Milking Memories From A Childhood Long Forgotten

ALICE STEINBACH QvB

December 08, 1991|By ALICE STEINBACH

I cannot remember the last time I saw him, the man who visited our house almost every morning when I was a child. Often my mother, still in her dressing gown, would run to meet him at the kitchen door.

It was a ritual around our house, these early-morning visits from the man in the white suit. But then, in those days, the arrival of the milkman was a ritual at almost every house across the country.

Here, in case you missed it, is what it was like in the days of the milkman:

First, came the sound of the truck, the one with the big cow painted on the side, pulling up in front of your house. Next you heard the clink, clink, clink of the glass milk bottles being carried up the walk.

Sometimes in bad weather, when Mom hadn't made the trip to the grocery, there would be eggs and bread delivered along with the milk. And sometimes, on special occasions, the milkman would emerge from his truck with a box containing sticky buns or a layer cake with coconut icing.

Nowadays such small pleasures as milk in thick glass bottles delivered right to your home, I thought, had vanished. Replaced, for the most part, by a trip in the car to pick up a huge plastic container of milk at the nearest 7-Eleven.

Happily, I was wrong.

According to a recent network TV news show, the return of the milkman is under way.

In Summit, N.J., for instance, a man named Dan Venditti sells milk and eggs and bread to more than 600 families the old-fashioned way: He delivers it to their homes.

"My kids love it," said one mother who uses Mr. Venditti's service.

Of course, they do, I thought. Why wouldn't they? It represents, after all, one of the so-called ordinary routines of daily life that in the end make up most of the memories from our childhood that we call "happy."

In fact, my guess is that if today's kids were introduced to some of the other lost artifacts of life-as-it-used-to-be, they would love them, too.

Things such as:

Movie theaters that seat more than 75 people. My sons still think I'm exaggerating when I tell them that once upon a time in Baltimore we saw movies in the 4,000-seat Stanley Theatre. The seats were almost evenly divided between the first floor and the balcony, but there were a few contained in the cantilevered boxes that hung above the main floor.

These were the seats most coveted by my brother and me. We considered it thrilling to sit in such a dangerous location and once, fighting for the end seat, the two of us came perilously close to falling out of the box and onto the people sitting below.

Second on my list of things to bring back would be soda fountains in neighborhood drugstores. The drugstore of my youth was called Lowe's, and its long counter was lined with high, chrome-backed stools that swiveled around to let you in or out before abruptly snapping back into position.

Sitting at the shiny Formica counter with its chocolate cakes nestled under glass domes, you could listen to the whooshing sound of carbonated water being forced into a strawberry soda as you waited for your grilled cheese sandwich and lemon Coke.

Of course, the best things about all neighborhood soda fountains were the waitresses -- who were all psychotherapists in disguise. Some of the best advice I ever received was from Nettie at Lowe's. "Honey," she told me apropos of my sixth grade love crisis, "life's too short to stay unhappy for more than an hour."

Third on my let's-bring-them-back list is the formal dining car on trains. I ask you: Is there a kid alive who wouldn't think it thrilling to be served dinner at a linen-covered table in a softly lit dining car?

The food was never very good, of course, but it didn't make any difference. There was something very grown-up about eating in the dining car of a train while, outside in the gathering dark, the cities of Newark and Philadelphia and Trenton blurred by.

And, of course, a list such as this -- one retrieved from the lost map of childhood -- could never be considered complete without mention of the Automat.

No trip to New York City was ever made without a lunch stop at this restaurant with its hundreds and hundreds of little glass windows -- each one holding a tantalizing slice of pie or roast beef platter or fruit salad. To a child, the Automat was pure magic.

Looking back, it's certainly true we didn't have all the modern inconveniences that kids have today -- fast-food joints, self-serve gas stations and giant supermarkets. What we had instead were the milkman, the soda fountain and the slow sweetness of old-fashioned conveniences.

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