the front door. He would hand it to me, usually with the same lame joke, “Aqui,” and I would turn it in the tumbler at exactly 5:30 p.m., unless there was a straggler rushing to buy a plunger before we closed. But stragglers usually knew to arrive at the side door, because the whole dog-loading process into the Scout had to be reversed before Merton could go home.

Certainly, at the hardware store there were other rituals, habits and history to follow. Things that had been done that way since George Taylor, Merton’s father had owned the business. Perhaps even things that occurred in perpetuatuity since the building was the old J.J. Harris & Co, with the mercantile and bank there as early as the 1890s.

The other day, when I was walking the dogs (after mowing the lawn and watering the lilacs), I thought about how, in a lifetime, you see the same things over and over again. I thought about the videotape I watched the other day of my kids when they were much younger. It seemed so familiar, but oddly different, because they are nearly grown now.

Feeling all whiney the next day, I quoted Martin Amis, “Sometimes I feel that life is passing me by, not slowly either, but with ropes of steam and spark-spattered wheels and a hoarse roar of power or terror. It's passing, yet I'm the one who's doing all the moving. "


Rosanne Gain offered perspective at the time with some advice from her mother. “When I was a callow youth, my Mother explained it this way: 'My dear, the older you get the faster the time will pass. In old black and white movies they marked the passage of time by showing a desktop day calendar with a wind blowing the pages back. One day you will understand.'"

The next night, I looked at the sunset, burning orange red over the Rampart Range, with the peak behind it. It sort of wraps itself around you, with the dark greens fading to blue into the white of clouds and brownish red of a smoky sky feathering off into grey and then darkness. I had seen that sunset before. Maybe, not exactly, but close enough that I felt the promise — the promise of history, of habit, of ritual.

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Photo information: View of the stagecoach and passengers on the main street in Dolores (Montezuma County) Colorado. A passenger holds a gold pan. Men stand in front of a storefront with a sign that reads “J.J. Harris & Co.” Photographed by William Henry Jackson between 1890 and 1900. Colorado Historical Society, William Henry Jackson Collection.

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