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April 18, 2017



Re the past being another country, I remember the following from my Williamsburg childhood in Brooklyn in the 1950s.

Adult clothes worn at that time were distinctive. Women wore stockings with seams and every effort was made by them to have the seams ramrod straight at all times. In winter they also might carry muffs of velvet or fur. Coats often had very large buttons in beautifully detailed designs and might also have a huge decorative pin attached near one side of the collar. Around the end-of-year holidays these attachments might comprise sprigs of holly or mistletoe, bells, diagonally prancing reindeer, and the like. In summer women often opted for a jaunty nautical look, or wore summer frocks with unusual collar or bodice treatments including self-ties or a pocket with decorative handkerchief cunningly folded inside. Sandals might be low-heeled and multi-colored. Men were always hatted, often vested, tied widely or in a bow, and usually hued conservatively. Suits were often double breasted (if you were short and stout this style made you appear shorter and stouter). Men's sweaters were usually cardigans or v-necks. The latter were often long in the sleeve and short in the torso, with distinctly vertical waist ribbing ending at the waist and seldom below. Summer for men meant polo shirts for golf and leisure wear, and lightweight cooling seersucker suits. Workmen wore matching shirt and pants uniforms in solid murky colors, and cooler weather often meant a matching Eisenhower jacket (see Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners). Workshoes were plain black or brown, or could be sturdy boots.

Children's clothing for girls would likely be smaller, less form-fitting versions of what their mothers wore. Ear piercing and small ring earrings were de rigueur. Many of the girls I knew wore pants once school was out for the day. Clothing for boys might include white shirt (with pocket handkerchief -- made of cloth!), red tie, and dark pants for school. Bow ties for boys were considerd cute, at least by the women in my family -- as were year round crew cuts (buzz cuts in today's parlance). After-school wear consisted of deep-cuffed dungarees and tee shirts, with baseball jackets in cooler weather, and high-topped black and white sneakers. My baseball jacket was black silk with vividly colored dragons on the back, courtesy of my older brother who was stationed in Japan during the Korean hostilities.

In the car-clogged streets of our neighborhood it was OK for me to ask a friendly man to "cross me" -- i.e., hold my hand while we crossed the street. (We also learned a pointedly handy song in school called "Let the Ball Roll" about what to do when parked cars got the better of our ball games.) Today a friendly man is probably an oxymoron and any child doing what I did would probably then be offered candy as a prelude to something a lot worse.

Sometimes neighborhood kids would be hit by cars, invariably active boys not attuned to memorizing songs and after running out into the street from between two parked cars. The injuries were considerd minor but the drama was not. I remember the mother of a friend being notified that her young son was the latest victim of a wayward car, and her flying down five flights of stairs in backless mules, arms high in the air, and screaming all the way. It was a miracle that she did not lose her footing and take a tumble down those stairs, but it's true that mothers have extra protection from on high. Her son was scared but OK, and the envy of many kids in his building for days.

Many of the cars in our neighborhood were older prewar ones and some had hoods that opened from either side and then folded like the way some insect wings work. One day I followed my more forward friend's lead and clambered up onto the front fender and watched as he opened the hood from one side. He then did something to the motor that caused the horn to blare without cease. We were both terrified and ran into our buildings to hide until all was clear (a very long time as I recall). We never did that again.

Orthodox Jewish women would ask non-Jewish children like me to light their gas stoves on high holy days. I always refused since matches and gas constituted a huge no-no that I was not willing to try and explore further in someone else's kitchen.

Supermarkets did not have automated rubberized rollers at the check-out counter. Instead a three-sided wooden device with a handle was used to pull the customer's food order down toward the cash register (some smaller markets in Manhattan still had these devices as late as the early 1980s). And the registers themselves were steepish musical ringers with marbleized horizontal surfaces. One's change was not computed automatically either. And produce was handled loose or placed in small paper bags, and the entire order was bagged in big brown paper bags. Plastic bags came on the scene later. (My sister was an elementary school teacher and one of her art projects for her class was to use these large paper bags -- cut out and decorated -- to make wonderfully distinctive masks, which of course she tried out on me first.)

I had a display of small American flags flying on the handlebar of my two-wheeler bike. This was during the early McCarthy era, so it was definitely a good idea for someone whose last name sounded Russian.

Our bathroom had a toilet bowl with its tank near the ceiling, and a pull-chain was used for flushing. There was also a bathtub in the room (without a shower) but no sink.

I used to watch funeral corteges proceeding along Union Avenue on Sunday mornings, while standing on the corner of South 2nd Street. I hoped they would be large enough to have flower cars, and most of them did. During these sad processions I was suitably solemn -- and riveted by the gleaming black and chrome limousines with fat white-walled tires.

Jewish delicatessens sold pickles in barrels and sauerkraut in tubs. This was fascinating to me, as were the smells and the containers used to "capture" these products. It was akin to experiencing the pungent smells and moist containers of pet shops.

