Happenings in the Street

BROOKLYN'S STREETS were narrow. They were ordinary dirt streets with washed-down sidewalks, and the city left them that way for many years.
 
After a heavy rain or snow, the sidewalks often became almost impassable because of the deep sticky mud. Grown-ups and children would slip and slide along the street trying their best to maintain an upright position. Occasionally, an unfortunate person would lose his balance and fall screaming into the gooey mixture. Sometimes, a lonely overshoe was left sticking up in the mud, a sign that there had been a struggle between its owner and the mud.
 
When certain places in the sidewalks became too muddy, most homeowners considered it a duty to send their children out in the morning with a scuttle of coal cinders to scatter on the muddiest spots. Homeowners saw this civic service as necessary to help pedestrians. It also illustrated to some degree the custom of helping one another, which was once a very strong factor in community life.
 
Mother maintained a picket fence across the front of our lot. She took great pride in this fence, but it was quite a problem to keep the pickets in place, especially during winter months. Reaching our picket fence meant people could temporarily relax from their struggle with the mud, and they clung to it with all their might. As a result, the fence resembled a set of crooked teeth. Mother would view her fence with regret and then summon someone to straighten or replace the fallen pickets because she meant to maintain the fence whatever the price. We didn't blame people too much for holding on to it; we had to use it for support also when the mud was very slick and hazardous.
 
Our street was not a busy one. On most any day, morning and evening, a tall, gaunt man could be seen coming down the road with a flock of geese following him. His demeanor was serious, and he walked as a proud commander in charge of his soldiers.
 
Each morning, he took his geese to eat grass; each evening, he returned for them. A big, confident-looking gander was the leader of the flock. Two by two, about twenty fat geese waddled contentedly behind him.
 
The herder used a long pronged stick to guide his flock. If a goose got out of place, he gently prodded him back in line. The stick became a magic wand in his hand to which the geese gave a mysterious response. They moved slowly with never a hint of hurrying, but somehow, they were quick enough to avoid a collision with any vehicle coming down the road.
 
I often watched the geese with astonishment as they switched over to the side of the road, remained motionless for a few seconds as the vehicle went by and then swung back to the middle of the road in an unbroken column to resume their measured gait.
 
If a dog came along, the geese would honk loudly, give a few sharp hisses from elongated necks and open orange bills or flop their wings excitedly, but seldom was the line of march broken. They kept rhythmic time and perfect formation behind their leader. Sometimes they formed a V as they marched serenely down the road on their red and orange feet.
 
A hulk of a man who had no legs but powerful shoulders and used a home-built wagon and two large fierce-looking goats with long horns to get around was another familiar figure on the streets. Dogs would eye these goats as they passed by and long to snap at their flanks, but the goats' fiery eyes and lowered horns cautioned the dogs to move away.
 
The wagon, which had four creaking wheels, was a crude structure made of boards, but it was large enough to accommodate the big man rather comfortably. He later acquired a snappy-looking green wagon that looked store-bought, and he sat in it erectly and proudly.
 
Sometimes he drove his turn-out in the streets, but he also used the sidewalks. People usually gave him and his goats free reign of the sidewalk by moving quietly to one side as they rolled by. One reason people moved may have been their fear of being butted by the two militant-looking goats. Another reason may have been their deep pity for the man's unfortunate plight.
 
In later years, I learned that the driver was a shoemaker who earned a living at this trade in his shoe shop on First Street. We liked to watch him as he drove along in his interesting turn-out, able to go most anywhere that he wished with the assistance of his big goats.
 
As he rode along the streets, one had to admire his bravery and courage. The odds were against him, but he refused to be defeated by them. No Caesar in his chariot rode with more noble demeanor than did this legless giant of a man.
 
Occasionally, a bunch of children gathered on a street corner laughing and watching a man with a hand organ slung over his shoulder. The organ grinder was a foreigner who came to Brooklyn from somewhere. He appeared periodically and wandered up and down the streets in search of a few pennies.
 
