In the New Jersey years before World War II I looked forward to Saturdays, knowing we would pile into the Oldsmobile as a family and drive the six miles to the market town of Englewood. I always got a special thrill out of the rippling noise the tires made on the cobblestones of the Seven Sisters hill as we passed the Dwight Morrow estate where my hero Charles Lindbergh (“Lindy”) hung out part of the time. I usually asked Dad to park adjacent to the railroad tracks in case the timing would be right for a freight to come rolling through.
While Mom did her shopping I would go with my Dad to the Lightning store whose shelves were overflowing with “guy” things from lanterns to axes and hammers tire tools and shovels. Dad would always pull a small 3-ring notebook from his pocket where he would have a list of needed items he had been assembling since last time: nuts, nails, washers, bolts, hangers, paints and more.
Sooner or later, we would end up in the F.W Woolworth 5 and 10-cent store where I would carefully spend my modest allowance: a cylinder of bee bee’s, a new shooting “agate” for my marble supply or another lead soldier for my growing “army” of accurately-painted miniatures.
We might meet Mom coming from Smalbein’s Jewish Bakery with one of their signature seven-layer cakes tied up in a white box and weighing a good pound or more. I would ask if she had remembered to pick up a container of their famous dill pickles from the barrel in front, and if it was a good week, she might have a sack of German Cruellers to eat on the way home.
As deliciously predictable as all of this was the big treat would be the “music man”; the “organ grinder” with his red-capped chimpanzee and tin cup for coins, a colorful duo I would follow and admire for as long as I could. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, we were among a privileged few to still have such an itinerant musician in our nearby community. At one time it was said that New York City had “one for every city block,” but that was before Fiorello LaGuardia became mayor and was swayed by a handful of “dyspeptic complainers” to make the city a quieter place.
Most of these colorful street performers were Italian immigrants who arrived on our shores penniless and without the prospect of employment. The depression years were particularly hard on new arrivals who spoke a foreign language, had no employable skills and did not know their way around. For a small investment they could buy a portable “barrel organ” which, with a punch-holed cylinder like a player-piano roll, could play up to six tunes with the turning of a hand-crank. Most, like the short man with a black mustache I followed around, carried the instrument on a shoulder strap, while others preferred a larger free-standing version.
Small monkeys – Chimpanzees – were plentiful at pet emporiums in the early days of the 20th century, and could be purchased for five dollars or so. The entrepreneur-minded emigrant, willing to put in the animal-training time, could put himself in a good paying business in less than a year, while providing musical diversion for an entertainment-hungry public with the help of the uniformed simian with a tin cup to gather coins from appreciative onlookers.
One organ grinder questioned as to whether he had a business license explained “I’m a musician and my little friend here is a businessman. He doesn’t tell me what music to play and I don’t tell him how to run his business.”
Shopping on Englewood’s main street all those years ago still replays in my mind from time to time, and I can still hear the “hurdy gurdy” music of the organ grinder in what I can’t help but remember as a simpler, more care-free space of time.