The weather has cooled overnight from yesterday’s humid and stultifying heat. The sun is out and a strong breeze is blowing making work inside and outside very comfortable. I decide to weed the garden and the overgrown west gangway next to our house by the fence.
The front garden is again filled with quack grass, Clearweed, Lady’s Thumb, Smartweed, Oxalis, late-summer headless Dandelions, and weeds whose names I’ve yet to discover. I admire their persistence in returning for this encore performance. I did this not too long ago, maybe about a month back.
It occurs to me that I should have mulched it then when I had a chance. One little problem: no car in which to run to the garden center and load the cargo area with bags of mulch.
True, I could have ordered a load delivered, which really is the way to have done it, but I got busy or distracted or lazy or some combination of the three. It would have taken some planning. Instead, the weeds had their way with my garden.
Still, this little incident raises the question: what came before cars and drivers were so ubiquitous?
Flashback #1: One-Car Pittsburgh
My Mom, like so many mothers in my blue-collar Pittsburgh neighborhood, did not have a driver’s license and thus did not drive. Our cars were a succession of well-used used cars which ran but also quickly showed their latent rust in bubbly blisters around the wheel wells and chrome trim. Dad used the car to drive to work in the famous U.S. Steel Homestead Works, which was maybe about 5 miles by car but a very roundabout ride by two streetcars via downtown Pittsburgh. I later worked in Homestead at a newspaper chain and often did not have the car because my sister and I were sharing it after my Dad and Mom had died. By then, it was two buses via downtown Pittsburgh and it was a least a solid hour’s trip, maybe more if the connections were bad. I understand why my Dad wanted to have a car, especially when he was working 4-to-12 or 12-to-8 shifts.
Aside from using the car for work, it was used for weekend trips to the Kroger’s for groceries, not even that far away from our house, but still down the hill. This meant up the hill with groceries for a family of five.
How did other household supplies come in during the weekdays?
Flashback #2: Marker Lights in the Night
Rewind not so far to this past winter: very late on a cold, snowy night, I took my dog out for his late walk to do his business.
Sane people were snuggled warm in their beds and most houses were mostly dark.
I heard the chatter of a diesel engine and caught orange and red sparks of marker lights. At this hour, a truck?
On another snowy winter night, a similar vision, but sounds of a different diesel, throatier, meatier.
How did people get things before everyone had a car or a second car for Mom?
This topic came up several times earlier this year in phone calls. First, my daughter was recounting what a pain in the ass it was to do grocery shopping in Ann Arbor without a car. Sure, the small food co-op was a few blocks from her house but Whole Foods was outside town in the suburban strip. We started talking about what came before because she was the food buyer for her house. She put in the orders and the food was delivered. They also had a knife service that came in and swapped out the knives with sharpened ones every week.
I brought this up later to my Pittsburgh friend Scott, close to me in generation, and we started to tick off the kinds of deliveries and services that came through our neighborhoods when we were kids: The milkman with his stand-up drive Divco who gave us kids chunks of ice on summer days. The bread truck. The huckster (that’s for produce, young pups). The laundry soap truck from Old Honesty Soap out in the Spring Garden neighborhood. The junk man with his idiosyncratic song and lumbering Chevy truck whining in low gear. The knife sharpener with his push-cart-mounted sharpening wheel. The department store delivery trucks for all the things that Moms could not drag home on the streetcar or the bus.
God, that seems like the Early Pleistocene.
Add an 800-number phone system and a personal computer and a network and e-commerce to a truck fleet and you’ve got Peapod. Or UPS. Or the Postal Service and eBay and Amazon.
Guys in overburdened pickups still patrol my alley regularly for scrap metal. One regular guy recognizes me and we wave to each other.
We’ve even occasionally had an old-timer with his sharpening cart roll through our neighborhood once a summer. Like other neighbors, we ran out with our knives that had done a better job at smashing tomatoes than cutting them.
Home deliveries are so yesterday.
Home deliveries are so today.