cultural icon lost to modern day society
I spent some of my early childhood years in the house at 417 Linden Street in my hometown, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. The character of the neighborhood was such that we kids always had something interesting to see or do. One of the quaint and oddly out-of-place occurrences on Linden Street was the periodic appearance of the ragman.
There were no horses walking the streets of Fond du Lac in the late forties . . . except one. The ragman came through our neighborhood several times each summer. He and his horse were a team and did business from a rickety cart. The ragman was a rolling recycler. In addition to rags, he accepted old pots and pans and his wagon was festooned with a peculiar assortment of these accumulated castoffs. They rattled and clanged together as his cart proceeded up Linden Street.
"Rags? Rags? Any rags today? Rags? Rags?" His calls heralded his arrival. He rolled his "r"s which gave them a gutteral quality.
The horse moved slowly forward. When a homemaker emerged with a bundle of old clothing, the horse automatically stopped. It seemed to be in perfect sync with the ragman and, even in the absence of any audible cue, knew just when to halt for business. There was no physical connection between man and horse, only years of common experience and understanding. When a transaction was complete, the animal slowly resumed forward progress.
The ragman also sharpened scissors with the attachment on the back end of his wagon. A bizarre affair, it looked like parts of a bicycle. The seat and pedals were present, but only one wheel was included. The whole arrangement was cantilevered off the rear of the wagon and out over the street. It looked like a cyclist had crashed into the back end of the conveyance and parts of the bike had stuck there. Anyone needing a scissors sharpened emerged from her house with implement in hand. After agreeing on a fee for service, the man climbed onto the bicycle and started to pedal. That action turned a grinding wheel onto which he pressed the open scissor blades. Sparks flew like fireworks providing uncharacteristic contrast to the otherwiwe drab operation. Out the other end of the process, came a sharp instrument.
The ragman was an odd-looking fellow. He was a short man, of slight build. His face was leathery and wrinkled; his eyes, small and dark. He nearly disappeared under a big, floppy-brimmed, sooty hat and loose ill-fitting black shirt and pants. The end of a belt that was too long hung limply from his waist. The shoes he wore were strangely flat, seemingly without sufficient loft to accommodate his feet. He spoke very little and in broken English. He was a faceless shadow passing through our world.
Both the horse and he seemed to be of advanced years. The horse's back sagged and while he waited, his head hung down, as though too heavy to hold high. The swish of his tail to eliminate an irritating fly confirmed that he was still with us, so still he was at times. Now and then, he would swing his big head around to check on the progress of a transaction; then back again, and low. He rested his weight on one back foot or the other while he waited.
There seemed to be no joy in the ragman. I wondered if, when at home with his family, he could be jolly. We never saw that side of him. The neighborhood kids followed his progress along the street like a cloud of dust. Eventually, we either lost interest or got too far afield and turned back toward home. By that time kids from the next block had taken up position alongside the wagon.
What was the eventual fate of the man who was at the same time known and anonymous to housewives throughout Fond du Lac? One day he was there, and then we never saw him again. His destiny was sealed with the commonplace ownership of the automobile. It became more convenient for Dad to take our bundles of newspaper, rags, and scrap metal to Sadoff's junk yard with our car, than to accumulate them. Although I never saw them again, the ragman and his horse have survived for the past sixty years in my memory.