The Passing Parade

Although I lived on the ground floor facing the street, I rarely observed the parade from my window. Most of my free time was devoted to playing ball in the street, the “eye” of the parade.

In the mid 1930s, the population density of our neighborhood was the magnet that brought itinerant entrepreneurs on their daily Odyssey through our streets. Using the simple skills developed in Eastern Europe, they honed and refined them on the teeming streets of the East Bronx. Their given names were unknown to us. We identified them by their occupation.

The I Cash Clothes Man had a plodding, stooped horse with an arched neck that brought its head so close to the asphalt, it appeared as if he were searching for a line to guide him to Seabury Place. The ragman’s scraggly beard matched the threads escaping from his worn collar. The bench upon which he sat was covered with an oily flannel blanket that long ago surrendered its nap to the odds and ends that were congealed to the seat of his pants. He was the centerpiece of a rusty metal arch from which copper bells dangled. With reins in hand, he pleaded with a horse whose legs seemed to have forgotten the coordinated sequence to move him forward.

“Ma, it’s The I Cash Clothes Man.”

“We send our clothes to our relatives in Lithuania. They need it more than he does.”

“Why don’t they buy their own clothes?”

“They have no money for clothes.”

“Why don’t they work? Pa does.”

“There is no work.”

“Why don’t they leave?”

“They’re not allowed to leave.”

“You left.”

“Oy! You ask too many questions.”

His blasts of, “I Cash Clothes” accompanied by the clanging of his copper bells let everyone in the neighborhood know he was there.

It puzzled me why he would bother to visit our neighborhood. Most of the residents wore that he collected as rags.

Without rising from his perch on the wagon, he belted out his familiar refrain as the windows on the street reverberated to his solo, “I Cash Clothes! I Cash Clothes!” If a housewife accumulated enough shmatehs, she would raise her window and call out her apartment number. The cart came to a halt. He strapped a feedbag to his horse’s mouth then climbed the steps hauling a large, empty, canvas bag.

The haggling began with the turn of the doorknob. The price for all the garments ranged between twenty-five and fifty-cents. If a serviceable man’s suit was involved, the price could rocket to seventy-five cents or one dollar. With the booty in his sack, he returned to his wagon, removed the feedbag then continued in his pursuit of rejected rags.

Where did The I Cash Clothes Man come from? Where did he go? He was as mysterious as The Lineman. Just as The I Cash Clothes Man appeared to have driven off the stage of Fiddler On The Roof, The Lineman seemed to have stepped out of the cornfields of the musical, Oklahoma! He made his way through the backyard tenements with yards of clothesline spiraled around his shoulder. He was a tall, lean, blond, middle-aged, handsome man apparently of Anglo or Nordic stock. A light blue denim work shirt, freshly washed dungarees and a navy blue knit hat complemented his rugged persona The I Cash Clothes Man’s territory was the street. The Lineman’s domain was the backyard where clotheslines spun on pulley wheels from tall, wooden poles.

His signature call was, “Line! Line!” A frazzled tenant’s clothesline and her shout of her apartment number brought him up the steps. He connected his new rope to the old one then guided it through a pulley attached to the tall wooden pole and the other pulley at the tenant’s window jamb. After discarding the frayed line, he knotted the new one together leaving a series of concentric circles like a hangman’s noose. all for $3.00, no haggling.

At the end of WWII, the launderette burst upon the scene. He couldn’t compete with the dryer. Where did he go? Maybe her returned to the cornfields of Oklahoma. Another voice from The East Bronx Chorus was eliminated. The spider web of clotheslines in our backyards almost disappeared. One of its few remaining filaments was suspended from our apartment. On her hands and knees, Ma removed her rocking, corrugated metal washboard from under the bathtub. She kneaded and rubbed our dirty clothes against its metal folds then rinsed them. The launderette’s dryer was no competitor to our fresh, air-dried clothes hanging on the line. Unlike the disappearing Lineman, Ma refused to surrender to technology. Her washboard remained under the tub waiting for its call to duty.

Quietly, he trudged along the streets clutching the smoothly chiseled, projecting handles of his handmade, unpainted gray, seven-foot wooden cart. As he wandered the streets, a millstone suspended on an axle was spinning lazily from the front-center. A few repaired, unclaimed umbrellas were tucked behind a strip of wood on each side of the cart. The housewives in the neighborhood knew that the sound of the gong from his pushcart meant it was time to gather their dull knives or a damaged umbrella. He was The Knife Sharpener. I ran to our apartment to announce his visit. If only Ma had a knife that needed sharpening. I knew she would sharpen her knives on the rough windowsill outside our kitchen window, but maybe this time she would give me one to carry to the sharpener.

“Ma, The Knife Sharpener is in the street. ”

“No, there are no knives to sharpen.”

