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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Street Merchants

Update to this article:  Wow, did this generate interest!  All the mobile food vendors. Buy a truck and a grill.  Fry some food and bingo, you're in the restaurant business.  Sixty years ago we thought it was exotic.  "Hey ma, I bought an egg roll offa dat truck an' I still got money for ice cream."  Compared to today, it was truly primitive. Let's save that for another discussion.

We did most of our daily shopping on Church Av - there was no need to go elsewhere. The closest thing to a mall before there was a Kings Plaza was Flatbush Av or Kings Highway near the Brighton subway station or Pitkin Avenue.("So, where else to shop for a Bar Mitzvah suit?")

But there was an entire retail world that came to our door. There were the obvious 'seasonal' vendors. The ice cream guys in the warm weather. In our neighborhood, the Good Humor man reigned supreme. We're talking about a specially designed pick-up truck with a roofless cab. (In bad weather there was a canvas roof that could be unrolled.) The poor Bungalow Bar guy came in a distant second. He had to endure some very unflattering elementary-school poetry and even more damaging rumors regarding the cleanliness of the product. The latter ultimately contributed to the company's demise. (What do you think happened to those neat
trucks with the house roofs?) For a while, even Howard Johnson's got into the frey and then there was a bunch of independent operators. (One summer I went on a banana ice cream binge sold only by some independent guy with a truck that got washed once a season which coincided with his own showering. Fortunately, I overcame this lapse in culinary judgment.)

It wasn't until several years later that Mister Softee came on the scene and the days of the white-uniformed ice cream men who actually rang bells would join the ranks of horse drawn wagons.

Well, not quite.

There was the junk man with a horse-drawn wagon with a bunch of cowbells jingling on the back and in a somewhat related industry, the rag man.  The rag man must have been related to Pop, the hot knish man.  Same stature, same vintage, same origins.  I spent the better part of my youth trying to figure out what he was saying: "I cash clothes."  Not a clue, but everyone else on the block must have understood because they'd all run into their houses and come out with unwanted clothes.  After some obligatory haggling he'd stuff them into a giant pack on his back that must have outweighed him  and he'd shuffle off.  No one ever questioned what he did with the clothes.  He was ultimately replaced, not with a machine or a truck, but with a giant clothes bin unceremoneously located in a parking lot or at the edge of a gas station.

The vegetable vendor with his hand-lettered prices written with black crayon on a shopping bag also graduated from a horse-drawn wagon to a converted and repainted school bus and raised his prices accordingly. Other than my summer day camp rides to Broad Channel Day Camp on a school bus, Vegetable Joe's converted bus was my only school bus experience. Come on, did you know anyone who rode to school on a school bus in the fifties and sixties? This was Joe's 'store' in an earlier life.

The knife sharpener guy intrigued me. He announced his arrival with a special sounding gong. He also advertised that he would sharpen lawnmower blades. I mean it. He even had a picture of one painted on the side of his truck. Now there was a dreamer! Lawnmowers? Who had a lawn? My mother would save the scissors and dull knives for the day every two weeks when the sharpener guy would show up and it was my job to flag him down. Then, run back to the house and get the scissors and walk carefully and slowly, very slowly, to the grinder. Very slowly. "Stand back folks. Don't go near the kid. He's got knives." It was like the scene from "Dead Man Walking."

And then there was the horse-drawn hand-cranked merry-go-round wagon. The wagon was ultimately replaced with a truck-mounted 'whip' ride, which indirectly provided an unexpected lesson in centrifugal force as it pertains to a not-fully digested meal in a young stomach. Spectators in the know, and even loving parents, learned to stand a respectable distance from the ride.

The ice man not only cometh but wenteth. By the time I joined the human race there weren't too many people on our block with ice boxes - in spite of what my grandmother called the refrigerator. So, most of the ice man's business was with the retailers on the Avenue. He, too, joined the mid-twentieth century by forsaking his horse for horsepower but still retained that awesome ice crushing machine. Drop a giant cake of ice into the hopper and out came crushed ice. Or, cakes of ice were handled with a giant set of tongs and hoisted onto the iceman's towel-covered shoulder for delivery to the customer. I can still hear the sound of that machine. If it could do that to ice, what would it do to human bones? It didn't seem to bother the horse, though.  The horse had other things to worry about - like career alternatives.

Rivaling the competition between the ice cream vendors was that between the Dugans and Krugs packaged bake goods drivers. What ever happened to them? Dugans went stale in October 1966. Krugs? Who knows. Who cared?  There was always Ebingers!


dAnd finally, there was the milk delivery: Borden's, Sheffield/Sealtest. In real glass bottles. The Borden's products came from Utica and Kings Highway in what at one time was a stable. And they drove those neat Divco trucks while standing up. Refrigeration consisted of throwing a couple of ice cakes in the back to preserve the milk. Divco engineers followed the same styling concept adopted by Checker taxis. Hit on a decent style and stick with it - forever. Both Divco and Checker are out of business. 

Hey, wanna know sumpin?  The milk deliverers weren't crazy about giving up their horse drawn wagons.  Seems the horses weren't as dumb as we think.  After a while they knew the route. And, if there were several stops on a block, the driver could get out carrying enough bottles for all his stops on the block and go from house to house without having to get back on the wagon.  The horse would just follow along and know where to stop. No truck could do that.  Didn't matter; the horses were replaced.  Done deal! 

By the way,  I was never sent for a quart of milk.  It was,"Go to Lou's and get a milk."  Later on, it was "Go to Bohack and get a container of milk."  Sending a kid for milk was easy back then. Ever check out the milk display case in a modern supermarket?

What ever happened to those flat-topped Canco containers with the lid in the corner? 

Here's another by-the-way:  Milk, when you were growing up came only in quarts.  The advent of half-gallon containers signaled the beginning of the end for home delivery of milk.

Cross the Hudson and people look at you kinda funny when you call it a container when what seems like the rest of the world calls it a carton.

Who did I miss?



Anonymous said...

I also remember the horse and wagon of the rag man
who came through the neighborhood collecting old rags and the down on his luck musician who would play his trumpet in the alleys between houses seeking a few coins.

gary k said...

you failed to mention in street food, the ''chow-chow cup'' trucks.these trucks were similar to mr softee trucks. the chow mein was served in an oversized chinese noodle cup. yea, bungalow bar received such rudeness. i still miss ruby the knishman!

Joan Kane Nichols said...

I remember the ice cream trucks (remember mellorolls?), the knife sharpeners, rag man, milk trucks, merry-go-round, etc. Not quite a vendor and not on wheels, but my favorite was the organ-grinder and his monkey. Who remembers him?

Subwayguy98 said...

Re:Bungalow Bar ice cream....if I recall correctly the little ditty we used to chant as. "Bungalow Bar tastes like tar! The more you eat it, the sicker you are!"...Flatlands was Good Humor country in the early 60's...