November 23, 2009
A Brief Memoir
By Jake Jakubuwski
Today it is hard to imagine horses on the streets of Baltimore, but when I was a kid they were so common that no one took any real notice. It was not unusual to hear a horse plodding up our alley with its harness bells tinkling, and the steel banded wagon wheels making a metallic racket all their own on the Belgian block pavement stones. Most often, the fellow driving the wagon was the “Junk Man,” looking for old newspapers, magazines, scrap metal, used clothes — anything that he could turn into cash. Also, of course, there were the “Arabbers” — hucksters that sold produce from their colorful (bright reds, yellows and blues) horse-drawn wagons. Like many kids in Baltimore, I used to work for the Arabbers. The pay wasn’t the greatest, but it was usually enough for a movie and a candy bar, and, perhaps, a Coke.
When we were living on Light Street, in South Baltimore, even the ice man delivered his ice from a horse-drawn wagon. Ice man? Yeah, ice man. In the late 1940s there were still lots of folks that didn’t have electric “Frigidaires,” but they did have thick-walled ice boxes, and the ice in them needed to be replaced on a regular basis. The ice man would come every other day or so, driving his wagon loaded with huge blocks of crystal-clear frozen water, a heavy canvas tarpaulin thrown over it to slow the melt. And you could hear him coming because, besides the clangor of his wagon wheels, he had his own chant to alert his customers. Slowly moving down the street or up the alley (with a dozen kids following behind, trying to snatch a piece of ice out of the wagon’s bed, the shards being viewed by them as a cool summer treat) he’d yell: “EyeEESE-mannnnnn! EyeEESE-mannnnnn!”
Many residents had signs with changeable numbers on them in their front window, so the ice man could tell how much the customer wanted. If you needed ice and didn’t have a sign, you could just holler and tell him how much. A dime’s worth? A quarter’s worth? Or, maybe a fifty cent block, if you thought that would be enough to make it through the weekend. The ice man would stop his wagon (shooing the kids away from the back ) and begin using an icepick to hack at one of the larger blocks to give the customer whatever amount they were willing to pay for — 25, 50, 75, even 100 pounds. After chopping the larger block to the proper size, the ice man, or his helper, would grab it with a large pair of black tongs and, using a burlap bag on his shoulder to help protect him form the cold, he’d leverage it onto his shoulder and carry it into the house and put it in the icebox.
During the winter months, we didn’t need to buy ice because our family had a window box. That was a box with a wire bottom to allow for drainage that hung outside of a window on the shady side of the house, in which we stored our eggs, butter, milk and other perishables. The window closed down on the top of the box and had a door in the front so you could easily get to the stored items. Folks that didn’t have a window box often had an open back porch where they would keep perishables in a crate, or other container. On top of the container would be a piece of wood with a brick or stone or piece of scrap iron holding the “lid” down so that stray cats and dogs — and any other free-roaming urban creatures — could not get at the goodies.
Our ice man came around even in the winter, too, with the difference being that he now delivered coal. If you had a coal stove or furnace, as we did, he’d back up to the basement window (or coal chute if you had one) and shovel the coal into the coal bin. Then, suddenly it seemed, when I was about eight or so, the ice man showed up driving a truck — the end of an era! The ice/coal truck had a large wooden body, and when delivering coal in the winter it backed up to the coal chute, the man raised the bed of the truck with a crank and the black lumps of energy ran out of the truck like a noisy, dusty river.
It was only a couple of summers until we had a Frigidaire and didn’t need the ice anymore. I guess a lot of folks in the neighborhood bought Frigidaires as well, because I have no memory of the ice man making his rounds after that.
Copyright © 2009 Jake Jakubuwski.
Jake Jakubuwski spent nearly two decades as an active locksmith and door service technician. He has been writing physical security related articles since 1991. Seventeen years ago, Jake wrote his first article for the National Locksmith Magazine and has been their technical editor for fifteen years. Pure Jake Learning Seminars©, his nationally conducted classes, are designed for locksmiths and professional door and hardware installers. For more information, click the “Pure Jake” link in the sidebar blogroll and under the “business” label. (And to read about Jake’s adventures as an “Arabber’s” assistant, see a short piece on the subject posted September 14, 2009 on this blog.)
