Editor’s Note: Tony Bender is taking a holiday. Here’s one of our favorites from 2002.
It was in the bookstore on a bustling Saturday before Christmas that I saw him.
By Tony Bender
He was nattily dressed in a brown suit and matching overcoat, a tie, a scarf draped just so around his neck and a porkpie hat. He was tall and he had big, strong teeth. They were yellowed. He must have been well into his eighties.
He paged through the book in front of me approvingly then lowered it and grinned with those big teeth. “I used to be a printer, you know!” I smiled back though I knew that to do so would lead to one of those long rambling stories that old men tell.
“Really?” I said. “Sheet fed or web press?”
He stood a bit taller, a bit prouder. “Linotype,” he said, adding the model and description, which I have forgotten. His hands were trembling even as his voice boomed past those big teeth. Yes, he had been a linotype man. He had started in Sykeston, but he had worked a handful of places in the upper Midwest before the linotype was replaced by offset presses.
“You know I got every job by writing a letter,” he said. He sent letters because when he walked through the door, the printers who demand precision could see his hands shaking.
I had assumed the shaking had come with the years. I did not ask the cause. I did not wish to appear impolite. What was important was that he had overcome it. That is why he stood so tall before me grinning with big teeth.
Once he had come 400 miles to a print shop only to meet one of those persnickety printers who eyed the young man’s trembling hands dubiously. The young man got the job. And when he decided to move on after some time, the boss confessed to him that he had not been sure he could do the job. “But you had come so far,” he told the linotype man who stood before me now.
The grin grew wider as he told of victories won and obstacles vanquished. “He told me I was one of the best linotype operators he ever had!”
I responded with questions and comments knowing full well each would lead to five more minutes of conversation.
Once he had been on the road, just moving around, he said, when he walked into a print shop. It was press day. The man tossed him an apron, no questions asked, and said “Get to work.” So the man with the big teeth and shaking hands stayed.
So why would you tell a perfect stranger these things? I wondered later. I tossed and turned in my bed, thinking about the sharp-dressed old man with shaky hands. I do not know the answer for sure. I can only guess. But in my mind I see a small, neat and lonely apartment. I see the old man sitting alone with perfect posture on the bed watching the wall.
He had seen it coming— the end of the linotype days—and he had applied to learn the new printing process at a trade school. But when they saw the trembling hands, he was rejected. He grinned when he told me because he knew and I knew, too, that he could have done it. But it was less of a grin. Sometimes believing in yourself is not enough. Sometimes you need others to believe in you, too.
“Well, it’s been nice talking to you,” I said, dismissing him as politely as I could, feeling guilty about it just the same as I shook his shaky hand. He understood he was being shooed away, but old men get used to that. Life passes you by. Younger men pass you by. But soon enough they will know the feeling.
He told me one more story before he left with a book in his hand. One thing about a linotype man—they can read backwards and upside down.
Though I had ended the conversation, it was not so easy to dismiss him from my mind. I hoped he had someone to go home to, but I had not checked his finger for a ring. Men do not do what women do instinctively.
But I fear that I am right about the small and lonely apartment. Old men do not seek out strangers to tell their stories to if there is someone at home to listen. You need someone to listen. Someone must know that you mattered once. He was a linotype man. A linotype man!
© Tony Bender, 2002