April

I am pretty sure this started on December 10, 2005. I know that it was the last possible day for law school exams, and it was a Saturday, so December 10 seems the most likely day for it to have occurred. I had taken my Criminal Law exam in the morning. Then I walked up Mayfield through the cold, under the tram bridge that always seemed to be leaking, past the Little Italian restaurants, and home, on the top floor of the Rossi Building. I had something to eat and then walked down the street and got in my car. I wasn’t scheduled to fly out for another week, at least, and I had nothing to do, and I wanted to drive.

Even after only living three months on the East Side, I was reluctant to cross the river, so I went east, up Cedar, then past Trader Joe’s, then through the wealthier suburbs. Trees started getting taller, and the hills closed in more on the sides of the road, and then suddenly everything cleared away from the road and there were fields, and barns, and warehouses, and shops that were set off away from each other more and more. I kept driving, and eventually got to a hill that dropped down into some lowerlands, and I found out that I was in Mesopotamia. I got a soda at the general store, drove up and down the green in the middle of town, and decided I had gone far enough, so started home.

Just as I turned around, I saw a shop set off away from the road, behind a small lawn and some trees. It was dark by then – maybe three, four in the afternoon in December? – and the shop only had a small, dim light on. I pulled my car up into a tiny gravel parking space and got out; as I approached, an old man with a beard and a hat came to the front door and went to flip the sign from “Open” to “Closed” when he saw me. He placed the sign softly back against the window and walked back into his shop.

I walked in and said hello; there were gas jets flaring, giving off a small hiss and a slight smell and making everything yellow and warm and cozy. I walked around while he stood behind the counter, waiting; he had old signs, boxes, saddles, assorted tools, antique medicine bottles, and I knelt down near the front next to a pile of wooden shoe lasts. I knew that they would have been shaped for individual feet, and they would have been used for custom shoes by a cobbler, and that they were almost never used now except in fancy Jermyn Street shops. I was tempted to buy them, but couldn’t justify the cost – maybe $2 a pair? What on earth would I do with them? So I let them stay, said thank you, and drove home in the dusky cold.

Somehow, in the next 24 hours, an issue of O Magazine came into my life. Maybe I was getting my teeth cleaned, and it was in the dentist’s waiting room, or my roommate, Emily, left it out; I don’t know, but in it was a gorgeous full-page photo of wooden shoe lasts, and I thought, “I need to go back and get those. I need them in my life.” I knew that he would be closed on Sunday, so I had to go back Monday, and by the time I got there on Monday, they were gone – someone else had bought every last one of them that morning. He didn’t know if he would ever get any more, and as far as I know, he didn’t.

I went to California for Christmas, and when I returned, I started going out to visit Eli Miller’s Harness and Leather shop every couple months, to get a break from the city, and because the Amish intrigued me, and he was the first Amish person I ever met. I bought a black belt for formal occasions, then a brown one for my jeans. I liked stopping by to talk to him, to explore the shop. I am writing this to remember: there was always a box of old tools outside, and some highway signs, and often a few farm implements; then, inside, there were shelves of tools near the front windows, and bottles. His till was to the left, with some display cases; to the right were shelves of antique cast iron pots and pans, some red with rust but most were pitch black. He got them at auctions, sometimes, but he also had a guy who had a knack for finding them and bringing them to Eli for selling on. Behind those were some touristy kitsch, mugs and things, and then the wall of belts, hanging in order of size. There were some animal pelts, rugs, other odds and ends, a few antiques, leather soap, dog leashes, riding gear – he was evidently famous for his custom riding gear – and then his workshop in the back.

Over time, I got to know him. I feel like a thousand people would probably say that, and would also probably say that he became a friend, and that he particularly liked them. I began to think that he liked me. Several times, or at least a few times, I would walk in, and he would be talking to someone – in my mind, it was usually an overweight man in jean shorts and a t-shirt under a partially-buttoned plaid shirt, with a salt-and-pepper beard and a baseball cap and boots with colored socks – and I would say, “Hello, Mister Miller,” because that is what I thought he ought to be called to his face, out of respect, and the man and whoever he brought would talk and talk and talk as Eli listened, and then they would say something like, “Well, Eli, stime we gotta goan,” and Eli would ring up their order and they would leave and he would take a deep breath and say, “Well, Andrew, how are you?” I would say that it sounded like he just got an earful, and he would say, “Well, he’s a good guy but he just talks SO MUCH,” and then with that the ice would be broken. If I was alone, I would stay for a while and listen, learning about the area; if I was with someone, I would introduce them, and there would be a shaking of hands all around, and often a transaction – a belt, a pocket knife, a keychain. I loved when I could bring people to Eli’s and they would buy something. It seemed, to me, to be a mark of distinction; if they recognized the value in what he thought was worth selling, they were probably all right.

