He would come down our alley from time to time riding his wagon pulled by one horse wearing blinders. He would yell, “rags, rags”. He'd also mention other items that interested him, but I remember “rags.” Well, we called him the “ragman.” My dad called him the ragman. Apparently, Dad sold things to the ragman when he was a kid. Dad would also call him “the sheeny.” I was an adult before I knew that this was a pejorative name for a Jew. I never detected any contempt in my dad's voice when he spoke the term. It was just another descriptive name. Dad would also use the word “jew” as a verb, synonymous with “bargain.” “Jew him down” was a term I heard him use all the time. Again, perhaps because I had almost no contact with Jews or the Jewish community I had no opportunity to assess how much prejudice there was in my family and neighborhood. I presume I did interact with Jews from time to time, but I was oblivious to that fact. Thus, to me the ragman was simply the ragman. I sold him a few things, a few times I know, but the only item I remember was the old radiator from the bathroom. When the bathroom got smaller to make a bit of room for my bedroom, the radiator had to move and had to be smaller. Dad told me to sell it to the ragman. He set it out by the garage next to the alley.
Wait a minute! As I write this I question my memory. Wasn't I too small to sell the radiator to the ragman? Yes, I was. It was not the radiator. At least, if we sold the old radiator to the ragman, I don't think I had much to do with it. Forget I mentioned the radiator. Picture instead an old water heater. I was a few years older when we got rid of the coal furnace, put in gas, and replaced the water heater. That was it, the old water heater.
As a side story. That old water heater was a big thing in my family. I mean the new one and every other water heater I have had does its thing so well we forget about it for ten years or so at a time. The old one caused us to turn back after we had driven away from home. “Leona, did you turn off the water heater?” “I don't know, Pete, I might have but I'm not sure.” Or, “You turned off the water heater, Pete?” “God dammit, I did not.” So, we turned around and went home. Half the time, it had been turned off, but they had to check. Now, I don't remember any of my friends saying they worried about their water heater blowing up. We did in our family. I never figured out why we weren't worried about it blowing up when we were home. Was Dad going down twice a day to turn it on and off? I don't think so. My sister tells me the old water heater was in the kitchen. I don't remember that, but it would be reasonably easy to turn on and off there. Anyway, the new water heater eliminated the worry. It arrived, got installed, and was then forgotten.
I remember the value of the water heater was supposed to be in its copper. I don't remember how much copper was in it and its fittings. I do know the ragman didn't think much of it when I stopped him and eagerly offered to sell it. He did buy it. I don't remember what he offered and I accepted, but it was much less than Dad had caused me to hope I might get. Now, decades later, I realize that the value of my sale was not in the money I received but in the recycling that it enabled.
Mostly, the ragman was entertainment. The wagon and horse going down my alley were always fun to behold. I loved it when the horse had a feeding bag so that he could eat and walk. My Dad grew up in St. Paul when his neighborhood was full of wagons and horses doing the work and commerce. In some way, I realized that in the ragman I had a last glimpse of the way things used to be. He was old; his horse was slow. I was young, and the world had begun to move fast.
(c) from date of posting, by Bob Komives, Fort Collins