Thursday, March 1, 2012

One of the Best Chapters I've Ever Read

My permanent book collection has 14 nonfiction titles. The rest are fiction. I always home in on great word usage, sentences, descriptions that pinpoint a place or a feeling in a way I'd never considered, having experienced the same thing sometimes. Never chapters. With the novels, one chapter folds into another, eventually revealing a full story. One chapter alone doesn't work.

My most treasured nonfiction book in my collection is Subways are for Sleeping by Edmund G. Love, published in 1957. Love's focus is entirely on the homeless population in New York, profiling a few remarkable personalities, never chiming in about what he personally experienced or felt while spending time with these people, since he was homeless at one time. I admire that kind of writing because, while thinking about how to write my second book, I would like to express in large letters what the Airport series has meant to me all these years, but I fear it would devolve into gushing. And who wants to read that? When I write the chapters about the making of each movie, they have to be about the movies only, not about me, not my opinions about certain scenes, not about why Airport '77 is my favorite of the series.

Reading Brimfield Rush, about the largest antique market in the United States, I want to write like Bob Wyss, a journalism professor at the University of Connecticut who wrote about energy, environment and business issues for the Providence Journal. Wyss knows how to remain detached. He knows that it's about the people and items that populate Brimfield, not about himself, not about why he decided to write a book about them. Yes, he had to form the story, but all you'll find about him is in the acknowledgements and his author bio.

Brimfield Rush has one of the best chapters I've ever read in any book. So much so that I've transcribed the entire chapter below. It's easier to pick out individual chapters in nonfiction books once the context has been established, and this one, about Joel Schiff, a one-legged devoted searcher for cast-iron cookware, is truly extraordinary. It's Chapter 10, "The Collector":

JOEL SCHIFF is perched on the edge of the open side door of a Navigator van, carefully studying a large cast-iron pot. It is about two feet long and one foot wide, with three legs each about six inches high. On the side is the date 1785 and inscribed is the word “iohaniflack.” “It’s a wild piece,” says Schiff. “I’m trying to find out how much wear there is on it. He turns it over. The bottom is black with carbon. He nods and says, “It certainly looks like it is the right age.”

Still, Schiff worries that the piece is a fake, and that’s a significant concern because the dealer is asking $1,400. The handles do not seem worn enough and there are marks that could have been left from a casting procedure that was not used until the nineteenth century. Another collector passes by and Schiff shows him what he has found.

“What do you think, Paul?” Schiff finally asks.
“I don’t know, Joel. It makes me a bit nervous,” Paul replies.
“What do you mean?”

Paul points to where the handle touches the lid. “There should be a lot more wear there,” he says.

Schiff nods. As he does, he wonders if Paul’s criticism is valid or self-serving. Is he denigrating the pot so that Schiff will not buy the piece, possibly opening the way to acquire it himself? They look some more and then Paul leaves. Afterward, Schiff continues his examination, clearly torn.

This would be his first and probably only major purchase at the show. Schiff drove up from New York to Brimfield on a Saturday, stopping at a modest flea market in nearby Palmer. It was awful, nothing but junk for sale. On Sunday he drove thirty miles from Brimfield to Putnam, Connecticut, an aging mill town like hundreds of others in New England struggling to discover a revival. For Putnam it is antiques, shop after shop after shop of consignments. A friend has told Schiff about a particular piece, and while he could not find it, he was impressed by the number and variety of antiques shops.

As Schiff was getting back into his van, two pimply-faced youths stopped him. They told him how much they admired his van. Once white, it is decorated in graffiti. Schiff lives in New York City, where anything white is an open invitation to the city’s graffiti artists. The work the youths were admiring came from one particular artist who called himself the best graffiti artist in New York. Schiff thanked the admirers and said that while he agreed that some of the scrawls were quite good, others he wished he could get rid of. The kids said they would love to have a chance to work on his van someday.

“Well, how about right now?” asked Schiff, who had nothing else planned.

The kids looked surprised but they quickly warmed to the idea. They directed Schiff to a body shop in a dead part of town. A biker dude, the owner or manager, supervised for a while, clearly worried. Eventually he left the kids to their work because it was clear that they knew what they were doing. Later, other aging bikers, guys in their forties, fifties, and sixties, wandered in from the bar next door. Graffiti was not quite their thing. However, the kids were carrying out an antiestablishment act of some kind, and that was cool. The kids spent five hours and used countless cans of paint. They retained the best designs while adding new featured in the gaps. It was an ever-evolving process. Schiff drove back to Brimfield.

