They Were the Neighborhood Entrepreneurs

These neighborly purveyors provided the essentials long before "big box" stores.

The following article was written by ISDA Contributing Editor Tony Traficante.

Back in the day, “big box” stores weren’t available in the neighborhood. Then, too, not many families owned their own transportation, so families depended on local stores for much of their daily and weekly shopping. But, on occasion, the ladies on a special “outing,” hopped a streetcar, armed with shopping bags, and a nickel for the ride, and headed to the area’s, “downtown,” to shop in the luxury of the A&P, or Kroger food market. Ah, the “A&P,” it was a joy for the kids. As the Moms shopped, the kids gathered around the nifty donut machine in amazement as it turned out delicious, miniature golden brown donuts, which were powdered and bagged by a waiting attendant.

Complementing the community’s limited shopping spots were delivery men and “peddlers.” Not all Italians, but a group nonetheless of interesting, hard-working folks who became embedded in the fabric of our neighborhoods.

Topping the list of suppliers was the milkman, arriving daily to deposit fresh, homogenized milk in glass bottles, and taking back empties. To think this individual, with his horse and wagon, made it up the Pittsburgh cobblestone hills … especially on a winter day!

About once a week, you could hear the familiar wail of the huckster selling fruits, vegetables, and on occasion, eggs. Maybe “wailing” is not the proper word, but after dealing with the strong-minded Italian women, he departed the area, swearing never to return.

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Murphy, the affable Jewish haberdasher, arrived monthly in his old woody station-wagon, selling a variety of adult and children clothing, and incidentals. Moms bought kids’ school clothes and, for themselves, “busti,” girdles. For their boys, they insisted on buying the hated, “clod-hopper” ankle top boots.

Additionally, there was Giuseppe who rode around with his bicycle cart sharpening knives, grinding scissors and even mending umbrellas. The kids loved to watch as he rotated the big sand wheel, magically sharpening utensils.

Then, who could forget the old farmer with his dated Model A pickup, stacked to the sky with chicken coops askew. Buying live chickens from the farmer was a blessing. It meant avoiding going to the chicken store, with sawdust on the floor, “la puzza,” and feathers flying around so thick, “ya” choked.

One day, as the farmer was arriving — his pickup straining and bucking to back up — one of the ladies hollered out: “eh mista, u gotta springs today,” wanting to know if he had any young chickens on board. The old farmer misunderstood and replied: “it’s okay, missus, the springs are ‘jest’ a mite rusty.” The lady, thinking he was mocking her, murmured “Ma questo è propio nu fess.”

Most Italian families did not have a refrigerator, but did have “un icea box.” “Refrigeration” was provided by the “Ice Man” who cometh regularly, with huge tongs, hauling 25 or more pound blocks of ice. (Now if that ain’t being “green,” what is?)

Also, there was the poor “Rag Man.” A sad, but curious sight, travelling with horse and cart, filled with remnants of old and worn clothes, calling out “Rags! Give me your rags!” He kept some of the better-looking clothing to be used by the family, the rest he sold.

What about the “Ice Ball” man? Of course! He is the one pushing his cart, equipped with a line of bottles filled with colored liquids. A flavor or two that was poured over shaved ice jammed into a cone-shaped container and accompanied by the tiniest plastic spoon to scoop it out.

The neighborhood was certainly enriched by these individual entrepreneurs. These are bygone days, but they reflect positive memories of life in an Italian-immigrant commune.

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