I even brought my father to meet him when he visited Cleveland. Then, later – I don’t know how much later, maybe months, maybe years – I went to see Eli and he was talking with a woman in the back, in his workshop. As usual, I said hello, and then started browsing, when I heard him say,

“This young guy out front – he is a nice guy, a lawyer. You see him? Would you believe it – his father is a Chinaman!”

In my mind, I said goodbye and left, but I think I just walked out. On the road, I called my girlfriend at the time and told her what had happened.

“Waywaywaywaywaywaywaywaywait,” she said, and then paused. I stopped talking. She was midwestern, and a doctor, and her pauses were magisterial, magnificent, worth recording.

Then: “So you’re saying that an old white man (pause) who lives in the country (pause) and is part of an insular religious sect (pause) is a racist?”

Yes. Yes, I was.

Then: “I am just surprised that you are surprised.”

She had a point.

I didn’t go east for a while. Maybe six months, maybe a year. I didn’t want to support him, or introduce other people to his shop. But I remember one night thinking that I wanted something – a skillet, maybe, or a new belt. No – I had belts from him. Maybe I looked at Bick 4 on Amazon and it was more expensive than he charged. Whatever it was, I thought: he has it for cheap. Why shouldn’t I get it for cheap, and do some food shopping at the Salvage Grocers at the same time, and get food for cheap? Why should I pay more in a transaction just because I didn’t want to benefit a bigot?

The first time I went back, he almost hugged me, he was so excited to see me. He didn’t even wait for the other conversation to finish. I thought: if he likes me this much, then I need to forgive. Forgive.

Once, we were talking alone in his shop, and he said that he had just been to see an old leather-working friend in Indiana. They had known each other for fifty or sixty years, had learned the leather trade together, and now they were both in their eighties. Eli paid a driver to take him to Indiana, and they had a good visit together, and when the time came to leave, the friend went to the back of his shop and brought out what Eli said was a large, beautiful piece of leather – I think he said it was English vegetable-tanned saddle hide or something. It was really, really high-grade stuff, and both of them knew it. Eli said, “He gave it to me and didn’t say anything. I just knew that he meant that it was goodbye, and that we would never see each other again.”

He got quiet, and I could tell he was holding back his emotions.

I searched for something to say. “So…what did you do with it?”

“I made belts with it. They are over there.”

I bought one. It is a light brown belt, almost orange, a bit too big for me now, but I don’t think I can ever give it up. I couldn’t give up any of the belts I have from him.

Once, I drove up to his shop, and he was standing in the driveway. Just standing there. He stepped to the side to let my car through, and then went back to his position. I was a bit worried that maybe he was going senile, that he didn’t know where he was.

“You OK, Mister Miller?”

“Just watching the barn move.”

It made no sense. He definitely needed some help. But before I pulled my phone out to call 911, I looked. Across the street, some men were loading a barn onto the back of a giant truck, in one piece. I had never seen anything like it before, and I don’t know how to explain it. Across the street, some men were loading a barn onto the back of a giant truck, all in one piece.

“They sold it at an auction last week, and they are moving it down the street. I shouldn’t even be here. I wanted to go to an antique sale in Burton, but my ride fell didn’t show up.” Amish people can’t own cars, but they can pay others to drive them places.

“I’ll drive you if you want,” I said.

His eyes lit up. “You’d do that?”

I assured him that there was literally nothing I would rather do on a Saturday morning than drive an elderly Amish man to an antique fair, because…it was true. It felt like an opportunity of a lifetime. I remembered that I had missed out on helping Aiden Miller, another Amish man I knew, build a barn with his friends; I was not going to let this opportunity to help another Amish person do something cool slip through my fingers.

“I’ll just close my shop and tell my wife!”

