April 13, 2001 (Ira Pilgrim)


Every man's memory is his private literature.

Aldous Huxley

I grew up in the Bronx, a borough of the great city of New York. At the time it had the unimaginable large population of six million people. I remember this because of a song lyric that went, "Out of a city of six million people, why did you pick on me?" (It now has 7.4 million people, giving it a population density of 24,000 people per square mile, while Chicago has half as many people per square mile.) It was during the last spasm of the horse and buggy era and there were still horses in the city. They pulled the milk man's and ice man's wagons.

The milk man had a wire basket that held six quart bottles of milk. He would carry it up the stairs to the door where he exchanged the full bottles for empty ones. Then he restocked his basket and went to the next door. His horse preceded him and waited, often with his front legs on the sidewalk. I must have been very small because the horse seemed gigantic.

My mother would skim the cream off the top of the milk bottles to use for whatever we used cream for; usually for putting into coffee, which I didn't drink. There was the occasional whipped cream dessert.

The ice man would come in a big wagon. He would pick away with his ice pick at a giant block of ice and cut off a chunk that measured about a square foot, or half of that, depending on what the housewife needed. With his ice tongs he would hoist it to a mat on his shoulder and carry it up, to deposit it in an ice box (ice on top, food on the bottom). We children would pick up the ice chips off the wagon to suck on. The bravest of us would hitch a ride on the back of the wagon to the shouts of the ice man to "Get off!" Kids who had roller skates would hang on to the wagon.

There was a pan under the ice box to collect the water from the melting ice. If my mother forgot to empty the pan, we would have a mini flood. In the winter, we didn't use ice, and food that had to be kept cold was stored in a metal box on the outside of the window sill. Refrigerators and freezers were unknown.

Few people owned automobiles. Most traveled, when they had to, by electric trains, which ran on elevated tracks or underground(subways). For five cents you could go anywhere in the whole city and, if you didn't leave the station, come back. But five cents was hard to come by. The elevated train ran on tracks in the center of a wide street. The track was on the level of my second floor bedroom window, which faced the street. I got used to the noise, which enabled me to sleep through artillery barrages during World War II.

By the time I entered elementary school, most of the horses were gone, and when I went to high school, horses were used only by the mounted police. A woman could no longer collect the manure to feed to her potted geranium.

It seems strange, as I write this, that those pictures are stored in my head and will remain there until I die. Now pictures are stored electronically. During my childhood, movies were shown in neighborhood theaters for the opulent price of ten cents. As an indication of how worthless pennies have become, my computer doesn't have a "cents" key.

My parents had a wind-up Victorola(phonograph) and we had one sided 12 inch, 78 rpm, discs which played Enrico Caruso records. I sang along as loudly as I could. Next came a staticky radio and my parents would listen to the news and Jack Benny, which I couldn't stand. I would listen to Tom Mix and the Lone Ranger which I am sure that they couldn't stand, nor could I stand them today.

When my generation is gone, it will be the end of anyone who remembers horses in New York City and all of the things that existed in that time. That is the way of the world.

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