We were always delighted when we heard the wheezy grinding of the hand organ as it gave out the tinkle-tinkle of a few notes and saw a little dressed-up monkey in a red coat and hat jumping around on the ground. The little monkey would perch on his master's shoulders when he was not in action but would jump down when he was commanded to dance. The command was only given when the crowd reached certain proportions. As soon as the little monkey finished his dance, he would bow all around the crowd, snatch off his little hat and pass it for pennies. Sometimes we had a few to give him; and sometimes we didn't. Neither master nor monkey seemed to care very much.
 
Most of the children had never been to a zoo and only a few had been privileged to attend the big circus when it came to town. The close-up view of a real monkey was an interesting experience for all of the spectators.
 
Once or twice, I remember seeing a swarthy-looking man with a huge bear wander into our section. He looked as if he was also a foreigner and was a stranger to us who lived in Brooklyn. The bear was big and tannish in color. He was as tall as or taller than the master. His mouth was strapped to give the appearance of safety, but I'm sure he could have broken the straps at will. We were so excited over the bear's presence that we were oblivious to this fact, but we were somewhat careful not to press too closely to this huge beast.
 
The bear's master also waited for a semblance of a crowd to gather before he would give the command for the bear to dance. The bear readily understood his master's directions and performed funny antics that made everybody laugh.
 
His fat, roly-poly stomach shook like jelly, and his large paws moved slowly in the air as he shuffled around in a circle. From side to side, the big head moved in a half-arc. The huge animal seemed to enjoy our squeals and giggles as we admiringly watched him perform.
 
After he had finished his act, the master would pass his old weather-beaten hat for a few coins and then pull on the bear's straps to let him know that they were moving on to another location. A crowd was always trailing behind them, and several adventurous children followed the odd pair from corner to corner as they moved through Brooklyn.
 
The streets provided a good place for bargaining gossip among women folk. When the vegetable man came along, they would congregate at the side of the wagon, feel the corn, pick over the beans, plunk the watermelons and haggle over prices.
 
Watermelons almost always provided a strong case for bargaining. Because buying a watermelon is somewhat like buying a pig in a poke, each housewife tried to make sure that hers was ripe inside instead of green before investing in a melon. Many of these housewives knew how to drive a hard bargain, and often the farmer had to agree to plug a melon before he could make a sale. Plugging the melon meant cutting out a little square and allowing the purchaser to taste it or take a good look. If neither test gave satisfaction, the farmer had to take his plugged watermelon and move on without making a sale. Sometimes this plugging meant a financial loss to the farmer because some people would not buy a previously plugged watermelon.
 
During that time, farmers did not need a license to sell the goods they brought to town. Farmers, sometimes in the company of their wives, sold until sundown or until they had sold out. If they didn't sell out, the biggest bargains for the housewives came late in the evening as the farmer and his wife would both be tired and eager to get home to get the cows milked and other chores done for the night.
 
Peaches, cantaloupes and other perishables were sold for whatever the farmer could get for them. Whenever a woman discovered a bargain wagon in the street, she would immediately call to a child, "Go tell your mother that corn and tomatoes are going cheap." The word spread as if by magic and in no time, a crowd of would-be buyers was moving around the wagon in search of a bargain. If the prices were very low and enticing, the farmer was relieved quickly of his perishables and ready to start on his way back home. Making a trip back into the country by horse or mule team required several hours, and farmers who were selling late in the evening would keep watching the dropping sun because they liked to start home before sundown.
 
Women usually seemed to enjoy coming out in the street and congregating around a wagon to talk among themselves while they bargained with farmers. This was an opportune time to discuss what was going on in the neighborhood. Tones were usually hushed, and children were carefully shooed out of ear range as they discussed Mary Ann's sickness or Sally almost losing her baby in the middle of the night and having to send for the doctor.
 
When the wagon pulled off and the women turned to go back into their houses, each had a pretty good idea of what was happening in homes around the neighborhood.
 
I remember that a big, cloth-covered wagon from the mountains once came down our street. Mother called it a Conestoga Wagon. We had never seen anything like it before, and grownups as well as children rushed out to watch as it rolled by. It was almost like seeing a visitor from Mars appear in Brooklyn.
 
