by Dan Laskin
For the nine years we lived in rural Maryland, the big store in town was Ames, and the main commercial event of the week was the Ames sales circular, and the front-page feature of the circular, more often than not, was Rubbermaid.
Rubbermaid food containers, buy one get one free. Rubbermaid storage bins, save five dollars with mail-in coupon. Rubbermaid kitchen solutions, choose any three for one low price.
It was early in our marriage, and Jane's first job away from grad school. We seemed to be the only couple among our friends who had left greater New York for something that seemed, well, lesser. Our city friends were discovering Szechuan cuisine, jazz clubs, hand-crafted pasta, minimalist gray decor, ballet. We had moved out into a heartland place where mold grew on our books, tea was served cold, and the very latest thing-perpetually, predictably, persistently-was a mop bucket at discount.
Was this, then, America?
And was this marriage? No, of course not. But yes, in a way. If making a home means cooking, it also means a silverware organizer, containers for leftovers, a dish drainer, a sink mat. The bedroom needs a hamper; the laundry room, a basket.
But I had to wonder whether the circular would ever reveal a world beyond Rubbermaid. Had I settled among people whose desires went no further than the reusable sandwich box, lids available in almond or blue? Rubbermaid rubes, who set their minds, week after week after week, on the same pieces of molded plastic.
And I was becoming one of them.
Yes, I poked fun at the ads. But I looked forward to them, too, and if I couldn't find something Rubbermaid, a kind of anxiety set in. A week without newsprint dreams of Rubbermaid felt empty. Life without Rubbermaid was something dirty, disorganized, slipshod. But then the next week Rubbermaid "Roughneck" trash cans would go on sale and meaning was restored. Couldn't we use another trash can? It was tempting.
We bought sandwich boxes, his and hers. When the babies came, we discovered sippy cups. Every week, I scanned the circular. I came to count on the sturdy, humble regularity of Rubbermaid.
Then we moved, boys and bins, buckets and baskets, further into the heartland. Ohio was a place of tornadoes and floods and pie crust made with lard and farm auctions where the widow's leavings included, along with jelly-jar glasses and crusted iron skillets, a framed portrait of Woody Hayes. And it was a real American place, where real things were made, car parts and coffee makers, Goodyear tires and Smucker's jam.
And Rubbermaid. In Wooster, Ohio, Rubbermaid, the true stuff at the true source. All these years stuck with Rubbermaid, stuck on Rubbermaid, and now we had come into its very realm. I teased Jane, recalling how we had once spent a night in Limoges, France, and had marveled that here, right here, was where the porcelain was made-we even visited a workshop-and wasn't this the same thing, here in Ohio, living just down the road from Rubbermaid? She grimaced. I laughed. But I did feel somehow authenticated. Having arrived in the homeland of Rubbermaid, I felt a strange reverence, the shiver of the pilgrim.
So began our brief golden age of Rubbermaid. We found out about the Everything Rubbermaid store in Wooster, three floors of Rubbermaid in a converted department store. There were Rubbermaid products that the circular back in Maryland had never fathomed. We bought desk organizers and shower caddies. We bought the frozen-juice pitcher with its churn-like plunger. We bought sleds-Rubbermaid sleds!-for the boys. I bought a Rubbermaid tool box, and a tool bag, and Jane had to pull me away from the giant Rubbermaid backyard storage sheds.
On the ground floor, in the far corner, was the shrine: a panel devoted to the history of the company, with a bracket holding the rubber dustpan of 1934-for all I knew, it was the actual first one, unearthed at some farm auction and lovingly donated to posterity. It was scuffed and squat, a simple tapered thing, destined for anybody's hand, and for crumbs.
Is it still there? I can't say. The boys grew into video games and microwave popcorn. Soccer took over the weekends, the trips to Wooster fell off. I would notice Rubbermaid on the business page, stories about the cost of raw materials, cheap competition, product lines spread thin. And then they were bought, and then the unthinkable: they left Ohio. Management was dismantled; the factories were dispersed. The store is still there, I'm told. The shrine? Who knows?
The new company, NewellRubbermaid, based in Atlanta, is a grab-bag conglomerate-they own Sharpie pens, Calphalon pots, tools, curtain rods. They grafted Rubbermaid onto their name, to boost their stature, I guess, but they pared the offerings and consigned them to the "cleaning and organization" division. Rubbermaid is just one of their "brands."
The boys are gone now, too. We're still getting used to our first fall as empty nesters. We don't use the frozen-juice pitcher anymore. (We buy Tropicana, "not from concentrate.") But we still have leftovers. And there are the sandwich boxes, one of them with a gnawed-on lid where a squirrel tried to get at the peanut butter one time at camp.
Maybe the boys will set it out for auction some day, on a table next to the old iPod with its James Taylor songs, and the vintage microwave. Somebody will pick it up and heft it, frown at the lid, then turn it over and pause, noticing the square old-fashioned lettering.
Rubbermaid? Ah, yes. Rubbermaid.