Yesterday's Magazette

7 – Another Fine Day

Another Fine Day

OldIceWagon

By Doris M. Kneppel


“Ice! We got ice! Ice!” The burly man stood in the bed of his wagon, hands on hips, head thrown back, surveying the clapboard houses that lined the Brooklyn street. The scene was one familiar to any city kid  in 1933, a year when America was deep into the Great Depression. Electric refrigerators were available, but without jobs and with money scarce, old-fashioned iceboxes were commonly used; a tall, white double door wooden box, the top door being the one in which a block of ice was placed.

Heads appeared at windows and women, leaning far out, shouted, “Hey! Mr. Ice! Up here.” When a woman caught his attention, she held up one or two fingers and yelled the number. The iceman mentally filled each order for one or two five-cent blocks of ice and began chipping the blocks from the huge one, using his icepick with expert ease, chipping away until a perfectly square block fell loose.

I and my  friends,  Mary and  Angie, gathered around like hungry gadflies to beg for ice chips. Although we were only eight year olds, we were  a menace as far as the iceman was   concerned. He knew it was best to keep on our good sides or suffer the consequence of finding  that his horse and wagon had been led up the street to the next block.

Contentedly sucking on free ice, we watched  him grip the block of ice with his tongs and swing it onto his burlap draped shoulder. As he disappeared  into the first house we looked at each other, grinned in silent agreement, and swarmed over his wagon to forage for stray chips.

School was out and the whole summer stretched before us. Angie, Mary, and I usually argued about whether to play house or go to Sands Street and watch the sailors from the Brooklyn Navy Yard walking with the fancy dressed ladies. If, however, the  firemen up the street were setting up the tall sprinkler heads for us kids, all plans were put on hold. The local fire department was filled with caring men who, with funds from the city,  managed to devise a ten foot tall pipe with a sprinkler head on top.

It was a hot day and word had already spread up and down the street that the sprinkler was being set up at the firehouse. Sitting still for lunch was agony, but necessary if I expected to be allowed to join the fun. I watched Mama carefully to gauge her mood before broaching the subject of the dreaded, itchy bathing suit. I knew how to soften her up. I emptied the basin under the icebox where the water had accumulated from the melting ice, and did it unasked. It was an onerous chore that I often conveniently forgot to do.With Mama’s good graces won, she agreed  that an old dress would do just fine to wear under the firemen’s shower, “But don’t  forget your underwear!” she always warned.

Kids from all over the neighborhood had already passed  the word. Some girls wore their scratchy black woolen bathing suits (obviously not as adept as I at coaxing their mothers). Most, however, wore their oldest, most ragged dresses. Boys, too,  wore their oldest pants with no shirt.

We rushed under and out of the spray whooping and screaming in the shock of the icy water showering from the sprinkler. The boys, of course, were braver. It was an afternoon of pure joy.

Although the nation was in the grip of the Depression, we children were not really aware of the struggle for survival. Our folks often wondered aloud about where the next rent payment was coming from, but  it seemed to us that  there was  always a place to live and always enough to eat. Supper, as usual, was the time when Mama and Papa talked about stuff like who’s out of work and whether the landlord would wait an extra week for the rent. Occasionally, I interrupted  to talk about my wonderful afternoon, but a sharp glance from Papa reminded me that children are seen, not heard.

When the sun had set and twilight deepened, Papa sat on the stoop with neighbors discussing serious things like the new president, Mr. Roosevelt, and his plans to help the poor. It was boring stuff that I had heard a thousand times and it was always with a sigh of relief when I saw my friends gathering across the street in front of the empty building. It was time to leave the men in peace and find some new mischief with my friends.

The abandoned house was boarded up, but there were many openings we could squeeze through. It was scary and  exciting to wander through the empty rooms after dark, stepping carefully over and around abandoned furniture. We were sure the rooms were filled with ghosts and monsters. Some nights, if we felt especially brave, we ventured  into the darkness to look for ghosts, and this first night of summer vacation was to be that night.

As we tiptoed  from room to room trying not to giggle, we were  rewarded with muffled groans and muttered curses. Although we  knew that the sounds probably came from a homeless man sleeping there in the dark recesses, we liked to scare ourselves by agreeing that the sounds came from the walking dead and monsters. In those years, men without homes were described as bums or hoboes. “Bums,” Papa often said, “are men too lazy to look for a job.” The truth was, of course, that there were few jobs to be found in 1933, but Papa, like many other working men, felt that if he could find a job, so could they, if they weren’t lazy and looking for a handout.

Hoboes, on the other hand, were for some reason, admired and respected as “Knights of the Road.. Few hoboes found their way to these city blocks  but “bums” were everywhere and found shelter on loading docks of nearby factories and in empty houses like the one my friends and I were tiptoeing  through.

When we were bored with chasing “ghosts” we gathered under the  street light, and sat in a tight group on the curb to tell ghost stories. Usually it wasn’t long before we were joined by a group of younger girls who sensed that soon blood curdling tales would  fill the air. Angie might begin with, “You remember Cathy, the kid who used to live in that spooky house? You know, the one who wasn’t right in the head?” (Nods all around.) “Well, when the wreckers came and broke up the house with that giant iron ball, they didn’t know she was chained to the bed. Well, she screamed and screamed but nobody heard her. She was squashed flatter than a pancake … and, of course, she died.” (Gasps) “That moaning sound we heard when we went upstairs just now  was Cathy’s ghost!”

And so the tales of horror continued until we sensed that the sidewalk in front of our houses had gradually filled with card tables, kitchen chairs and candles. The men had begun their summer ritual of playing cards. The sounds of laughter and good-natured insults wafted across the street. The lure was always too much for us to ignore. In a body we descended upon them,  eager not to miss goodies such as lemonade and just maybe, homemade cookies.

We liked to hang around hoping to learn more forbidden words to use in private  but our mothers, who were lounging on the stoops, seeming to be deep in conversations, would raise their eyes in unison and hook their fingers to call us to bed. Reluctantly, and sighing mightily, we sorted ourselves out and went to them. We hated to part company. Tomorrow seemed so far away but we always promised solemnly to meet first thing next morning. (In fact, wasn’t tomorrow the day the junk man usually came? We planned to sell him our “silver” balls,  the ones we made from  the silver paper from discarded cigarette packages.)

In the kitchen, Mama had already opened my cot and arranged the light sheet. After inspecting my hands, she tucked in the sheet and kissed me goodnight. I heard her quietly leave to sit on the stoop. The sound of the men and the soft laughter of the women were comforting sounds. I felt myself slipping into sleep, thinking about how tomorrow would be another perfect day.

Doris M. Kneppel is a retired teacher and now a writer She has had a number of short stories and essays published. Her novel Tell Them No Secrets is now complete and she is on to her next novel, The Long Goodbye. She and her husband live in New Jersey; their son, daughter, and grandchildren live close by.

Vol. 36 No. 3 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Fall – 2009

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