Yesterday's Magazette

3 – The Wholesale Block

Photo taken by author in early 1970s shortly before the “Scranton Wholesale Block” was demolished.

Remembering The Old Wholesale Block

By E. P. Ned Burke


When I was a kid back in the 50s, I was always looking for ways to make some money, especially during the summer months. When not running errands or mowing lawns for neighbors, I would become a fruit vendor of sorts.

My fruit of choice was huckleberries. I’d spend many hours picking them in the nearby woods, never fearing or aware that a hidden poisonous snake might strike me.

After I had harvested as many juicy berries as I could carry, I would then funnel them into quart bottles and sell them to neighbors.

“How much?” Mrs. McHale would say with a squint.

“Twenty-five cents,” I’d say.

“That seems a lot for those small berries.”

“The small ones are the juiciest,” I’d respond with a killer smile. “Besides, they’re fresh picked today.”

Mrs. McHale would eye me skeptically.

“Ye better not be lyin‘ to an old woman,” she’d say.

More often than not, she would hand me a quarter. But then she would huff and slam the screen door in my face.

On a good day, I might clear a dollar or more, enough to take my lackadaisical best friend Johnny and me to a Saturday Double Matinee at the West Side Theater and still have enough left over for a few bags of candy or popcorn, and even a chocolate malt after the movies.

When huckleberries were not in season, I sold pears, apples, cherries or whatever. Our northeastern Pennsylvania soil was rich and nearly all neighbors had at least two fruit trees in their yards. All I had to do was take fruit from one neighbor’s yard and sell it to another neighbor who lacked that fruit.

When neighbors started to complain to my mother that I was stripping their trees bare, I would desist and move my operation to another neighborhood.

However, this often proved unwise because neighborhoods in Scranton back then were very ethnically divided. The Irish lived in one section; the Polish in another; the Italians over there, and the Germans a few blocks away from them.

Each ethnic group lived in harmony; that is, as long as each group didn’t stray too far from their own invisible borders. Nobody thought too much about it. That’s just the way it was growing up in Scranton in those days.

Anyway, when I turned eleven I decided to be a man, and get a real job. So one hot July day I trudged six miles, down steep hills, across the Lackawanna River, to the decaying Wholesale Block in downtown Scranton.

Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the 100 block of Lackawanna Avenue bustled with merchants, filling every stone, three-story building. They sold everything from produce to bakery goods to clothing. The upper floors were often used by professional people. However, by the early 1950s, the upper floors were completely empty and abandoned. Coal was no longer king and only a few produce merchants remained on the lower levels. They sold fresh vegetables and fruit, mostly to the mom and pop grocery stores that were still hanging on despite the onslaught of new Supermarkets opening up everywhere around that time.

However I was oblivious to the city’s downturn and badgered old Sam Rosenstein for a job. He was a small, bald man with thick glasses and a gray well-trimmed beard. He looked me up and down and said, “What can you do? Look at you. So skinny.”

I lifted a small melon over my head and said, “See! I’m strong.”

We haggled some more and finally Sam gave in and pushed a straw broom at me. “Here,” he grumbled. “Sweep.” So I swept ferociously, inside, outside, for half an hour. Then Sam grabbed the broom and said, “Okay. Tomorrow morning come in at seven.”

 

That night I barely slept, thinking of the fifty cents an hour I would get paid and the many things I could buy with that money. “And all for some simple sweeping duties.”

I arrived on time the next morning. Very tired, but eager.

I quickly grabbed the broom, but Sam said he had other work for me. He directed me out back to a large 18-wheel trailer. It was loaded down with ripe watermelons.

From the tailgate of the truck, a burly guy yelled to me, “Here, kid!”

A watermelon, the size of two footballs and weighing more than a large anvil, hit my flat stomach and I fell backwards onto my skinny behind. The trucker laughed and Sam warned me that if I dropped one it would come out of my pay. He also shook a finger in the direction of the trucker. The guy shrugged and said he’d toss the rest of them to me underhanded.

