Coming in the Back Door

Most of the multi family houses in our Weequahic Section of Newark had front and back doors. In our house, built by Zayda in 1927, the front entry was always locked and quite a bit fancier than the back. It was decorated with ceramic tile, boasted an imposing solid wood door, and dazzled with a shiny brass plate that held the mailboxes and the doorbell for each apartment. You couldn’t get in unless you were buzzed, and you’d definitely wipe your feet. Once you gained entry, IF you gained entry, you’d be in a quiet stairwell, nicely carpeted. I used to pretend that it was a fancy hotel, like Heloise’s Plaza, and it served me well as a private space where practically no one ever intruded.

The back door was something else. No locked door. No fancy tile or gleaming polished brass. No need to wipe your feet. In our four-family house, Nina the cat used that door, as did Phoebe the dog, as did all of us kids. And our parents as well! I repeat: No locked door. So if you were a burglar who wanted to rob an apartment, that would have been the more convenient entrance to use since even the apartment doors themselves were usually unlocked. Lucky for us there wasn’t very much to steal so robberies were not a big worry.

Oh yes! The back door was also the door for home deliveries. We had lots of them, contrary to common belief these days that, in the old days, we had to carry every purchase home.

Home deliveries were imperative since many, or even most, of the Weequahic moms, who were then known as housewives, a pejorative now but quite respectable then, did not drive. They could not have functioned without the various delivery men. And yes, those folks were always men! Hence, the women up and down the street, and in the entire neighborhood, needed help with getting their purchases home.

For example, six days a week my mother did our family’s laundry. This was no simple task. Our automatic washing machine, which had replaced the washboard when I was about 7, was in the basement, two flights down from our apartment. She had to get the dirty laundry down there and then retrieve it, damp, after the spin cycle. No one on Aldine Street had a clothes dryer. Drying in our house was done either on a labyrinthine configuration of ropes in the cellar, a dark and somewhat forbidding place that produced laundry which never smelled perfectly fresh, or, my mother’s oft touted preference, hanging outside on a line which extended from a bedroom window to a nearby telephone pole. On sunny days she would shlep the damp and heavy laundry up the two flights and then, in a feat of faith that she wouldn’t fall out the window, hang each item on the clothesline with what were then known as clothespins, an item that one of my children once asked me to identify. On windy days the towels stood so erect when brought in that they resembled soldiers at attention. They felt like sandpaper and were no pleasure to use! All of Mom’s hard work never resulted in a perfect job. Luckily she was never blown out the window!

Hanging large items like sheets was a danger in the wind! Thus we needed a delivery man specifically for the linens! Every week this nice gentleman would claim all of our used sheets and quilt-covers (now fancified and called duvet covers) and exchange them for the deliciously fresh and now clean, ironed and sweet smelling linens of last week. When my mother made the beds with the just delivered percale, never polyester, sheets and pillowcases, I loved their immaculate, slightly starched feel. On those days I couldn’t wait to hop into bed. Often I was preceded by Phoebe, who hoisted her fat body onto my clean bed a bit too often, because she liked a just made bed too.

We had other deliverymen. The very best was the Dugan’s man. He brought bread and amazing cupcakes in his cute little white truck. Dugan’s closed about 60 years ago but I remember their cupcakes as if I indulged myself just yesterday. These were yellow little cakes that came 6 to a box. Inside each cupcake was the yummy mocha icing which I still taste, and crave, in my imagination, to this very day. I used to eat the cupcake around that ball of icing so that I could tease and tempt myself as long as possible, until all that would be left would be the icing with, maybe, a few crumbs of cake. Then, I would still hesitate, knowing that when I ate it, it would be gone, but, well, if I didn’t eat it, it would melt all over my hands and still be gone. Delicious and agonizing. How could they go out of business?!

Of course, for all the years of my early childhood, the iceman came. We had no refrigerator, and ice, as we all know, does not stay forever ice. This delivery man was built like an enormous bull. He was huge and powerfully strong and so were the giant hunks of ice that he put in our icebox at least twice a week. A refrigerator was on my mother’s “to buy” list long before a dryer.

The seltzer man came to the door as well. I never liked seltzer but my mother would use it as a base to make egg creams or other soda creations. She would mix some syrup, like cola or chocolate, with the seltzer, and voila, a fountain drink!

Needless to say fresh bottled milk was always in a little metal box by the time we woke up in the morning.

And the mail did get through, no matter the weather. Don’t get me started on mail delivery today!

Sometimes a peddler came. There don’t seem to be peddlers around any more but they were popular in their time, even mysterious. Where did they come from and who exactly were they? They arrived with little boxes of little things and the moms always bought something, be it thread, or needles, or hairpins, or combs. Everything was cheap and I guess it was a nice diversion to buyers and sellers. . There’s no one peddling around our West Orange neighborhood these days.

Of course the grocer, Joe, and the butcher, Chaim, delivered too but my mother only resorted to butcher delivery when she was too busy to go to his store. It was only around the corner but she knew she needed to see the meat before she bought it.

The pharmacy always delivered if there was a prescription, which there rarely was. But, if Dr. Brotman ordered something for any of us, we would call Goldmans on Wolcott Terrace and tell them whatever the doctor had selected to heal us, and we’d feel better already.

Naturally, Dr. Brotman came to the house too even though he wasn’t a delivery person. Truth to tell, he used the front door. He knew his place!

I suppose we were more pandemic ready then than we are now. Anything we needed was at our beck and call.

About the Author
Rosanne Skopp is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of fourteen, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and travels back and forth between homes in New Jersey and Israel. She is currently writing a family history.