June 03, 2009

Rags, Cupcakes, Carousels

I must have been born in the last decade –- the Fifties –- when you could hear a ragman crying his wares on the streets of New York. And our ragman must have been one of the last to keep to his rounds rather than to be settled into a retirement home by successful offspring, or evaporate into the fumes of the street along with the garbage and gasoline.

What he cried out was, “I cash clothes! I cash clothes! I cash! I take!”

One jabbing note in a ringing nasal tenor that echoed metallically from the fire escapes, repeated down block after city block. He came around in the morning every few weeks -- must have walked a big circuit through the Bronx, spanning the neighborhoods, crossing the ethnic groups, returning to our street periodically. I was less than school age, to be home at that time. In my memory of his voice, the day is sunny, it’s spring, and a streetsweeper has just passed, leaving a neat swirl of gray dust behind him, his broom resting upended in his cart: he too a circler of neighborhoods on some esoteric calendrical orbit.

“I cash clothes! I cash! I take!”

His voice chilled me as delightfully as a ghost story. I rarely caught a glimpse of him -– a gray-haired man with a nose as sharp as his voice –- and even more rarely saw anyone conduct business with him. Sometimes a housewife would rush down and to catch him before he left the block, some old shirts in her hand, and receive what?, some coins, a dollar bill? Maybe the older housewives rushed down to reminisce with him about the Lower East Side in the Depression, their glory days.

I couldn’t fathom what he was doing or why. I asked my mother about it and her answer smacked of the subterranean, of sorcery performed in alleys and sewers: he went around asking people for their old clothes, and he paid them for the clothes, and somehow he earned his living by paying them. She might have hastily added that he resold the clothes –- hastily because she assumed, correctly, that I wouldn’t understand; but buying things from some people in order to sell them to others –- and such cheap things too, things no one I knew wanted –- hardly sounded like a believable way of earning a living. In my experience, parents, aunts, and uncles all earned their livings from the civil service, safe and predictable.

The years of street vendors. There was a knife-sharpener too, another occupation that absolutely stumped me. My mother sharpened her knives once in a blue moon on a little wheel of rough metal that she kept in a kitchen drawer. A man wandered the streets begging for acceptance as a substitute for that?

The ones I understood were the food vendors. The truck from Dugan’s Bakery, from which we only bought flat-topped yellow cupcakes spread with smooth fudgy chocolate. The two competing ice cream companies, Good Humor and Bungalow Bar, in trucks and hand-pushed carts: Good Humor daring us its avant-garde flavors of banana split and strawberry shortcake, but Bungalow Bar kindly offering my favorite, the chocolate malted popsicle. Sometimes, infrequently enough to always be a surprise, a carousel truck came by, with sides and roof of rusty orange wire and a bullhorn playing brain-grinding merry-go-round music, us little kids jumping down the apartment building steps and thronging the driver, quarters in hand. Then there were trucks my parents never bought from, though I pleaded: the seltzer truck with its wood crates full of blue siphon bottles; the dairy delivery man with milk, eggs, butter. My mother had her worldview down pat: seltzer delivery was for other families.

I didn’t notice when the ragman stopped coming around. And the delivery trucks disappeared gradually, probably into my college years, though there's been a mild fizzy trickle of retro seltzer delivery in recent years, staking out a route for customers who’ve heard of such things from their grandparents. Oh, no, there's one that delivers to Marin County -- and wouldn't you know it, seltzer delivery helps the environment!

Right now, I’d like a Dugan’s cupcake and a Bungalow Bar chocolate malted popsicle, melting all down my fingers.

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