Depression led to memories of ‘difficult times’
Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts.
Another way to make a living during the spring and summer, was to sell fruits and vegetables by bringing them to the neighborhoods, saving people the trouble of going to stores.
As a result, it was perfectly natural to see horses in the streets of New York, the big, modern, cosmopolitan city.
The vendor would announce his presence by bellowing his wares in a sort of chant that somehow resembled the Muslim call to prayer.
Windows were open in summer and the tenants would hear the long drawn out cry of “Fresh peaches, strawberries” or “Ripe tomatoes, potatoes!”
People would look out their open windows and then troop down to the street to make their purchases.
Horses were such a common sight that we children took the opportunity to examine the hardworking quadrupeds when they were stopped for people to buy the produce. We noted that a horse could make its skin quiver in any area of its body when a fly would land on it in order to rid itself, however temporarily, of the annoying insect. It was just the skin, not the large muscles underneath it. We tried to imitate this action, but found it impossible to duplicate. If the fly landed on the animal’s haunches, the horse would swish its tail to shoo it away. Of course, we did not possess such an appendage and envied our four-legged friends.
We would often see a canvass bag covering the horse’s muzzle hanging by a strap on its neck. We were told the bag contained oats. This enabled the laboring beast to eat while either parked at the curb or pulling the wagon. At times we would see the animal toss its head upward. This indicated that there was a small of amount of oats left in the bottom of the bag, where the horse’s mouth could not reach. The head tossing was its technique for having the food drop into its mouth. It reminded me of the way we would place the rim of a tall glass of water or any other drink to our lips, tilt our head back and turn the glass upside down when there was still liquid in the glass, but lurking at the bottom. We were so familiar with these horses that we recognized many of them and gave them names. Throughout the summer we knew them so well that we felt they were buddies. Or at the very least, acquaintances.
The presence of so many horses on the streets of New York necessitated daily cleaning by the Sanitation Department. It was the most natural, most ordinary experience to see manure spread out on the roadways. The simple act of crossing the street was an adventure requiring a certain level of skill, equilibrium and courage. Flies constantly hovered and birds swooped down on these “road apples,” as people often called them, and were constantly in attendance to pluck specks of nourishment from the ever-present waste product. (Hence the origin of the once common slang expression, “It’s … for the birds,” later reduced, for economy of language as well as for the sake of propriety, simply to “It’s for the birds.” This quaint idiom referred to any object of very little value or extremely poor quality.)
At least once daily, or perhaps twice — my memory for events of seventy five or eighty years ago is not that precise — huge tankers were slowly driven down each street. Torrents of water gushed from all sides of the tanker, washing the muck to the curbs and down into sewer openings in the curbs. A half dozen men in sparkling white uniforms followed closely behind the vehicle, three on each side of the tanker. Because much of this equine excrement had not successfully been washed into the sewers, the uniformed workers, logically known as street cleaners, using thick, broad brushes, swept the recalcitrant droppings along the curb to shove into the nearest sewer openings. This was a necessary sanitary operation which we children never tired of watching.
In those difficult times (a situation I was totally oblivious of while living through it) we had lived with my maternal grandparents and my mother’s younger siblings: her red-headed sister, familiarly called Ginger, and brother Clay. We lived with them from the time I was born in the Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital of the Jersey City Medical Center until we moved to the Bronx when I was three years old. I can still clearly picture all the rooms of the Jersey City apartment in which the seven of us lived. Horses, of course, were an important part of life there as well. If I happened to be awake at 4:00 A.M. I would hear the soft clip-clop of muffled hoof beats that announced the arrival of the milkman and his horse-drawn wagon. The sound was muffled because the hooves were outfitted in rubber horseshoes in order to avoid disturbing the sleep of customers. That soft sound at a steady beat actually soothed me back to sleep.
Later, while living in the Bronx, we would visit my maternal grandparents in Jersey City almost every weekend and on holidays. At this time my grandparents were renting the upstairs of a two-family house. There was a very large balcony that was a kind of second-floor porch. I would often sit out there and pretend I was piloting an airplane with an open cockpit. Sometimes the landlord’s daughter (we were both about seven years old) would come up to play with me. We were good playmates and friends. I remember her pretty face, curly dark hair and big brown eyes. One day we were just talking about inconsequential matters (naturally; we were just kids) when I told her to look down to the corner and across the street where there was a vacant lot. The lot was overgrown with weeds and strewn with empty tin cans. A man had led a small flock of goats there to graze. Goats in the middle of a city! It strikes me as odd now, even bizarre, but it was just another ordinary sight at the time.
Occasionally, I look back at events and scenes I remember from my childhood and find the situations are so different from those of today, that I find it hard to believe that it was I who actually experienced those events and saw those scenes. It feels as though I’m remembering a movie I had seen, or that the person involved was someone else, but that I’ve taken over that child’s memories.
Clark Zlotchew is an author of fiction and non-fiction and a Distinguished Teaching Professor of Spanish at the State University of New York at Fredonia.