In my experience as a purveyor of news, summertime is usually a bit of a dead zone. The news is a little harder to find because kids are out of school, spring sports are over, boards are meeting less frequently and the whole town is on vacation.
So imagine my delight as I was sitting in my living room on Monday morning getting caught up after my own lovely vacation, and the news came to me.
Through my open window (this was Monday, before the 95-degree meltdown) I heard a familiar sound from my childhood. It was a bell, like the bell you’d hear on the old-fashioned train at Disney World, or perhaps the bell rung during a medieval funeral procession.
Bong … bong … bong, each toll a somber 4 seconds after the last, a slow, steady peal. I peeked outside and there he was: The Knife Sharpener Guy.
As a child I had seen him many times, pushing his large green and red cart, complete with pumice stone and pulley, around the streets of Elmhurst.
Could this possibly be that Knife Sharpener Guy? I had to find out. I grabbed my notebook and my camera and chased him down the street. He was super easy to catch.
I gave him my usual shpeel, identified myself and handed him my card.
He handed it back.
“What’s your name?” I asked him.
“Tony del Ciello,” he said in a thick Italian accent. It’s pronounced cello, like the instrument. His name is written on the front of his cart.
As it turns out, he is not the same guy I saw growing up. Tony is 67 years old. He’s been strolling the streets in town for about 30 years, not long enough to have passed by me as I dangled from tree branches on Cedar Street. But with the cart, the white hair, he could be that guy.
Tony lives in Oak Park, and he, like his cart, was made in Italy. In fact, he’s about as Italian as you can get. He speaks loudly and, if you don’t know Italians, you’d think he was angry. He is colorful and interesting and almost impossible to understand.
In Italy, as well as in Chicago back in the day, it was common to see strolling peddlers selling ice or milk or offering services. Today, it’s almost unheard of. It’s really just Tony.
“I’m the only guy left on the street,” he told me.
Once a year, he passes through town. It takes him two or three weeks to hit every street, walking six to seven days a week.
“Nobody’s home anymore,” he said. “Everybody work.
“See all of these new big houses?” he asked, definitely not pointing to mine. “Nobody’s there. They have to work two jobs. So, no good for me.”
But Tony does all right. He said he gets about 15 to 20 people a day.
“I come the same time every year,” he said. “This year, the spring was cold and wet. I couldn’t do anything.
“In the spring I hardly make any money. It’s cold, people don’t hear me. In the summer, people are more out and stuff.”
They don’t exactly chase him down like the ice cream man, but Tony said the ice cream man is overrated.
“Nobody comes running to the ice cream truck. They’re too expensive,” he said. “Years ago, ice cream was cheap.”
Tony’s actually cheaper than the ice cream man. He charges a couple of dollars per blade, and he sharpens everything from kitchen knives to garden shears to lawnmower blades. Once they’re sharpened, they’ll stay sharp for “a whole year or more,” he said.
And Elmhurst is not his only town. He strolls around 15 other areas, including cities on the north shore and neighborhoods in Chicago.
So, what does he do in the off-season?
“I rest!” he exclaimed, incredulous that I would even ask. “I’m an old guy!”
So, I ventured another stupid question.
“Do you ever go online?” I asked.
“Online? What do you mean?” he asked.
I thought he might want to read this. I don’t think that’s likely, but he did tell me someone made a video of him and it was on You Tube. I searched but couldn’t find it.
“I don’t have no computer,” he said.
Tony puts technology in its place. Maybe instead of handing out business cards, I’ll put my name on my notebook, the way Tony has his name on his cart. There’s something delightfully simple about that.
Tony and I parted, and he continued down Cambridge, the bell slowly tolling in front of all those big empty houses. Maybe I'll see him again next year—it’s really hit or miss with Tony. I’ll be sure to have a few blades handy, just in case.