Central to my mother’s endless quest for adventure, nothing more stimulated her adrenal glands than the great American hunt for bargains. If there was not a bargain at the end of her rainbow, life lost its color and its spirit of adventure. For my sister Rosalyn and me, the adage, “I can get it for you wholesale,” was imprinted deeply into our Jewish consciousness.
Most Jews did not come from the sprawling frontier tradition that so permeated American life in the 1880s. Our ancestors were primarily peddlers, coming from the cloistered villages of Eastern Europe. The pushcart was our chariot, and upon it we heaped our golden dreams of making it in the New World.
Whether we were tailors or, later, bankers, whether we lived in tenements or, later, mansions, it didn’t matter. We learned to be super salespeople, men and women, for whom the smell of the hunt was in our mother’s milk or, later, in the more fashionable nursing bottle. No matter. For most of us, the scent has retained its seductive flavor to this day, suffusing us with the lure of the market place so reflective of our colorful heritage.
In the 1930s, my mother’s particular area of interest was located on the west side of Chicago. Situated two blocks south of Roosevelt Road and Halsted Street, it was known as Maxwell Street. These busy roadways were clogged with densely packed wooden structures leaning cheek by jowl next to each other as if to hold themselves up against the onslaught of the massive trucks and rickety pushcarts descending upon them.
Walking was a balancing act to make your way around the stalls, carts, racks, packing cases, scales, and all manner of portable receptacles capable of displaying the wares so abundantly piled up for exhibition.
The pushcart was our chariot, and upon it we heaped our golden dreams of making it in the New World.
Gaining additional courage to make your way through the crowd-ed streets, you would prepare to be assaulted by the insistent sing-song of the peddler-salesman hawking his wares so close to your ear, sometimes grabbing you by the elbow to pull you in. “Hey lady!” he’d say to my mother, “Come on in, get the buy of your life, you won’t want to miss it.” He’d try to heighten his pitch to outdo the guy next door. This man was seductive, persuasive, even compelling, implying it would be foolish for us not to come in to see his store of goodies.
It was therefore considered an exciting event when, on an occasional Sunday morning, my sister and I were invited to go shopping with Mama on Maxwell Street. We couldn’t wait to see our friends again, the cast of characters we were beginning to know there. Mama’s good, no, intimate friends with whom she had such stimulating rapport, who made such a fuss over her, and in her reflection…over us.