Ding, dong, ding. Ding, dong, ding.
Through open windows and around fences into back yard patios, the clang of a bell, blocks away, closer and closer through the tick, tick, tick of garden hoses and the squeaky sound of an old swing set. Women rush out their front doors, feet clad in slippers, hair half combed, a few dollar bills wadded up in their palms, calling to neighbors. Outside they scurry, brandishing scissors and butcher knives, proclaiming “the knife man is coming, the knife man is coming”.
A ritual of summer, in city and suburban neighborhoods of middling class stature, a sound imprinted on memory like Mother Goose calling her goslings.
The Knife Man Cometh!
I remember the knife man, from my childhood and our little neighborhood in Maywood. Once, maybe twice a summer, the ding, dong, ding of the man in the great big red wooden pushcart would be heard, his magic grindstone wheeling down the street. My Aunt Christina would always run out, her favorite butcher knife in her hands, poised and anxious for a well-honed blade. It was that same well-honed blade that cousin Louie came charging out the back door with one summer’s eve, hurling toward us; Teddy and Dottie and Penny. We scattered like ants at a picnic, Uncle Joe yelling out the back door “don’t run, he’ll fall and get hurt”. No way were we not running. A three-year old running toward you with a butcher knife was not a lesson in how to line up in single file and walk slowly, but, that is a story for another day.
My mother was once visiting our little house in Elmhurst, sitting on the couch. With Katy just a baby, Jennifer approaching four years. I heard it, in the distance. A bell. Almost primal, then familiar, and I shouted “it’s the knife man!” Ma, I remember, looked at me, in wonder, then realization. The Knife Man Cometh! “Hurry”, she said, “get your knives”, and then, as mothers are wont to do, no matter how old her child “don’t run”. Jennifer came with me, out the door, knife pointed downward, and we gathered with neighbors to have our knives sharpened, that day the knife man came.
There are several knife grinders in the Chicago area. Their stories appear in local papers each year, as steady as the first blooms of daisies and coneflowers. This picture is one. Mr. Tony Del Ciello. Many Chicagoland neighborhoods claim him as their own, though he travels far and wide with his ancient grinding stone and century old cart, up and down neighborhood streets and appearing at local farmers markets.
I would hazard a guess that most traveling knife sharpeners have inherited their carts with bells, foot petals, and grinding stones, from their fathers or grandfathers; some who may have brought their carts from Italy as they emigrated from other countries. Some carts have survived a century or more. I’m sure other countries have their own carts and men, but, my experience has been of skilled men from Italy, with their strong accents, kind faces, and great skill.
I wish, how I wish, the Knife Man would cometh down the Cut Off , for my scissors and gardening tools are a sorely in need of some old-fashioned sharpening. I’ll listen. I will. Perhaps I will hear the distant peel of the knife man.
Ding. Dong. Ding. Ding. Dong. Ding.