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A boy remembers Maplewood's businesses

What it was like to work and shop in Maplewood during the 1950s.

My Maplewood

 

By Jim Van Orden, Richardson, TX, 2012

 (Part three in a four-part series chronicling a boy’s memories of Maplewood.)

 

Tinker, Tailor, Butcher…and I

My pants always had holes in the knees, as did my shirts in the elbow areas.  That’s because I ran, fell and crawled as I played “Superman” or “Batman” with friends.  At age eight, however, Mom decided I needed a new wardrobe.  So she took me for the first time to Kahn’s Clothing Store on Springfield Avenue, an establishment owned by an elderly couple.  I didn’t want to go. 

Mr. Kahn greeted us at the door.  “Mrs. Van Orden, you’re right.  It’s time Jimmy had a new wardrobe.”  The store smelled like mothballs, starch, fabric and the breakfast Mrs. Kahn prepared in their upstairs apartment.  Mr. Kahn, his eyes sparkling, never missed anything.  Standing about five-feet-six and weighing perhaps 125 pounds, he had a piece of tailor’s chalk behind his ear, a ribbon tape measure around his neck and spectacles falling from his nose.  He was also a good salesman.  His wife was sweet yet tough.  She ran the store and was the brains.  In many respects, the couple represented Maplewood’s underlying business strength.

Mrs. Kahn was busy writing the receipt before Mom even finished shopping.  She wrapped my new clothing in heavy brown paper pulled from a large counter dispenser.  Then she tied everything using string pulled from somewhere above our heads.  The enormous NCR cash register was the best part for me.  Mrs. Kahn expertly pushed keys with the speed and accuracy of a concert pianist. Numbers magically appeared on a glass panel and the drawer opened with a loud ring.  It may have been the genesis of my interest in technology.  I couldn’t wait to go home, put on my holes-in-the-knees jeans and jump in the dirt.

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Next stop:  City Produce.  “What’cha want today, Mrs. Van?” Joe yelled in his best English.  Joe and his brothers were second-generation Italians and I really liked their store.  It smelled of onions, radishes, garlic and other vegetables, and sawdust coated the floor.  Everything was same-day fresh from Jersey’s farmlands.  Brother Al wore a “newsboy” hat that flopped over his eyes and he carried a six-foot-long wooden stick with metal claws.  He’d reach up, squeeze the handle and the claws grabbed a box off a shelf.  He caught the box on its way down.

Brother Mike was my favorite.  He always sang songs in Italian that sounded funny and occasionally sad.  The other brothers were in constant motion hauling boxes from a truck in the alley.  I didn’t know what they were yelling, but I imagined it was swear words as they scurried about.  An old man with deep wrinkles and a hump in his back sat smoking a pipe.  I guessed he was the father.  I never saw the mother.  Perhaps she lived in the apartment above the store.

“Do you want delivery?” Joe asked as he wrapped Mom’s order in the same heavy brown paper, tied with white string, which Mrs. Kahn used in the clothing store.  “Delivery” involved a teenage boy who rode a specially-designed bicycle.  The front wheel was smaller than the rear one to allow a huge basket to be mounted above the fender.  Upon arrival at our house that afternoon he thanked Mom for his 50-cent tip.

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Mom knew the best stores.  “Neils Butcher Shop” in Maplewood center was next.  “Big Mike,” Neils’ assistant and an Irishman from Irvington, greeted us with his usual booming babble of blarney and mumbles.  And Neils, a Norwegian who spoke broken English, went into the meat locker, retrieved a beef section and trimmed Mom’s order on a butcher block nearly 18-inches thick.  The block had been used so many years that its center was made hollow by thousands of sharp knife cuts.

Like City Produce, the floor was covered with sawdust.  Meats ranging from steaks to ribs and roasts to chops were wrapped in brown paper and tied in white string.  I liked Neils and Mike so much I asked them for a job when I was 17.  “Can you drive a truck, Jimmy?” Neils asked.  “I can drive anything,” I boasted.

