By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, February 19, 1944
“For instance,” said Jimmie Frise, “a man could mend umbrellas.”
“True, Jimmie,” I mused. “When I was a boy, I recollect the umbrella menders. There would be one come along our street at least once a month. They would have a half a dozen tattered old umbrellas under their arms, and a little bag of tools, like a doctor.”
“They would rap at each door,” went on Jim, “and say to the lady, with a lift of the hat, ‘Any umbrellas to mend, lady?'”
“Nowadays, I still see scissors grinders,” I confessed, “with a little treadle strapped on their backs, and ringing a hand bell through the streets.”
“They are foreigners now,” said Jim. “But when I was a boy, they used to be our fellow countrymen. And the children would come and gather round to see the blue sparks fly off the wheel, and to hear him sing. I knew one Irishman, young Irishman, with a bright face, and he loved sharpening scissors and knives. And he used to sing a tune in time with his foot pumping on the treadle. A quick tune.”
“I can’t understand any man nowadays,” I stated, “being out of work even though he can’t do war work. There are so many things a man can do. Things men used to do, that seem to be forgotten. Why, I remember the spectacle sellers. Don’t you remember the spectacle sellers? Nicely dressed young men who, when you opened the door, were standing there, with a bright smile, and a sort of suitcase strapped around their necks and spread open in front of them filled with spectacles of all sorts fastened to the tray. From door to door, these merchants went, fitting spectacles to all the housewives.”
“And,” cried Jimmie, “the packmen! With a big black oilcloth pack on their backs with a tray in their hands, containing everything the home required – needles, threads, buttons, tape, elastic, bobbins, wool of all shades, hooks and eyes, buckles.”
“I remember,” I admitted, “my dear old grandmother searching all over the house one time for a bodkin, and finally saying – ‘I wish the packman would come by.’ And then she stopped still and looked wistfully out of the window, and said, ‘Why, I haven’t seen a packman in thirty years.’ And that day she grew many years older.”
“The packmen,” said Jim. “Merchants, with their stores on their backs. Today, it a man comes to your door with needles, thread, shoe laces, all he has got is a little bit of stuff in his hands and he is so shabby and importunate, you know he is only begging. But packmen never begged. They were proud men. They were merchants. Merchants of a prouder and older order than these modern ones that sit in stores. They belonged to that ancient craft of merchants who travelled by camel train and little ship across all the earth, selling as they went.”
“And the clock menders,” I cried. “Where are the clock menders? Don’t you remember the men, mostly with gray beards, who called at each door, and asked ‘Any clocks to mend, lady?’ They had a little handbag full of tools. I can still remember how they would come in and take the clock apart on the dining-room table, and we were allowed to stand there, with our hands behind our backs, and watch him in silence. And these clock menders were silent men, who breathed heavily through their beards as they bent over the mysterious million wheels and springs on the dining-room table. We always used to give them a cup of tea when they were finished, and the clock’s fine gong was ringing through the house again.”
“Now there,” said Jim, emphatically, “is an idea.”
“It sure is,” I agreed.
“This city, this whole country,” declared Jim, “is full of wonky clocks that people want repaired because some lines of new ones are hard to get on account of the war. Why, I’ve got two big clocks right now in my house that don’t go and haven’t gone for years and years.”
“I’ve got three of them,” I remarked.
“Isn’t that funny thing?” mused Jim. “I have, up in this minute, thought of those clocks just as ornaments. It is years since they went. I wonder why I haven’t done anything about them?”
“Because,” I stated, “the clock menders no longer call from door to door. Because you can’t think of anybody to come and take them away. Because they are too big and clumsy to take downtown yourself. I bet there is a million dollars’ worth of clock mending to be done right in this city.”
“I wonder,” thought Jimmie, “if it is because we have all grown lazy and indifferent? I wonder if, as the result of all the inventions of the past fifty years, life hasn’t become so soft, so easy, that the whole human species has grown lazy, careless, indifferent. Why wouldn’t I go to the trouble of taking a clock off the mantel, carry it out to my car in the morning and deliver it to a store downtown?”