“But last night you said the knife was so dull, you could ride on the blade.”

“Maybe next time.”

The Sharpener began his rhythmic pedaling sitting on a bicycle seat at the end of his cart. The assembled knives waited their turn to meet the spinning wheel. We gathered in awe, ducking and dodging, as his wheel spun and sparks flew. Occasionally he repaired an umbrella but that wasn’t nearly as exciting as the darting sparks. Unfortunately, this poor man couldn’t compete with progress. Motorized sharpening wheels in a large, green van drove him out off the street. It was an example of a pro totally outclassing an amateur. The Knife Sharpener pushed his cart into obscurity.

In the autumn, a simple black, sheet metal wagon riding on small metal wheels creaked over the street. It could easily have been constructed in Mr. Haller’s sheet metal shop at Hermann Ridder Jr. HS. Behind this wagon, straining and pushing, was an elderly gentleman wearing a black derby, a black jacket and pants covered by a sparkling white-bibbed apron. No matter that the street was level, his body leaned at a 45-degree angle leaving the impression that he was guiding the cart uphill. A tubular three-foot metal chimney projected upward from the end of his cart, sending a gentle flow of black smoke into the air. He was The Sweet Potato Man. The scent of his baking potatoes crept through every unplugged nostril in the neighborhood. He kept opening and closing the three wide metal drawers in his cart to rearrange the potatoes. The bottom drawer held glowing charcoal. In the drawer above, were potatoes in the process of being baked, and in the top drawer were warming totally baked sweet potatoes waiting to be sold. For three cents he would wrap a white napkin around the hottest and sweetest potato ever to excite a taste bud. A gentle pat on the rear sent you on your way. He found the same lonely path as the Knife Sharpener, the path of no return.

Tony, The Jelly Apple Man also made his debut in late spring. Tony had two brightly polished copper vats set in the center of his cart, each holding heated, red jelly. A crowded mound of small Macintosh apples in a wire basket separated the two vats.

If you didn’t care for an apple, a selection of dried fruits and marshmallows filled glass partitions running along the sides of the cart. There was a choice of prunes, marshmallows, apricots or shoe leather (pressed sheets of apricot). We pointed to our selection then Tony impaled the apples or dried fruits on a round lollipop stick. With an arching loop, Tony removed the copper lid and ceremoniously twisted the fruit into the warm, red jelly. For three cents he placed your choice into your hand with a paper napkin wrapped around the stick. Then we gathered at his side to take inventory of our friend’s selections. The item least requested was at the front left corner of Tony’s cart, coconut slices floating in a translucent liquid against the walls of a square jar. I never saw Tony unscrew its lid. Did we know then that coconut contained saturated fat?

“So, what are you gettin’ Mutt?”

“I think I’ll get the prunes.”

“Ugh. The last time I had them, I couldn’t get off the toilet seat.”

“That’s you. I’m me. I’m gettin’ the prunes.”

“I don’t care what you get. But don’t ask me for a bite of my apple.”

“I don’t like the apples”.

“I didn’t get it yet, did I?”

The bickering was aimed at getting in the last word.

As warm weather approached, Tony and The Sweet Potato Man deferred to an enameled, white wooden cart with a red border and a green striped canvas canopy. Inside this open cart rested a rectangular block of ice. To prevent its premature melting, The Ices Man placed a grungy sheet of water saturated brown burlap over the ice. The Board of Health was never consulted on the suitability of his product.

It took two cents to create his masterpiece. With a cast iron plane the size of a board eraser he shaved and collected the ice. The shavings were placed into a paper cone cup then doused with your choice from a spectrum of colored flavors in containers resembling hair tonic bottles. With that soggy burlap cover indelibly imprinted into our minds, my friends and I were observers, never customers.

“Do you believe that kid is getting ices?”

“Look at that green flavor he picked.”

“It looks like the chlorine water in Crotona Park pool.”

“He’ll be at Dr. Kulock’s office tomorrow.”

“I hope he will be. I hate that kid.”

The neighborhood resounded with tympanic blasts. He was The One Man Band. With an accordion in his hands, a harmonica braced into his mouth and a snare drum strapped to his back, he tuned, harmonized and energized the neighborhood. Each step activated a drumbeater that pounded the skins of his drum while cymbals above it crashed on impact. We slowly followed the booms and clangs accompanied by the harmonica and accordion enlivening the residents in their apartments. An aluminum cup, connected to the side of his drum collected coins from the music lovers. Out of step with the changing times, he joined the shrinking caravan of characters to gradually slow the parade to a crawl.

