By Gerry Moran
I watched a documentary about the actor Charles Bronson (1921-2003) on television recently. Bronson, known for his granite features and brawny physique, was the archetypical screen tough guy. And I loved him. Loved him in The Mechanic (1972) and Death Wish (1974) remakes of which featured Jason Statham, another archetypical screen tough guy, in The Mechanic (2011) and Bruce Willis in Death Wish (2018).
Charley Buchinsky was born in 1921 in Ehrenfeld, a small mining town in Pennsylvania. Charley was one of 13 children. His parents were Lithuanian and his father, like most men in the town, worked in the mines. Times were tough back then in the US of the 1920s and ‘30s. Charles Bronson, who took his surname from a street in Hollywood, talked about collecting old rusty nuts and nails and carrying them on a sack on his back to a man they called: ‘The Junkman’ who gave Charley a few cents for his bag of rusty nuts and bolts.
All of which reminded me of ‘The Junkman’ of my childhood whom we knew as ‘The Ragman’. ‘The Ragman’ brought a bit of excitement, a bit of colour, a bit of magic into our lives back in the black and white Ireland of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. A small van, dark blue or maybe a dirty green, festooned with balloons, would pull into the street. Soon, “Toys for rags, toys for rags” would echo around the street as the back door of the van was flung open revealing an Aladdin’s cave of trinkets and toys. “Toys for rags,” the voice would continue, loud and clear. “Any old rags now, toys for rags, get your rags.”
Games of hurling or football were swiftly abandoned and skipping ropes were dropped as we scurried home to torment our mothers for any unwanted clothes or rags. Unwanted clothes, though, were scarce in those days, those lean times when your good suit was more than likely a hand-me-down from your brother while your sister’s best dress was something your mother, more than likely, stitched together on the Singer sewing machine.
After rummaging high up and low down, our mothers found us some garments or other that could no longer be altered or reused or recycled as we say today. They were ahead of their times, our mothers, all of whom reused and recycled and had to, to make ends meet. Then with our arms full of clothes we’d dash out the door and make a bee-line for ‘The Ragman’.
Not all our rags, however, met ‘The Ragman’s’ requirements. Indeed, if my memory serves me well, he was quite selective about what rags he would or wouldn’t accept as we stood at his van awaiting, with mounting anticipation, his verdict on our little mongrel bundle of clothes and old rags.
Charles Bronson got a few cents for his sack of rusty nuts and bolts, we got a few trinkets for our armfuls of shabby rags. Those trinkets, however, were like treasure. I can still see the inside of ‘The Ragman’s’ van, a small mountain of clothes to the back, an array of bright, shiny toys to the front: cap guns, silver whistles, bags of multicoloured marbles, balsa wood glider airplanes, pretty bangles and brooches for the girls and always those colourful, plastic wind-vanes that twirled madly in the wind. Crayons and colouring books he had in abundance and even if your rags didn’t quite measure up he would toss you a few consolation balloons. I cannot put a face on ‘The Ragman’ except to say that he seemed old and raggedy-looking himself. Old and raggedy or not, he was a beacon of light in those dull, grey afternoons of our childhood.
‘The Ragman’ was, no doubt, a version of ‘The Rag-and-Bone-Man’ from much earlier times who went from street to street collecting rags and bones from leftover meals which were broken down into glue. Our ‘Ragman’ didn’t trade in bones but he gladly accepted buttons, for which, if you had enough of them, you were richly rewarded.
And, so, thanks to Charley Buchinsky, I remember ‘The Ragman’ whose weather-beaten face was not at all unlike that of Charley’s and whose grubby van with the coloured balloons brightened up our lives and who always brought with him something, as my mother used say, “to gladden a small child’s heart”.