On my first delivery run in Neils’ 1957 Chevy panel truck I met Mike the policeman, who stood every day directing traffic at the corner of Baker Street and Maplewood Avenue.  As I blissfully cruised through the intersection, Mike bellowed “When you see me raise my hand, that means stop, you idiot!”  I thought he was going to write a ticket when he approached.  Instead, he asked with a big smile how I liked my job at Neils.  We saw each other nearly every day, chatted and soon became friends.

Making friends was easy in Maplewood.  Everyone on my delivery route took me in and talked about their town and lives.  They tipped well, too.  “You been talking again, Jimmy?” Neils asked when I came back late.  He wasn’t annoyed, I knew, because I was his “customer relations” man.  Being late meant staying after he closed and scraping grease from three butcher blocks using a stiff wire brush.  It was knuckle-busting work as I spread coarse salt on the wood and moved the brush back and forth dozens of times.  The final job was washing large grease pans in sinks filled with hot water and lye soap.  Being a butcher wasn’t easy.  Being a butcher’s apprentice was even harder.

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Dad shopped, too, and his favorite store was Blanken’s Hardware on Springfield Avenue.  Blanken’s had been around since the horse-and-buggy days.  Mr. Blanken always treated us with respect, as did his two adult sons who managed the store with their eagle-eyed mother.  She sat silently behind the counter and watched customers shop.  No customer was ever neglected or left unattended for more than five minutes.

I saved quarters for months to buy Dad’s Father’s Day and Christmas presents at Blanken’s.  The stainless steel hammer I gave him in 1956 transferred to my toolbox after he passed (it’s still there).  Every tool, whether hammer or handsaw, was a quality product at Blanken’s, and excellent customer service was the family trademark.  Powerful aromas emanated from behind the counter when kerosene, turpentine or lamp oil were retrieved from large barrels, carefully measured and poured into metal cans for customers.  The original oak floors were protected by sawdust which was swept up and replenished daily.  A thin layer of fresh oil was applied every Saturday before closing.

Hauling hundreds of bags of fertilizer from a flatbed truck and stacking them in Blanken’s warehouse was my first job when hired in 1961.  Squatting was what I did most, however, as I dropped to lower shelves and worked my way up applying price tags to practically everything.  Mrs. Blanken decided on prices and she and I spent one afternoon each week printing labels on an ancient manual typewriter-like device.  It was tedious but I marveled at Mrs. Blanken’s shrewd pricing strategies.  She carried in her head every product’s price and intuitively knew when to mark items up or down.

“You don’t just sell a handsaw to a customer,” Mr. Blanken told me one day.  “You sell the knowledge he needs to buy the correct handsaw for his work.”  That day I learned the difference between a crosscut saw and a rip saw, an axe and a hatchet, a single-bit and double-bit axe, a common nail hammer with curved claw and a rip hammer with straight claw, as well as a myriad of other tools.  It was a great education.

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Perhaps I learned my hardest—and best—lesson at my first Maplewood job in 1960.  Mr. Kane was both benevolent and malevolent.  “Here, put this on,” he said as he handed me an ill-fitting black tuxedo jacket that had seen better days and smelled of mothballs.  Then he handed me a flashlight, told me my duties and put me to work ushering customers to their seats at the Maplewood Theater.

“This was a vaudeville house back in the 1920s, Jimmy,” he told me that day.  “I managed the place and booked dancers, singers and comedians.  We packed the house every night.  But movies killed vaudeville in the 1930s.  We put in the screen right after the ‘talkies’ started.”  His bald head, rotund body and slow speech suggested he was in his 70s.  My 16-year-old brain grossly underestimated his capabilities.

