Although I was born into the age of the automobile, horse-pulled wagons sometimes appeared on our street when I was a child. One such vehicle was driven by our bottles-and-rags man. "Mr. Rags," we called him, but not to his face.
"He has a real name, you know," said Mama, who always made a point of learning everyone's name. "It's Ragazini. You should call him 'Mr. Ragazini.' "
Every week he came by, singing out, "Any old bottles? Any old rags? Money for your rags and bottles! Old clothes, news-pa-pers!" The last two syllables rose upward, in a sweet tenor.
His face was lined; his hair was gray, with two white streaks fanning out from his temples. He had dark eyes, deep-set and brooding. He wore a battered, black felt hat. His suit was old and ragged. A piece of rope held up his trousers.
One day his dilapidated wagon came to rest in front of our lemonade stand in Glendale, Calif., where my younger brother, Eddie, and I were attempting to earn some money. Our drinks cost only one penny for a small glass, two for a large.
Mr. Rags pulled out a bandanna kerchief and wiped his face. He glanced back down the street, where we could see a heat-mirage shimmering over the pavement. "No matter how far I travel," he said mournfully, "on a day like this, it follows."
"Daddy said it's going to hit 95 today," volunteered Eddie, cheerfully.
"Whew! Ninety-five! Mebbe I'll have a nice cool lemonade, a large one."
Eddie ladled out the lemonade. He handed it up and received two pennies.
The old gray horse, blinders on the sides of its bony head, stood dejectedly, sweat covering its flanks. To us, at 9 and 7, he was a noble steed. His name was Barney. I patted his nose.
"Say, Mister, Barney feels awfully hot. I'll bet he'd like a nice cool drink, too. I could bring out Mama's bucket with some water in it."
"Such a nice little girl. Yes, poor Barney would like a drink." He paused. "And ask Mama if she has any old rags, bottles, clothes, or papers. I pay the best prices."
I raced into the house, excited at having discovered another way to earn money, as well as the chance to water the horse.
"Mama! Mr. Rags is outside and he wants to know if we have any old rags, clothes, or papers. He pays for them!"
Mama smiled. "Goodness! Our old clothes become my dust rags and cleaning mops! But here, l've saved some papers for him." She handed me a small bundle, neatly tied. "And don't take any money from him. He earns little enough as it is."
My dreams of financial gain dashed, I got on to the next important matter.
"Mama, Mr. Rags's horse is awfully thirsty. He looks like he'll drop if we don't give him some water. May I take some to him in that little bucket? Please, Mama!"
Soft-hearted as always, my mother went to the back porch and filled a bucket at the wash tub.
After I had handed the papers to the rag man, Eddie and I stood by, watching as the thirsty old horse slurped up the water.
"Tell your mama many thanks from me and Barney," said Mr. Rags, as he went on his way.
Summer passed, we took down our lemonade stand, and returned to school. Mr. Rags went out of our minds.
Some years later, when we moved to Westwood, the name Ragazini came up at the dinner table one night when my father, an insurance broker, had some news for us.
"I met a new customer today. And you'll never guess who it is," he said.
"Of course we won't, Daddy!" I said. "So who is it?"
"Does the name Ragazini ring a bell?"
"Ragazini!" Mama said in astonishment. "You mean Mr. Rags, the junk man?"
"Our Mr. Rags?" Eddie and I yelled.
"Well, not exactly. This is his son. A fine, prosperous young fellow."
"Prosperous?" we chorused.
"Very prosperous. He owns Ragazini's Junk and Salvage. It's a huge company! I'm glad to get such an excellent account."
"But what about Mr Rags?" I asked. "What about dear old Mr. Rags?"
"He's retired now, living with his son. Young Mr. Ragazini told me that his father started that entire concern with just a horse and cart. His father knew our name, by the way; I don't know how."
"Once, when I went out to give him a few things, I introduced myself," said Mama, thoughtfully. "And that's when I learned his name."
"Maybe the son came to me," said Daddy, "because his father recognized our name."
We sat silently for a while, reflecting on large outcomes of small actions.
"Well, be sure to tell him to say 'hello' to his father for us," Mama said.
"And 'hello' to Barney, too!" said Eddie.