William Metcalfe, 5/23/2016

Current Occupation: Having retired from profitable work, I am playing about with either writing or photography.
Former Occupation: There were 40 years of picture framing. My company was one of the first in Washington, DC, to push for preservation as a very important aspect of a framing job. 
Contact Information: After 30 years of aimless travel, I settled down in Washington, DC. after I found I enjoyed working as a picture framer. The years of travel and those of working with customers, I have accumulated a large collection of stories, which exist as short notes. For a period, I was also, by acclamation, a interesting photographer, but my 3 children took more and more time. I had to curtail my pursuits. Now that I am retired and my children are adults, I have returned to earlier interests. The iMac which sits on my desk offers itself as a means of rendering a legible copy of a story from the dusty corridors of my mind. It also offers itself as a instructor in converting digital snapshots into something much more meaningful, might I say art. 

 

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THE BIRD IN THE FRAME

 

    While working at the frame shop in the 80s, midweek held my favorite days. Monday and Tuesday were devoted to straightening the mess from the onslaught of rabid customers on Saturday. Mondays were devoted to the creation of clearly written work orders for the jobs that had arrived on the previous weekend. Inventory was checked and our suppliers were notified of materials we needed to complete these jobs. On Tuesdays, work began on projects that relied on materials we had on hand. Wednesdays and Thursdays were dull days of routine, free of stress. The four of us knew our jobs so well that the pieces moved around the workspace as smoothly as baseballs tossed around the diamond by the top players prior to the game.

    Fridays were Panic City. It was obvious that we had promised to complete more jobs than we actually could. At 9 AM, each worker grabbed his tools to begin the day. No one could set them down until noon when stiffened fingers would fumble a tin-foiled sandwich for lunch. Work commenced again before one. A pick-up coffee arrived in mid-afternoon. If one was lucky, the coffee was prepared the right way. During the day, our work routine was disrupted by incessant phone calls. Regardless of having agreed to a three-week waiting period for their piece's completion, the callers are adamant. "Must have!" they demand, again and again. Inevitably, one customer called to apologize, politely. He had forgotten to tell us that that photos he had left with us were to be presented Saturday night at an awards banquet. "Would we have time to finish them?" "Of course," we say, "by midday." Would we have to work to midnight to finish the job by midday? Sometimes, it was close. Somehow the parts needed for the photos slid in between the work for more patient customers. At six o'clock, tools are released, as are the workers who flee with the speed of sleepers escaping a house on fire.

    Saturday. As I write the word my body stiffens as though I were about to face malignant specters from those days. On Saturdays, the front of the shop was transformed from a quiet spot for observing the orderly traffic outside into a careening, ancient bus on a narrow, mountainous road. Its panicked passengers clutched their precious art objects and, with their bodies, softened the collisions with others. The space allotted to customers was not large enough to contain the Saturday mob.

    As soon as the door opened, they would pour in. Hordes of customers. The fortunate ones would leave soon with their framed pictures under their arms. Others, who were not so lucky, had to be satisfied with a complicated, verbal excuse.

    Now the mayhem began. Clutching his finished pieces, a customer waved sheaves of cash to catch a framer's eyes. The framer, who could help, was busy working up a design for a potential shopper's watercolor of a pair of blotchy pussies, carelessly drawn from life by a creature with the artistic skills of an alley cat with fleas. A monochromatic piece on the table engaged another framer in a quest for a suitable frame until its owner slowly explained that the green bill on the table was to pay for the packaged art under his arm. Another customer conquered the table by unrolling a large oil painting of innocently smiling children engaged in an activity that would have them, as well as the artist, arrested in forty-nine of the fifty states. Some customers leaned forward and froze; others leaned back, eyes averted, and froze. Impatient customers grabbed armloads of frame samples from a wallboard to speed up their time with us. I hate to admit it, but there were times when the framer in the front would ignore a restless customer so another framer in the back could finish their order. Meanwhile, a quiet figure stood away from the table to avoid the chaos. Patiently, she waited for a semi-private conference with a favorite framer to work on the design for an ancestor's portrait. Eventually, the mob thinned and she was helped.

    By habit, we had been braced to withstand Saturdays. At the end of the day, half-filled coffee cups littered the tabletops. Scattered about the workroom were the once perfect triangles of sandwiches, now marred by a random series of cutouts. Surrounding the take-out trays of Chinese were pellets of rice scattered into the area when a frenetic hand slapped a fork. Cleaning up could wait until Monday.

    Certain sounds told us that Saturday was definitely over. The clatter of feet rushing downstairs for the toilets. The incessant jangling of the telephone. We knew to ignore these calls near quitting time. They always proved troublesome. The hurried shuffle of the boss to lock the front door and pull down the shade. This was followed by frantic knocking at the door by a customer who thought we closed at eight, instead of six. And finally, the verbal summation of the day shaped by those of us who had survived.

     At the end of a Saturday, the avalanche of new projects would bury all of the worktables in the back room.

    As I said at the beginning of this article, midweek held my favorite days. Let me now give you an example.

    The stress of Friday and Saturday had been alleviated by the calm of the week's beginning. The shop was quiet and the work orderly. But these were also the days when an unusual customer could appear. They avoided the madhouse that was Saturday, because they feared their piece would be damaged in the melee. The undivided assistance of one of our top designers was their main desire. These demanding clients were prepared to spend an unhurried period to ensure the perfection of the finished work. Often, these pieces were the ones that made a framer's week worthwhile aesthetically.

    One Thursday, before anyone else had noticed the lady, I slipped out to offer my assistance. Our shop had been helping this woman for almost a decade. Everyone in the shop agreed that she was one of our nicest customers and, unlike some of our others, no one cringed at the thought of helping her. Over the years, she and I had spent more constructive time together than had many couples. On this day, she held a framed Japanese print of a bird, perched on a thin branch, silently singing. Her husband had acquired the piece during a military tour of Japan decades before. It was much, much older than they had thought, but I didn't tell her that.

    After I removed the print from its old frame, the lady and I began to work at finding the right materials to enhance the piece. I lost track of the time it took before I presented her with an approximation of what the piece would look like framed. Readily, she agreed to my opinion. After chatting easily about how attractive the newly housed bird would be when hung in its old place, the lady left.

    Several weeks later, our work was done. Everyone in the shop approved of the finished project. When I called her with the good news, she responded happily that she would come for it immediately. Thirty minutes later, after a quick peek at her print, she hurried home with her newly burnished treasure.

    When I answered the phone, shortly after she left, I could barely identify the voice. It was loud, raspy. I could imagine the mouthpiece flooded with spit.  Her piercing screech was so painful, hitting my ear, that I held the phone far away. She hurled unusual obscenities that would have been censored by the telephone company, if they had been listening. Eventually, I understood that she was so incredibly angry with me because her art had been destroyed while in my care.  She spoke of a treasured piece that had traveled in her husband's care from Japan to our city. It had always been handled carefully. Loudly, she declared that my reputation was fraudulent.

    When I was finally able to insert a conciliatory word of my own, I asked her to bring the piece back to the shop so I can examine the print. I hoped that she heard my claim that our insurance would cover any damage. When she slammed her phone down, I knew I had fifteen minutes to prepare. I asked my workers about the print. No one had noticed any damages, however slight.

    The intensity she presented as she came into the shop was such that, if I could, I would have asked her to leave her purse on a chair far away from our confrontation. Just in case her gun might go off, accidentally.

    When she reached the counter, I made no effort to stand at her side. I stayed behind the barrier. Three feet away from this hurricane.

    With more force than was necessary, she slammed the frame onto the counter. While her trembling finger pointed, she asked with a belligerent tone, "Do you see what you have done?"

    I must confess. I couldn't see what she was talking about. The framed print looked perfect to me. Carefully, I raised the frame and examined the print. It was unmarred. Not one obtrusive spot of a foreign color. No tears, scrapes or scuffs. Since we had replaced the scratched and dirty glass, the print looked much better than it had before we were allowed to touch it.

    Let me pause and describe the print. As I said, it was a print of a bird on a branch. You have to image that the branch was the letter "Y". It rose straight up from the bottom of the print. At the fork, both arms of the "Y" bent towards the left. One branch was now lower than the other. And, on that branch, perched an upright songbird with his head raised to sing. This image was uncluttered and very clear. The Japanese writing, cascading down the print's side, would have been a poem inspired by the art.

    I hesitantly asked for an indication of injury. She rotated the frame, pointed and declared that our framing had resulted in the print hanging the wrong way. As she, and her husband, were good customers, I confessed our mistake and that we would right it. This calmed her. I asked for a few days to repair the damage. With the righteous stride of the victor, she strutted out of the shop.

    Face with her ferocity, I didn't dare explain to her how the picture was to have been hung. As this print had decorated a wall of hers for 40 years, who am I to change its appearance. I knew enough about the appearance of written Japanese to tell her that those scribbles across the top of the print were a poem in Japanese script, which was meant to be read from top to bottom, not from side to side. This alone would tell her the correct way to display the print.

        The artist had originally portrayed the songbird as readying itself for flight into the heavens; the customer had trained the bird to search the ground for worms.

 

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