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Monday, August 4, 2008

SOUND: Mike Pallotta’s cutlery-grinding truck

One of the most wonderful things about living in New York is stumbling upon a living anachronism: a barbershop pole, a drugstore fountain, a shoe-polish stand. That’s how I felt a few weekends ago when, strolling down a Brooklyn street, I noticed an antiquated green Chevy delivery truck idling alongside the Outbacks and Land Rovers that lined the block. As I approached, a muffled bell clanged from within. On the truck’s backside I made out the words The Original…. Mike’s Since 1941 While ‘U’ Wait On the Spot bracketed by a painting of scissors and a knife.

A metallic rasping drifted from the truck’s open windows, mingling with the hiss of a sprinkler and cries of children in the park across the street. When I peered inside, I met Mike Pallotta, a potbellied middle-aged man in an embroidered skullcap and a pinstriped shirt. Two sleepy pit bulls, Boss and Princess, snuffled around his feet. Mike’s eyeglasses slid down his nose as he bent over a honing wheel mounted inside the custom-fitted oak-lined truck, inherited from his father (I later learned), who taught him the grinding trade. Mike raised his eyes, grinned down at me, and told me he was working on a pair of $400 haircutting scissors handed to him moments ago by one of the residents of this street. “I gotta take my time with these ones,” he said in his custardy Brooklyn accent, holding the scissors up to the light and testing their sharpness by snipping at a scrap of paper towel.

Mike told me he’s been operating his roving cutlery grinding business since 1941. Though he earns his living working for the District Attorney during the week, on weekends he wakes up and thinks, Where do I want to go today? Then he fires up the old jalopy, parks it on a street corner somewhere in Kings County, and waits to see who shows up. After spending his childhood in Bay Ridge, he’s especially fond of Brooklyn’s coastal neighborhoods, where he can smell the ocean as he works.

I told him I’d be right back and hurried home—a block away—to grab a French picnic knife for him to sharpen. I wrapped it in a dishtowel and ran back to the truck, clutching a few dollar bills and feeling like a nineteenth-century housewife. As the grinding wheel began to spin, its slow, lopsided thumping turned into a high-pitched whirring, then a whisk-whisk sound as Mike’s thick, dust-rimmed fingers held the blade to the stone. Sparks flew. After giving the knife a final polish, we exchanged money, blade, and a handshake through the truck’s window.

A few hours later, driving through Brooklyn, Mike’s truck pulled up alongside my car at a stoplight. I turned my head, then the light turned green and the truck lurched off, with a clang of its bell, to offer another part of the borough its susurrations of the past.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am a seventy four year old New Yorker although I've not lived in The City for more than forty years. I do remember there were still ice deliveries (with big tongs), a few fruit and vegetable, and old clothes carts that sometimes came by our aprtment house just off Riverside Drive and 108th Street, but not until you reminded me tdoay, did I recall an occaisonal knife and scissor sharpening cart!

Anonymous said...

These itinerant knife grinders are OK sharpening the knives of local butchers, but can do a lot of damage to fine cutlery. You should have anything of value sharpened by a pro using the wet wheel method. The wheel rotates at low speed while in a water bath, so the steel won't overheat and draw its temper. Most of the time your blade only needs honing - not grinding, which you can do yourself with a good quality whetstone. Avoid any of those knife sharpening "gizmos."

A reliable sharpening service & cutlery store, (since 1874), is Henry Westpfal & Co.,
115 W. 25th St., (9:30-6, M-F) 212-563-5990

bklyn said...

i read this with wonder.
i wonder if a person was caught by police holding concealed knives would be able to explain that they were taking their knives to a sharpener with ease.

Retrofresh said...

I remember this guy driving through Canarsie, and me telling my mom he was on our street, and us figuring what needed sharpening, and running out with a pair of dull scissors to catch him before he got too far away. It was fun, and he did a real nice job. Real nice man, too.

albern williams said...

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Anonymous said...

My take on it is, any sharpener who is versed enough to sharpen a $400 salon shear knows enough not to burn up a good knife, too! I do agree that sharpening on hollow grinders without the aid of water heeds caution! Hand-sharpeing with water stones usually produces a finer/longer-lasting edge, but is more expensive. I think that's why most of today's sharpeners use aluminum oxide or silicone carbide belts to sharpen without removing large amounts of metal, then stropping the edge for a really sharp edge! It's quicker, more accurate & doesn't cost too much.
In closing I'd like to point-out that - most people can't hold an angle like Mike!
Go get 'um, MIKE!
Howell's Hand-Sharpening & Engraving in North Texas

Kyle Ebner said...

you shouldn't run with scissors...