The Sheeny Man

Photo Credit: Sarabeth Turnbull Samoray from Detroit Memories

This is about being green in my neighborhood in Detroit in the 1950’s when the only thing about green was the grass, colorful characters no longer on the scene, and the creativity of a mother to keep her wild child son (that would be me) under control.

First off, I really wasn’t a wild child. If anything, as I like to say, my downfall was that I was a good boy. You know there are times in even a young life when you have to honor your inner voice and do what others may not understand or agree with or approve of. As a man I have had my share of those kinds of transactions. Being good is good. But, don’t confuse being good with doing the right thing. What others may think of me is none of my business.

I just grew up in a time and place where children “should be seen and not heard” and where the good Dominican Sisters at my grade school in Detroit, Immaculate Conception, mainly looked upon the youth in their charge as born devils first, who what need to be strictly and sternly shaped into God fearing little Catholic boys and girls. Those were not spare the rod times. I very clearly remember a certain nun in my first grade class who was given to regular tirades on our misbehaving ways. She made it plain that had she not gone into the convent she would most certainly have been a movie star. I still feel guilty over having her sacrifice such an illustrious career to find herself spending her energy trying to keep kids like me out of juvenile detention.

Enough about that, just to also recount how one day the good Sister was holding forth—apparently we were talking when we shouldn’t have… again!—literally daring us to talk. Of course, we daren’t. When, all of a sudden, her dentures—uppers and lowers—dropped onto the desk. Honest to God! If we were silent before, the sight of that... froze. It was a laughable sight, but with some consequences if you did. My good mom one day hovered outside our classroom window to get a firsthand for herself on my report of the verbal abuse. She got it for herself and took the matter to Sister Superior. Thanks for having my back, mom.

I do have to say that it wasn’t all whips and chains with the Sisters. I would sometimes with another boy have to do some chore in the convent. Usually, carrying something. The Sisters had this little electric Eucharist maker that they made the hosts for communion at mass. Since the hosts were cut into circles, there were scraps. That was a treat they gave us. Really a treat. To a Catholic, a most heavenly flavor. If you want to try it for yourself, convert to Catholicism, and then receive Holy Communion. For those who don’t give a literal damn about the future of their immortal souls come the end of your days, just go down to you neighborhood Polish store and ask for opłatekTo be fair and balanced, there was also a nun who to me as a kindergarten child was an absolute saint. I was totally in love with her. She looked like an angel and treated me with the utmost kindness and respect. Rare, however, not the usual. Mostly . . . strict. But, as I myself said to my own daughters when they would complain about their teachers, there is something there to learn from the way the teacher interacts with you. On the upside and on the down. It’s not just about the three R’s. The world is fool of fulls. Yes, I did that on purpose.

My neighborhood was in a section of Detroit known a Poletown.  Lots of Poles. You should know that the entire neighborhood was razed in 1981 to make way for a Cadillac factory. This was not taken too well by a lot of folks. Read this good commentary on the razing of Poletown. In that neighborhood each block had an alley onto which garage doors would open. Since the alleys were paved (and clean… these were Polish people, remember) the alley was a playground for the kids.

Also, coming down the alley on a regular weekly basis was the Sheeny Man. Now, the term was originally a pejorative. But, in the time of my youth in the mid-1900 Detroit, it just meant the fellow (this was men’s work in those times, so don’t write me with any feminist issues) who came along to pick up the hard trash you couldn’t bag up for the regular garbage. The sheeny man I remember drove a wreck of an old lorry pulled by a wreck of an old horse. He pretty much looked like a wreck himself.

He would announce himself with the sound of the toot of a simple tin whistle. My mother would be on the lookout for the sheeny man if she had an old iron or bedspring, lamp or anything metal, heavy, and junk.

I do also remember that one of the motivators she used with me when I was being bad (who, me?): “I’m going to give you to the sheeny man!” OMG. Then, of course, as you can imagine from what I have said about my Catholic school education, there was the eternal fires of Hell or the seemingly unending penance of Purgatory. Truly motivating. But being tossed out to go with the sheeny man is right up there, threat-wise.

What more can I say. Just, behave yourself! Or...

Actually, the sheeny man was a pretty friendly fellow. There were times when I was lamenting my fate with the parents that I was given (even wondering if I might have been adopted... who are these people?) that going with the sheeny man might have seemed like an option.


Here's HistoryMike with more on the Sheeny Man. Especially, read the comments for further elaborations.



Ernst said...

Hey Tovarish,
I'm enjoying the hell out of your blogski. It brings back great recollections about the D. The Sheeny and his tin horn still ring flatly in my ears.

When did you attend the High? I got out in '58

Kramar minus the czyk

David D. Wronski said...

Excuse the lack of photo images. I synced my tabled to Google and accidentally erased all the images on my blogs.

David D. Wronski said...

I graduated U of D High in 1961. We must've rubbed shoulders in the crush to get to lunch line.