Before I was dispatched to Kindergarten, I was my mother’s constant companion. Thinking of this now, I pity her. Though I give her the credit due for keeping it together. As a mother, she made great efforts to expose us to the arts. I loved when we went on a tour through a massive French Impressionism book. She would gently point out the noteworthy aspects of each piece. Alas, she was a mother of three, so housework and errands were also part of the day. The book was put back on the shelf.
The butcher smiled and gleefully waved his fingers at me from behind his glass case. His thick accent and splotchy apron didn’t prevent him from happily conversing with the ladies. Often what he said was punctuated with a startling chop of a loin being dissected. The dull yet sharp noise was not wasted on the hard, shiny, cold surfaces that made up his shop. He would tear brown paper from a roll and tie up his work and proudly present it with two hands – like a gift. I hid behind Mom’s leg. The sawdust stuck to the wheels of the old women’s shopping carts. I always liked going to the butcher.
The bakery ladies with hair nets and scarves jauntily set upon their neat dark hair would talk Yiddish among themselves. They complacently pulled on the number counter thing under the clock and would announce in English ”Number 12″ as they searched the crowd. The breads were stacked on shelves on the mirrored wall behind them They had a little dust pan to collect the crumbs and cornmeal. Amid the action, a woman with bright blue eyes would pause in her labors and silently hand over sugar cookie to me. Sometimes, if I were lucky, she would give me string to play cats-cradle with. I hid behind my Mom’s leg there too.
The wood paneled deli had huge vats of pickles placed around the shop. Sometimes I was given the job of fishing pickles out. This I would leave the leg for – then return promptly when done.
Inside the apartment I wasn’t the leg hiding type of kid that I portrayed in the street. Not even close. Though I apparently did follow my mother around the apartment quite a lot. Sometimes she would tell me to go to my room. The hurt didn’t linger once I got lost in my toys.
Old New York had vendors who did business door to door – we had the remnants - Eggman, Tinker and Dietrich the Seltzer Man.
Eggman was definitely leg worthy. There was no way that I was going to be fooled by that silver change counter belt that he wore. The ice cream man had that counter too. Unlike Mr. Good Humor, Eggman had a nose that looked more like a fin. It stuck out from his spotted eggshell of a head. His fingers were bumpy like a witch’s and his teeth were just as long as hers too. I think he smelled like hay, or his boots did. His belt was high up on his chest. All of this I could have probably been comfortable with over time. But when he counted change, he loudly snapped each bill between his hands. “OK Miss, here you go…one [snap], two [snap] and [skritchy skritchy clink clink] fifty cents.” I didn’t like it when my mother asked me to buy the eggs.
The tinker man was nice..he was old and wore a hat above his round around his shoulders. A tie limply hung from around his neck. He would come, he would leave, he came back with sharp knives. I peered at the transactions from the pantry door. If I looked out the window I could see his cart where he did his work. This was always interesting. He made sparks sometimes.
The seltzer man was the only one to come inside our apartment. He was tall. He was friendly. His smile brightest smile ever. He had big shoes and wore a uniform. He called me “little lady” in a way that we both knew I wasn’t a little lady, but it was still a nice thing to pretend.
It felt good to be around him. Usually I would bring something from my room to share with him. “Why, that’s mighty nice of you to show me that Little Lady.”
His shoulderd seemed to almost scrape the walls of our hallway as he came in to collect the empty seltzer bottle crates. He would consult with my mother while taking notes. “OK. Ma’am and Little Lady, I will be right back up.” A few minutes later he was back…straining slightly under the wooden crate on his shoulder. A box of syrups under his other arm. It was heavy work. You could tell he was very strong. But he gently arranged the new items in the storage closet. He had a limp. Maybe that is why he didn’t seem to move very fast. But a limp wouldn’t make someone talk slower or listen longer – would it?
One day after he was all done with business I lifted an outstretched hand to him. “Why Little Lady, what do you have there?” In my palm was some coins from my piggy bank.
“Dietrich” I said “I want you to buy some new skin. I can’t see your eyes.” There was a silence. “Oh, Little Lady, I thought of that myself many many times….” He laughed softly and thanked me kindly for the gesture. He closed my fingers over the money. “Keep that money of yours and save it…you go to college. See you next week Little Lady.” He nodded to my mother and headed out the door.
I was so sad that he turned me down. I wanted to help him. I felt embarrassed even trying. I hid from him for a few weeks after. It broke my heart.