(This is another special posting by Suzy. I hope you enjoy it.)
Being a peddler, which was once considered an honorable profession, seems to have disappeared from the commercial landscape of our country. One of the few remnants is the ice-cream man who still comes with the spring to bring children popsicles just in time to spoil their appetite for dinner. He embodies all the classic signs of a peddler: a distinctive vehicle to carry his wares, a jingle that carries a great way to bring you to his vehicle, and a more or less regular route so that you will learn to rely on his arrival.
We have a story in our family that my great-grandmother’s brother married a Russian immigrant who was a peddler. The family called her Push-cart Annie. My mother said that the last she remembers any contact with that branch was when she was twelve and she was taken to Annie’s funeral. By then Annie’s husband was dead and her children had taken over the business. They had graduated to a truck and were, to Moma’s eyes, doing very well.
When I was in kindergarten and first grade, my father was stationed at the Philadelphia Navel Yard, and we lived in a housing development called Cement City in South Philadelphia. These were boxy row houses with no shutters, nor entry way covers front or back. The buildings were white with dark forest green doors. The fascia where the outside walls met the flat roofs was the same dark green. The latter only emphasized the box like nature of the buildings. They did have what then seemed to be large grassy areas for children to play and wide alleys between rows of houses. There were several peddlers, besides ice cream men, who plied their trade in this area. The most frequent visitor was a vegetable man. He came in an open truck with bushel baskets of the vegetables that were then at their peak of ripeness. He would yell to come out and get beans, or tomatoes or whatever was the current crop. Once he saw three or four ladies coming out their back doors he would stop the truck and climb into the back from where he would show his crops and tout their freshness. We had a postage stamp size yard with no room to grow anything, but we had fresh vegetables. Being close to New Jersey we got marvelous asparagus in the spring, then beans, later the tomatoes and corn. In August, he would also bring watermelon. Before he left he would be sure to tell everyone what was next to be picked and when he would be back with that. We even had a ragman and a knife and scissors sharpener. My Dad was very good at sharpening knives, but he didn’t do scissors. My Mom was both an avid seamstress and left handed. The combination made her scissors dull frequently, so she would be glad when the man who could sharpen them came through. In between times, she would use a kitchen glass to help keep the edge. If you were right-handed you didn’t use Moma’s scissors, nor her paring knife. With the scissors it was the wrong pressure on the screw that held the blades together as well as their edges. It was always an event when a peddler came. They would sing out about their service. Children would be sent to stop the peddler while the ladies would get their money or whatever else they needed for this particular visitor. Of course there was the Fuller Brush man, and the Avon Lady who would knock on the door. They had catalogs and samples to entice you to buy.
Each move would take us to a place that had different cultural norms, so when we got to the next duty station and we didn’t have any peddlers plying their trade, it didn’t really register on my consciousness. After all, there were always many new things and places to fill our days leaving no room to miss the peddlers.
Then we moved to Italy. Everything was new and exciting from our point of view. Because of the treaties that ended WWII, American Military dependents stationed in Italy were to live “on the economy” rather than in Base housing. Mom and Dad went looking for an apartment from an approved list and found one in a neighborhood called Posillipo. We were in one of two apartments not occupied by a member of the family that owned the building. Since ancient times, Italians have kept their families close to them. In many cases, that means that the paterfamilias, or in Italian, capofamiglia, buys or erects a building with enough apartments so that each child and his/her family have their own flat and stay close. For the family who owned our building, one daughter had married and moved to her husband’s family’s vinyard, and a son had bought the second building up the hill for his children to fill. That left two flats to bring income. We had one on the third floor and another American family whose father was stationed at the near-by Nato base had the one on the second floor just below us.
