North Coast Journal


Black soap and Setty

by Miv Schaaf

Look -- the water is black.

Oh, how dirty my hands were, you think for just a second before you remind yourself that it is not your hands but the soap. You are using that funny black pine-tar soap, so of course the water is black. Still, it feels like you got a lot of dirt off and your hands do look cleaner.

I would not be using this soap had it not been for the old soapstone sink in that 1887 house. The owner, a very old woman, is confused; in mid-apology for her old kitchen she meets enthusiasm instead of disdain. "And a Packer's Pine Tar tin box -- I haven't seen one in years. My aunt in Detroit had one -- that's the last time." And that was 40 years ago I think, and oddly, I am suddenly sad and homesick for Detroit of all places, or at least for Setty's room.

Setty was my youngest aunt, the one who did all the daring things, who smoked Russian cigarets in an ivory holder, tipping the ashes into a tiny blood-red Russian cloisn´ne bowl, who had Chinese bedroom slippers and a silk robe with an embroidered red dragon, who had taken a trip to Haiti and had seen natives chewing betel nut.

Setty (Lucette, really) lived in a room in possibly the ugliest yellow brick apartment house in Detroit. She lived there because my oldest aunt, Minno, had bought the apartment house in a moment of unfortunate optimism. It was a bad investment. But Minno, widowed early, was always one to make the best of everything, and she lived there very happily, serenely determined to ignore everything but the pleasant aspects of her bad judgment.

Even as a child it was apparent to me that her tenants were either very odd or very poor or both. Since they were each and every one "really very lovely people, don't you know" as far as Minno was concerned, it was up to Setty to speak firmly to them at the beginning of the month, to see that some cash came in to keep the yellow brick ark afloat.

"Minno! Have you seen Mrs. Jewel's room lately? Did you know she has 100 canaries in there now? If Mr. Hodges in the next room weren't deaf, he'd be insane by now. You will have to tell her to move."

"But Lucette, where else could she keep her birds?" Where else indeed? So Mrs. Jewel stayed and Mr. Hodges and the taxi driver who was going to get money from Russia any day now and Mr. Potter who just couldn't find a job and all the other indigent eccentrics who flocked to Minno's apartment house like bees to honey.

In the interest of sanity, Setty had a separate room on the second floor, directly over Minno's, where she could retreat after logic was routed by Minno's optimism. Here there were no piles of newspapers "full of really very interesting things to read, don't you know," going back four years or so, such as one found in Minno's room. Here all was calm and quiet and elegant.

There was no closet, so Setty's clothes were kept in a mahogany wardrobe (I have thought closets very common things ever since) and behind an East Indian batik curtain there was a tiny wash basin fitted into a corner. It never occurred to me that its smallness was mean; I thought it the height of dainty refinement.

Setty had a little table next to the basin covered with a fresh linen crash towel, and on this reposed her tin box of Packer's Pine Tar Soap, the final touch of elegance, with its flags of many countries.

"Pure as the pines," it proclaimed, for "shampooing, bath, toilet, nursery" (I envisioned a nursery in the pines), and it was made in Mystic, Conn., which lent a certain, well -- mystic touch.

I did not resist too much when the old woman insisted on giving me the soap box; I went out at once and found Packer's Tar Soap still made, although in self-effacing cardboard boxes instead of tin. And I think of Setty when I use it, when she was young and I was little, when her hair was still shiny and black (because of the pine tar, I thought) and when she let me try on her amber beads and I could admire myself in her wardrobe mirror.

Miv Schaaf is a former columnist for the L.A. Times.

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