Mr. and Ms. Fix-it
It seems like every time I pick up a (virtual) newspaper these days, there's an article on how repair shops are prospering during downtimes. Folks are trying to get another 20,000 miles out of their old clunker, another 2,000 pages out of their old printers, and another 200 shirts out of their old iron.
I grew up in an era when, if something broke, it got fixed - not replaced. So this focus on fixing-it is yet another example of what's old is suddenly new again. (Similar to when names like Hazel and Oscar come back into fashion.)
When I was a kid, we had a TV repairman who made regular calls on the Rogers household to keep the TV going. Yes, we did get new TV's over the years - that original tiny-screen job was followed up by one with a much larger screen. But something had to be on its last legs before it got replaced.
I remember being quite jealous of my friends who had colored television. Most shows were in black and white, but they could watch Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color and Bonanza and appreciate first hand that Joe Cartwright wore green and Adam Cartwright wore black.
My father's big statement on the matter was that we'd get a color TV when color TV was as good as the technicolor in the movies.
Well, that didn't happen in his lifetime. (We did get a color TV within a couple of years of his death in 1971 - likely because the old TV was completely kaput.)
Joe May, the TV repairman, wasn't the only repair guy in the 'hood.
There was a electronics repair shop around the corner that fixed lamps and small appliances, and also sold lightbulbs. The man who ran this shop lived with his uncle across the street from my grandmother's (where we lived until I was 7, when we moved around the corner). He must have brought home the junk that couldn't be repaired, because as kids we used to sneak into their garage - an old stable, really, where the uncle had at one point kept a race horse named Billy Direct - and seeing all these old radios there. I still remember the wonderful odor of radio tubes!
Down the street a bit, in Webster Square, McEarchern's (pronounced Mc-GEK-rins) was our cobbler. I remember Mr. McEarchern as an old geezer. I don't remember a brogue, but he sure dressed like an immigrant: scally cap, suit with white shirt buttoned up to the collar but no tie....In addition to repairing shoes, McEarchern's sold sneakers, and it was there each summer that we got our PF Flyers. There wasn't much of a selection, and I remember being crestfallen one year when I had to get red instead of blue.
One year, I had a terrible blister, and had to get a special, outsized pair of sneakers - maybe even during the off-season - and the only pair that fit was a red-yellow-black-and-white crazy quilt pattern Oy! Was I happy to see that blister burst.
We brought our broken iron to the iron-repairman, also in Webster Square. His side line was something called the "Iron Caddy" that he'd invented. If I recall correctly, it held your iron upright and out of danger of getting knocked over while it was still plugged in and burning your house down.
The only item that seemed to resist the repair-it mentality of this era - the 50's and 60's - seemed to have been, weirdly, the automobile. Most folks got a new car every two years or so. To hang on to a car for longer than this made you a complete oddity. I had a couple of friends with weird old cars - i.e., cars from the early 1950's, which by the late 1950's/early 1960's looked almost like they came from the flivver era. The Hurleys, who lived across the street from my grandmother, were almost un-American in hanging on to their 1940's car - the navy blue coat of paint was so ancient that it looked like the iridescent rainbows you saw in gas slicks. My mother's friend Jane had a Studebaker, but she was a widow so it was understood that she couldn't get a new car every couple of years. There was also one kid in our school whose family drove a pre-war car. Amazing! He and his mother lived with his grandparents, and I remember his grandfather driving the family to Mass every Sunday. (On top of being saddled with this old car, this kid was saddled with an old-fashioned name: Oscar. I hope that he survived these double mortifications and has enjoyed a happy and successful adulthood.)
But other than cars, things got repaired. The notion of built-in obsolescence was not yet articulated, let alone taken for granted - let alone considered a natural, even desirable, engine of our economy and of civilization as we know it.
My personal repair track record is a bit mixed.
I have owned very few cars in my lifetime, but the ones that I did have were repaired until they were headed for the metaphorical glue factory. I had an old Honda that quite literally died in the lot of the car dealer when I was bringing it in to trade in (value: $100) for a much needed new car.
With cars, until it got to the point of repair exceeding the value of the car - and then some - it always made more sense to throw an extra $1K under the hood once or twice a year to keep the car on the road.
Shoe repaid, I'm down with. There's a cobbler around the corner, and I bring my shoes in regularly for new soles and heels - at least the ones that have soles and heels that are worth fixing. Our cobbler is an older guy, an Albanian immigrant, I think, and I'll have to find a new one when he closes up shop.
As for appliances, for the most part - other than with computers - I wouldn't know where to begin to look for someone to fix a boombox, hairdryer, or toaster oven. The cost of these items is so small that I just toss something that was no longer working and buy new. But it has to be non-working, really non-working. My boombox (15 years old?) takes some cajoling to get it to work. I have to start most CD's at least 3 or 4 times, and lean on the lid to get it to pick up.
But sometimes appliances do die, and then and only then do I leave them in the recycle bin. Half the time someone picks them up. Good luck to them!
Lamps are the one thing I do know how to fix myself, and I've rewired every lamp we own at some point.
As for major appliances, our ancient (relatively: c. 1985) dishwasher and stove are both in good working order, though I do suppose we'll replace when they go - as we did with our old fridge, which was so humid on the inside that it could turn a solid cucumber to a suppurating mess within minutes of putting it in the veggie bin.
Maybe it's just me, but TV's don't appear to break anymore. We've given away a couple when we (i.e., my husband) wanted to trade up.
I have done PC upgrades when it made sense to, but sometimes it just doesn't. I do regret not trying to repair our older, industrial strength laser-jet - but someone scooped it out of our trash, so I don't feel that guilty. Since then, we've gone with cheaper printers that we've unecologically tossed once they stop working.
We share a communal washer-dryer, and have had the repairman in several times for the washer. The last time we decided it would be stupid to pay another $200 to keep the washer going, but damned if that last $200 repair hasn't given us another year+ on the old washer. So maybe when the time comes, we'll do it again. Our dryer was on the fritz a few weeks ago, but our Mr. Fix-it neighbor, and fellow condo owner, Joe was able to diagnose and fix it. (Lint build-up in the innards.) So we won't have to replace that for a while.
From a planet-sustaining point of view, repairing our goods seems to make a lot of sense - better that than that they end up in landfills or in that big blob of yuck that's floating in the Pacific Ocean. But from an economic perspective, repairing doesn't always make sense. Last year I bought my $90 watch to the jewelers, where I was told that it would cost $100 to fix it. The decision was a no-brainer: tossed!
In truth, I'm not sure just what the right thing to do here is. If I'd had that watch repaired, I would have provided business to the watch repair guy - and at least partially saved the planet. On the other hand, by replacing it, I helped retail sales and people working all along the global supply chain.
Yikes! Life was much simpler in the old days, before we had so much money and so much stuff...