In a nation where everything is disposable, the skilled tradesmen of the past are dwindling to near-extinction.
My parking meter is expired and I’m out of change. I check my pockets, only to discover what I did the first time around, nothing. If I were standing in any other town in America I might not be concerned. But since I’ve paid a fair share of cash to the parking authority here in Wilkinsburg, a small town just outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and been outsmarted by its eagle-eyed meter maids before, finding change becomes my primary concern.
I cut across Wood Street, a once-flourishing business district that now looks more like a ghost town, hoping to score change at a local flower shop. A bell chimes as I open the door and look for an employee. That’s when I see a woman standing near the back of the shop.
“Do you happen to have change for a dollar,” I ask.
“Probably not,” the woman says, bluntly, as she walks toward a dusty cash register.
She opens the cash drawer, looks down, looks back at me, and then reluctantly hands me two quarters, four dimes, and a nickel. The expression on her face makes me feel like I just mugged her, even though she shorted me a nickel. Not that I care. Two quarters buys two hours on the meter.
As I make my way back to feed the meter, I notice that Elio’s Pizza, on the corner of Franklin and Wood, is shuttered. They used to have the best slices, cheap too. Wilkinsburg was once a thriving community. But that was before the mass exodus of the early 1970s, when residents headed east for the suburbs and begin spending their paychecks at shopping malls instead of independent local businesses. The town has been on life support ever since.
I cram two quarters in my parking meter, and that’s when I notice I’m running late for my interview at the typesetting shop.
Rudy Lehman’s Incredible Linotype Letterpress
The front door to Lehman Typesetting is either finicky or locked, it’s hard to tell. I assume the former to be true and set to fidgeting with the worn brass handle. A stranger in the same situation might deduce, based on outward appearance alone (sun-bleached sign; deteriorating paint), that the shop has been out of business for years, perhaps even decades. But as I peer through the dust-smeared window, I see the flicker of a ceiling-mounted fluorescent tube light.
Impatient, I double my efforts to finesse the uncooperative door handle, this time adding more torque to my twisting/pushing motion—which fails except for the fact that I make enough noise to capture the attention of someone inside. That’s when I see a short, white-haired man emerge from behind the shop’s counter.
“Hey there,” says Rudy Lehman, the 72-year-old man who has just opened the front door and is looking at me with what can only be described as sincere skepticism (a reaction I seem to elicit from strangers more often than I’d like), “how can I help you?”
I inform him that I’m the journalist he spoke to on the phone last week, the one who wants to interview him about his experience working as a typesetter for the past 50 years—a proposal that, over the phone, was met with the response, “You’re welcome to talk with me, I just don’t know how interesting it’ll be.”
Lehman’s modesty is not surprising. He’s a polite, soft-spoken man who enjoys routine and seems awkwardly out of place in the 21st century. But the one critical detail he’s overlooking, the one that makes his story compelling, is the remarkable fact that he’s still operating a typesetting shop–over two decades since computers rendered mechanical-based typesetting almost entirely obsolete.
Once inside Lehman’s shop, my eyes are drawn to a mammoth-sized black machine that’s partially obscured by a door leading to the main work room. This mysterious-looking contraption, Lehman informs me, is called a Linotype, and its name does precisely what it infers—it spits out a “line of type” in the form of a metal slug that is then used to print sentences, paragraphs, or entire books on letterpress. When Lehman purchased the Linotype back in 1957, it cost $15,000—a figure that no doubt rivaled the GDP of a small Eastern Bloc country of the time.
To describe the machine as grand would be unfair. More aptly, the Linotype is intimidating in appearance and mystifyingly complex in design.
“Can you show me how it works?” I ask.
“Sure,” Lehman says, as he motions for me to come in closer for a demonstration.
He sits down behind a peculiar-looking keyboard and rakes his wide fingers across the neatly lined rows of square metal keys, which are arranged in order of the frequency they occur in the English language (i.e., vowels first, followed by consonants, etc.). As Lehman randomly types, his hands hover over the keys between each strike. The machine is noisy and its small motor chugs to turn the belts and wheels that make its multiple mechanisms work.