“Nobody wants to do the little old-fashioned things any more,” Jim went on. “Even the piano tuners. Do you remember the piano tuners? You didn’t have to send for the piano tuner. He just turned up.”
“I remember, even,” I submitted, “a sort of general mender that used to come around about once a year. He had a wooden box on his back. He used to sit in the vestibule. He could resole shoes, mend leather gloves, sew up carpets that were torn, mend carpet sweepers, regild picture frames …”
“The country is full of work. And the grandest kind of work of all – working for one’s self,” said Jim.
“I guess the only kind of work anybody wants now,” I said, “is what somebody else tells them to do.”
“Well,” stated Jim, “one good thing has come out of this conversation. I’m going to get my clocks repaired.”
“The same here,” I said. “Only, it seems a shame that after all this talk about laziness and loss of enterprise, I have to confess that I am the great-grandson of a clockmaker.”
“Are you?” said Jim.
“Yes, my great-grandfather, born here in York, before it was Toronto, even, was Thomas Bradshaw McMurray, watchmaker, probably the first native born watchmaker in this city.”
“Indeed,” said Jim. “Maybe, some of these countless clocks that aren’t going all over Toronto were actually made by him.”
“Possibly,” I confessed. “But I inherit not the slightest aptitude with machinery of any kind.”
“You would hardly call a clock machinery,” pointed out Jim. “A clock is, after all, a very simple mechanism. It is, in fact, as simple as a child’s wind-up toy. It consists of a spring you wind up, a ratchet that holds the spring, and a series of geared wheels which relax the springs at a rate controlled by levers with tension on them. Really very simple.”
“Even so,” I confessed, “I have a horror of opening a clock. I must inherit some reaction from my great-grandfather. I shudder even when I take the back off my wrist watch. To look in and see all those tiny, delicate wheels and sprockets and springs breathing, as it were. Breathing and slowly ticking, ticking, like the beat of a heart. It gives me the creeps.”
“You surprise me,” said Jim. “All I see to clock mending, is, unscrew the works, take it all apart, laying each separate piece in a precise spot on the dining-room table, so that you will remember just when, rather than where, it goes back. Wipe everything with a rag dipped in gasoline or some such solvent. Reoil with great care, and very sparingly; and then reassemble. I should think it would be very simple.”
“Jim,” I cried. “Don’t do it. Don’t you do it.”
“Besides,” went on Jim, “if we learn how to mend a clock, then anybody can learn. And we could then not only advocate clock mending as a trade to the unemployed, but we could actually, when some poor chap calls at our door with a packet of needles or soap. bring him in, teach him the trick of clock mending in an hour or two, and set him on his way a free man, man with a trade and calling.”
“Mmm, mmm,” I said, doubtfully.
“How about the country?’ demanded Jim. “You pass all these little villages and cross roads in the country. There is no glazier there, but all the windows are mended. There is no clockmaker, no plumber, no tinsmith, no dentist, but all the country’s clocks are ticking in the kitchens, the pumps work, the roofs are tight … there must be men all over this country who do know about making things go.”
“Give it up, Jim,” I begged him.
But Jim went back to work at his drawing board with a hard dry look in his eyes, and that night, when the telephone rang right after dinner, I knew it would be Jim. And it was. And he invited me to come over to his place to see him mend a clock. And of course, a man would be a pretty poor specimen that wouldn’t do that much for a friend.
The clock, which Jim had standing on the bare dining-room table, was a large greenish yellow marble clock with gold pillars at the corners and a gold ornament on top. It was a clock made after the shape of a post-office or the British royal exchange or maybe the Greek temple or something severe. Jim had the dining-room doors closed and locked.
“I have here,” he said, “the small screwdriver from the sewing machine, a large screw-driver, a thing to tap with, in case of rust, a rag moistened with gasoline and an oil can. The whole outfit wouldn’t cost a dollar.”
Jim removed the back of the clock with four deft twiddles of the screw-driver. He peered inside, studied, examined, lit matches and peeked; and finally undid a large screw which let him lift out the bowels of the whole clock. It was heavy, brassy and compact.