Joel Schiff is considered a little different, though not because of the van or his pirate-parrot outfit that goes along with his hobbling on one leg. No, there are a lot of colorful characters at Brimfield; one almost cannot have an identity here without taking on a touch of eccentricity, and Schiff fits right in. It also isn’t his obsession with collecting cast-iron cookware that makes him different. That pastime seems exceedingly pedestrian in comparison to collecting such oddities as the wrappers around Chinese firecrackers, tea bags, wooden nickels, coat hangers, smiley faces, air sickness bags, RCA Nippers, menus, and nude-woman lamps. It is not even his drive, his intensity to get out in the fields—he is no different from hundreds of others in that respect.

What makes Schiff stand out is that he is a pure collector. He buys, but he does not sell. Most dealers start collecting, and when they accumulate an excessive supply they begin selling, partly out of necessity. Selling also produces cash to buy ever more expensive, rarer items. Schiff is not opposed to selling or dealing, he just is not interested. Once in a great while he will sell something, but he prefers to trade. The problem is, hardly anyone has anything he needs, so stacks of extras keep piling up in his apartment.

Brimfield cannot survive without collectors and collectors-turned-dealers. Fortunately for Brimfield, the trait, if not universal, is certainly dominant. While certain animals—magpies, pack rats, and monkeys—are notorious for collecting, the characteristic is even more ingrained in humans. Collections of pebbles have been found in caves in France populated eighty thousand years ago. Cave paintings, sculptures, and ornaments were common thirty thousand years ago. History shows a relationship between power and collections. In Rome two thousand years ago the emperors held the great collections, in the Middle Ages it was the church, and a century ago it was the American robber barons. Morgan, Hearst, Mellon, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Frick looted great collections, amassing piles of art, pottery, glass, furniture, stamps, and coins. But the Industrial Age they created also produced a middle class that has brought a degree of egalitarianism to the pastime.

Diversity has also led to varying views of what is valuable and worth saving. Today, the list of collectors and collector organizations would be as long as this book. Collectors devote countless hours not just to their collections but to writing and exchanging ideas in newsletters, annual meetings, Internet discussion groups, and price guides. Fred Dole, who for years now has been helping out at J&J, says he was working at the information desk at the field one day when a woman came up and began asking him about toilet paper. He thought she was complaining that one of the temporary toilets had run out. “No, you don’t understand,” she said. “I collect antique toilet paper. I wonder where I can get some.” Dole says, “That pretty much says more about the world of collecting than anything else.”

Why do we collect? Experts, from self-styled collecting gurus to psychologists, say it can be for the beauty of the object, its current or future monetary value, or for nostalgia, as a remembrance of a time past. Or, say the Freudians, it is “a redirection of surplus libido onto inanimate objects.”

Schiff is not a wealthy collector, although he devotes most of his energy and resources to his collection. He grew up as an Army brat, moving from military base to military base as his father pursued his career. He lost his leg in a childhood accident, when he fell into a creek one day and his leg became trapped under a rock. He was lucky to escape. Now living in New York, he has worked driving a cab and doing other jobs, but mostly he has just lived off his leg. That’s the way he described it, living off the huge settlement his parents had invested after the accident. His collecting began more than thirty years ago.

In the late 1960s Schiff was living on an old barge that had been owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad before the company went broke. A river rat named Casey helped Schiff and others buy a string of barges that lined the New Jersey side of the Hudson across from New York. Schiff paid $2,000 for his barge. For a while he paid a dockage fee, but then ownership changed. Local authorities wanted to get rid of the colony of barge owners; soon they were squatters, unwelcome residents of a city that could not figure out how to banish them. It was an interesting community.

“There was a lab tech, soap opera actors, an auxiliary policeman, and there was Henny,” recalls Schiff. “Henny had provided a refuge to people for more than thirty years. If your marriage broke up, if you were down on your luck, if you were just slightly on the wrong side of the law, and it had to be just a little bit and not a lot, Henny would take you in, no questions asked. He would share his home with you, share his food, not asking anything in return and not questioning how long you needed to stay. Eventually most people did get back on their feet, and that’s when it was payback for Henny. If they were in the restaurant business, as many of them were, they would bring him food, sacks of food, which he would share with others. Or if they were in the haberdashery business, they would bring him clothes. Whatever they had, they would share with Henny just like he had shared with them.”

