I believe it is appropriate to introduce to you some of the characters of Little Italy. The time is the middle of the 20th century. The memories of the sounds are as distinct as the smells.
I could be awakened at sunrise either by the cry of “pepper-rekks” or the shilling of George the fruit man, “grapes today, mama,” referring to my grandmother. My favorite though was the clippity-clop, clippity-clop, repetition of the horse drawn wagon of the iceman. What a sight for my six-year-old eyes. The largeness of the horse. The over sized hooves from years of leading the wagon on hand laid brick streets. I would hastily throw on my duds for the day and clamor to the stoop of my great grand-parents house waiting for the worn out old man to hitch his horse and then chip out a block of ice probably 12 to 14 inches on a side. Mightily, he would heave the cube to his leather covered shoulder and head toward the stoop. Stopping at the foot of the first step, he would lower the mass to one knee, and with the skill of a surgeon, lope off a sliver and hand it to me. “Two’a hands’a”, with a wink, then off to the kitchen where he would put the ice in the icebox. That’s right, icebox.
Not until I was approaching my teen years did I discover the “pepper-rekks” man, driving a truck that was vintage World War One, was really yelling “paper and rags, paper and rags.” Apparently, this unnamed, cigar chomper, would take newspapers, rags and old articles of clothing off your hands after a bartering session with the local immigrants. Fifty-five years later I’m still inspired by the people of that era on the lesson of earning a living to take care of the family.
George the fruit man. In the truest sense of the word he was “the character.” His voice was loud and raspy. Everyone on 123rd, 124th, and Alexander knew of his impending entry to the neighborhood. “Cantaloupe, mama, fresh and sweet”, he shrilled. All the woman, clad in their aprons with Captain Kangaroo sized pockets, would gather at George’s truck, ready to make a counter offer for his goods. No one ever paid George’s price but certainly played into his game. The pointing, shouting, a deal would be struck. Then, on cue, out came the change purses which were neatly hidden under the apron. Nana’s fingers would separate the pennies from the nickels and slowly hand over her payment, but only after the scale read the exact poundage agreed upon.
I am, this day, that child, again.
By Carlo Orlando©