“I will start at this corner of the table,” explained Jimmie, “and work across the table diagonally that way. I will lay each thing I take out, in its proper order. Thus, when reassembling the clock, I will start at that far corner. And so, as simple as falling off a log, it will go together again.”
I said nothing. Beads of perspiration began to stud my brow.
Jim removed eleven screws, large and small, and laid them, in a sort of row, across the table. Then removed the whole disjointed carcass forward to the head of the row, and delicately pulling, lifting, twisting, he began to take the machinery apart. Each piece he laid separately in the row.
“See,” he said, breathing heavily, “how simple it will be?”
I just moaned.
He worked straight across the table and then made a wide turn and started back on a second row. Still the machine came apart. Still grew that incredible line of wheels, screws, levers, bolts. The spring came away, a thick, dreadful looking thing, coiled like a serpent. Jim studied it, looked through its coils.
“Just as I thought,” he said. “Gummed with ancient oil. Glued, you might say. I will swish it in a bowl of gasoline.”
But on, on he went, finishing the second row and starting on a third. The face of the clock fell out. Jim picked it up and detached the hands.
“There,” he cried. “Was that difficult? Was that intricate?”
I stifled a groan.
With his gasoliney rag, Jim proceeded to wipe each part. He rubbed and scrubbed.
“Be careful,” I said hoarsely. “Don’t lean against the table. Don’t jiggle the least bit.”
“Imagine a man,” remarked Jim, “having a horror of clock insides!”
“It’s inherited,” I muttered.
And then Jim, shifting the duster in his hands to get a fresh clean bit to use, flicked with the tail of the rag the middle row of parts. It was just the lightest possible flick. But my rivetted and fascinated gaze saw a small brass wheel and a very tiny steel pin about the size of a one-inch nail, scamper across the table, and I let out a yell.
“You’ve ruined it, you’ve ruined it!” I shouted.
But Jim, bending down, picked up the wheel and the bolt and a sort of rocking beam sort of thing like on the top of an old-fashioned steamboat. It had a hole at each end.
“Not that, not that,” I hissed.
“I remember where they go,” said Jim easily, and he bent over, studying the rows of parts, and looking for the space the parts belonged to. “Here, this is where the wheel was. Or was it the rod?”
“I’m going home,” I stated.
“Just a second,” exclaimed Jim. “Let’s see. This flat thing was here. And this wheel was … there. Was it?”
“Oh, oh, oh,” I moaned.
“Mmmmm,” said Jim, “I remember this large sprocket was there. It must have moved, too. I’ll put it back there, and then this … Let’s see. This … Well, well, mmm, mmm, dear me.”
He straightened up. He stared narrowly at the rows of bits.
“Jim,” I said, taking his hand tenderly. “I’m off. Good-night.”
“Hold on, a jiffy,” said Jim, eagerly. “Now wait a minute.”
But he was frightened, and it showed. There was perspiration along the top of his forehead, too. I couldn’t leave the poor chap in such a plight. I hid my face in my hands and sat down.
“Mmm, mmm,” Jimmie kept saying, “Mmm, mmm.”
I heard little clicks. I heard snaps, clinks, snucks and taps. I heard things going together and things being grunted apart. I heard a loud tapping, and looked up to see Jim hammering a wheel on to an axle, using the butt end of a screw-driver.
“It’s all over,” I said brokenly.
“Well, anyway,” sighed Jim, holding small gear about the size of a dime, “I’ve found one thing I’ve been looking for for months. This gear will exactly fit my casting reel. The one with the black handles.”
“Please,” I begged, “don’t start trying tinker with your fishing reel.”
“It’s the very fit,” said Jim. “And now I know where I can get wheels and springs and anything like that.”
And he laid the clock on its back and rescrewed the face on it, and then laid it on its face and on its back door he just dumped, dumped all the works, packing them in and prying them in with the screw-driver and tamping them down with the butt of the screw-driver, and finally getting the back door closed and the little button turned.
“There,” he said. “Nobody will ever notice.”
Editor’s Note: Gasoline was also used as an all-purpose cleaner back in the old days.
This story is a repeat of “Mmmm, Mmmm!” which was published on February 29, 1936. The image from that story is at the end.