Another contributor to the sound of music was The Yardnik. In the shtetls from where they had emigrated, the immigrants gave aliases to the citizens usually based upon their occupation. He performed in the yards; therefore he was The Yardnik. Singing or performing on his intsrument in Yiddish, Polish or Russian, TheYardnik worked the maze of backyards behind the tenements. My mother, in the midst of preparing dinner, would tear off a piece of newspaper and wrap two cents in it. When the song was over, I threw the package to the grateful singer awaiting a wave or a smile. Although the neighborhood ached from the sting of The Depression, unemployment the norm, the concept of charity was passed on from the parents to their children.

Our favorite Yardnik carried an old, black case worn gray around the edges. Inside, in contrast to its shabby exterior, was his glossy, honey colored violin and stringy bow. Sometimes he was The Yardnik, sometimes he played on a street corner. When he was a child, I’m sure, these were not the venues his parents envisioned when they saved their coins for his music lessons. He wore an ironed, white dress shirt whose frayed cuffs bounced off his wrists in tempo to the melodies escaping from the strands of his violin. Many of the tragic Yiddish songs he played lent themselves to the melancholy tone of the violin and the melancholy tone of his appearance. The backyard airshaft provided an ideal conduit for the flow of these nostalgic tunes up to and through the open windows. Sometimes, I would hear my mother sadly humming, occasionally muttering along with the notes. On the other hand, he could energize his violin, himself and the tenants with an energizing fraylach, a lively tune usually played at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. Newspaper wrapped coins of appreciation fell at his feet at the end of the recital. With a “thank you”, he gathered the packets then left to complete his gig on the tenement circuit. Whatever became of him and his violin?

A truck approached with music thundering from a speaker at each side of the cab. On the rear platform of the truck sat a circular mesh gate about 15 feet in diameter. It was covered like an umbrella by a multicolored dome When the truck came to a halt, the proprietor opened a door in the gate then flipped down three wooden steps leading to five brightly colored, miniature cars each accommodated one driver. The cars were connected to a geared wheel at the center of the platform.

The volume of the music increased as mothers in housedresses brought their excited children to operate a car. Once securely inside, the trucker shut the gate then stepped out and manually turned the handle of a geared wheel at the side of the gate. The motorists were on a voyage to Oz. They pulled on a rope attached to bells. They squeezed black rubber honking balls at the side of their car. They spun the steering wheel to avoid road hazards. At the end of the journey, each motorist was given a lollipop before returning to his or her mother. With the advent of World War II and gas rationing, the truck left following the cars inside the truck on their journey to Oz.

His wagon was approximately 20’x 12′. Four large, wooden spoked, metal-surfaced wheels slowly spun as a heavy necked, wide hipped draft horse pulled a produce-laden cart. He was The Fruit Man. Why not the vegetable man? Who knows? He was The Fruit Man. Frequently, his horse left a trail of compact, brown spheres in the middle of the street temporarily impeding, but not stopping a stickball or punchball game. That was a given we lived with.

Thin, 3’x1’ wooden boards were nailed to the end of a 2’ x 4’ behind each variety of produce. Brown paper bags displaying the name and price of the product were slipped over the boards. The prices could easily be changed as the merchandise aged or changed. The fruits and vegetables, exploding with color, were in sharp contrast to the gray or brown-faced tenements standing and peering down on the wagon. His bounty was seated on angled boards so that it could be seen from a distance. To measure the weight of a purchase, a round-faced scale had from three chains connected to a dangling steel pan. The customer placed her selection in a brown paper bag. The Fruit Man placed it onto the pan. After watching the dial tremble then come to a halt, he would invariably say,

“I should charge you…, but for you, it’s …”

Of course, he and his horse trudged off to oblivion when supermarkets appeared in the area.

It was early in the morning. I was preparing to go to elementary school when there was a knock on the door.

“Ma, it’s The Egg Man!”

With a dragging a foot and a face misshapen from a stroke, he went door-to-door selling eggs.

“Order mir a dozen krex.”

I turned to The Egg Man and ordered a dozen krex.

For years I had no idea what krex were. I thought they were an addition to the selection from the small, medium or large eggs. In my teens, I recalled the many encounters with The Egg Man.

“Ma, do you remember The Egg Man? I asked. “What were the krex you ordered from him?”

She told me she had a choice of buying regular eggs or krex. The regular eggs were undamaged eggs; the krex had hairline cracks in them; hence, krex. They, of course, were substantially cheaper than the regular eggs. The Egg Man hobbled off to where?

Underneath those pink, dirty and dank quilted blankets, in front of Adoff’s drug store rested three 6” long blocks of ice. Sal, The Iceman was canvassing his customers. Upon seeing him at her door, the housewife lifted an oak lid on top of the icebox to see what remained of her block of ice. With his calls completed, Sal returned to his horrible blankets, removed his pick from its leather holster, lifted the soggy pink blanket and began to peck away at the block. A chunk of ice was separated. He fastened his tongs around the piece, placed it in a miniature wooden wine bucket, lifted it to his shoulder then carried it off to his first customer.

