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'Scissors and Lawnmower Sharpener'--by photographer Russell Lee (1903-86)
To judge from our current cris de coeur, his remark about the battle of the sexes rings truer for our own time than his. The Republicans are accused of waging a "war on women" ranging from the curtailing of abortion rights to unequal pay for equal work; TV psychologists regularly hold forth on "battered-wife syndrome; and "domestic violence" now rivals gunfire as our most frequent police call.
Much of this is blamed on tensions arising from our failing economy, but that's a big answer and big answers tend to be pat answers. Something really has happened between men and women, and I am just the right age to remember the difference.
Climb into my time capsule for a trip to the years just before World War II. I am sitting on the back steps waiting to signal someone who is making his way down the alley. He carries a small wheel on his shoulder and every few steps he throws back his head and calls out, "Sizzaman!"
My British father called him "the scissors grinder" but such precise diction was rare in the still-Southern Washington of my childhood. The rest of us, like the grinder, were generic Virginians or Marylanders with tongues influenced by black English, so we called him, as he called himself, "the sizzaman."
He was in his 60s, with thick white hair and rosy cheeks, as Dickensian as all get-out. He sharpened all the knives and scissors in the house for only
In return, he was the perfect guest who made the goodwives' day. His working life was peopled exclusively by housebound women, and he felt comfortable with them and could talk the talk.
He knew the drill perfectly; ailments, especially the kind that lend themselves to precisely timed interjections of "she's wasting away" and "it runs in the family." His innate gentlemanly delicacy allowed him to discuss the finer points of kidney stones without crossing the line into coarseness, yet he was clearly no male hen. He had an adventurous Jack-of-all-trades past and big scarred hands, but he was nonetheless a "woman's man" while being in no sense a "ladies' man," and it came so naturally to him that neither he nor his hostess-customers ever really thought about it.
The sizzaman was one of many "man men" of my childhood, and now I find myself remembering them as I watch the battle of the sexes grow more vituperative. The milkman came too early and the iceman's product prevented him from tarrying, but there was the insurance man with his big thick policy book with all the different-colored receipts who came once
And there was the mailman, who needed a cold drink on a hot day or vice versa and appreciated being able to put down that heavy leather bag that cut into his shoulder. He was like the gruffly intuitive mailman in "Come Back, Little Sheba" who told the lonely Shirley Booth, "I'll see that you get a letter if I have to write it myself."
"Man men" were part of the fabric of city life. City women enjoyed a parade of garrulous males, all of whom were seasoned students of the female psyche, well able to minister to what are now called "needs." It all changed with the postwar rise of suburbs and the new one-stop convenient shopping centers. Add husbands exhausted from long commutes and you get "He never talks to me."
The postwar suburban housewife sharpened her own knives on one of her many labor-saving appliances, and brooded. When the can-opener attachment fell off of the knife sharpener as it invariably does, she burst into tears. This was the last straw, but she didn't know why.
All she knew was that she was stuck in the house with no one to talk to except children, whose conversation lacked something--a point, syntax--or neighbor women who talked of nothing but children. The only man-man she saw was the Tidy Diaper driver, but he was always in a hurry, and his job somehow put everyone off the idea of serving food. Besides, he tended to be young, a college student or a pimply lout.
Going to bed with a man, said Mrs. Patrick Campbell, is the best way to get his undivided attention, so the untalked-to suburban housewife had affairs and then went to a psychiatrist, but she did all the talking. The shrink, like her husband, hardly ever said a word. Now she has a career and the men in her life are bosses, co-workers, or cutthroat rivals for the next big promotion. The rivals are especially careful in her presence lest they inadvertently give something away, so they don't talk to her either.
Add to this parlous state of affairs the path taken by American demographics in general and we can identify a new front in the battle of the sexes.
We are almost completely split along city-suburb lines. City people are Democrats, liberals, intellectuals, globalists, free spirits. Suburban people are Republicans, conservatives, pragmatists, patriots, conformists.
Today's America contains millions of women who hate men in general because they have never met men in general.
Florence King is a Fredericksburg writer whose most recent book is "Deja Reviews: Florence King All Over Again." This commentary appeared in The Spectator (London) and is reprinted here with that magazine's permission. ©2012 by The Spectator.