Nevertheless, after 332 catches, my bony arms were aching so much I thought I’d cry. But I was a stubborn kid, and wouldn’t give the trucker or Sam the satisfaction.

After I had finally finished stacking all the melons, I looked for a good hiding place to collapse. But Sam Rosenstein had other ideas in mind. He dragged me to a smelly back room. It was filled with a mountain of potatoes, stacked high behind a small wooden fence.

He pointed to a large pile of cloth bags and a scale. “Ten pounds of potatoes go into a bag, no more, no less,” he said. “And make darn sure not to bag any rotten ones.”

Trust me, the bad potatoes were easy to find.

The smell of a rotten potato stays with you forever.

Likewise, lifting ten pounds of potatoes over and over for two hours remains with you, too.

By ten-thirty that morning, every bone in my small body was racked with unfamiliar pain.

Finally, I couldn’t take it any longer and yanked off the dirty apron that Sam had put on me and said, “I quit.”

He didn’t seem to mind. He just grinned and said, “Well, you lasted longer than most.” He shoved two dollars in my shirt pocket. “Now go home. Enjoy being a boy. Time enough later for man’s work.”

 

Vol. 37 No. 2 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Summer- 2010

Advertisements

7 Comments »

  1. I AM LOOKING FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE WHOLESALE BLOCK AS MY FATHER HAD A STORE THERE FOR YEARS. HELP!!!

    Comment by JANET PERTUSI — September 29, 2011 @ 6:09 pm | Reply

    • I took that photo shortly before Scranton demolished the Wholesale Block. I believe it was around 1973 when I started Yesterday’s Magazette. I remember going there as a kid and watch the trucks unload fruit and vegetables of all kinds. Now there’s Steamtown Mall there … but no place to buy fruit or vegetables. But Scranton still has the best Texas Wieners! What was the name of your father’s store?

      Comment by Ned — November 5, 2011 @ 9:29 pm | Reply

    • Approx 1950 to 1960 – My father was a farmer and at 4 o’coock A.M. we would from Wyoming drive to Scranton, Lackawanna ave, and back up to the curb, place some of our vegetables on the sidewalk in front of the building we had rented sidewalk space from. Rosenstein, Lynott, Nottariani are some of the wholesalers that would buy from us. We would have breakfast at Mondos Dinner on the corner of the block. That was next to a Bannana Wholesaler.. At approx 7 or 8 a.m. we would leave and go back to the farm to pick more produce for the next day. In 1960 I was 19..

      Comment by Joe Pizano — December 18, 2014 @ 11:46 am | Reply

      • Hi Joe

        Name’s Ned Burke and I was 18 in 1960. When I was a kid, maybe 9 or 10, I helped out at the Banana Wholesale shop one summer. The second day I saw a tarantula come out of a bunch of bananas and ran like hell and never returned. (Later, I may have taken the last photo of the old Wholesale Block before everything was torn down back in the 70s for my weekly paper.) Anyway, one of the things I miss about old Scranton was those great Texas Weiners at Pete’s Lunch. Went back a few years ago and had a few at the Coney Island. OK, but not like those of 50s and 60’s. Of course, Scranton isn’t like it was back then either. Sorta sad ….

        Comment by Ned — December 18, 2014 @ 10:27 pm

  2. Hi there just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The text in your article seem to be running off
    the screen in Firefox. I’m not sure if this is a format issue or something to do with web browser compatibility but I thought I’d post to let you know.

    The style and design look great though! Hope you get the problem solved soon.
    Cheers

    Comment by invisible fence collars — September 5, 2012 @ 12:56 am | Reply

    • Hmm? I checked and that WordPress page looks fine in both Firefox and Safari on my computer.

      Click on “refresh” and see if that helps.

      Thanks for the heads up.

      best,

      Ned

      *See current edition at: http://www.magazettes.com/yesterdays

      Comment by Ned — September 5, 2012 @ 10:53 am | Reply

  3. Awesome post.

    Comment by Shawn — September 27, 2013 @ 12:25 pm | Reply


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: