One winter, when I was ten or eleven and had expressed some fondness for or appreciation of our lives, my mother’s face clouded over and she announced, ‘You are going to see something of the world outside Gloversville.’
Vacation, she meant, and that summer we went, just the two of us, to Martha’s Vineyard. The island wasn’t nearly so famous then, and ?I don’t know where she got the idea. Probably somebody from General Electric had gone there. Much of what my mother knew about the world outside of Gloversville derived from her eight-to-five weekday life in the Computer Room in Schenectady, loading and unloading large wheel-like tape drives on to a computer the size of a bus. It was probably less powerful than today’s low-end laptops, but engineers and programmers came from all over the US and even Europe to crunch their numbers, and my mother trusted these men as much as any newsreel or oracle. At any rate, one deep winter day a Manila envelope chock-full of brochures for posh hotels and graceful inns arrived from the island’s chamber of commerce. My mother pored over them as if she feared there’d be a quiz when we stepped off the ferry. The resort she settled on was near Menemsha on the more remote and sparsely populated side of the island. The main inn was large and rambling, with a huge porch and an elegant dining room with a westward view of the sound, the better to view the magnificent sunsets. Between the inn and the water was a large sloping lawn dotted with tiny cottages, and it was one of these that we rented.
Instead of being cheek by jowl with other vacationers, my mother reasoned, we’d have privacy and be closer to the water, though even a ten-year-old boy could plainly see that the cottages were cheaper. The attraction of this particular resort was that it operated on the American Plan, which meant that three meals a day were included; she could pay up front with no fear of surprise charges. She called twice that spring after we’d booked our stay, just to make sure she hadn’t misunderstood that part.
Perhaps because my mother was so focused on how much it was going to cost, she didn’t tumble to the fact that it was a Jewish resort, probably the only one on the island. Still, if her goal was to introduce me to something of the wider world, she’d chosen the right spot. Among our fellow vacationers were a dancer and a pianist and a playwright. Perhaps because of how out of place we appeared, we were immediately befriended. A young college student gave me tennis lessons when I showed up at the courts, no doubt looking forlorn, just as he and his girlfriend were finishing a match. When it rained one day, another couple took us into Oak Bluffs to see the gingerbread cottages. A woman roughly my mother’s age, and also separated from her husband, sometimes came with us to the beach. She wore a startlingly brief swimsuit, which caused me to fall in love with her, and I remember being devastated when, instead of joining us in the dining room she went out on dinner dates to Edgartown and Vineyard Haven. Judging by the number of men who stopped by our table to introduce themselves, my mother, but for me, would have done the same.
Lest I miss the significance of all we observed that week, my mother provided a running commentary, as if she didn’t trust me to arrive at valid conclusions. Notice, she said, how these people had manners, how they didn’t dress or talk or shamble around like Gloversville folk. They were educated, as one day I would be, and to them home was New York or Boston, which somehow meant that they could stay for all of July, maybe even the whole summer, whereas because of our home, we had to scrimp and save for just one week. Notice, she said, how when people asked us where we were from and I said Gloversville, we then had to explain where it was, which meant our town wasn’t the centre of anyone’s universe but our own. ‘But the Adirondacks are so beautiful,’ people objected, anxious to concede that we lived someplace nice. ‘The foothills of the Adirondacks,’ my mother clarified, giving me to understand that we, neither up nor down, had cleverly contrived to have the worst of both worlds.
It was an expensive week in more ways than one. My mother had financed the trip by brown-bagging an entire year’s worth of cheese sandwiches instead of going out for lunch with her co-workers, and we’d blown the whole wad in seven short days, after which there was nothing to do but return to our foothills. The island ferry dropped us in Wood’s Hole, where we waited for a bus to take us to Providence, then for another to Albany, and finally for the one to the Four Corners in Gloversville. By the time we arrived we were so tapped out that my mother had to borrow money from my grandparents until she could collect her next pay cheque at GE. Even more discouraging, from her perspective, was that nobody wanted to hear about the marvellous island we’d visited, the classy people we’d met, the exciting things we’d done. No one expressed the slightest desire to duplicate our experience the following summer, though my mother was anxious to share the brochures she’d saved, the ferry schedule, the postcards she purchased as mementos. I managed to make matters worse, as I usually did back then, by telling her how glad I was to be home. What I meant, of course, was that I’d missed my grandparents and my cousins and not one but two American Legion baseball games. What she heard, though, was that I preferred the place she loathed. For a whole year she’d sacrificed to show me something better, and I had failed to appreciate it.
