Pimpernel's Writings

The Umbrella-Cover Man

We children knew it was truly Spring when the Umbrella-Cover Man arrived in our town with his pocket notebook, swatches of material, and a knife-sharpened pencil that was not quite a stub.  He also carried in his car a portable sewing-machine, a variety of replacement parts and a glue pot.

People walked in those long-ago days, and an umbrella was both a practical necessity and an item of fashion among the ladies of the community.  Today they're called stick umbrellas, meaning the pole does not fold or telescope.  In those early post-war days an average salary was about $60 a week, and a good ladies' umbrella could cost $15 at a department store ?  much more if the tip cup and handle were of real amber, so repairing them was a sensible step.

The Umbrella-Cover Man.  His name and occupation were inexorably linked.  If he had had a business card, it would simply have said:

Address and Telephone Number Irrelevant

In those early years after the World War women generally kept house and thus were prepared to be solicited by brush salesmen, bread men, milkmen and others involved in personally serving the customer in situ.  Unlike those just mentioned, the umbrella-cover man was all at once salesman, factory, delivery service and bookkeeping department.

He would arrive at a respectable hour, which is to say somewhere between 10 A.M.  and 3 P.M.  Earlier might have interfered with the domestic duties of the lady of the house ?  later would have intruded into her preparations for the family dinner.

He was foreign born ?  that much was obvious.  For one thing he wore a business suit over a colored shirt, buttoned to the neck but without necktie, his felt hat was somehow shaped by unfamiliar customs and seemed to perch squarely on his head with a no-nonsense finality, its brim turned up all the way around.  For another, his English was excessively florid and delivered in an accent the origin of which no one could guess.  Every housewife who was second-generation-something swore to her neighbors that he was not of their race.  So it was established that he was neither Italian nor Jewish, not a Spaniard, or a French Canadian, or a Greek, Armenian, Russian, German, Pole.  Nor was he a Scandinavian, despite his ice-blue eyes.  The general consensus was that he was a gypsy of some kind, but an honest and respectable one.

"Hello Lady.  You need any umbrellas recovered?" he would ask while sweeping his hat from his head and bowing low before the customer.

There were two services offered: Recovering / Minor Repairing and Major Rebuilding.  The first he would accomplish on the customer's premises, the second he would take away, leaving a temporary replacement until his return.

Umbrellas are traditionally octagonal, consisting of 8 triangles sewn together, then sewn onto the frame.  To the central pole are attached the ribs which support the frame.  In those days to which he belonged most of the distinguished umbrellas had wooden ribs and frame.

If there were young girls in the house, he was careful to leave the old cover so it could be used to make doll dresses.

If he came before lunch, the housewife provided a sandwich and a glass of iced tea, which he finished while the glue used on the frame dried.  His glue pot was heated in a pan of boiling water provided by the customer.

There were established time-limits  for salesmen calling upon women alone for the day: the milkman was allowed 10 minutes once a week to settle accounts, 5 minutes for the bread man, no longer than 30 minutes for men demonstrating vacuum cleaners, brushes, books and magazines or collecting insurance premiums.  The umbrella-cover man was the lone exception.  He could stay two hours without raising the eyebrows of the neighborhood gossips.  Whether this was because he worked on-site or simply that he was so exotic that no woman could conceive of tipping him the wink was not discussed, but a lady's reputation was untarnished by his unchaperoned presence.  Naturally, he never presumed to use the bathroom, presumably depending upon gasoline station rest rooms.

The local weekly newspaper would herald his annual arrival with a simple block notice on the bottom of the front page which usually appeared the second Thursday of May:

Please to leave umbrella hanging from front door knob. 
Begins next Thursday.

"April showers bring May flowers", children used to chant.  Was he waiting ?till shower season had ended?  We believed this implicitly, and as he made his way through the town ?  some 1,000 houses ?  from North to South, the doorknobs of rich and poor alike sprouted umbrellas to announce the need for his services.

Much later in life, we asked our parents when and how he had first appeared, but no one remembered.  "Some time prior to the War" was the best we could get.  All they had noticed was that he came on a sort of schedule and preceded by a newspaper-notice and those were sufficient bona fides.

While he scarcely spoke to his customers, he was kindly and patient with the audience of rainy-day children who would gather to watch him work.  He would absorb each question, roll it around in his mouth before delivering a concise, practical answer, made all the more poignant by a total non-use of the definite article.

His automobile was a good business-black; a two-door coupe with a rumble-seat which substituted for a trunk.  The handle lay beneath the rear window so that the lid swung open and downwards to reveal a third seat, where his equipment was stored.

So he came and went on his annual migration, mending, taking, selling, trading and bringing-back like a one-man caravan, while we children traded Superman for Donald Duck, Coca-Cola for Kool-Aid, and progressed through school, and we feigned indifference in his work on rainy days when friends could see.

One May, the following announcement appeared within the local weekly newspaper:


      My husband regrets he has died and will no longer be 
able to serve you as he has done before.  His sons are
not following in my husband's footsteps to umbrella
business.  We regret that he can not supply name of
another craftsman in his profession.  He thanks you
all for your loyal custom during past years. 

      The Family of Ivars Ozols,

      Who came from Latvia.

It seemed that "my husband" was a Latvian, doubtless a refugee from either the recent war or the Soviet iron curtain.  That evening fathers got out the unused book-club atlas and showed wives and children where Latvia was located; one of the tiny Baltic Republics swallowed up by Stalin's Soviet Union.

That Sunday, the Rev.  Dr.  Harkins of the First Baptist church preached a sermon about the Umbrella-Cover Man, pointing out that this man whose name or history we never knew had gained our collective trust, had always given full value for money honestly earned and whose final duty was discharged honorably in the publication of what amounted to a public-service notice.  The following week, in every other church in town, a brief prayer was offered for Ivars Ozols, Umbrella-Cover Man.

With the publication of that notice, an era began to close.  Over the next few years, bread and milk deliveries were replaced by supermarkets.  Within a decade, the term ?working mother' took on real meaning.  And within fifteen years no woman would dream of opening her bolt-locked door to anyone.  The umbrella-cover man signaled the end of a golden age of innocence, but we all grew up, went our ways, and remember him as more mythical antiquity than petty businessman.

We, none of us who were children together then, were ever able to discover whether umbrella-cover men were universal to suburban towns or whether our Umbrella-Cover Man was a unique fixture in time and space, which provoked the question: "Why us?" Some things are apparently never to be known.

We did the math one evening, after too many beers and cigarettes.  1000 houses x 50% as customers x 2.5 umbrellas per family x $3.75 average fee = $4,687.50 per anum, or $90.14 per week, less gasoline and materials.  He also sold some used reconditioned umbrellas for $8 each.  We augustly determined in our drunken wisdom that he could well have supported a family on that income.  Plus, he vanished between September and May......  was he rebuilding castoff umbrellas to sell the next year?  Did his children haunt trash cans for such treasures?  Did he work at some winter-seasonal job?  Despite the assistance of fresh beer, we could not reach consensus.  The Umbrella-Cover Man remained immune to post-mortem analysis.

FAST-FORWARD 4O YEARS:  In the 1990s I was deciding where to locate the general offices of my law-publishing entity.  It came down to a coin-toss between Vilnius, Riga or Tallinn.  Estonia was nearly chosen when I chanced to remember the kindly old man who made a silk parachute for a small boy's plastic soldier.  The Umbrella-Cover Man resurfaced to claim this valuable investment for his fatherland.  Like a Baltic Johnny Appleseed, he had reached into the future and changed the world just a bit.

You just never know, do you?