4 Comments | business, essays, kids, non-fiction, writing | Tagged: 1940s, alley, animals, Arabbers, Baltimore, Belgian blocks, business, butter, cats, chant, coal, coal bin, coal chute, dogs, eggs, electric Frigidaires, furnace, harness bells, horses, hucksters, ice tongs, icebox, icepick, Jake Jakubuwski, junk man, kids, labor, Light Street, Maryland, milk, money, non-fiction, pavement, perishables, produce, Pure Jake, scrap metal, South Baltimore, stove, street kids, summer, summer treat, The Ice Man, truck, urban creatures, wagon wheels, wagons, window box, work, writing | Permalink
Posted by Jim
May 27, 2009
By Jake Jakubuwski
Her name was Velma and she rented one of the apartments in the same building in which my family lived. Calling it an apartment is being generous. It was a kitchen, living room and bedroom all-in-one. Like the rest of us, Velma shared the bathroom facilities at the end of the second floor hallway. Each floor had two apartments like Velma’s and one like ours. Ours was a two-room apartment. No bathroom, but we did have a kitchen-style sink, stove and icebox. Note: I said icebox, not refrigerator. The landlord had his place on the first floor which was also two rooms, but he had his own bathroom. I remember seeing it one time and thought it quite marvelous to be able to walk to the toilet without going down a dark, cluttered hallway to find that someone else was already in residence. I have no clear memories of the folks that lived on the third floor; or for that matter, those with whom the landlord shared the first floor.
Anyway, I seldom saw Velma—or, as I came to think of her, “The Lady in The Red Dress,” at least not during the day. But in the evenings, just about suppertime, Velma could be heard, her high heels clicking down the stairs. If I was real lucky, I might catch a glimpse of her shoulder-length blond hair and clinging red dress through the banister railing as she went out the front door. I only knew two things for certain about Velma. She was from West Virginia, and—this was important—she was a divorcée. According to the superior intellect of my eleven and twelve year old male friends, divorcées “did it” and they were “easy.” The fact that Velma was divorced and had her own place—and didn’t seem to have a day-job—made her an object of lust and lasciviousness for the guys in my small neighborhood. And not just the boys. Judging from the looks I’d see on the faces of some of the family men when they saw Velma walk down the street I knew—even at the tender age of ten—those men weren’t thinking about church socials and good deeds, either.
Few males were immune to Velma’s charms. I remember one time when my mother found my father and her lingering a bit too long at the bathroom door. That evening there was much shouting and door slamming in our apartment. The door slamming was a real feat since there was only one interior door and four or five cupboard doors in the entire apartment. The slamming doors were accented with shouted words like “slut”, “whore” and “no good tramp.”
On a rare occasion, I would run into Velma during the day. She might be coming home from shopping or the hairdressers or—from who knows where. She always smiled at me and called me by name. Velma knew my name! Once, when we ran into each other in the local drug store, she bought me an ice-cream soda. None of my buddies believed me when I told them about it. After that I knew for sure that I was in love with Velma. In my mind she was some sort of a goddess.
It was during my tenth summer that “doing it” took on a full new meaning and I somehow quickly figured out why boys and girls were anatomically different. The backyard gatherings and closed-shed sex education classes among peers had begun to make sense. At that point my goddess feelings about Velma didn’t change—but my imagery of her and I together certainly did. I now could envision us in situations that did not just include shared ice cream sodas or holding hands up on the roof in the moonlight. Beyond that, I still wasn’t completely clear about the exact activities involved, but speculating about various possibilities certainly spiced up my days. Lust and lasciviousness had come to roost in my soul and I only knew that I felt different—really different—about Velma. I was no longer satisfied just being an admirer, a dumb-struck recipient of Velma’s occasional smiles or winks. I wanted to take my place beside her as the one and only object of her affections.
And I was convinced that Velma felt the same about me. She had to. Fate decreed it—Cupid, after all, was not stupid. He was just doing his job to bring we two yearning souls together. Together, our souls were fated to fulfill a destiny that was determined before I was born. Don’t misunderstand, in 1948 I didn’t think about it exactly in those terms, but I knew with certainty that a seminal event was about to take place in my life, and Velma—my Velma—was going to be at the epicenter of that whatever it might be.