Henny lived in a barge at the end of the causeway. Once a machinist, he rarely worked and he was often into his cups at the gin mills. When that happened, sometimes he would literally crawl his way home on his hands and knees. Sometimes he would be so drunk that he would fall into the drink. At high tide that wasn’t particularly dire, because the water would often come within an inch of the causeway decking, and, says Schiff, “People would hear him and they would come running and pull him out. But when it was low tide, that drop could be as much as twelve feet down into water that was so foul as to be almost indescribable.”

One day Schiff was using a torch to burn off paint in one of the bathrooms on his barge. A spark landed on nearby foam insulation. It flamed quickly and the fire moved up and climbed to the roof of the deck, which was covered with flammable tar paper and lathing. Schiff fought unsuccessfully to extinguish the fire. Eventually he realized he was not going to be able to douse it, or even contain it. The barges were tied in tandem, one to another, creating the possibility that the fire could leap from Schiff’s to others. He called the fire department. In the past he and the other barge owners had offered to pay for fire service. The city had ignored the squatters on their request. When firefighters arrived, they quickly sized up the situation. First they made sure everyone was off all the barges. Then they monitored the fire, keeping it from destroying the causeway but allowing the blaze to leap from barge to barge. The authorities no longer had to resolve their squatter dilemma. Only two barges were able to untangle their tethers and flee. The remaining barges, including Schiff’s, were destroyed.

Henny continued to live on the river, although his barge and most of his possessions were destroyed by the fire. He found a place to live in a scow tied up nearby. Everyone said Henny was lucky, until the day a few months later when he came home drunk and fell, yet once again, into the river. This time there was no one to hear his cries or pull him out. He wasn’t found until days later.

Afterward, Henny’s friends held a wake. Many talked of a man who had always been there when they needed help. His ashes were scattered on the river. Friends were invited to take a remembrance of Henny. Schiff found in the scow two pieces of cast iron, a saucepan and a broiler, which had survived the fire. He marveled at Henny’s two relics. At its height the fire had burned at white-hot temperatures, fed by ancient yellow pine planking, lathing, and tar paper that had marinated in petroleum for a century. It was a miracle that the pots had survived. “It seemed to me that the fire could not destroy the cast iron,” says Schiff. “Even though I am an atheist, it seemed as if this was almost the hand of God shining down. It also seemed to me that this material was something that could make a difference.” It was as close to immortality as Schiff was going to find.

A year later Schiff was in an antiques shop in Sturbridge, looking for more cast iron. He was intrigued by a technology first discovered in China nearly two millennia ago, one that transformed social history, beginning in the seventeenth century, by making the task of cooking meals and sustaining a family far easier. It was at Sturbridge that he learned about Brimfield, ten miles to the west. Like everyone else, he was amazed. He began to ask dealers if they had any cast iron. “I would be asking people if they had cast-iron cookware and they looked at me like I was crazy,” he recalls. “The problem with cast iron was that in most situations people could get only one or two dollars for each piece, and it just wasn’t worth it for them to bring the goods. For the first fifteen years, even when I guaranteed I would buy everything they would bring, I still had difficulty convincing dealers to bring things.” Part of the dilemma may have been that cast iron was so plentiful that it became invisible to dealers searching for antiques to sell. Cast iron had been such a staple until the 1940s, when finally it was supplanted by aluminum and stainless steel.

That attitude changed in the mid-1980s. Schiff pins the date to 1984, when the first price guide was published. It was not a very good one. But it told collectors and dealers who had cast-iron pieces not only what they had but also what they might be able to get for it. Collectors already knew that some of the best cast-iron pieces had been made by the Griswold Manufacturing Company. From the end of the Civil War until 1957 the firm had produced hundreds of different pieces, from skillets to pots to muffin cups, from a shop at 12th and Raspberry Streets in Erie, Pennsylvania. Collectors created the Griswold and Cast Iron Cookware Association (GCICA). The organization provided support through everything from holding annual conferences to selling distinctive yellow-colored t-shirts with the groups’ emblem, which features its initials. (A curious dealer asked Schiff, who often wears a GCICA t-shirt, how many he owns. “Not as many as you or I would like,” he replied.)

