Sunday, October 24, 2010

Some memories.

I never got to meet my mother's father, my grandfather. He died long before I was born and judging by the stories that my mother told me about him, or the lack of stories, he was a man who was quite successful at keeping to himself.

From the little my mother told me, her father Michael, from whom I got my middle name, was a man who had a hard time holding a job. His skills were greater than the opportunities open to him as a poor immigrant who spoke little of our language and who had no guild memberships or formal training in anything. So he would take a job only to lose it or, rather, leave it when he got bored or frustrated. This is a family tradition that somewhat continues to this day, though my brother has had the same job since 1981.

As a consequence of my grandfather's unwillingness to hold onto a job, my mother's family wound up moving a lot. Sometimes they were evicted and had to move. My mother often told me what it was like coming home from school and seeing her family's furniture in the street. Sometimes on those rare occasions they were in the chips, they moved to bigger, nicer places. But almost always, they regressed back to the mean, a crowded apartment in a row house in West Philadelphia.

The job that my grandfather held most regularly was that of a stone carver at a gravestone yard. In those day, gravestones were carved by hand, and it took a fairly skilled guy to carve them. How my grandfather learned to do this, I don't know. It probably entailed some native, in-born skill--a skill that I suppose in someways he passed onto my mother, who not only had meticulous handwriting but would hand-copy for the Philadelphia jewelers she worked for the intricate patterns found in sterling silver. These were the days before photocopiers, of course, and it was nice to have skills like this.

In some measure these skills were passed onto me, as well. I have an eye for type that few--even few art directors--have. This weekend I took the subway up to 215th Street to see the Columbia Lions play the Big Green of Dartmouth in football. In the mosaic tiles marking the signs 181th Street station, there is too much space between the hundreds 1 and the 8.

Things aren't done by hand like this anymore, either in our business or our world. My grandfather, who never had an easy time finding work, would have been superseded by a stencil and a drill. My mother by a copier or a scanner. The old mosaic tiles on the subway lines have been replaced by black enameled signs with white helvetica type.

Things are more regular now. More orderly, perhaps and regimented. But maybe along the way, something has been lost.


vonscousin said...

Something definitely has been lost - character. Today, everything is uniform, cookie-cutter, manicured - just like track homes. The trades of the early days (homes built before 1940) are gone...and what a damn shame. Art was beautiful in the days when there were no standards.

Kelly said...


Must have been a smart guy, to get so bored over jobs that were too easy for him, even knowing the consequences. A lot of immigrants have had to face that. (Hm. I face that sometimes, what's my excuse? Eeek.)

Reminds me also of your stories of your father, also too talented for his britches... sounds like your mother maybe saw something that reminded her of dear old Dad there.



P.S. One day, a kerning contest. You and I, ojo a ojo.