On Saturday’s I was up early to take my week’s “pickin’s” to the junk yard. I could sell old newspapers, magazines, metal and other junk I’d scavenged during the week. I never made much, usually just enough for movies and candy. As I turned up the alley where we lived, I saw Velma sitting on the front steps, still dressed in her red dress. When I got close enough, I mumbled a “Hi, Velma” and she looked up at me. “Hey, sweetie,” she said. She was smiling but I could tell she’d been crying. The very thought of Velma crying over anything made me want to cry too. I stood at the bottom of the steps trying not to look up to where her dress sort of drooped down and I could see one the garters that held her nylons up. I looked higher still and saw soft white flesh tinted rose from sunlight burning through the red fabric of her dress. I wanted to see more, see whatever there was to see, but felt guilty each time my eyes strayed to the roll of nylon wrapped around her garter. Finally I moved up a step, where I could no longer see Velma’s half-hidden treasures. Instead, I looked at her puffy eyes and red-splotched face—and somehow stammered out a query about what was so terribly wrong that it made her cry.
The tears began to roll down her cheeks again. She told me her mother was sick and needed her at home. My heart broke—Velma was going to leave me! She went on to say that the night before she told her date about the problem and asked him for money—money that he owed her—and he got mad and took what little she had in her purse and ran off. Now, she had nothing to buy a train ticket home. I quickly realized that this was my opportunity to impress Velma and win her gratitude—perhaps even her undying love. I asked Velma how much she needed for the ticket. “Ten dollars, sweetie.” A fortune! So I reached in my pocket and gave her all of my junk earnings. I told her maybe my dad would loan her the rest. She said no, because if he did and my mother found out, it would only cause problems. I told her to wait, I’d be right back.
My mother was sleeping (she usually got home from her bar tending job around three in the morning and slept until noon). I went to the jelly jar where she kept her tip money and removed almost two dollars and fifty cents in change, not too much so it would look like anything had been taken. My father’s “junk” drawer yielded a dollar and forty-eight cents. My personal piggy bank gave up thirty-nine cents. In the kitchen Momma’s “butter money” yielded a dollar thirty-five. Along with what I had already given Velma, she was now up to a grand total of six dollars and ninety-two cents. I ran back to Velma and gave her the money, and cried over the fact that it wasn’t enough—just the best I could do. She told me “not to worry,” that maybe she could get her brother to send the rest.
Then Velma did the most amazing thing. She reached out, gently clasped my cheeks in her soft hands and kissed me right on the lips! Not like some adult kissing a kid, but like an adult kissing an adult. I could feel the tip of her tongue against my teeth and her lips covered mine in a soft but urgent manner that made me dizzy. Before I could figure out that I should respond in kind, the moment was over. She still held my cheeks in her hands, but now she was looking into my eyes and promising that as soon as she “got settled” she’d let me know where she was and maybe I could come visit her. Visit? All she had to do was tell me where and when. I would swim deep oceans and climb high mountains to get another kiss from Velma! And I would gladly wait for her to reach out to me and tell me she was ready to fulfill our destiny—the fate determined for us by deities unknown, or long forgotten—to consummate a love the likes of which had never been experienced before by mere mortals!
I was thinking all of that (on a ten year-old level of course) as Velma told me she had to go or she’d miss her train. As I watched her stand, smooth the red dress over her voluptuous body, and begin walking down the alley toward the corner where the streetcar stopped, I thought of our future bliss together. I watched her board the streetcar. I watched some tall stranger take her valise and Velma show her appreciation by smiling brightly at him. Then she turned and looked my way. She puckered her lips and blew me a kiss and gave a sad little wave and turned away. I watched as The Lady In The Red Dress left my life forever. She left with six-dollars and ninety-two cents that I would never see again. I watched as the streetcar carried my first love away forever—off into my bitter-sweet long-term memory.
Copyright © 2009 Jake Jakubuwski.
Jake Jakubuwski spent nearly two decades as an active locksmith and door service technician. He has been writing physical security related articles since 1991. Seventeen years ago, Jake wrote his first article for the National Locksmith Magazine and has been their technical editor for fifteen years. Pure Jake Learning Seminars©, his nationally conducted classes, are designed for locksmiths and professional door and hardware installers. For more information, click the “Pure Jake” link in the sidebar blogroll and under the “business” label.
Jake contacted me after reading some of my growing-up-in- South-Baltimore-in-the-1950s posts. It turns out that we have a lot in common—some of our experiences eerily similar but at the same time different in the details. For instance, my first lustful crush—when I was fifteen—was on a woman old enough to be my mother. (In fact, she was a friend of my mother’s and the same age. I know, I know—what would Freud say?!) But I never saw my mother’s friend in a sexy red dress. As far as I could tell she only wore cheap print house dresses—and, like a certain movie star named Marilyn—whom she resembled—my mother’s friend disliked wearing underwear. Ah, memory!
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Posted by Jim