Reading this post in “Down the Shore,” about the days when produce vendors would ride through neighborhoods in New Jersey selling produce from the back of trucks, reminded me of something even a bit further back in time.
I can remember when a few vendors still came around with a horse and wagon. Before you get to thinking that I’m as old as Methuselah, please note that I was in grammar school at the time, and I’m quite certain that these were the last holdouts for the use of “real” horsepower.
Growing up in North Jersey, in the shadow of Newark, it was always quite a treat for us to get a look at a horse up close and personal. I recall that they seemed to me to be really big, although I was quite small and plenty of things that looked big then don’t look nearly as big now (even Yankee Stadium). Having said that, they could well have been a special breed of horse that is built to pull heavy wagons. I suppose I don’t know any more about horses now than I did then.
There was also the fruit and vegetable guy. I believe his name was Gus, and, much like the produce vendor described in Down the Shore, Gus would write the name of the items and the prices on a brown paper bag and put them on sticks, which would serve as a signs. However, what I remember most about him was the unique way he would holler from the wagon to alert everyone, within earshot, of his presence.
Imagine, if you will, a W.C. Fields type of voice hollering, “PEACH-eye…Ta-MATE-ay…” I never did learn whether he could actually say “Peaches … Tomatoes.” It didn’t matter then, and it sure doesn’t matter now, but there’s no telling what kinds of things stay in one’s memory.
Then there was the “Rag Man.” He rode his wagon through the neighborhood collecting rags. I never knew his name or understood the economics of collecting rags, but I suspect that he paid the local residents something for their rags (presumably based on weight) and then resold them in bulk. Much like Gus the fruit and vegetable guy, the Rag Man had his own distinctive “Call”. It is difficult to convey with the printed word, but I’ll give it a shot.
Think of the tone of one’s voice when making the “Hee-Haw” sound of a donkey. The “Hee” is a few tones higher than the “Haw”. Now, stretch out the “Heeeeeeee,” and the “Haaaaaaaw,” and insert a two-beat pause between the words. Substitute the word “Rags” for both the “Heeeee” and the “Haaaaaw,” and you get “RAAAAAGS … … Raaaags.” I can close my eyes and hear him now as if he were just outside the door.**
Finally, I recall yet another horse and wagon vendor – “Mike the Busy Bee.” Unlike Gus or the Rag Man, Mike, the Busy Bee used his horse to pull his hot dog wagon to a strategic spot on one of the main streets “Down Neck,” (more formally known as the Ironbound Section of Newark). His wagon would be in the same spot all day, from which he sold hot dogs, drinks and other things to eat that I do not now remember.
When we would go “Down Neck” to visit family or friends, my dad and I always stopped to get a hot dog from Mike the Busy Bee. They were great. Unfortunately, that all ended when my mother was with us on one occasion and saw Mike tending to his horse and then selling hot dogs without any visible means to wash his hands in between the horse handling and the hot dog handling. That, of course, led my mother to speculate about where ol’ Mike would take a leak during the long day. So much for Mike’s hot dogs.
I guess the one other thing I remember about horse and wagon vendors is, well, horseshit. It was still easy to find in the streets back then, and my mother –- the same person who put a stop to my eating Mike the Busy Bee’s hot dogs — always told me that it was good luck to step in horseshit, so we regularly did. Go figure.
**”Down Neck” had its own Rag Man, and there is a widely told family story that involves the Rag Man and Cousin Jack. However, I will only tell it with Jack’s express permission.