“Can you hear that?” Lehman asks, talking loudly to be heard over the noise of the machine. “That’s the sound of the mats. They drop in from the magazine above and line up here on the assembler to create your text.” He’s pointing at a ruler-like ledge several inches above the keyboard. The “mats” he refers to (brass matrices that are stamped with a specific letter, font style, and size and notched with key-like teeth that guide them through the machine) make a sound that reminds me of the rhythmic clacking of Connect 4, Milton Bradley’s vertical checkers game.
After the mats are lined up to create the desired text, they are thrust into a mold by way of a lever cranked by Lehman. Molten lead from a heated crucible in the machine’s belly is squeezed into the mold. The mats are then retrieved from the assembler by a thin black metal arm that lowers itself from the left side of the machine. As the arm returns to its former position, the mats are fed back into the magazine atop the Linotype. Lastly, Lehman engages a portion of the machine called the knife block, which cuts and trims the injected lead. That’s when the finished product—a silver metal slug approximately the size and shape of a Hershey’s chocolate bar—drops into a galley tray several inches from Lehman’s knee.
“Here it is,” he says, showing me the slug as he proudly holds it between his thumb and index finger.
And though I just witnessed the process first hand, it may as well be magic. As I look over at Lehman, who’s still holding the slug in his right hand and explaining minute details of the Linotype, his voice vanishes into the background for a moment and I notice he’s smiling, happy.
Joe Feldman and the Legacy of Harry’s Barber Shoppe
“You have to have a gimmick,” Harry Feldman used to tell his son Joe. “Every business needs a gimmick.”
At the time, Joe Feldman—then a young man just out of barber school—was not sure what type of plan his father was concocting. The particular gimmick in question, however, came to fruition on a day when business was particularly slow and father and son were parked side by side in matching barber chairs (Harry short and mustachioed; Joe tall and willowy) just waiting for customers to walk-in—which made his father’s antics a welcome break from the workaday monotony.
“My dad was a good talker, but also played many string instruments,” Joe says. “But he was best at the violin.”
Harry grabbed his violin and, as if channeling the ghost of a vaudeville performer, began playing a song—quite a performance according to Joe. Passersby soon took notice and began peering into the barber shop and even stopping to listen as Harry finessed the strings of the instrument. A customer walked in soon after and began talking with him, then asked for a haircut.
“Please, let my son take care of you,” Harry said, motioning to Joe. “If he gives you a bad haircut, I’ll give you $1000.” All three men immediately began laughing.
This is how Harry Feldman lived. He made customers feel at home when they were in his chair—he made it feel like their chair. In the 77 years he worked as a barber, Harry amassed numerous friends (one such friend was Fred Rogers, the late host of the PBS children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood), made countless people laugh, and often gave in to his desire to perform by doing things like dancing with the women who stopped by the shop to see why it was taking so long for their husbands to get a simple $6 haircut. That is, until his wife, Sarah, passed away in 1991. Harry died a short six months later from what Joe describes as, “a broken heart, not cancer.”
Located on a busy street in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, the weathered sign above the front door still reads “Harry’s Barber Shoppe.” Inside, local favorite KDKA is tuned in on the radio, Ritchie Valens’ “Donna” the current song in rotation. Joe is making small talk as he cuts the hair of a young man home on break from culinary school in New York City while two customers sit in chairs on the far wall, waiting their turn. While Joe refuses to reveal his age (“My 25-year-old girlfriend will be reading this”), it’s fairly well known that Harry’s Barber Shoppe has been in its current location since 1972—where Joe has worked for 35 years. But that’s the extent of clues he’ll provide.
More subtle in demeanor, Joe’s personality sharply contrasts that of his late father. He often played the straight man to Harry’s funny man. So getting Joe to talk about himself is not easy, as the conversation almost always returns to an anecdotal story that Harry used to tell. And that’s when I come to the realization of just how much Joe misses his father. For a moment, my mind drifts, and I consider my mortality and that of my own father. That’s when the phone rings.
“Hello, barbershop,” Joe answers, receiver pressed to his ear.
“I got two people waiting,” he tells the caller. “And oh, I want to hear all about the honeymoon.”
This is what a normal day is like for Joe Feldman. People on the street outside his shop poke their head in to say hello or simply wave as they pass by. Sometimes, the conversation in the shop is quiet, remaining a private affair between Joe and whoever’s sitting in his chair. But other times the room is electric, consumed by the noise of a half dozen men talking to and sometimes over one another.
