Tuesday, September 22, 2009
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Lawrence – My Hometown
Ragman, fruit vendor and knife sharpener
Richard E. Noble
Okay, everyone out there who remembers feeding the ragman’s horse please raise their hand.
The ragman in my neighborhood was a brown-skinned, chubby little guy. My staff of researchers has informed me that the ragman’s name in our era was George Layland. “Rumor” had it that George died a millionaire.
He had an old horse that pulled his junk wagon. He had a thin whip and at varying intervals he snapped the horse from a slow walk to an even slower walk - my kind of horse. As the ragman rolled very slowly up and down the streets of our neighborhood, he would chant … zharr rags, zharr rags. He would buy bags of rags and old clothes. He would also take broken bicycles, wagons, busted scooters … anything. He never paid anybody very much for their junk. My mother complained about him all the time. But nevertheless, he filled that old wagon up every day.
When someone from one of the tenements would halt the ragman he would tie his horse up to a telephone pole and little kids would gather all around to touch and pet the old horse. Some of us would run off hunting grass or pulling up straw-like stuff that grew around the fence edges or popped out of the cracks in the curbing. The old horse liked apple cores and bananas also.
The horse always pooped along the street somewhere. My grandmother would be off her rocker and out into the street with her snow shovel. She would tote the poop out behind the garages in the backyard and spade it into the dirt around her greens and her rhubarb. It was great fun finding a kid who had never eaten rhubarb before. We would all stare silently and wait as he took his first big bite and started chewing. When his face puckered up, the roar of laughter would erupt.
The fruit and vegetable vendor would set all the neighborhood moms scurrying also. He had a truck and a hanging scale dangling at the rear of his truck. I am sure the Department of Weights and Measures never accessed that scale.
He crawled up and down the streets never getting out of first gear. He would yell out … Apples, peaches, water mel … loans. He would sing it. It would start off high with the apples and peaches and then trail off into the water mel … loans. Apples … peaches … water mel … loans.
When the price was right my mother would buy a bushel of something and have me cart it down to the landing in the cellar. The cellar was always the coolest spot, even in the summertime. The peaches, pears or apples in the cellar landing would last a good while and provided a nice treat. When the fruit started to overripe we had pies. That was an all around good deal.
Then we had the Hood Milk delivery truck guy, who arrived early every morning and left clanking glass bottles of milk on the doorstep. Each jug had a cup or so of cream floating at the top of the bottle.
Me, Ray Dolan and Jack Sheehy once applied for jobs at the Hood Milk Company on one of our unemployment walking tours of Lawrence. When the man asked us why we applied for a job at Hood Milk he caught us off guard. He clarified his question by mentioning that he had placed no ad in the newspaper asking for help. Our method for finding a job had nothing to do with checking want ads. We would just go wandering off each morning and walk into anyplace that we figured had more than a mom, dad and junior employed there.
The man’s question seemed rather stupid, I thought. Hood Milk had numerous milk trucks, hundreds, running all over town. Every milk truck had a driver. One of the drivers could have died over the weekend, maybe fell out of the damn truck or got a better job mowing the lawn in the Common or running numbers for one of the many local bookies. What kind of a question was this guy putting forward?
Jack and I sat there dumbfounded but Ray went into a prayer type monologue about all the things he loved and cherished about Hood Milk and being a delivery man. Ray loved the white milkman suit and the white police cap that topped it off. He loved the taste of Hood milk ever since he was a baby. One look at that Hood milk bottle sitting on the kitchen table with all the thick, rich cream floating near the top of the bottle and even his mother’s breast was a second rate substitute. He finished his love story about the Hood Milk Company with, “Ever since I was a little boy, I always dreamed of one day becoming a milkman and delivering Hood milk door to door. If I were to get a position here today, it would be the highlight of my entire life – a dream come true.”
The interviewer was quite impressed. A tiny tear came peeking out from the corner of his right eye. He pulled himself together, cleared his throat and told Ray that in all of his career he had never heard an applicant make such an emotional plea. Jack and I sat speechless.
When we got outside to the parking lot Jack and I both confessed to Ray that we had similar thoughts as children ourselves. The white uniform and the white police cap were especially vivid memories.
Ray said, “You guys got to be kidding me. I hate milk. The sight of the stuff makes me gag. I never thought of being a milkman once in my life.”
“You made that whole thing up? How did you ever think of that?”
“Well, I figured here’s this sucker stuck down there in the Hood milk building all his adult life. He probably started out as a milk delivery man himself. He is sitting there looking out the damn window thinking how he has wasted his whole life peddling milk. I figured what would a poor slob like that like best to hear? How about a story about a kid who spent his entire childhood dreaming of becoming just like him? He had probably been sitting staring out that window all morning. Hasn’t had an applicant in three weeks. He probably has nothing to tell his wife when he gets home from work every night. Tonight when he goes home he’ll have this great story about a boy who always dreamed of becoming a milkman.”
“So you made the guy’s day?”
“Why not? What else am I doing? I’m unemployed, remember.”
And how could anybody ever forget the Cushman Bakery delivery man and the tinkling bell of the ice cream truck, or the block ice delivery man. He had those huge ice tongs and that leather sheath he threw over his shoulder and last but not least, the knife sharpening guy.
The knife sharpening guy had his own rig. He was another very old man. He had a wheelbarrow type thing that he pushed down the street. He had a chant also but I don’t recall how it went. In place of the carry bucket on his wheelbarrow he had a giant stone wheel. As I remember the big stone was white in color. I remember my mother frantically searching out every dull knife in the silverware draw, sticking them into a paper bag or wrapping them up in a towel and sending me out in a run after the old man and his giant stone. I guess the “don’t run with scissors” admonition was also after my time. Of course, children were a good deal cheaper in those days.
This guy had a neat business though, I loved to watch him. First he would set his wheelbarrow down and then he would flip back this buggy seat he had folded over at the handle end of the barrow. He would climb up into his buggy seat and then put his feet on the bicycle peddles he had hooked up to his stone. He would peddle his stone and get it rotating and then start edging the knives. It was neat to watch him. He had a rhythmic pace to his peddling and scraping. He also had a water bottle and he poured water onto his rotating wheel occasionally.
He would test the knives for sharpness by touching his thumb along the edge. When I would get the knives home both my mother and I would test a knife edge as the old man had done and invariably we would each cut our thumbs. I remember examining that old man’s thumb each time I brought him knives. He had a mean looking thumb, man, let me tell you. Wow, if thumbs could talk. That thumb had obviously been to hell and back.
Hey, somebody ought to write a book with that title “To Hell and Back.” That would be a million seller, I’ll bet.
PS – Don’t write. I know all about Audie Murphy.
Richard Edward Noble is a freelance writer and columnist. His local column, the Eastpointer, won the first place 2007 humor award from the Florida Press Association. He has published several books. All of his books can be viewed and purchased on Amazon.com. Contact Richard at Noble Publishing firstname.lastname@example.org for bookstore discounts and volume sales.