The organization had its share of petty fights and mini-scandals, from the insistence of some members that the world of cast iron is centered in Erie to attempts by dissidents to stuff the ballot boxes during officer elections. That eventually led to a rival organization, the Wagner and Griswold Society (WAGS). With the two organizations boasting more than a thousand members between them, cast-iron prices began to climb. A Griswold muffin pan could go for $25 and a skillet for $30 while a Griswold No. 1 would fetch $3,500. A few rarer items were selling for anywhere from $6,000 to $9,000.

Schiff belongs to both organizations and tries to remain clear of most of the politics. He views anyone else who buys cast-iron cookware as the “noble competition.” He explains: “I’m always telling people it is important to know that the competitor is not your enemy. If you form a good relationship, over time you will make deals with other people, you will be able to help each other out.” He worries that it is not his fellow collectors but the tens of thousands of designers out there who are a greater threat, finding a rare piece and selling it to a client interested in tacking it to the fireplace to complete “the country look” design for his or her living room.

Schiff’s apartment in New York is a two-story walk-up with one difference—space is exceedingly tight because of an overwhelming volume of cast iron. Cookware hangs everywhere, except in the bathroom, where Schiff worries the moisture could make the pieces rust. “Well, my ex had this totally unreasonable demand that nothing should come into the bedroom, which I thought made no sense at all,” explains Schiff. “And then she said, ‘Either it goes or I go,’ so I brought in another hundred pieces in case it was not clear. We have a good relationship now that she is not in the house.” The kitchen contains a black cast-iron stove on one side, a white porcelain sink on the other. From the ceiling hang cast-iron pans, pots, and molds, and directly over the stove is a large four-foot-diameter ship’s wheel from an ice ship that once plied the Hudson. A grappling line stands on the wall about waist high. Visitors sidle into the living room, which contains a small daybed, literally the only place to sit. On the opposite wall, against an unfinished brick wall, shelves hold more molds, waffle irons, and a large metal “Griswold” sign. By the daybed stands an amateur miniature photo studio. The back bedroom contains a platform bed with walls lined with shelves with even more cast iron. A small alcove holds some books, and yet more iron.

One of Schiff’s favorite pieces is a Japanese teapot with detailing on the body resembling the strokes one sees in brush paintings. It begins on one side with a tree whose branches are in full bloom and as the pot is moved clockwise the branches become increasingly sparse, a movement from summer to winter. “This is an artistic calligraphy,” says Schiff. “I think what is being said here is, tacitly, that in addition to the art of life residing in the brush painting and calligraphy, we who do iron are no less artistic. This is more than a piece of craft. It is also a piece of art. It has the same spirit as in brush painting. That’s why I like it so much.” Other favored pieces include tiny toy tea pots, a Russian water pot, bean pots, a Spoors square-bottom tea pot, an English water kettle, an Azerbaijan coffee roaster, cookie/biscuit muffin molds, acorn penis pans (originally called acorn pans but Schiff added the middle name because of their shape), corn cob pans, corn dog makers, a cornbread maker, three-cup molds (totally impractical and clearly designed by a man who did not cook, says Schiff, because who would go to all the trouble of making batter for only three muffin cups?), a Chinese incense burner, long-handled, short-handled, and flexible-handled waffle irons, communion waffle irons, square-mold waffle irons, wavy-mold waffle irons, waffle irons with the design of a cross, an anchor, fish, waves, scales, and a lily, and cast-iron molds in the shape of a rabbit, a fish, a lobster, and a pig’s head. He also collects thousands of antique postcards that depict scenes featuring one or more pieces of cast-iron cookware. Schiff says he has only a third of his collection in the apartment; the rest is in storage elsewhere. How many pieces does he have? Replies Schiff: “I stopped counting five years ago when I had five thousand pieces.”

Some collectors overindulge. A nineteenth-century British nobleman, Thomas Phillips, sought to acquire one copy of every book in the world. Phillips was said to have allowed his wife and children to live in squalor, but he left a collection so vast that Sotheby’s held more than sixty auctions. Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst bought so many treasures that he had difficulty finding places for them or finding them after he had found places for them. According to one biographer, Hearst, beginning in the 1920s, created his own holding company to buy art and stored it in garages and warehouses in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and at his mansion in San Simeon. At one point the inventory was managed by thirty employees and included 10,700 crates of goods and tens of thousands of books.