All right, then, she decided, no more showing. From then on she meant to lay down the law. ‘You’re going to college,’ she informed me, as if by saying I was glad to be home, I’d called into question that long-range goal. ‘You’re getting out of this place. Do you understand?’ When I said I did, she asked me the same question again, and only when I gave the same answer did she go to the store and buy more sliced American cheese and rye bread. These future savings would now go into my college fund. By the time we left for Arizona they amounted to a little over $4,000. Not much, unless you think of it as eight years’ worth of cheese sandwiches in 1960s dollars.
But if she thought I wasn’t paying attention on Martha’s Vineyard, she was wrong. I’d been as enchanted as she was by the island and everyone we’d met there. I’d loved the crashing waves and clam chowder and tennis so much that I returned home feeling ashamed of where we lived, of our neighbours whose leaves I raked and snow I shovelled and lawns I mowed, and of how people further down Helwig Street sat shirtless on their sloping porches in warm weather, scratching their bellies and leaning forward when a car they didn’t recognize rounded the corner, wondering out loud who that was and where they were headed. After Martha’s Vineyard I noticed things about our family, too: the way we talked over one another at holiday gatherings, our voices rising, screeching No, no, you’re telling it wrong, because, of course, these stories belonged to all of us and we knew their details by heart. Martha’s Vineyard people didn’t interrupt; before entering the conversation they waited politely until whoever was speaking had finished. ‘There’s no reason to raise your voice here,’ my mother had to keep reminding me. When we saw people in the dining room we’d met the day before, everybody stood up and we all shook hands. ‘Did you notice how clean his fingernails were?’ my mother whispered when whoever it was had left, and I knew I was supposed to compare them to the fingernails of men who worked in the skin mills.
What I’d noticed, actually, was that none of the men on the island were missing fingers. As tanning and glove-making became increasingly mechanized, there were more and more accidents, more men maimed. To make them less cumbersome and unwieldy, the skins were halved, and cowhides in particular were too thick for gloves, which meant they had to be split. The staking machines used to stretch the skins, yielding more square footage, were particularly lethal, as were the embossing machines that used giant plates to give the leather a nice grain, and these descended with a force of 1,000 pounds per square inch. And of course the clicker-cutter operators had to make sure their fingers were outside the perimeter of the machines when the skins were stamped. Every stage of the process now required machines and the hides were fed into these by hand, the very hand you’d lose if your mind wandered for an instant.
Blades sharp enough to sever a tanned skin were fitted with safety devices whose ostensible purpose was to keep them from lopping off fingers, but of course their real purpose was to protect the mill’s owner from lawsuits.
Because if you work the line, you’re paid by the cubic foot of skin you process, and if you’ve got kids to feed and clothe, the very first thing you’ll do is disable the safety mechanism that slows down your output. This is understood by everyone, including the foreman who turns his back while you do it. It’s also understood that sooner or later something will go wrong. Work this mind-numbingly repetitive invites daydreaming, and your own safety often depends on people you’re working with, because if you’re pushing a skin into a machine, there’s likely someone on the other side tugging it out. Eventually one of you will mess up. You’ll slip or lunge and enter the machine with the same hand that people who summer on Martha’s Vineyard shake with, after which your thumbnail will never be dirty again.
This extract from Richard Russo's first piece of memoir is taken from Granta 111: Going Back. Available now (RRP £12.99). For a special subscription offer to Granta magazine, please visit www.granta.com/indyg2.