The small, cobbled street that went up the hill between Via Posillipo and Via Petrarca had deep “s” turns between which the apartment buildings nestled. Ours was the second building up the hill. Being on the third floor we had a lovely and classic view of the bay off the Mergellina and Mount Vesuvius in one direction and out the mouth of the bay to Capri in the other. Via Posillipo itself is very busy, but our little street wasn’t. Each year on ferragosto, the local church, Parrocchia S. Maria Assunta Di Bellavista, would have a parade around the neighborhood. Ferragosto is the Italian summer holiday on the 15th of August, which also happens to be the Virgin Mary’s feast day. They would be led by the local band whose musical ability reminded me of an elementary school offering. Some men would be given the privilege of carrying the statue of the Virgin Mary down the street. They would be preceded by the local priest offering a blessing. We would stand on our balcony and watch. It was a delightful way to break the lethargy of a hot summer afternoon in Naples.
Most summer days had a slow and monotonous rhythm to them. Dad would leave for the cross city trip to Capodichino as the sun was rising. Then, before the heat could begin its suffocating embrace, we would rush around the apartment doing whatever chores Moma decided had to be accomplished that day. Sometimes it was wiping the marble floors with a mild vinegar solution to keep them shining. Sometimes it was dashing to a local store for a small bit of cheese, or another shop for vegetables. By lunch we would be lowering the persiana blinds to keep the sun out and create a sense of relief from the heat. There was no central heat or air, so during the summer we would practice what Moma called the art of chasing the sun. Then, during the hottest part of the afternoon we would settle in with the book we were currently reading. As the shadows began to lengthen, Dad would come home, we would have dinner and sometimes participate in the Italian custom of la passeggiata, or the evening stroll.
Occasionally this routine would be broken by the advent of a peddler. Sometimes I thought that every Italian knew every aria from every opera ever written. The first hint of a peddler would be his singing. Between songs he would call out about his service. We didn’t have a vegetable man, but there were small shops all along Via Posillipo. We did have a rag man, and a scissor/knife sharpener. The most memorable peddler was the man who brought fabric. Somehow, in her minimal Italian, Moma had made it known that she liked to make much of our clothing. I think she did this with Milko, the apartment superintendent. However it was done, one evening Milko brought this man with a huge package wrapped in brown paper and tied with string to our door. He was diminutive with a shirt whose collar looked a size or more too large. He wore a tie and a suit coat which didn’t quite match his slacks. Fortunately, the man spoke English and explained that he made his living by buying and then selling fabric door to door. He was in our neighborhood three or four times a year and Milko had told him that we might be interested. Dad invited him in and we all sat in the living room. The man began to tease the knots from the string. Then the stiff brown paper fell back and the man had a dozen or so lengths of fabric. He carefully lifted the top most piece and spread it in front of us, explaining its fiber content and where he had obtained it. He had fabric from many of the nations that rimmed the Mediterranean. He would talk about the drape, what it would be suitable for, how much there was of a given piece. Then he would lift the next piece and begin telling about it. Some would make a suit for Dad, or my brother Jim. Others would make the “young miss” a perfect dress. Some had the perfect color for Moma. Some of the pieces would cause us to ooh or aah, others would be less appealing. If Dad caught the right glint in Moma’s eye he would signal to have that piece put to one side. Eventually, all the pieces of fabric would be spread out. Then the man would begin to refold each length. He would put most back on top of his brown paper while the smaller pile sat on the side closer to Moma who would occasionally reach out and caress one piece or another. During this process Dad might have another piece put into the smaller pile. Price was then discussed. There would be some bargaining, but Dad pretty much accepted the price as asked. Moma would offer something to drink, warm or cold depending on the time of year, a bit of conversation as he retied his package. And he would leave. There was never a set time. The man would just arrive at the door with his brown paper package of fabric and then leave. As I began to understand better how the Italian market place thrived on bargaining, I pressed Dad to be more assertive with the man. Dad said no in one of those tones that you knew you were not to pursue the subject. Then he asked if I had noticed the tattoo on the man’s wrist. The man had survived the Nazi Concentration camps, and Dad felt he deserved what we could pay.
The last word:
Like a lot of things, peddlers have pretty much disappeared, at least where we have lived over the past 25 years. Except for the ice cream man, fortunately. I don’t know whether this demise is a good thing, a bad thing, or just is.
Keep your sense of humor.