Street vendors sold jelly apples and jelly coconut slices, dripping with red cherry jelly topping. Caramel toppings came later in other neighborhoods.

Our small local go-to market sold cardboard boxes of Wise Potato Chips, with a waxed paper overlay. These were a favorite treat. The label colors on the overlay were light blue with yellow and dark blue accents. The small boxes looked like slightly larger and thicker Kellogg's Variety Pack boxes.

We bought small cans of Sauce Arturo (a sweetish tomato sauce flavored with mushrooms, and with a cartooned head of a French chef on the label) for a recipe my mother saw on our newly acquired TV that involved hot dogs split lengthwise, melted cheese, and the tasty sauce covering the whole. I used to see Sauce Arturo on my local Shop-Rite shelves until about a year ago (although the modern version contained high fructose corn syrup), but production and/or distribution problems have caused it to disappear.

My mother squeezed fresh orange juice for me every morning using a glass squeezer bowl designed for that purpose. This continued until she discovered frozen orange juice from a can, which she reconstituted with water. It was considerd a time-saver.

On Friday afternoons at PS 19 we were allowed to bring small amounts of snacks or candy to school and eat it. For this purpose, I used to like to buy very small thin boxes of unshelled sunflower seeds and salted unshelled pumpkin seeds at our local candy store on my way to school. I found it a lot of fun to crack open the shells with my teeth and suck at the salted pumpkin seed shells. Except for the salt, these types of nuts are today considered highly beneficial for all sorts of diets. My family did not push the idea. I just liked the taste and texture of these nuts.

My father was a bread baker at a Jewish Bakery (Mirror Brothers) near Coney Island. He worked nights and every morning brought home the likes of unsliced pumpernickel, rye, kaiser rolls, bagels, challah, and other bread varieties acknowledged by all to be delicious. I'm ashamed to say that I was much more interested in white bread and Italian bread -- two varieties my father did not bake and the store did not sell. Later he brought home raw dough that we used for making homemade pizza. He brought home cookies, cakes, and pastries as well, including Linzer tortes, large hamantaschen with either prune or apricot fillings, pound cake, honey almond cake, and rich frosted cupcakes. We also discovered that some of the breads could be turned into delicious bread puddings, and the loaf cakes into my mother's idea of trifle (cake, red berry jam, vanilla ice cream, chopped walnuts) so all was not lost as far as I was concerned.

My mother was a good cook who was able to expand her repertoire by observing how her friends cooked or by watching cooking shows on morning TV. She made her spaghetti sauce from scratch and it was delicious. I remember being curious and then appalled when I saw a younger boy in the neighborhood being fed spaghetti by his grandmother. Her sauce was a bottle of ketchup but I must say her grandson seemed to enjoy it.

I particularly liked our local candy store with its wealth of penny candy, gum, and sweet drink syrup fountain smells. I usually knew what I wanted and it was always there. A particular fascination was cough drops: how could anything medicinal be so sweet and taste so good? I also liked malted milks (chocolate, please), which I would order accompanied by my older sister. I liked the metal tumbler into which the machine's eggbeater prongs would fit. And the high-pitched whirring noise of the mixer was fun too. As I found out later it was the malt powder that gave the malteds their distinctively delicious taste and texture.

Things were certainly done differently in those far off days.

Vivian Hussein de St. Vrain

Hi Stewie: thanks for commenting. Yes, you're absolutely right that the old clothes man's refrain was "I cash clothes." I had forgotten; thanks for reminding me. My tour of duty with the cub scouts was very brief -- not more than a couple of weeks before I dropped out, as far as I can remember, but thanks to you I now recall the name Malcolm Karkenny. And also: it wasn't us that had the TV with one of those magnifying glasses in front of it. We were tv-less until the 1952 World Series, when my father finally succumbed to extreme social pressure from me and my brothers. Or perhaps he wanted to see the games himself.

Stuart Blickstein

Although, as you well know, I'm not your grandchild, I really enjoyed this post.
The clothing man sang out "I cash clothes". I cannot tell you how many years of hearing that cry were required for me to decipher it. I also remember playing punch ball or stickball on your block as a Cub Scout. When we first started, and I heard someone yell "car", I thought that they were calling our patrol leader, Malcolm Karkenny. So, whenever I wanted him to throw the ball to me, or attract his attention for some other reason, I yelled "car". Lord only knows how many times I sent the den scurrying for no reason. What a doofus (sp.?) I was.

I also remember your TV. It had some sort of projection device so it was really big for the day.

Bear cub, Wolf den


Did you have a refrigerator or an ice box? How big was your school? I know what a letter is! (And I know what a envelope is and a mailbox is.) -taps

Dear TAPS: We had a refrigerator. My grandparents had an icebox. My school was a five-round, meaning there were five first grade classes, five second, etc. About 35 children in each class, grades kindergarten to 8.

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