Junior, the yawning receptionist guarding the stairway with studied indifference, thumps his tail and barks once to indicate a customer. And now here comes Joe Gosselin, spooning up the last of his yogurt-and-berry breakfast and adjusting his red, white and blue American flag suspenders before popping his head out the window and croaking in his Bob Dylan-inflected voice, “Hey, buddy.”
Time to get to work.
Time, once more, to turn his home — in Gosselin’s case, a rusted 1970s-era Dodge American Clipper motor home — into his office situated in the parking lot of the Home Depot on Flagstaff’s east side.
Time to fire up the grinder, oil the whetstone, then sharpen some knives for folks.
Gosselin, 80 and a peripatetic sort, is back in Flagstaff now after a summer roaming the west, sharpening knives to make a buck and supplement his $1,000-a-month Social Security check. Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, various spots in eastern Arizona -- Gosselin sure gets around. But he still considers Flagstaff a home base, the town where he worked first as a cabdriver and then a plumber and construction worker back in the day.
And, bowing to age and coronavirus concerns, he’s hit upon an unusual way to get by in this pandemic age: park in a shopping center (if they’ll have him) and hang out his shingle, touting “Knife Sharpening, axes, scissors and edge tools. Veteran Owned,” garnished with a flag logo.
Management at Home Depot has let him park in a discreet section of the lot, and Gosselin and Junior fling open the side door to the American Clipper seven days a week, grinder poised for action.
The day’s first customer, a 40-something man named Kyle Christiansen (along with his teenage daughter) approaches with a smile on his face and a dull pocket knife in hand. Junior, an aging golden retriever mix, sniffs him out first, then, apparently satisfied, plops on the foot of the stairs.
“Hey, buddy,” Gosselin croaks, then nods toward the knife. “So, uh, I just ask for donations.”
“I’ll donate a lot if you can make that sharp,” Christiansen says.
“I’ll make it like a razor for you in jig time. This looks like it’s been neglected."
“It’s a landscaping knife. It’s cut through rock and dirt.”
“Well, I can sharpen that up and adjust all these screws and give it a couple of drops of three-in-one oil and it’ll be just like new. Gimme about 10 minutes. It’ll be ready when you come out the store.”
Before Christiansen can retreat to do his shopping, Gosselin launches into his life story, at least a bit of it. He’s lived an eventual life, so a full rendering could take hours. But father and daughter seem enamored with Gosselin.
He is, for sure, a dynamic character not easily forgotten. His face is lined like a well-folded road map, horizontal and vertical lines intersecting when he smiles, which is often. He sports a pencil-thin mustache to match caterpillar-like eyebrows, while his silver hair is cut military short. But those patriotic suspenders are needed to hold up his brown canvas work pants, since he recently lost 60 pounds after a VA doctor warned he had a heart condition.
“You know,” he begins, “I only make a thousand a month in Social Security, so I started out with two files and a whetstone. But I’ve got all the tools now. The stimulus money came this spring, and the Social Security money came and a good Christian man came up and asked me if I knew Jesus Christ. I told him I live my life according to his doctrine to do unto others as they’d do unto you. And so he handed me an envelope with a thousand dollars in it. I was able to buy a new generator, the knife sharpening equipment, new tires, shocks, things I desperately needed, since this is my home.”
Christiansen nods and shuffles his feet. His daughter starts typing on her iPad. Gosselin’s soliloquy soldiers on.
“I sold a home I built down near Willcox years ago and lost my shirt during (the recession). So for years, I was living in the bush in retirement, living pay day-to-pay day, and I read every book imaginable and I was totally bored out of my mind. I needed to work. I’m not one to beg with a sign or nothing like that, or anything like that, so I came up with this idea, sharpening.”
Gosselin often catches himself when he makes a grammatical error. He may not be traditionally book smart, but he learned in the Air Force to value knowledge, and he’s proud of his impressive vocabulary.
“People did this kind of thing after the second World War — sold pencils on the street,” he continues. “There were no jobs. I remember that. As a small child, I couldn’t really fathom it, but now I do.”
He looks at Christiansen’s daughter, face buried in the iPad.
“Is that, like, a cell phone?”
“It’s a tablet,” Christiansen says. “You could probably use it as a phone.”
“Nice big screen so you can see everything. Can I use my Samsung with that? My goodness. I just got a modern phone three months ago from T-Mobile, and I am totally stoked. I ordered so much stuff on it, all my knife-sharpening equipment.”
Eventually, as Christiansen and daughter drift off into the store, Gosselin runs his calloused thumb over the blade of the pocket knife and heads to his workshop, which doubles as his kitchen and bedroom and den inside the American Clipper. It’s dark and dank inside, the faux-wood cabinets faded with time and the formica laminate kitchen table chipped, but clean. The only things new here are his grinder and knife sharpener, purchased at Home Depot with earnings from his new career, and a bright red microwave oven to zap his dinner.
“Bought this rig (the American Clipper) three and a half years ago,” he says. “I went to Gunnison when it got hot here in summer, and my motor seized up, just died. I had the tow truck drop me at a city market and a Wal-Mart. I didn’t know what to do. I’d just gotten my Social Security check but I can’t live on it. I needed a new motor. Somebody put something up on Facebook in Gunnison, this nice lady taking a picture of junior and me in front of the rig, and she implored people to help me.”
He looks up from his work grinding the blade and grins.
“People started giving me $500 donations,” he says, “then boxes of knives started arriving. In two weeks in that lot, I sat there and made $3,000. Bless them.”
Gosselin’s mouth and grinder keep running in a steady hum. It is an elaborate set up, this workbench, given the cramped space of the American Clipper’s countertop.
“I was trained to do this as a child in Hershey, Pennsylvania,” he continues, scattered sparks coming off the grinder.
Gosselin has seen the country in his time. He was married once, “to a hula girl in Hawaii, but she’s passed on now.” And he’s moved on. He throws out names of towns like those sparks coming off the knife’s edge: Quartzsite, Willcox, Gallup, Tuba City, Ramah (N.M), Telluride, Crested Butte. He’s plied his sharpening trade all over, before coming back to Flagstaff for the fall. His favorite spot: a strip mall outside of Winslow.
“All of a sudden,” he recalls, “police surrounded me. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m soliciting in the Wal-Mart parking lot. I’m in trouble.’ But they all wanted their knives sharpened. I wore out two files, but I made a hundred dollars and got slaps on my back from all the officers.”
He lives for stories like that, Gosselin says. Does he live, too, for life on the road?
“Totally! Indubitably!” he exclaims. “I wouldn’t want another home. I’ve owned several, and I wouldn’t live in a box now even if you gave it to me.”
Nose back at the grindstone, he finishes off sharpening Christiansen’s knife.
Then he and Junior wait for the next customer.
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