So I drove him to the antique fair. I have been around plenty of celebrities, and politicians, and even royalty, but I have never seen someone who not only was as well-known as Eli Miller at an antique fair, but who had something personal and important to say to every person he saw. We spent two hours at a one-room antique fair with probably twenty stalls. He bought some things for his shop; I bought some cast iron bottle openers, which I still have and use.

On the way there, and back, we calculated the resale value of the trip for him – he would probably make about $300 – and then he told me about the area – about where he grew up, his parents, people he knew, the fields that had run in families or been sold. He told me what was growing and what was being grown to send to China, because so much depended on China. I only just now thought of this: maybe he hadn’t meant it as a slur – maybe “Chinaman,” to him, was an objective term, without any intention of judgment.

When I was leaving Cleveland, in December 2015, I knew that I needed to make a trip out to see him again. So one Friday evening, which I believe was December 11, my friend Eric came over. He had just broken up with his girlfriend of forever, and we were hanging out a lot more, which was great. I always thought that in a relationship, you learn about the other person, and in a breakup, you learn about yourself, and who your friends really are. In a selfish way, I was really glad they broke up – I was glad to have the time to get to know him. I remember that we were cooking something in my kitchen – chili, maybe? – and drinking down my bar, which had grown to be expansive, and listening to KRS-ONE, and with my time in Cleveland coming to an end, my car being sold, an offer on my house accepted, my notice served at work, I had that nirvana feeling of acceptance of an end of this experience, this phase, and I was ready to enjoy every single moment before the final transition came. The next morning, we woke up, got in my car, and drove east. I think we probably made some stops – maybe breakfast, maybe coffee, maybe a book sale in the Burton Library basement. When we got to Eli Miller’s, there were a couple other cars in the driveway.

“Andrew!” He called out from the back of the shop, where he was having a conversation. It ran its course as Eric and I wandered through his shop, and then he came over.

I told him that it was my last weekend in Cleveland. He told me it was the last weekend of his shop being open. He was retiring, selling everything that he could, and then would be using the space for his own projects and interests. He had sold most of his tools at an auction, and someone was coming to pick them up. The wall where they had once hung looked desolate.

I noticed something on the wall, in his private office.

(Once, he had taken me to his little office to show me an antique suitcase that he was working on, and I had noticed something strange and picked it up. “This is interesting – what is it?”

He grinned. “That’s a raccoon penis!”

He explained that after killing a raccoon, people often kept the bone that runs along its penis, because it could be used as a toothpick.)

Anyway, I noticed something on the wall, and said, “Hey Mister Miller, is that a razor strop?”

It was; someone had ordered it, a custom job, paid for it, and then never came to pick it up. What would he sell it for? I could have it for five dollars if I wanted it. Sold.

I noticed something on the floor. “Is that a skillet?”

Eli picked it up. “Oh, it’s just an old pancake griddle that someone brought by,” he said.

Eric and I had been talking about how he wanted a cast-iron skillet. I could feel his attention perk up. How much did Eli want for it? I knew that I could probably get a good deal for it, then just give it to Eric.

He looked at it, then held it out to me. “It’s free.”

It was completely covered with a deep brown-orange rust, but I knew cast iron from Eli, and I knew I could work with it, turn it into something useful.

The shop was filling up, and Eli had been ignoring everyone else for twenty minutes to talk to us. I think we both felt the conversation coming to a natural close, so Eric paid for a belt, I paid for the strop, and we both shook his hand. I held it a beat longer than necessary.

“Well, Mister Miller, it’s been a real pleasure knowing you.”

“You too, Andrew,” he said. “Thanks for coming out here and bringing all those pretty girls.”

He laughed. I didn’t know that…well, I knew that…I had been using him as a date mechanism. I ran through the last ten years and tried to count how many girls I had brought out to meet him. I had used him for a sort of bizarre social proof, as a way to impress people, as a way to show them I was special. Neil Strauss brought dates to different bars, to make it seem as if time was speeding up; I brought them to a different reality, a different world. He knew it, and had forgiven me, or maybe had enjoyed the complicity, had enjoyed being an 84-year-old wing. I was shocked that he realized that I was exploiting him, and guilty, and embarrassed. I was a terrible person.

“You take care now.”

“You too, Mister Miller. Thanks for everything.”

When we got back to the car, I told Eric that I had planned to get the skillet for cheap and then let him have it, but

“No,” he said quickly, “You need to keep it.”

