Saturday, May 30, 2009

Is That the Doorbell?

In the old neighborhood, before malls and supermarkets the size of Rhode Island covered the landscape, there were neighborhood vendors who peddled their wares in the street. They were a fixture on the block and came around as often as they felt their services were needed. Some made daily deliveries, some sold seasonal products like ice cream or shaved ices flavored with sweet syrups, while some just showed up once in a while and left as mysteriously as they had come. Here are a few I remember:

For many years we got our milk delivered fresh every day by the milkman. He drove a panel truck and, if you were up at five in the morning when he delivered, you could hear the rattling sound of empty bottles announcing his arrival. The milk came in glass bottles and was placed in the milk box kept just outside the door. You put your empty bottles in the box to be reused. In the winter, the cream in the milk would rise to the top of the bottle due to the cold, and sometimes freeze if it was not taken in soon enough. It's probably me remembering things through my rose colored prism, but that milk tasted incredibly rich and delicious, especially when I drank it out of the bottle when my mother wasn't looking.

My Uncle Joe delivered coal for "Burns Brothers", a major coal distributor of the day. We had a furnace a bit like the temperamental beast that Darren McGavin cursed in the great holiday movie: "Christmas Story". I was fascinated as Uncle Joe would set up the long coal chute from his truck in the street to our coal bin in the basement, and then release the door on the side of the truck that sent coal cascading down the chute. (Knowing my uncle, he probably delivered twice what my father paid for.) We would shovel coal into the furnace to burn for heat, and then cart out the ashes to be placed in heavy metal pails for the sanitation men to pick up. (They really earned their money in those days.) Ashes were also scattered on the snow to improve footing in the days before rock salt and calcium chloride became popular.

Most people know what potato knishes are. They can be bought in Jewish delis or even in supermarkets. On our block we had a little old man who pushed a silver-painted wagon with a hand-lettered sign that said: "Mom's Knishes." These were different from the ones we're familiar with today. They were round about the size of hockey pucks, darker in color than the deli variety, and kept warm by charcoals in the bottom of the wagon. For a nickel, the old man would put one of these belly bombs in a sheet of wax paper, add salt, and voila...a party in your mouth! They also sold roasted chestnuts from the same type of cart.

Who rings a bell but doesn't sell ice cream? The scissors sharpening man. He would show up in a truck and announce his presence by ringing a bell. If you had knives, tools or scissors you wanted sharpened, you ran out (no, wait, never run with scissors) and he would use one of his sharpening stones or wheels to put a nice edge on your cutlery. On a busy day the sparks would fly off the wheel as he did his work. Remember, this was in the day when many women still sewed, and sharp scissors were important to a seamstress. I recall strips of cloth hanging off the side of the truck that one could use to test the sharpened scissors. People knew how to hustle a buck back then.

While fruit and vegetable stores dotted the neighborhood, some enterprising old men would use a horse-drawn wagon to bring fresh produce to your door. "Fresh" is an understatement; typically the wagoners would buy ripe fruit and rapidly maturing veggies from the fruit stores at reduced prices and then sell them fast before they spoiled. The clip clopping of horses hooves was not an uncommon sound on the block. It was not unusual for the fruit man to be the ice man in winter. There were still homes without electric refrigerators, and strong men hauled big blocks of ice up flights of stairs to be placed in an ice box like the one in Ralph Kramden's famous Brooklyn kitchen, or as Alice described it: "Frontierland". Many old timers, even after they got their fancy electric refrigerator, referred to it as "the ice box."

We had doctors who made house calls, insurance agents who came to your door to pick up life-insurance premiums of 25 cents a week, and bakeries who would bring you fresh bread or cakes. Door-to-door salesmen were commonplace selling stuff like Fuller Brushes (made famous in the Red Skeleton movie, "The Fuller Brush Man"), vacuum cleaners, encyclopedias, pots and pans, local soda delivered by the case, cosmetics and dozens of other products. People were more trusting then and were not afraid to open their doors when somebody rang; the only people who ring my bell these days are the nicely dressed and always polite Jehovah's Witnesses, and I do the same thing today as we did back then...HIDE.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association


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Jim Pantaleno said...

Thanks "bucket trucks", will do.

The Whiner said...

"The only thing missing from my Disneyland, Ralph, is the World of Tomorrow...I have nothing from the World of Tomorrow."

""Yuo want somethin from the World of Tomorrow? How'd ya like to go the Mooooooooon?"

Jim Pantaleno said...

How well you remember those classic lines from The Honeymooners. I am proud of you daughter dear for many things, this one not being the least among them.