With much of our food and supplies coming to us in this our plague time through pickup and delivery, I’ve been reflecting on such activity in my early youth, in the 1940’s to be exact.
With today’s mediated deliveries we order online and either pick up or have the items delivered, carefully wiped down either way. With all its exploitive problems, the Amazon experience is over the top, but the convenient and necessary process for getting food from local supermarkets often results in lots of missing items or replaced ones that aren’t something one would buy. We soon might tire of not getting our favorite choices. This was never a problem years ago with home services and deliveries.
In general people shopped at stores, but not every day. Money was short and work hours long, with one car to a family, and in our particular case, no house telephone. My mother was nearly deaf and my father had no patience for such intrusions, though my aunts and uncles rang each other up quite a bit.
My mother did weekly shopping Fridays with my father’s paycheck from assembly line work at General Motors, which she cashed at the store, the A & P. And lest you think we were holed up in some backwater, we lived in suburban Trenton New Jersey, a few miles from the state capitol in a new but modest post-war community. It was considered lower middle class. I never thought about it much, until layoffs or someone showed up in a fancy car, or came home with a television set. We got ours early in 1948, my father pressured by my brother and me, for that main status symbol of the times. With a tall roof top antenna with streaming lead-in wires and a wafer switch in the living room, we could tune in programs from both New York and Philadelphia. As I would learn about my privileged state from Wordsworth years later, “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive / But to be young was very heaven.” My mother said I even watched it when it was off.
You may not think having an insurance man come into your house made you feel special but it did to me. We had two of them in fact, one from Prudential and one from Metropolitan. My mother paid a few dollars a month to them. But they were kings to me, or at least they were American through and through, without the ethnic colorations of our Italian and German household. They were impeccably dressed, as best I could tell, with a man’s formal hat, coat, and gloves in winter and smelled of cigarettes, aftershave, and wealth. They cradled a thick leather-covered ledger in their arms. Our small kitchen table was a wreck whenever one of them arrived but each would carefully put down the nearly round record book of sums and added whatever was paid by my mother. They were cheery and asked about me how I was doing in school. I had to say good, though I was a wayward student at best. I was disappointed if I missed them on their scheduled rounds.
We had daily deliveries, from the postman, who shared my stamp collecting interest, and a paper boy who walked across lawns tossing the Trenton Times on afternoon porches. He was my school pal, but he went uninterrupted on his rounds, no stopping for neighborhood or classmate gossip.
We had regular weekly or twice-a-week deliveries too, common in those days. A Milkman, a Breadman, and on Fridays, a Fishman.
Ed the Milkman left two quarts of milk in glass bottles on our side porch twice a week, a delight in winter with their protruding paper caps from the frozen cream. He let us hookie with our sleds on the back of his truck when it snowed and knew everybody in many neighborhoods. He came inside to collect the small sum for the milk. We all experienced his tragedy when his sixteen-year old son stepped off the truck just before Christmas into an oncoming car and was killed on the spot. We never saw our good-natured Milkman again. It was a cautionary moment I never forgot about getting out of a vehicle.
The Breadman was nearly invisible. He left two loaves twice a week on a shelf under our side porch overhang, still warm when I got up to retrieve them. We got a sliced white American loaf called a Pullman, a squared-up rectangle, and an uncut crusty Italian loaf. I ate bread in those days as soul food, which it was. Sometimes in the early morning hours I could hear the rustle of his delivery and went back to sleep with the expectation of fresh warm bread with any kind of breakfast, often peanut butter and homemade grape jelly on many slices. My mother left a thin envelope of a few dollars on the shelf once a month.
On Fridays, the Fishman would pull up in the neighborhood and park so every household could get easily to his truck. He came straight from the Jersey shore with all sorts of fresh, seafood, not just fish, but clams and oysters and crabs. He had poor folk’s fish, such as mackerel, but inexpensive flounder fillets were a worthy treat, lightly pan-fried in butter. There were blues, cod, fluke (flounder), and tuna. Wives would hurry home with a paper-wrapped bundle for the night’s supper, with everybody’s kitchen wafting fishy smells in the neighborhood.
We had occasional visitors my mother nervously accommodated. In the summer, in a black dress, a black frail woman would come to collect for poor kids in an orphanage. She smelled of herbs and fields. She sat in our living room and got the glass of water she always requested. She didn’t look at me or anybody, lost in herself it seemed.