Two brothers, Langley and Homer Collyer, of New York City, in 1947 showed just how dangerous collecting can be. Police received an anonymous phone call informing them that a man had died at the Collyers’ Fifth Avenue brownstone. Police had to force the door open and shovel through mounds of trash before they eventually found Langley Collyer, dead in his bed. They assumed that his brother, Homer, had made the call, but they could not find Homer. They spent nineteen days emptying the house of the reeking piles of garbage and trash, the vestiges of a lifetime of collecting. That’s when they found Homer Collyer, in the same room as his brother. The best guess was that Homer was digging his way toward his brother when huge piles of refuse toppled onto him, pinning him to the floor.

Obsession can be scary. Bill Heuring, a New York dealer who reconditions and sells antique cash registers, says he has seen collectors spend their savings and lose their wives and children over their quests to buy just one more piece. Marilyn Gehman, who runs a market in Adamstown, Pennsylvania, says she often sees people who appear to be living out of their cars, who use the market’s restroom and showers. “We see a lot of homeless people, people who are homeless because they have an addiction, similar to what one has for alcohol or drugs, for collecting,” she says. “Many of the people are very intelligent. They can speak two or three languages, they have multiple college degrees, yet they are living out of their cars and they are fixated with buying antiques and collectibles.”

Schiff’s collecting is restrained by his economics, and he tries to balance what he can do on his income. He says that his income is directed to three areas: food, transportation, and cast iron. Schiff has a long-term plan for the collection: he wants to turn it over to a museum. Such aspirations are not unusual. Entire museums have been structured around collections. J.P. Morgan’s collection of Egyptian art, Chinese porcelain, and early manuscripts is displayed in the tycoon’s former palatial mansion in New York. A museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, was created by another collector who specialized in nuts, nutcrackers, and anything else related to nuts.

Schiff was long wanted his collection to be part of a museum of the kitchen or hearth. His vision for the museum is centered on not just the objects but what they have meant for society. “People look at objects such as jewelry as to the thing itself,” he explains. “It becomes a suspended object, something to be approved of, to admire, solely for its beauty or for the nature of what it is. That, and also for its investment value. I don’t look at things that way. I like to look at objects, especially what I have been collecting, as texts, as anthropology, as something that tells us something of life. What I think these objects do is that they tell many stories.”

He is convinced that the story of the hearth goes to the heart of understanding social history, especially the role women have played. The development of the cast-iron stove, to a considerable extent, first emancipated women from both the drudgery and dangers of working over open kitchen fires. As early as 1640, cast iron was being forged in Saugus, Massachusetts, although it would be more than another century before stoves arrived. Cookware’s arrival preceded the other great development in the home, indoor plumbing, by another century. Cast-iron appliances also became indispensable. For example, George Washington’s mother bequeathed her cast iron in her will, and the members of Lewis and Clark’s expedition found that a cast-iron Dutch oven was one of their most essential tools. Over time, cast-iron appliances led to the mass production of food products, moving the country toward greater urbanization and greater freedom for women. Schiff does not aim to create a stand-alone museum but perhaps to have his collection mixed with others in an interactive museum. Patrons might not only learn but even use his pieces to cook food they would then eat. He even would like to use his life insurance policy and whatever is left of his assets after he dies to help the museum’s endowment. The only problem is that he has yet to find anyone interested enough. He’s talked to a number of regional museums, universities, and culinary schools, but so far he has found no takers.

These days Schiff spends long hours online and at shows searching to buy something new. It rarely happens anymore. When it does, he is surprised, puzzled, and a little fearful. That’s the situation with the $1,400 pot he has found here at Brimfield.

“It’s quite a spectacular piece,” he says, after his friend Paul has left. “It’s definitely one of a kind.”

Schiff wants the pot to be authentic, but he wishes he could do a strike test to determine the type of metal. He is also worried that the 7 in the date does not look the way the numeral did in Europe in the 1780s. He knows he has to make a decision. Finally, he approaches the owner, Mario Pollo of Woodstock, New York. Pollo tells Schiff he just bought the pot a few hours earlier from a dealer who said it used to be in a museum in Vienna.

“I bought it and I really did not want to sell it,” says Pollo. “But someone said I had to at least let Joel see it.”

Schiff makes a decision. He dickers, but buys it for $1,300. As he writes the check he asks Pollo to hold it until next week when he can transfer money into the account. With his fixed income, that’s a lot of money. He really has no choice. Joel Schiff is on a quest to build the most complete collection of cast-iron cookware that he can. He just can’t stop now.