Thursday, November 22, 2018

An adult reaches for protection


      So how do you do your holidays? Bareback, or with protection? The guy is supposed to be partial to the former, but, ever the considerate gentleman, I left the decision to my wife, who preferred the route of caution.
     "Let's put out the table pads," she said, raising the specter of sizzling hot platters of turkey.
     "Actually, the turkey's fairly cooled by the time it reaches the table," I said, by way of argument—I love the natural wood—then sighing and going upstairs to get the pads.
     As we put them in place, my wife reminded me of something.
     "Remember how adult we felt, ordering these pads?"
     Yes I do honey. Very grown up. In fact, I wrote a column about it, which seems apt for Thanksgiving Day, and if it isn't, well, it will have to suffice. We have guests to feed.

     When do you become an adult? The traditional coming-of-age ceremonies, like bar mitzvahs and quinceaneras, are pegged too early to mark true adulthood, but are remnants of cultures where you had to become an adult quickly because you'd be dead by the time you were 40.
     Voting and drinking, at 18 and 21, are popular candidates, but there's more to being grown up than quaffing a beer or casting a ballot, and the truth is, despite what those in their mid-20s might think, the full weight of adulthood usually hasn't yet settled upon their shoulders.
     Some say that you aren't really, truly an adult until both your parents die, but with people such as John McCain, 72, enjoying a living parent, that seems late in the game.
     Myself, I pinpoint the onset of true adulthood to a specific consequence of our honeymoon—table pads.
     My wife and I honeymooned in New England, and were drawn into a lovely woodworking shop on a winding road in Maine. We ordered a magnificent spoon-leg dining room table out of honey-stained bird's eye maple—5 feet across, nearly 10 feet long with the leaves in.
     A table like that costs a fortune, and needs protection. It needs, I realized, despite my relative youth, table pads, to guard it from the spills and scuffs of years to come.
     So I phoned Superior Table Pads, and they sent out a salesman. I still can see him with his sample case, carefully explaining the various qualities of pad, from the top of the line, which would protect the table from a hot rivet—more pad than I needed, he confided—to the cheapie pad, which of course I didn't want.
     Like any good salesman, he made the transaction effortless. I ordered the middle range pad, feeling both extravagant and frugal, not to mention an adult, finally, the kind of responsible person who would purchase something so practical.
     The Superior Table Pad Co. is located in a modest brick factory in the middle of the 3000 block of North Oakley. It was founded in 1937 by Joe Antler and his wife, Molly. He died in 1989, but she still works in the dark-paneled office at the age of 91.
     Her son Steve runs the company and is also a professor of economics at Roosevelt University. Like many children of businessmen, he had no intention of entering his father's business—initially. He studied economics and became a professor in St. Johns, Newfoundland.
     "I taught for 20 years in Canada's largest and least prestigious state universities," says Antler, 63.
     The prospect of helping his father make table pads was, Antler says, "a nightmare."
     "I was very conflicted about it," he adds. "My dad talked me into coming back to Chicago, and here I am."
     Superior is one of perhaps five table pad companies in the country.
     "Let me show you the business," says Antler, ushering me into a large, airy, clean workroom, filled with cutting tables and rolls of vinyl. The production crew—numbering three persons—is just returning from break, and we watch Booker Banks assemble a table pad, basically a sandwich with heat-proof felt in the middle, velvet on one side and woodgrain vinyl on the other.
     "A machine can't do that," says Antler, as Banks manipulates a three-fold pad.
     I observe that the factory floor is not precisely a hive of activity, and Antler explains they are just entering into their busy period.
     "The business is very seasonal," he says. Orders are concentrated between Labor Day and Easter, when people realize they have guests coming over for big dinners and unprotected wood tables.
     Superior sells four levels of pads—the Athena, the Elite, the Select and the Budget—which differ based on how many layers of heat-insulating felt are in them and the quality of the fabric underneath. They range in price, for an average table, from $90 to $250.
     Measurement is key to the table pad business. The company sells table pads nationwide, and most customers reach them online, taking their table dimensions themselves using brown paper and a crayon from the kit Superior mails out.
     However—and this struck me as the most novel aspect of the business—if you don't live too far away, Superior will send one of their staffers, meaning Antler, his wife, Sally, or his nephew Geoff, to your home to measure your table for no additional charge. Home visits are the best part of the job.
     "I feel like I have a wonderful job because I get to see these beautiful, beautiful tables," says Sally Antler. "I love it."
     "It's what we've been doing for years," says her husband. "I visit people's houses and sometimes see a table pad that's stitched in a certain way and know my grandmother worked on it."
                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 7, 2008


  1. I love these little niche bisinesses that stay alive simply by service that really can't be outsourced (yet).

  2. Did you buy those clear plastic upholstery covers too? Comforting to read stories like this on a Holiday polluted by that blond guy. I thought you become an adult when you are promoted to the big table for holiday dinners. Happy Thanksgiving!

  3. I grew up with an elaborately-carved dining room table with fat legs and matching high-backed chairs with intricate scrollwork...the kind almost nobody can duplicate anymore... all of it from the Twenties and stained so darkly that the wood was almost black. It had thick brown leathery table pads with green felt undersides, almost like the surface of a pool table or a casino gaming table. They might have come from Superior--I have no way of knowing.

    I saw the exact same 1920s dining toom set for sale this past summer, selling for a fraction of the several thousand dollars an antique dealer would ask for it...and get. Beautiful to some...dark and hideous to me...but instant nostalgia nonetheless. No pads, though there must have been some...the wood was unscarred and almost pristine.

    In the early Sixties, my mother replaced all that with a new,modern, round table. And she bought custom-made white pads. I'd bet they came from Superior. My father hosted many a late-night poker game at that table, and my mother still had the table and pads in her Florida condo forty years later when she sold it, with all the furnishings.

    And yes, my folks had the clear plastic upholstery covers while I was in high school and college, and even beyond. They are something of a cliche and a joke when poking fun at the decor of 1960s upper-middle-class suburban Jewish households. Everyone's living room had them, on furnishings that the kids were never allowed to put their tushes on, unless there were guests. They were uncomfortable as hell to sit on, and completely impossible to sleep on. The noise alone would keep you awake all night.

  4. Table pads! My daughter and son in law have a big, beautiful table in her dining room. Just gorgeous. They had the families over for Thanksgiving. 15 or so of us. She chose to dress the table with a runner and place mats. I was horrified! Asked if she wasnt going to put on a table pad and table cloth. It became a round-table discussion. The beautiful wood reflecting the vrystal, silver and centerpiece or the "ugly" pads and cloth. My arguement lost to how pretty it was. Also, much more formal than my haphazard holiday dinners.


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