It was 1937, and at nine year of age I was aware, in that Depression year, that my family was poor. When I wasn’t permitted to go out of the house at holiday times, because my parents were ashamed that they couldn’t afford new clothes for me, I knew we were poor. When my mother hid from the bill collectors, it was because we were poor. And yet, there were always savory meals on the table.
My mother shopped very carefully, and prepared many dishes that contained little, if any, meat. Of course, Friday night dinners were special, and we had chicken, with Mom’s light and fluffy matzoh balls, floating in a golden soup. But for the rest of the week, potatoes, spaghetti, and beans were plentiful, and with tasty seasonings, the family felt sated and nourished.
Berdie Levine’s golden brown fried potato pancakes were delicious, well seasoned with onions, salt and pepper, and served with sour cream or applesauce. Her brothers invited friends to their shared household to play poker, and the young men would arrive with candy and flowers for Berdie, pleading for potato pancakes, which she willingly served them.
“Norma, get the baby carriage ready, we’re going to Bathgate Avenue,” my mother called. My little brothers, Larry 4, and Irving 2, always had to share the carriage with all the bargains our mother purchased from the pushcarts in the crowded streets on and around Bathgate Avenue in the South Bronx. As we left our apartment house at 166th Street and Teller Avenue, Larry protested, “I’m a big boy now, I’m not going in a ‘baby’ carriage.” My mother and I smiled at each other awaiting his surrender to the inevitable. Six blocks later, his little chin stuck out, daring us to laugh, Larry climbed into the carriage. It was a long walk from where we lived, and it had snowed the night before. Paths too narrow for a baby carriage had been shoveled, forcing us off the sidewalks. It was difficult to push the carriage on the cobblestone roadway, so I helped my mother lift it over the rougher spots.
As we neared Bathgate Avenue, hundreds of pushcarts came into view, surrounded by shoppers. Some pushcarts were piled high with colorful fruits and vegetables, others with thick woolen sweaters, scarves, gloves and hats, or towels, tablecloths, dish cloths and other linens. There were also stores nearby. A man, called a chicken flicker, wearing a yarmulke and a full length white apron sat towards the back of the kosher butcher shop, busy hands rapidly removing feathers from chickens. In the “appetizing” stores wisecracking men, slicing lox and doling out pickled herring called all the women “beautiful, sweetheart or darling,” regardless of their age or girth. A woman, tired from her day of scrubbing floors, laundry, and tending children could get a lift just buying cheese.
Although I was cold and tired when we reached our destination, I was looking forward to the treat I anticipated, “Something hot would be good,” I thought, and tried to make up my mind whether to get a sweet potato or equally hot chestnuts. “Here’s three pennies, Norma,” my mother said when we arrived at our destination, “go buy something you like, but don’t wander far.” Hurrying off, I followed the calls of the peddlers who shouted out the virtues of their wares.
Thick black woolen gloves, with the fingertips cut out, were worn by all, enabling them to handle their hot treats and wrap them in old newspaper. Their fingers were blackened from the newspaper ink and from the coal they fed their small portable stoves. I stood there and hungered for a hot sweet potato, but this was serious spending, and I was going to take my time and choose wisely. Just then I noticed a woman nearby, stamping her feet to keep warm. She was nearly as wide as she was tall, with a ruddy, leathery complexion. She was bundled in many layers of sweaters; a woolen cap pulled over her ears, tied down by a long scarf.
Her pushcart had a scooped out metal scale hanging down between two poles, and the cart was loaded with a wide range of goodies, including a variety of nuts in their shells, and lots of candy; Mary Janes (chewy taffy filled with peanut butter), Halvah (finely ground sweetened almonds, I think, covered in chocolate), foil wrapped chocolate kisses featured a little paper tassel with which to pull the foil open, fruit filled hard candies, and my favorite, a crunchy concoction made of honey and sesame seeds. All thoughts of sweet potatoes and chestnuts disappeared. “How many of those can I buy with three cents?” I asked. The woman handed me a small paper bag containing about a dozen of the cellophane wrapped candies.
As I walked away, unwrapping my first candy, a little girl stopped in front of me. Dressed in a sweater that came down to her knees and covered her hands in lieu of gloves, she just stared at me. Finally she spoke, “Is that candy?” she asked timidly. I stood there with my mouth full, stunned at the question and just nodded my head in the affirmative. Before I could respond properly, the little girl ran off, as if ashamed of her temerity. Just then, my mother called to me, “Come along now, Norma, I’ve finished shopping.” “I can’t go yet Mom, I’ve got to find that little girl,” I wailed, “I have to give her some candy.”
My mother, after listening to the explanation, told me that if we saw her on the way home that would be fine, but it was getting dark and colder and we had a long way to go. We didn’t see the child as we left the area and I had to blink away tears as I helped my mother push the heavily laden carriage all the way home, my brothers almost hidden under the shopping bags.
From that time on, whenever we went to Bathgate Avenue I searched for the little girl, but never saw her again.
– Norma Grubman
New York, U.S.A.