My skillet died last week while I was making pancakes. This was not just any skillet. It was a Sunbeam skillet that I received as a gift when I moved into my first apartment sans roommates in November of 1978. To be accurate, it’s not actually the skillet that died, but rather the temperature control mechanism that plugs into it. The dial is not supposed to twirl all the way around, but it does now. There was a telltale electrical smell involved as well. The skillet itself – well, that’s sturdy enough to be used as a shelter for cockroaches after a nuclear war.
It was the perfect gift at the time. I had just escaped a horrible situation with some idiotic roommates, one of whom had no compunction about stealing food when he was hungry. I looked out the window of my Seattle office one day and saw a for-rent sign on a small apartment building a block away.
The apartment was coyly termed a “junior one-bedroom.” This meant that instead of an actual wall separating the bedroom from the living room, a closet unit separated the two. Calling it a junior one-bedroom was classier than saying “studio with a closet in the middle.” It had a cozy bathroom and an even cozier kitchen. In fact, it had only an under-the-counter refrigerator, and barely enough counter space for a toaster oven and a dish drainer. No stove – hence the need for the skillet.
I loved that apartment. Being four minutes away from work by foot was a big help when another oil embargo hit the following year. At least four bus lines ran through the area, and it was less than a block from one of Seattle’s most beautiful urban waterways, Green Lake. During Seattle’s long summer days, I could leave work, rent a kayak, spend an hour paddling on the lake, and still be home in daylight. The rent when I moved in: $180 per month. (Current rent: $725 per month.)
I loved the skillet too. It was great for pancakes, hash browns, eggs, anything breakfasty. It lasted through three apartments, one townhouse, and a single-family home. The kitchens got bigger but the skillet stayed the same, except for getting dirtier on its exterior because that was the hardest part to clean. Do appliances still last that long? I doubt it. Our blender died last month and had to have a new motor installed, and I’m fairly sure I bought it in this century.
I don’t want to imbue too much significance to a mere appliance, but in a way, it was a lot like my first car. As a housewarming gift for my first apartment, it represented independence, a new phase in my life. As a kitchen tool, it represented nourishment, a way to stoke the fires for the next day and the day after that.
I don’t have many things left from 1978. I have books and perhaps a poster or two up in the attic, but the prosaic things, the work-a-day things, they’re all gone. Skillets aren’t even the kind of thing you find in an antique store. It’s one of those reliable things that’s there every time you need it, until one day when you least expect it, it’s gone, its long stretch of service admirably completed.
In 1978, an inoperable skillet probably would have ended up in the garbage. If there’s a happier ending today, it’s that I’ll carefully unscrew its plastic handles and legs, and carefully place the skillet and its lid in the dumpster at the local recycling center marked for scrap metal. If there is a special god for appliances, it will get melted down and come back again to serve someone else just starting out on their life.