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The Original Uber Eats

We had been talking about the colourful salesmen and delivery boys who used to come to our door in the nineteen thirties and forties.

Besides these mysterious gypsy scissor grinders who more or less arrived with the crocuses every spring pushing their foot operated grindstone ahead of them, there was the rare visit from the rag and bone man. Although the gypsies had bells tied to their wheeled grindstones, the approach of the ragman was heralded by the creaking of his derelict horse-drawn cart. Down the street you could hear him calling out his chant, “RAAAAG,” followed by a staccato of “RAGS, RAGS, RAGS!” It was then that you rushed from your play for the burlap bag in which your house stored its years accumulation of rags, torn sheets, wooly old underwear, even curtains. You held your breath while he hooked the sack onto his well-worn brass scales to give you a reading on the scope of your new found wealth, all at 1cent a pound.

Our old rag man, dressed entirely in black with a white beard, was called Golub. He loved near the C.N.R. Station in a cobbled-together house with a heavily fence yard overflowing with the treasures he accumulated. He was always happy to see the neighbourhood kids arrive in their breeches, caps and tall boots. He knew he could count on us in our diligent search for scrap iron, copper pipes, brass fittings and an occasional tyre or lead battery. It was war time and it all had value. The enemy was at the gate! Friday was a big day because that Saturday matinee beckoned and it would need money. Small change was all one ever got it seemed no matter how much heavy metal we lugged in. Even a bed spring paid little, but we all kept at it and nothing metal was safe from us ,the liberators. In a painfully slow way we even collected the lead foil from Salada tea cartons and Players cigarettes boxes. We knew it all went to defeat the enemy, but we weren't exactly sure who that was. Misery to the little codger who thought to up the ante by inserting a stone into the tin foil ball. Somehow Golub could always tell the unreal weight and set the evil-doer down firmly with his gimlet eye as he slowly unwrapped the ball in front of him. You don't do that twice!

Another regular at the backdoor in the early winter was the fish man. Beside him on the seat of his sleigh sat a battered tin horn. At intervals he would stop, raise the instrument to his lips and let forth a mournful blast. Somehow this noise seemed fitting for his fishy, iced cargo all staring forth blankly into the faces of the neighbourhood kids.

Whenever I evoke the ghosts from the past there are elements both joyful and sad. Joy to think of those fresh days again, a little sadness that all the players in these scenes are gone and I can't even remember their names. I guess what is history but reminiscences of days and people that are gone never to return. They all carry pieces of our own life into the grey magic of times past. If you want a dose of that just sort through your photo boxes someday.

One of the certainties however that comes from thinking of those old times that we all shared similarly together is just how much we and our wants have changed. Perhaps its all our new found affluence, but I'm sure that in the twenties, thirties, and forties we were more naive, more community minded, more dependent upon each other and so very much more easily pleased with little tokens of love and friendship. None of us yet had become so jaded that a salesman knocking on our back door wasn't a source of excitement. There, was the chance to break from your work, put on the kettle, catch up on all the scuttle-butt and, even receive that little gift, an item invented it seemed to bond us to the salesman! And that gift was always something we actually needed and appreciated – a carrot brush, a shoe horn, a rubber circle to remove a sealer top or some new device to catch flies. Then your order was placed. There really were things in his stock you needed! Now we have everything, we think, but in those days we would order some fresh nutmeg, a new vanilla, some balm for the cow's udder, ointment for our painful knee and a bottle of orange cordial to be kept for the sultry July days. Here was a source of shoe laces, cough syrup (nowadays we know that it contained cocaine) and those wonderful straw whisks! Who made those? Some people loved Watkin's products, others were loyal to Rawleighs. My mother-in-law must have been all for Rawleighs for when we finally cleaned out her cupboards there was such an array of beautiful vintage spice tins, still pungent after twenty years. In those days we believed that behind each of these companies was the very factory shown on the liniment bottle, smoke stacks belching, all to produce great products for our life.

Among the rarer visions at our door were a travelling group of nuns. They must have come out from their cloistered life whenever they had produced a trove of beautiful lace tablecloths and doilies – a winter's crocheting by lamplight. Doilies were still used then, so something would be bought although much of this finger work still went on to fill a housewife's time, as if there was any! But it was doubly hard, to say no to a nun when you were a Catholic even if you did have a drawer full of doilies!

Probably our favourite back door visitor was the friendly milkman. These guys always had great personalities – thus perhaps the milkman jokes – and, we kids and the dogs loved them all. Totally dependable, he dropped off our two glass quarts of milk from his clinking metal rack. Even a stormy day couldn't stop him. However sometimes a delay in bringing the milk into the warm kitchen would produce that 5 inch tube of frozen cream. That was a treat if you got a spoonful of it, but it rarely happened.

Added to all these daily knocks would have been the butcher boy, Sid Moore from Bowkers on his bike if you dealt there, or a horse drawn cart from Burk and Andrich. A meal then always featured a large roast or hearty stew. Butchers knew what you liked and cut it to order. If you had a dog a few extra bones would be included in that parcel of brown butcher-wrap. You could also order other staples such as lard, head cheese, mincemeat, sweet breads and even wieners. Wieners were quite edible then, and didn't smell like Javex. All could be charged, and eventually you paid the bill when you could, but the better you paid, the better the cut!

The bakeries all kept delivery wagons and had competent horse boys to take them out. Baileys, Fullers, Pragnells, Rohmiers all had shops downtown and competition was keen in the bread business. Sometimes Bailey's would undercut them all with twelve loaves for a dollar delivered by horse to your door! The bread sat in huge wicker boxes on the wagon and came to you unwrapped, joined in sixes, aromatic and delicious. With our tastes today we shun the thought of twelve loaves of bread, but in the thirties bread made up the bulk of the meal for poorer Portagers and that indeed made up the bulk of the population.


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