There were two amazing visitors I always waited to see. The Coalman came in the early winter and once again in the depth of it. He backed into our narrow driveway, and I was sometimes allowed to go to the basement to unlock the little window, where he inserted the coal chute. His majestic truck had two sections, one for pea coal and one for cheaper regular coal. Both types mesmerized me because they raced into our coal bins with a loud and steely rasp, though everything was slick with coal dust, including the Coalman. His gloves were shiny black as well as his coat. He left his bill, which my mother paid on the spot with cash, all fingerprinted with inky fingers. He knew I loved to hear the loud roar of the chute, and smiled the knowing smile of the tradesman who does his job well.
Twice a week my favorite visitors came down the street, except for an occasional one that terrified me. These were the garbage men who answered my frequent helloes. They were black and white rough men who picked up any size bucket of wet trash one could leave and took it to the open maw of the garbage truck slowly moving just ahead of their steady walk in the middle of the road. They dumped the bucket and brought it back to the curb. Then another truck with its contingent of pickers soon followed and they picked up bundled papers in an early recycling program. Then they emptied any bucket of cans and glass, another recycling effort. And finally, they took the ash bucket to the truck and poured out its dusty contents. My father often burned the wet trash in our fireplace and used the coal ash in his garden. I felt he gypped these brave workers in their methodic rounds. To this day, I’ll rush to a window to witness pickups by any trash truck.
Then the scary part. About once month I would hear this low-pitched call from up the street and spied the horse and wagon coming my way. “RAAGGS! RAAGGGSS!” it called, often ending with a sharp hiss or swallowed g’s. The ragmen sent me scurrying. There were two of them, brothers, behind this giant of a horse in this creaky wooden wagon, all covered with thick tattered coats and dirty hats. My mother would sometimes roll up old clothes in a bundle for them, take it out to them, with me safely huddled behind our couch, as they tossed it behind them into the wagon, without saying another word, until the call would start up again: “RAAGGGGS!”
I would meet them in other circumstances much later. My father would buy tomato starts in little cans at a dilapidated green house on an old farm, and there were the ragmen in different but just as disheveled attire—now farmers, hot house keepers and sellers of vegetable plants.
They were just as grimy and spooky to me, but my father and they talked like old friends. Then inside their main house, I spied a telephone. Wow, I thought, here’s my chance to call to a girl I wanted to impress. So, I did it: I asked them if I could use their phone—how outrageous of me, completely out of decorum, but they said, “Go ahead,” and left me to my privacy. My father ignored me and they talked about the best varieties to plant now and what ones later. I can’t remember what I said to the girl, only recalling my boldness alone in their dingy kitchen, bumping up against and in cahoots with their strange, dark, and reclusive lives.
There were salesmen of course, and my mother invited them in with no intention of buying anything; they soon caught on and left, a victim of my mother’s politeness. My father was less gracious. Nuns would come from the local parish to get me to go to Catholic Sunday school. I was already a disbeliever at age 12. My father was polite and respectful to them, though he had sworn off religion early on when the Irish took over their poor Italian parish in town and demanded more in the collection plate. My father hinted to the nuns to leave by giving them fresh lettuces from his ample garden wrapped in newspaper. When they didn’t, he let out a stream of invective that surprised even me, used as I was to his frequent cursing. That sent them scurrying.
My father did have one minor vice—he sold unofficial lottery tickets to his pals “at the shop.” These were postage-stamp sized folded and stapled pieces of paper with three numbers inside, costing twenty-five cents. The day’s “number” was the last three digits of the federal treasury balance published each day in almost every paper. I don’t know if he himself ever “hit” the number and won, but he got a home-delivered gift each Christmas from the local crime organization—a full gallon of anisette. This sweet liquor, in a clear glass jug, was meant to make Christmas schnapps, cookies, and to add flavor to coffee. It is an ancient brew from anise seeds and tastes like licorice. I loved it. I came home late from college one season and there it was on the kitchen table. I unscrewed the cap and took a long swallow. Wow! Wait, my God. It wasn’t anisette, it was corn oil and it took a week to clear my system.
Home deliveries are as old as towns and cities, plus in rural places where farmers would show up with fresh goods. Now we are very careful wiping bags and packages down when brought to the door by young delivery temps, though we are told it may not be necessary. Looking carefully at what comes through the door, however, is still a good lesson, one I learned many years ago by assuming what was sweet and delicious was a treat to be stolen in private. Sometimes you don’t get what you want, but also what you don’t need. That virus can come through that door too.
Robert Chianese 2020 04 22