On Waiting

Thought for the day: Why is every public building in Britain so stuffy and overheated while every private home is so draughty and underinsulated? Take our house, for example. You could drive several small turbines on the chill wind pouring through the enormous gaps between our windows and their fittings. We could probably generate enough electricity that way to heat the house for a year. But last week, while waiting for the man in J. Shiner and Sons to retrieve my brass caster from the basement of his shop, I was practically sweating to death. My throat was parched. I was just about to start peeling off the layers I had piled on to protect me from the biting March wind when he reappeared and I knew that soon I’d be back in the refreshing cold again.

I had gone to J. Shiner and Sons to pick up a new caster for a footstool that my wife, a painter, textile designer and increasingly skilled upholsterer, was refurbishing. There were two other people ahead of me in the shop but just the one man to take care of them. He was a small, frail-looking man whose polite, professional manner didn’t quite seem to match the tight-fitting football shirt he wore. Each of the customers before me had a very specific request—they needed a brass fitting of a particular size and shape—and, strangely, they each needed casters like myself. The man behind the counter (presumably a descendant of J. Shiner, who founded the shop on this site in 1879 or thereabouts) listened patiently to their descriptions and then disappeared to the basement. I heard the sound of his footsteps fade away as he walked downstairs, then silence. I didn’t hear anything from him again for several minutes until the clomp, clomp, clomp that signaled he was coming back upstairs. When he did reappear, he held in his hands several shiny brass casters carefully wrapped in white tissue paper. Each time it was exactly what the customer wanted.While the man was gone, I had plenty of time to wait (and become increasingly oppressed by the air in the stuffy, overheated shop). Waiting is a strange business. It happens so often, and often so imperceptibly, every day. There are mundane forms of waiting–for your browser to load, for your child to finish swimming lessons, for the lights to change. And there are existential forms of waiting: for an opportunity, for a sign, for a second chance. Waiting should never be a wasted, though, which is why this aphorism from John Milton’s Paradise Lost appeals to me so much:

They also serve who only stand and wait.

What purpose was I serving as I waited for my brass caster in J. Shiner and Sons? Well, it was a poignant reminder of the overwhelming amount of stuff in the world and the amazing fact that somewhere someone out there is an expert in all of it. The shop was festooned with fixtures, and looking around I saw different types of letterbox, dozens of doorknobs, a clutch of knockers next to a row of drapery rods, the occasional lamp or lantern, a run of house numbers in different sizes and fonts, and boxes and boxes of variously sized screws–all of it in brass. No casters on display, though; they must all be in the basement. And the guy behind the counter knew absolutely everything about all of it. When he gave me my caster, for example, he explained that they didn’t make the model I needed anymore (the footstool is pretty old) and the one he gave me had a larger wheel but would still fit the leg of the stool. He even provided the tiny screws I needed without me having to ask. He had similar stories to share with his other customers, either some technical detail about the casters or an anecdote about how the neighborhood around his shop was changing. In my haste to escape the sultry shop–as well as the more general hurry in which I too often rush to get things done–I was reminded that such friendly, informative little encounters are always worth the wait.