Old Old vs. Old Valuable
I’m looking at a knife my grandfather gave me when I was in 6th grade. I’m about to use it on a new project, some 50 years after. The question it brings up is when does something change from being just old to being important?
A lot of stuff just gets old. Clothing wears, the blender suddenly stops blending, paint dries in the can. I guess one idea is the thing was hanging around to be used and when it was no longer useful it just became old. This could also apply to people but that is a nastier road then we’re on today. We’ll stick with things.
New York was a great place to wonder about this sort of thing because nearly everything there is old. The subway dates back 120 years, many of the apartments about the same, and a lot of the public infrastructure like park benches is in the same age group. They had all been patched and repaired over and over, usually just to the edge of working again without being “restored.” The subway system, for example, employs people to hand-make electrical parts from the 1950s. Newer stuff won’t work in the ecosystem as a whole so until someone rebuilds the entire switching network someone else is going to be hand-making old-new parts.
The entire city is made at its core of old stuff that is tolerated as payment to live in the Greatest City in the World and all, but is mostly just an inconvenience. At some point a lot of stuff gets so old it becomes an antique, in a museum. For much of the rest, it is just old, not valuable, and everyone would like to have a modern subway like Tokyo or Singapore.
Same for housing. It is nothing in NYC to have to walk up five flights of stairs to an apartment whose walls are only held together by cobwebs interlaced in with the asbestos. The tub is in the kitchen and the toilet has been used by literally thousands of assholes over its lifetime. If the lead paint is peeling it is just old. If the lead paint has been over-coated then the place becomes vintage. There seems to be such rules that can be discovered through observation, like what physicists do with the universe.
The peak of all this old old and old valuable thing is the famous High Line on the west coast of Manhattan. Around the turn of the century it was a stretch of elevated railway spurs designed to move cattle from the docks into the nearby slaughter houses (the area is still called the Meatpacking District though many young people think the name is a nod to the area’s once-thriving rough gay sex clubs) and then the same tracks would then take the dressed meat off to market. It was a pretty clever system actually that eventually fell into disuse when animal slaughtering near to residential areas was seen as a kind of health threat.
As the area fell into disuse absent the under-the-radar sex clubs, it proved to be too expensive to tear down the elevated train tracks, so they were just left in place. Nobody cared whether they would eventually rust and crumble or survive to be discovered by future archaeologists. They were just old.
Then somewhere along the 1990s in one of those only-in-New-York stories only New Yorkers tell themselves, a group of locals still clinging to the cheap rent and gritty ambiance of the area decided to turn the elevated tracks into a park. They battled city hall, they cleaned up trash, they planted flowers, and they birthed the High Line.
The thing about the High Line is on the one hand it is just a narrow park one floor or so above the street. It has benches and nice plants and you can walk there. The walk is mostly from one random location to another; only last year did a developer create a destination at the north end of the Line, Hudson Yards. Stairs to get on and off the Line seem randomly located, so the idea of walking nowhere just to walk is kind of baked in from the start.
Walking on the Line is basically no different in theory from walking on the street below it. One’s first impression is “Cool!” quickly followed by “So this is it?” The secret unspoken real answer is the High Line is New York as New Yorkers want the city to be. It’s much cleaner than the street. The homeless and other street evils do not seem to go up there, instinctively staying below. Some of the last benches you can still lie down on in the city are on the High Line. It is thus not old. It is valuable.
The knife my grandpa gave me 50 years ago is an X-Acto handle with a replaceable blade. You can buy a similar one in most art stores today for a few dollars. The range of hundreds of blades made for these knives means you can cut all sorts of stuff but the cool factor is a blade from 50 years ago will fit in a modern handle and vice-versa. They never needed to update or change anything; they got it right the first time.
Sadly however, quality is an issue. My old handle is made of machined aluminum, and has acquired a patina after having been handled by me for thousands of hours. It is now a slightly different color about half-way up, right where it fits in to the fold between my thumb and first finger. The new handles are some kind of cheap chrome-like metal and will not change with human contact. The old handle has some heft to it, so you know it is in your hand, but it is not heavy. The new ones are too light.
Same on the blades. I actually have a few 50-year-old blades as well. They are sharp enough to shave with (bloody but the experiment was once done by a younger me) and made of real steel. They rust. Newer blades do not hold their edge and do not rust. They are not as sharp and are too thin. They tend to bend on long cuts, producing a wavy edge.
One major design flaw has never been corrected. The knife handle is round, a tube. It rolls around whatever surface you place it on and with all the weight in the tip with the blade and tightening collar, it will absolutely always fall point first. It has pierced my thigh more than once, went into my bare foot more than once. Anyone who uses such a knife puts tape or some kind of bit of foam rubber on the end to stop the knife from rolling. You can always tell the newbies by their knives.
Grandpa originally gave me the knife for a science fair project. My topic was volcanoes and the plan was to create a large, 3D map-model of Hawaii to show how volcanoes formed the land. Hawaii was chosen because Hawaii was everywhere in the media at the time, focused on the original Hawaii 5–0 TV show. My plan to free-hand sketch the islands on a piece of wood and then glop some plaster into little lumps of hills was intercepted by my grandfather. He thought of himself as a craftsman, and decided this was a learning opportunity for me.
We got a small map of Hawaii and he taught me to take measurements with a protractor and drawing compass off the map. We’d then do math to enlarge those measurements and transfer them to the large piece of heavy paper that would be a template for my science fair display board. So with the compass I would measure say the distance from Honolulu to the airport as 1/8th inch on the small map. We’d then multiple that by say 5, and on the big piece of paper I’d reproduce it as a distance of 5/8ths of an inch. It would be 100 percent accurate!
I was expected to create these 5x maps for all the major islands. Then, using the X-Acto knife grandpa gave me, I would carefully cut each island out of the heavy paper and glue it to a big piece of plywood. We would then mix up plaster to sculpt all the volcanic mountains on top of that. The problem was that doing this all the way my grandpa suggested would take approximately one million years. I may or may not have painstakingly outlined one of the smaller islands this way but as the science fair deadline came closer and closer and I grew more bored and frustrated by the process, Hawaii did not form from my plaster sea.
I am ashamed even now to admit my grandpa finished the thing for me. In the end he sketched the islands by hand, mixed paint with the plaster so the islands would at least be brown, and used a sponge to texture the “ocean” portion of paint a bit so you knew it was the ocean. The plaster was barely dry when I carried the project to school. I got a shitty grade because I had left no time to do anything science-like, just built the board, sort of. I might as well just have crayoned “Hawaii” on a piece of paper and taped it to the wall as a project.
The good news was I got to keep the knife. I used it for all sorts of school projects and crafts, as a letter opener, and of course dangerous plaything. I held on to it through a series of moves that started with me leaving my parents’ house at 18.
The knife is a valuable thing. It is useful and still does its job well. It holds many memories. It is one of a small handful of things I have from my grandfather, most of them tools he used that I still use. That is old and that is valuable.