What a cushy job.  All I did was lead people to seats.  Plus, I watched great movies and got paid $1/hour doing it.  Playing that summer were hits such as “Spartacus,” “Psycho,” “Elmer Gantry,” “Sink The Bismarck,” “The Time Machine,” “Inherit The Wind” and “The Magnificent Seven.”  I was so engrossed in the movies that I’d lean back against a wall and enjoy the show.  Little did I know Mr. Kane was observing.

“Jimmy, I don’t pay you to watch movies,” Mr. Kane barked.  Where did he come from and how did he see me, I wondered?  “When you’re not standing at attention you’re supposed to walk aisles and do your job,” he barked again.  He caught me again three weeks later during “Psycho.”  He warned that a third violation would cost me my job.

After the movie, an older usher pulled me aside and said I was “stupid.”  Motioning me to follow, we walked up and down the aisles.  “Don’t you see the mirrors?” he asked.  “What mirrors?” I countered.  “They’re all over the place,” he said, pointing to ceilings and walls, “and they’re lined up so Kane can watch everything we do.”

We walked to a location where I frequently saw Mr. Kane stop and stand.  “You stay here,” the boy said, “and I’ll stand where you were this evening.  Wave if you see me.”  He was right, I saw him.  Then we moved to a second position.  “This is where Kane stood and was invisible to you,” he went on.  “Stand there and I’ll go back to your post.”  I could see him but he couldn’t see me.  No wonder I had been found out.

The boss always has an edge, I learned from that experience.  And I thought I was clever when I started using Mr. Kane’s mirrors to my advantage.  Noting their locations and testing lines of sight between them, I soon developed a defensive strategy that kept me out of trouble.  Now I could watch movies and not worry.  Or so I thought.

“I don’t want you here, Jimmy,” Mr. Kane told me with solemnity as the summer ended.  “You’re still watching movies.  I saw you again.”  How did he know, I wondered?  Maybe it was during the gladiator fight in “Spartacus” or when the Bismarck sank to its watery grave.  He out-smarted me and I was fired for the first time.  I vowed it would never happen again.  It didn’t.

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“Rag man, rag man!” the loud fellow yelled as he stood atop a wagon pulled by two of the largest horses I ever saw.  Mom ran out the front door to Tuscan Road and stopped him.  He parked the wagon in the street and came inside, then went into the basement and emerged with piles of newspapers.  A few dollars were exchanged.  I wouldn’t see him again until next month.

The Becker Farms milkman was a different story.  He also had a horse-drawn wagon and stopped near our house two or three times a week.  I enjoyed watching his horses as he filled trays with more than a dozen quarts of milk.  My brothers were voracious milk drinkers.  Each drank two or more quarts daily.  My parents and I did our share of milk drinking, too.  The family may have consumed 30-40 quarts weekly.

Returning home after hot football practices, each brother took a quart out of the refrigerator—or “ice box,” as Mom called it—and shook it upside down to mix in the cream at the top.  Mom marked every bottle with her sons’ initials using lipstick.  And I collected the paper bottle tops in an old “Dutch Masters” cigar box.  Boys at Tuscan Elementary School traded them as if they were rare currency.

The horse-drawn milk trucks and junk wagons soon gave way to motorized versions.  But there was a hold-out, fortunately, who still plied Tuscan Road in his wagon.  “Scissors sharpened!  Knives sharpened!”  The tinker who visited us monthly was the last of a dying breed.  Mom flagged him down.  Then she ran around the house digging into drawers and cabinets for anything that needed sharpening.  Sparks from a large, foot-operated grinding wheel illuminated the wagon’s interior as the tinker did his job.  Everything came back as sharp as a razor blade.

I can’t remember when the tinker disappeared.  But then he was gone forever.

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(Want to share your Maplewood memories?  Email me at jvanorden@tx.rr.com)

 

© Copyright, Jim Van Orden, 2012, all rights reserved.

 

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Elisabeth Anderson October 02, 2012 at 01:16 PM
I enjoyed reading this.

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