The big old wagon had a cloth covered frame which was high in the front and back and dipped down in the middle. It looked like a cumbersome land ship as it lumbered down the road with its big, high wheels creaking and needing axle grease as the horses strained to pull it along.
 
The wagon was filled with apples, adults and tow-headed children. Pots and pans and a beaten old lantern dangled underneath the back of the wagon because the people probably took two or three days to make the long trip to the city.
 
The grown-ups had tired, gaunt-looking faces, but their eyes eagerly scanned the faces of the people on the street and on porches for any sign that might mean a sale from their big load of apples. At the first sign of interest or whenever the driver sensed a good spot for selling, the wagon came to a stop and the apple-sellers jumped down with buckets of red and yellow apples. To stimulate sales and not miss anybody, one or two boys would call at each house on opposite sides of the street trying to make sales. Most people liked mountain apples and welcomed the big wagon with its load of fruit, particularly if the owner gave a very full peck for the asking price.
 
Some people looked at the wagon with surprise and interest; others poked fun at this relic of the past as it moved slowly along down the street with its motley cargo of people, pots, pans, apples, and dogs.
 
I think that I remember my mother recalling to me that her mother moved to Charlotte from South Carolina in a big wagon because rail transportation from rural areas was rare.
 
Dirt streets were easy on the hoofs of horses and mules that pulled wagons and carriages up and down the streets. But in long rainy periods, the dirt became deep mud that mired heavy loads and caused drivers to use their whips on the backs of straining animals.
 
I remember how our next door neighbor would cry and go out into the street to remonstrate with drivers when they sometimes beat animals unmercifully as they attempted to dislodge heavy loads from ruts in the muddy streets.
 
Sometimes the animals, smarting from heavy blows to urge them, would pull the big wheels forward a foot or so out of the mud. Then drivers or their helpers would jump from the wagon seat and frantically throw tree limbs or heavy boards under the big wheels to keep them from slipping back into the deep ruts. This process often continued for a long time until the wagon was pulled up onto a firm roadbed again.
 
Most of the time, especially in winter, the wagon loads consisted of heavy oak, pine logs, and cord wood the farmers were bringing to town for sale. Many housewives didn't like to use coal and used wood for heating as well as for cooking. The heavy logs would often have to be removed before the wagon could be dislodged, but many drivers hated this extra job of unloading logs of wood. By using the lash, they tried to make the animals exert super efforts to free an overloaded wagon and start it on its way again.
 
Sometimes the use of the whip was effective. Some men, who were more kindly disposed toward animals, seemed pleased to lighten a load so the animals could pull a wagon from the ruts more easily. When this was accomplished you'd hear a flopping of reins, a loud "giddyup," a few "cluck-clucks," and the men and their animals would be on their way again.
 
Usually, the draft animals were strong, heavy mules because they were favored for pulling heavy loads. Sometimes two horses made a team, and occasionally, a horse and a mule were teamed together. Men who knew about animals said the latter arrangement never seemed to make the most effective working teams.
 
Two enormous elm trees gave much needed shade to animals in the summertime. One stood at the corner of our yard, and the other was in the yard next to ours. Their great arms met and formed a huge, leafy umbrella for that section of the street. Under the shade was a favorite spot for children to play and panting animals to rest, if allowed by their drivers. Horses and mules whinnied with delight as they passed under the leafy branches. I often used to wish that each driver would let them tarry just a little while under the trees so their hot bodies might cool off.
 
Occasionally, a thoughtful farmer would stop, unharness his animals, take them to a watering trough at a nearby well and let them have a drink of cool water. Some would even go so far as to break off a few leafy branches from trees and stick them up in the bridle close to the animals' ears in an attempt to shade their heads a bit. Some drivers used a funny little hat called a horse's hat on the animal's head. The hat had holes for the horse's ears to stick through. We had a lot of fun watching the horses come along pulling a load while wearing this pixie-looking hat.
 
After a farmer had paused to refresh himself and give his animals a rest, he would hitch up again and restart his rounds of Brooklyn's streets.

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