NEW JERSEY MONTHLY March 2015 51
on’t make fun of our coffee,” quips a sign above the
coffee maker. “You may be old and weak yourself
some day.” For the retirees working in the cavernous basement of this former automobile dealership
on Broad Street in Summit, that day is clearly not today. They
are learning new skills, repairing furniture and at the same
time socializing with contemporaries. The tools of the trade
line the shop’s walls, and forlorn-looking chairs await attention amid the rows of workbenches.
The busy shop’s earnings help support Sage Eldercare, the
affiliated nonprofit located upstairs. Sage Eldercare has been
serving northern New Jersey’s elderly for six decades. In 1966
it started one of the state’s first Meals on Wheels programs; it’s
still going strong. Today, Sage volunteers and staff help more
than 7,000 aging individuals maintain independence by assisting with chores like shopping for groceries and navigating
In the shop, the roughly 20 volunteers come from different
backgrounds with various levels of experience. They quickly
begin to enjoy the step-by-step process of refurbishing old
pieces. Some customers make curious requests—restore a
3-foot-tall, faded, chipped, wooden tiger sculpture; build a bed
frame from a broken dining-room table. The shop attracts an
ample supply of donated, mismatched furniture parts for the
volunteers to reuse creatively. There’s sanding and staining to
be done, but much of the work involves re-rushing or re-can-ing worn seats.
Rushing, traditionally performed with reed grass, is now
mostly done with rolled paper (the fiber is gentler on workers’
hands). The finished seat looks like a square divided diagonally
into four tightly woven triangles. Caning, another fiber-weaving
process, uses thin strands of bamboo that are carefully sewn to
form small interlocking octagons in a seven-step process.
“It’s not very difficult, just tedious,” says Eck Goh, 63, a volunteer from New Providence. Goh works with Edward Fernandez,
87, a Romance-languages professor retired from Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison. “He has the patience of a saint,”
Goh says. Fernandez tends to handle the difficult caning work.
The weaving motions of caning make ideal therapy for aging or idle hands. Esther Bondy, 47, was forced to retire after
suffering a stroke four years ago. She repairs furniture as a
form of physical therapy. Bondy has taught herself to use her
right hand despite losing feeling on that side of her body.
Marsha Foregger, another of the five women currently working at the shop, is a former ESL teacher. “Only the women are
willing to tackle these chairs,” Foregger says, indicating a set of
antique seats with a Danish weave. She’s been with the shop for
more than six years and loves the challenge of restoration work.
“I can imagine pioneers doing this type of weaving.”
Some volunteers bring specialized skills. Bob McAnally, 73
(who goes by Bob 2; there are three Bobs), worked at Bell Labs and
Lucent Technologies making intricate hardware for early computer systems. While the shop requires volunteers to put in just two
days of work a week, McAnally arrives every day at 7: 30 AM.
“I depend on him for a great deal,” says manager Al Kessler of
McAnally, a longtime colleague and friend. Kessler, 87, a retired
dentist from Millburn, became shop manager in 2005 when Sage
moved into the former Oldsmobile dealership. He’s been at Sage
for 16 years; McAnally for 13. “[McAnally’s] hands probably touch
about a third of all the furniture we repair. He is a lunatic.” ■