And as we drove away, I thought that it was the first time I had ever said goodbye to someone knowing that I would never see them alive again.

I still have remnants of Eli Miller everywhere in my life. Besides the three belts, I have four cast iron skillets of different sizes, and the pancake griddle, no longer orange, all fully cured now and black as night. I have two antique Dietz Hurricane buggy lanterns that still work – one with a red globe, one with a white, so that people would know whether a buggy was coming or going, which used to light up my front porch – and a vintage Coke bottle crate that now holds note cards, and an antique umbrella stand that used to sit in a tavern on the National Road back in the 1850s that I keep on top of my dresser, away from Daniel’s interested little hands. I have a throwing tomahawk that we used to bring out at parties in my back yard in the summer, when we were REALLY drunk, and a leather sling that his grandson made that I never really learned to use, and a wooden letter opener with a handle carved into some animal head that we puzzled over for a long time, and some iron shoe lasts that were used for children’s shoes in the 1800s and which now hold candles, or prop doors open. I have a bottle of Bick 4 leather conditioner, because he said it was a miracle worker and was the only thing he used on leather, and which is the only thing I use on my belts, and bags, and boots, and any assorted leather I have around, solely because of his recommendation.

And I have two straight razors, one with an ivory tang that was made in Germany around 1921, and one with horn scales that I think comes from 1892, because that is the number that is scratched into the side, both of which he sold me for $40.

I have used both of them before, but the horn scales one, made by Joseph Rodgers and Sons, Cutlers to Their Majesties, keeps a better edge and is more durable. It got dull, though, and I never got around to sharpening it; I have whetstones, two of which I bought from Eli Miller and which date to the late 1800s, but I just didn’t put the time in. I was struggling to come up with something that I wanted to make this month when I thought that I should just put in the time to sharpen it.

So that’s what I made this month, in April. A usable, 129-year-old straight razor.

When I use it, or strop it on the strop he sold me which has the simple mark on it, “Eli Miller, Maker, Mesopotamia Ohio,” I often think of his shop, of how the light came in at different angles and colors depending on the season, of the vibrant green in the spring and summer and the brown of fall and the grey dullness of winter; I think of the time that I bought a giant Griswald skillet, big enough to hold two roasting chickens, for $3 in a thrift store down the road from him and he offered to buy it from me for $10, and I declined, and he said I was smart because he could sell it for $30, and that compliment lasted me for a month. I think of how he made stunning leather menu covers for the Greenhouse Tavern, but people kept stealing them and they were expensive to replace, so the Tavern switched and bought a set of covers from Michael Hudecek of Forest City Portage, and how I was probably the only person who recognized both of their work on sight and considered both of them friends. I think of how every year I went to the Mesopotamia Ox Roast & Antique Market, which he started decades ago as a way to get people to come to Mesopotamia, and how proud he was that they roasted thousands of pounds of beef, and chickens, and hot dogs, and fried potatoes, and how he got lots of customers from it, and so did his community. I think of the time that it was really slow and when I got there, in the late morning, I was the first customer he had seen all day, so he took me to the workshop and showed me how to make a belt under a gaslight, his movements quick and sure, cutting the leather, making the buckleholes, adding an imprinted line around the edges, pounding in the rivets, putting his stamp on it, threading a buckle, then writing the size and price out by hand on a tiny paper tab and putting it on the correct hook as if it wasn’t a miracle. I remember all of the times that I stopped by in the summer and he gave me directions to an Amish auction, and I followed them, often miles down dirt roads, parking in a lot and finding a hundred or a thousand Amish people in a clearing in front of a barn, an auctioneer shouting above their heads, the smell of burgers and hot dogs and coffee thick from the house, my smile and the fact that I knew how to find them the only ticket I needed for entry. I think about the first girl I ever brought out there, Frances; we went exploring in an abandoned barn up the road, and she found a mahogany box that she kept, and then we stopped by a yard sale and I bought a chest that turned out to be from a bank that only existed in 1848 in Cleveland, which Carl now has, and then we stopped by Eli’s, and I didn’t have the nerve to kiss her. I have no idea where she is now.

And all of this now reads like a pipe dream to me; surely this could not have all happened to me. What did I make up? What am I mis-remembering?

But the last girl I ever brought there was Alice.

She bought a belt.

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