Happy in jobs that time forgot

07/22/2010 12:00 AM |

Bruce Wahl, left, and Donn Costanzo of Wooden Boatworks in Greenport aboard a sailboat they restored. Mr. Costanzo says he designs his boats ‘to flow with the natural world’ using methods that date back hundreds of years.

A blast from the past may be an understatement.

Take a step inside the Village Cobbler Shop in Riverhead, and the technological world of cellular phones, computer entertainment and endless information streaming at your fingertips seems but a distant memory. Lining the walls of the 200-square foot shop are old leather boots and wooden shoe stretchers dangling over Prada bags and leather belts.

Crammed into the back corner is an old-fashioned sewing machine sitting behind a line up of shoeshine brushes and complicated stitching contraptions. Owner Fred Ruvolo stands behind his workbench at the front counter and leans over the outsole of a leather shoe, hefting a sturdy hammer given to him when he was 14 years old.

“I like using tools that are old,” the 59-year-old cobbler said about a week ago. “It helps me feel the spirits of my predecessors.”

A hundred years in the past, shops such as Mr. Ruvolo’s shoe repair business could be found at nearly every street corner in any American town, but things have changed since the heyday of small-town America.

“The cost of living nowadays makes shops like mine almost obsolete,” Mr. Ruvolo said. “To own a free-standing building is almost cost prohibitive … After you pay the rent, the mortgage, the taxes and everything else, there’s none left for you.”

To avoid the cost of outside labor, Mr. Ruvolo manages the entire shoe repair shop by himself, sweeping the floor, wiping the counter and working the cash register. Surprisingly, however, the lifelong cobbler said he’d never want to work any other way. The daily grind of labor, he said, brings him a kind of satisfaction he’d never find in modern-day offices. He plans to keep on working “till they scrape me off the floor.

“It’s not one of my goals in life to sit around and be lazy,” he said. “My father worked right up until the day he died. The problem with most Americans these days is that they want to do the least and get the most, but I say there’s nothing wrong with an honest day’s pay.”

Others who work at old-timey jobs on the North Fork agree with Mr. Ruvolo’s assessment.

“Kids these days don’t want to work,” said farrier Dean Fritcher, who operates a horseshoeing business from his home in Baiting Hollow. “A lot of kids nowadays want to come out of college and make big bucks sitting in an office. Me? I’d rather be sweating it out in the heat and breaking my back. Maybe I’m just crazy, but getting dirty is fun. You feel like you’ve accomplished something.”

Mr. Fritcher began horseshoeing when he was 19, abandoning a lucrative career in engineering to pursue something he believed was more rewarding. During his time as an apprentice, he learned all the necessary tricks of the farrier trade, including how to cut and shape the steel bars used for horseshoes, a labor-intensive skill no longer necessary with today’s technology.

“A lot of things have changed over the years,” the 43-year-old farrier said. “Back in the day when they didn’t have vehicles, taking your horse to the farrier was almost like taking your car to the tire shop. Things have changed, but no matter what happens, my profession will always be in demand. It’s one of the oldest professions in existence, and until we stop domesticating horses, I’ll still have a job.”

The locals who work these throwback types of jobs feel as if America has lost something important in the technological renaissance of the 20th and 21st centuries.

“There’s very little high quality work done in any field anymore,” said Donn Constanzo, owner of Wooden Boat Works in Greenport, a company that builds and restores old boats dating back as far as 1906. “If you look at today’s furniture, it’s all mass produced. No one is making high quality goods anymore, and it’s really just a tragedy.”

Mr. Constanzo fashions each of his boats using methods that have proven effective for hundreds of years, he said. Kid II, a replica of a boat designed by legendary yacht designer Gilbert Monroe Smith, showcases a 37-foot, streamlined body that many would call a work of art. Each piece of wood is customized to a particular dimension so that the body sits low in the water and works with the wind, he said.

“My boats are designed to flow with the natural world, not to battle it,” Mr. Constanzo said. “Nowadays, when these guys get into their plastic powerboats, turn the key, and go wherever they want to go, there’s a disconnect. They’ve got a kid on a computer game in the back seat, and nobody’s communicating with each other. There’s no community. We’ve been disconnected from the world.”

Despite the advances of technology in recent decades, Mr. Constanzo feels there is still a need for professions rooted in the past, where people work with their hands to earn a living and families support one another with their labor. All the ease and comfort Americans enjoy today, he said, often goes against the grain of human nature.

“There’s something about working with your hands,” he said. “It makes you feel good, puts a little swagger in a guy’s walk, a sense of accomplishment. There’s a lot to be said for that. Nowadays we’ve got this whole electronic world at our fingertips, but nobody can do anything with it. We’re information rich and experience poor.”

Despite what many perceive to be shortcomings in modern society, some believe that there are indeed benefits to change. Mark Zulli, a Mattituck old-timer who has worked as a butcher for over 60 years, believes that a good portion of what has changed in his profession has been for the better.

“Sometimes I get nostalgic,” said the 81-year-old, who now works part time at the Mattituck Village Market. “Nowadays, the frozen meat comes broken down in small pieces already stuffed in cardboard boxes. You don’t even need to know how to cut it down to size anymore … but I think it’s all been for the better. After all, the meat can last for months in those boxes and still be fresh when you open it. Unbelievable!”

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