It’s a game I like to play with friends. I ask them to think about something they remember from their childhood that simply doesn’t exist anymore, something so ancient a person would think you couldn’t possibly be old enough to remember it.
Some things are easy…typewriters, pagers, a mimeograph machine, carbon paper..but those all went away due to new technologies that progressed at lightening speed. We didn’t grow up with computers; a calculator was a big deal. But the transition from the slide rule to the calculator that comes with your new IPhone happened in a flash of time (comparatively speaking of course).
The things I am talking about are a bit more complex…things that defined an entire other age, something that maybe at the time, we didn’t even believe we were seeing at a young age. It’s like when you look at an old dictionary that doesn’t have an entry for Airplane. Now that is some generational gap jumping going on there. I have one of those Dictionaries and I delight in paging through it and noting all that is missing that is now a standard part of our lives. Of course the opposite is true too; the book has some things that no longer exist (extinct species are especially interesting in a sad way).
So although I have learned by now that no one will share theirs and play the game, here are mine:
-When we lived at 290 West 12th Street in a building long gone, it was actually heated by coal. One of my earliest memories, and one which fits this piece’s criteria is watching from our front window, as a coal truck would come down the street, unfold a huge chute and unload what looked like tons of coal into the basement of our building via the basement door at street level. I mean coal! The stuff from the movies that powered locomotives across the country in the 19th Century. The stuff that somehow is still mined in my own state of Pennsylvania, and of course the stuff that is supposed set to make a comeback in our current digital economy. To me, it is an ancient thing (and given my age that is saying a lot), and there I was, as a young kid watching it flow into our building, a cloud of black dust rising past our window, and wondering if we were the only family in New York living with such a need.
-So if you thought that one was a stretch, how about the fact that we had an Ice Box, and not a Refrigerator. Nothing electrical at all.Thinking back, it was a beautiful piece of furniture that I would love to have today, but back then it was how we kept the food fresh. It was basically a cabinet with a door on top that was the so called “ freezer” and some shelves below, behind a separate door where the food was stored. And how you may ask, did we get ice to cool all the food a family would have in stock? Well, just like the coal man made deliveries, so did the ice man. He commeth once a week, grabbing a huge slab of solid ice with large metal pincers and walked up the flights of stairs, dripping the whole way to deliver what we would then put in the top portion of the ice box and hope it lasted until he came again. Of course this necessitated the iconic bowl under the box that would collect water as the ice melted. Anyone who has seen an episode of The Honeymooners knows what I am talking about.
-The last one may even still be familiar to some depending on where you live. Street carts. But not the ones eternally parked somewhere that you had to visit to get your fresh fruit and vegetables, but the ones that were pushed through the streets (thus pushcarts), with usually a very able bodied large man who would call out “Strawberries….Blueberries…Melons…get your fresh fruit!”.
And we did. And I remember it being delicious. Dad was an all time connoisseur of fruit. In later years he would walk the Village streets for hours to find the ripest, juiciest watermelon, the most luscious grapefruit, the bluest blueberries…he was eating healthy long before it was cool to. Of course, he loved the fruit guy, and looked forward to coming home on the days when the pushcart would visit to see what treasures Mom had scored for him.
Then there was the knife sharpener who had a cart with a sharpening wheel. He would make the rounds of the Village streets, clanging the whole way, shouting:
“Bring out your knives…..knives sharpened here”
I think Monty Python must have experienced the knife sharpener when they were young too…(bring out your dead….).
So there we were in our comfortable apartment on 12th street, and all these wonderful things came to us, via the street itself. Coal for warmth, fresh fruit for sustenance, hardware for the kitchen, all passing by our front door.
And besides making for warm nights in the wintertime, fresh strawberry ice cream in the summertime and the ability to carve the Thanksgiving turkey flawlessly, they also made for great memories.