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Full Circle: The Hucksters
My mother shopped at the pop-up stores of the ’50s
By Maury Z. Levy

Most of all, there was the monkey man. A scary little guy with a hairy little monkey, a monkey with a tiny red hat and a monkey-sized accordion.  

He said the monkeys name was Morty. Morty the monkey collected the pennies of young children who had never seen a monkey play an accordion.  

And my mother would say: Dont touch the monkey. Im telling you the monkey is dirty.” My mother thought every animal was dirty. And half the humans. 

Hey, Mister,” I asked the scary little man with the scratchy little beard, why do you call the monkey Morty? 

What am I supposed to call him,” he said, Sylvia? 

He had a point.  

The monkey came on Mondays. The opening act for a weeks worth of hucksters who made up the movable bazaar that was our back alley. Between the Calvert Street driveway and civilization as we knew it. 

There was Emil, the singing fruit and vegetable man who sang his pitch. Bananas, bananas, bananas. Strawwwww-berries, get your stawwwww-BERRIES here. Emil had a big horse and a little English. His horse-drawn wagon was shaky, his horse was old. But produce did all the talking. Fresh as can be.  

Our favorite was Singing Sal. Get your free stone peaches here. White-sugar corn, just picked this morning. And JERRR-sey tomatoes. Theyre four pounds for a dollar.” We would go up to him and say something nice. That would usually get us a free juicy apple. 

Mr. France was our corn man. CORRRRN! Get your CORRRRN here, Fresh Jersey corn. Mr. France had a bit of an accent. He never could pronounce his Vs. So, it was always, Get your fresh wegetables here. Fresh-picked wegetables. 

But life wasnt all fruit and weggies. The loudest guy on the alley was named Abe. His call became legendary. BUY-YING mens clothing. BUY-YING mens clothing. He pushed his crippled cart and the women came running, pants and suits, sweater in hand. Abe would carefully inspect each item for wear and moth holes, and then hed shell out pennies on the dollar. 

One day, I followed Abe around the corner to see how he fit all those clothes in his pickup truck. But he didnt have a pickup truck. He was driving a brand-new Cadillac Eldorado. I guess business was good. 

What does he do with all these clothes?” I asked my mother. 

Who cares?” she said, Your fathers crappy old pants just paid for dinner tonight.”  

My mother fancied herself as a shrewd trader. She would have given $19.95 to the Indians for Manhattan. 

The back alley offered all sorts of entertainment in the 50s. There was a man who came around with a pony, a real live pony. And, if you could talk your mother into spending a dime, he would take your picture riding the pony. He even had an old straw cowboy hat he would put on each kid. I always wondered how Bruce DuBois got ringworm.   

On Fridays, a man came around with a sharpening machine and some of those leather belts you saw in a barber shop where rich people got shaves.  

He was a good-looking man who wore a white sleeveless undershirt that showed off his manly muscles. My mother would never miss him. Shed come running out with steak knives, bread knives, knives we never used, and tell him to sharpen them up.  

He used his grinder and his sharpener and held each knife up to the sun to glisten like the sword of Damocles. As he sharpened, he worked up a good sweat, so much so that he would take off his undershirt.  

Why do you get the same knives sharpened every week?” I asked my mother.  

She held up a giant cleaver. Just in case you kids get out of line,” she said.  

I think she was kidding. But I never was sure. 

May 2019
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