Befitting his position as a member of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals while attending Harvard, Governor Phil Murphy, in a recent TV appearance, dramatically announced that we are fighting a war against the coronavirus. The governor never lived and experienced a wartime America. The virus is serious and is something we must ward off. But the measures that have been instituted do not compare to Wartime America.
My family moved to Elizabeth in 1942. There were probably more people in our new neighborhood than were in the entire county we came from. Talk about culture shock. It wasn’t so bad, since a good percentage of the people were country or small town people like us.
Today, we have supermarkets that restrict the number of customers in the store and don’t make deliveries. Years ago we didn’t have supermarkets – we had peddlers. One peddler had a bus that he made into a vegetable store. A couple of others had open trucks and the fish man had an open truck full of ice. A couple more peddlers still had the horse and wagons. The fish man came twice a week because we had meatless Tuesday and there were a lot of Catholics in the neighborhood and they couldn’t eat meat on Friday. Who could get meat anyhow?
The iceman was a regular visitor to the neighborhood, since few people had electric refrigerators. The milkman came regularly and his customers would leave a note in the empty glass bottle as to their needs. He also supplied eggs and butter.
Route men from Dugan’s and Freihoff’s bakeries made regular visits with their goods displayed in large baskets. Just about every neighborhood had a corner store that sold bread and milk and other assorted items; a forerunner of today’s convenience store.
The intersection of Washington Avenue and South Street in Elizabeth was our neighborhood market center. Tripoli’s Italian Market was on South Street and a short distance; up on the corner of Washington Avenue was the A&P food store. Diagonally across from the A&P was Foti’s fruits and vegetables, next to which was the Washington Meat Market.
There was a shortage of many items, especially those things that were imported, like sugar, coffee, pineapples, bananas, rubber and tin, which was used to coat the inside of canned goods. We didn’t see a banana for five years. Rationing then came into effect which limited our ability to buy anything.
Car owners could buy three gallons of gas a week. People could only buy two pairs of shoes a year. And of course, tires and automotive maintenance parts were unavailable.
Meat purchasing was like being involved in some underground covert operation. The butcher would leak to some long time customer the kind and amount of meat he would have in a given week. That customer, usually a lady, would gather other women and notify them of the availability. The women in the group would pony up the amount of money and ration coupons necessary to make the purchase.
It was this system of sharing that brought about a learning experience for those involved to learn different regional and ethnic menus. My mother made stuffed cabbage as good as any Polish woman and my father who only thought spaghetti came in a can ala Franco American spaghetti now was able to eat the real stuff like a Brooklyn Italian. My mother taught people how to make hamhocks and lima beans, cornbread, fried chicken and oxtail stew.
The markets around Washington Avenue were real money makers for us kids. We would pick up and deliver our neighbors’ orders from any of the stores and usually get a tip of 5 or 10 cents. Sometimes we could carry two different orders in the wagon and get 20 cents.
I wrote a 422-page book about this wartime era and what we have today is nothing like that time.
Richard Pender is the senior vice commander of American Legion Post 459 in North Brunswick. He writes the occasional column for Newspaper Media Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.