Friday, January 30, 2009

Give Us This Day

On days my mother wanted bread, rolls, or cakes, she'd put a sign in our front window for the Helms Bakery Truck. It was a blue and white sign printed on cardboard emblazoned with the letter "H" in gold. Each weekday morning, the Helms truck would make its way slowly along Longridge Avenue, stopping at every drive where residents showed the sign in their windows.

The Helms man, in his fresh-pressed white uniform and sporty cap, would toot his horn, hop out, and open the side of the truck revealing tray after tray of freshly baked donuts, glazed and plump in the bright Southern California sunshine, sheets of white or chocolate iced cakes, and loaves of bread still warm from the morning ovens.

On days after mom had placed a specific order--say for rye bread or rolls--the driver would have it ready when we went to the curb. The smell was heavenly. On days I was home from school, I'd wait outside on the lawn for the Helms man. The trucks had no air conditioning and if you we lived near the end of the route toward the end of a hot summer's day, the Helms man would hand out free donuts to neighborhood kids. Was this going on all across America, or just our street?

The Helms bakery was established in 1931 near Culver City with 31 employees and 11 delivery trucks. Before the freeways carved ribbons of poured concrete from the sea to the inland deserts, Helms trucks would drive for hours each day along city streets and over the winding passes of the coastal range to deliver the bread to Angelinos, sometimes extending their routes several hundred miles north to Fresno in the hot San Joaquin Valley, or southward to San Diego and the Mexican border. Even the Apollo astronauts who first landed on the moon packed Helms bread along, crumbs floating like leavened snowflakes in orbit.

To have been a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s was to witness the end of personalized service by hard-working merchants and professionals. My father and mother tell stories of horse-drawn ice trucks of the 1920s and 1930s, clumping along the cobbled New York City streets bringing blocks of relief to hot and woozy residents. We still called our refrigerator an "ice box", and when I use the expression today, people tilt their heads and laugh.

The last vestiges of those days expired with my coming of age. But well into my adolescence, we still had a dairy man, who left bottles of milk and cubes of butter on our doorstep, taking away the empties in a metal carrier that jingled like a glass xylophone. Then one day the glass bottles gave way to plastic jugs. My sister, barely a year old, had her photo taken and put on a carton of milk that the Adohr Farms delivered to our door. She had been named an "Adohrable Baby". Adohr was founded in 1916 by Merritt and Rhoda (spelled backwards, it's Adohr) Adamson on acreage dating from the California days of Spanish land grants and grew for a while to be the world's largest milk producer.

Then, one day, the milkman stopped coming. Whether mom had canceled the route or if the dairy had gone out of the delivery business I don't know. But after that time, we began to visit a drive-through dairy up on Chatsworth. It was spanking clean, with shiny washed driveways, and you pulled your car to the door and picked up buttermilk, margarine, sour cream, and cottage cheese.

I date myself, but those were also the days, in the early 1960s, when you telephoned the doctor when you were sick and he came to your home. I remember him coming after I had my tonsils and adenoids removed when I was eight. I had been looking forward, of course, to the promised, endless bowls of ice cream that were said to soothe the ache. But I couldn't eat any of it, I was so sore. Then the doctor came to the house, gave me an injection with a needle so large it would make most present-day patients faint, and I fell asleep.

Of course, in summers the Good Humor truck would roam the streets every afternoon when school let out. The driver would play the familiar tune through a loudspeaker atop the truck and when you heard it coming, you raced from the street where you had been playing, into the house to beg for money.

The Good Humor man also wore a clean, pressed white uniform and cap, and opened heavy freezer doors at the back of the truck that smoked with cold and held Sidewalk Sundaes and King Cones. Good Humor was founded in 1920 after Ohio candy-maker Harry Burt created the first ice cream on a stick. After he patented the Good Humor Bar, Burt assembled a fleet of twelve chauffeur-driven trucks, all with bells that announced the pending opportunity for a sugar high. Even the company name reflects the ancient medical notion that body "humors" could be adjusted to make a person happy. And I was plenty happy after eating my Sidewalk Sundae, at least for a little while.

You got to know your milkman, your Helms driver, and the local Good Humor man. You gave them small gifts at Christmas. Like a good bartender, the Good Humor man would remember your favorite ice cream and have it ready from the freezer as you ran up with change in your hand.

But those were the days when the world came to you, and even the visitors to your neighborhood had familiar faces and names, were part of the fabric of your life, and promised that comfort and prosperity would flow like human kindness to your door.


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Starlene said...

I'm extremely grateful to Tangobaby for recommending you as a daily visit. The words to illustrate how I really feel are eluding me today, but suffice it to say I become lost to the world within your words.

Char said...

this so eloquently took me back to days of my childhood. not that the delivery people I knew wore pressed uniforms. I remember boys on bicycles riding through the neighborhood ringing a cowbell. He had popcicles in a cooler on the front...this eventually gave away to those obnoxious vans that play the loud music. I remember once my brother told me that the popcicle man took the wrapper off, licked it and put it back on so I wouldn't get one. I also remember the Avon lady that rode to the house on her bicycle and gave me samples of lipstick in tiny white tubes.

tangobaby said...

Not to get off topic, but Char! OMG, I totally remember the Avon Lady and those little lipstick tubes. Oh, you've just sent me into a tizzy...

Okay, now I'm better. *grin*

I wish I had grown up with those wonderful people in our neighborhood too. I vaguely remember the milkman for a brief time, but I only think we had one because our new suburb was so far away from a store, or so it seemed.

We did have an ice cream truck, but it was not a Good Humor one. It was driven by someone who looked pretty rough around the collar, and maybe even a little bit dangerous, but as long as he was selling ice cream, we didn't care.

I think we've lost so much as a culture. Having vendors and people to interact with daily adds a lot to our little crazy quilt of life.

Wonderful post.

Country Girl said...

Found my way over here from Char's Ramblings blog. Good stuff.
I remember the milk man and the bread man. We had a Charles Chips man where we lived in NJ, too.

Annabelle said...

Beautifully written, such a lovely memory. Thanks so much for sharing.