A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

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.