As I head toward the door, I look back at Joe and he flashes me a smile, as if to say, “Just one more thing.” Holding a pair of scissors in his right hand, and peering out from behind a pair of thin-framed silver eyeglasses, he shares a piece of advice about quality control that his father once told him.
“Joe, remember to give everyone good haircuts,” Harry told him, “because people don’t come here to see your face.”
Crock Hunter, Lookout Farm’s Solitary Blacksmith
After the phone rings more than a dozen times, the prospect of getting in touch with Crock Hunter—who, at least according to the Greater Pittsburgh Yellow Pages, seems to be the only working blacksmith in all of Western Pennsylvania—is beginning to look bleak.
He must be dead, I think, though I have no good explanation to back up this assumption, just the frustration of a fruitless search. And that’s when the phone stops ringing.
“Hello?” says a gruff male voice on the other end of the line.
“Oh. May I speak to Hunter?” I say.
“This is Crock. Hunter is my last name,” the man says in a respectful, no-bullshit manner.
I introduce myself, explain that I’m a journalist, tell him about my article, then, finally, ask if I can visit him to conduct an interview and bring along a photographer to take his portrait (the latter a detail that I assume will tank the whole proposition).
“Yep, why not,” Hunter says. “I’ll have been working on the farm all day. I ought to be good and dirty by the time you and your photographer get here.”
He’s not dead.
A week has passed. I am on a farm walking toward the sound of a running motor. That’s when I see Hunter, who shuts off the engine to his lawn tractor, steps down from the seat, and greets me with a firm handshake as I stand at the entrance to his workshop—a large half-stone/half-wood barn he built by hand. We are surrounded by hundreds of acres of lush green grass and a hillside dotted with horses.
Hunter is 51 years old and has a small, sturdy frame—like a fireplug—and distinctive features. His eyes are sharp and squinty, like Clint Eastwood, but without the cinematic flair. A slightly unruly grayish-brown mustache is perched on his top lip and framed by laugh lines. His hands, an amalgam of battered knuckles and thick skin, appear to have absorbed a considerable amount of violence in their time, an observation that Hunter quickly affirms with a random anecdote from his nearly three decades spent shoeing horses.
“The worst was getting kicked in the funny bone, right in the back of the elbow,” he says, a wry smile spreading across his face as he recalls the time a horse lashed out while being shoed. “I never felt that much pain. It happened like that (snaps fingers) and it was over. I was on the ground crawling—crawling and having a chit chat with Jesus.”
Hunter likes to hold forth, you can sense it in his slow, timed delivery. And he’s good at it. There’s also a subtle Southern drawl that occasionally slips in and out of his speech—an accessory he claims he picked up while living in Sperry, Oklahoma, where he attended the Oklahoma Farrier’s College in 1973 to learn his trade—yet he grew up in rural Pennsylvania. At school, Hunter worked under the tutelage of, as he puts it, “a full-blooded Cherokee Indian named Butch. And you didn’t want to get on Butch’s bad side, but we learned [our craft].”
The letters on the green and white baseball cap he’s wearing read “Lookout Farm” and dangle in an arc above a picture of a black anvil. The farm has been in Hunter’s family for two generations, though he is single-handedly responsible for taming its expansive acreage and converting it to a workable (and profitable) hay farm—a task that he undertook in the late 1970s and worked thousands of hours to achieve. He’s also the first and only blacksmith to work here. Or perhaps the correct term is farrier.
There is some confusion as to the differences between a blacksmith and a farrier. A blacksmith, as defined by Webster’s Dictionary, is “a person who makes horseshoes and shoes horses,” and/or “a person who forges objects of iron.” This makes sense. It is understandable. That is, until you look up the definition for farrier, which plainly reads, “BLACKSMITH.”
Hunter informs me that the terms are often interchangeable but also subjective depending who you ask. More recently, he adds, the term farrier has become popular—which he attributes to the rise in the number of schools that have opened in the past 15 years to teach the trade (most of which are helmed by those whose shoeing days are over). Or perhaps the change in preference has something to do with the fact that the term blacksmith simply sounds antiquated.
Interestingly enough, as our conversation comes to a close, Hunter informs me that his shoeing days are done and have been for a little over three years. He now dedicates his energy to maintaining Lookout Farm. He admits, however, that he still shoes the occasional horse for a loyal customer. But besides the aforementioned irregularity, his anvil sits cold.
“At a certain point, you go home,” Hunter says, “you know?”