Every apartment had an oak icebox. A block of ice in the upper chamber chilled the contents in the chambers below. As the ice melted, the water was directed towards a small pipe leading to a drip pan below the icebox. Forgotten trips to the overflowing drip pan left a puddle creeping towards the curvy legs of our Quality gas stove.

In late fall when there was a consistent chill in the air, my father placed a sheet metal box with two sliding doors on our kitchen windowsill. He connected it with braided wire to two eye screws in the wooden jambs on either side of the window. Everything we had in the icebox was transferred to this window box. Our encounter with The Iceman came temporarily to a halt. The chill of fall and winter refrigerated and sometimes froze our perishables.

Milk, only available in glass bottles was yet to be homogenized. Through the glass, you could easily see the separation between the cream and the rest of the milk. On very cold days, as the freezing water in the milk expanded, it would push up the cream popping up and out the cardboard lid. The Iceman was on hold until the following spring.

In the spring of 1939, a new blue and white enameled sign dangling from a 12″ metal pipe projecting from the facade of our building replaced the old, rusty one. It announced the availability of apartments along with a perk; a Kelvinator gas refrigerator. The oak icebox was gone but would revisit fifty years later. The Iceman slid into retirement. If the landlord didn’t collect the iceboxes, they became storage containers in our small apartments. How were we to know that fifty years later these iceboxes would become expensive collectibles housing stereo sets or wines and liquor?

Who else marched in this passing parade? An occasional visitor was The Organ Grinder. At the end of his performance, his monkey darted from one person to another collecting coins in a small metal cup. In the summer, Simonize Joe, a smiling, jovial black man would appear in khaki jodhpurs, a wrinkled white shirt, clutching a bottle of whiskey while singing a song only familiar to him. His voice sounded like Louis Armstrong’s marinated in alcohol. Coins were thrown into a rumpled hat at his feet. As the change dropped into the hat, he would declare,

“Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”

In chorus, we would ask,

“Who is the Lord?”

“Calvert is the Lord!” he replied as he held up his inexpensive bottle of Lord Calvert rye whiskey.

The last time I saw Joe was in 1939 when the Detroit Tigers were at the Yankee Stadium. He was a rabid Detroit Tiger fan. Walking along the aisles, he gesticulated at the ineptness of each Yankee batter who stepped up to the plate. Whenever Hank Greenberg came to bat, he would run towards the field boxes. With one hand he clutched tightly to the paper bag holding his pint of Lord Calvert, with the other he pointed to the bleachers. Joe tippled out of the Bronx never to be seen again.

In the 1930s, a common sight was a family dispossessed; removed from their apartment for non-payment of rent. Their furniture, dumped on the sidewalk in front of their house resembled Salvation Army rejects waiting for disposal. My mother, holding my nine-year-old hand tightly saw her friend, Tillie, her two daughters and her husband standing on the stoop of their apartment house. Tillie’s family was dispossessed. Before moving to a shelter for defaulting on her rent, she addressed a small crowd gathered between her and her possessions.

“How do we pay rent?

“How do we pay rent when there are no jobs?”

Turning to her husband, she went on,

“Is this why he was gassed in France?”

“Look at my husband. He hasn’t worked in four months!”

My mother joined the sobbers around us. I looked at a crumpled blue shirt with a worn, wilted collar, oversized pants, threadbare at the knees supported by stretched, rippled suspenders. His dirt impregnated into calloused hands hadn’t held a pickaxe, pushed a wheelbarrow or loaded a truck in months. He was a poster child for The Great Depression. The sobbing was contagious. I held back tears. Big guys didn’t cry.

One day, the empty lot adjacent to my apartment house vibrated in tempo to the explosives used to excavate a foundation for a group of stores. We watched through holes in a wooden fence as heavy metal mats, covering the detonating area heaved with each blast. Steam shovels loaded waiting trucks with the debris from the blasts. Finally, when the blasting was completed and the base of the excavation was flat, construction began on an A&P supermarket the magnet of this small shopping complex. The mom and pop stores of the neighborhood were shoved aside by this giant. They joined the The I Cash Clothes Man, The Lineman, The Sweet Potato Man, The Jelly Apple Man, The Knife Sharpener, The Fruit Man, The Iceman and The Yardnik who once marched in this rich spectrum of characters in the Passing Parade.

The Passing Parade quickstepped into oblivion. This pageant and its colorful cast of characters vanished, leaving only their memory, which will pass when the surviving residents who “cheered” from the sidelines, will follow the inevitable path of the parade.