And just so you know, it wasn't okay for a grownup to pee on car tires. It was just for kids. Kids could go just about anyplace. Lampposts were fair game, as were trees. And we didn't have to hide. We were like happy little dogs in those days.
We lived on East 79th Street, east of York Avenue in Manhattan. The wind blew in off the East River and my father told me how, as a boy, he swam there. "You can't swim there because the water's too dirty now," he'd say, but it's not dirty anymore. Times change.
He would take us out for a walk on a Sunday afternoon in the winter. He'd bundle us up and stuff us into this huge navy-blue carriage that had wheels a foot wide. Every family with little kids had a carriage like that. We kept them in the carriage room, which was in the basement of most apartment buildings. They built carriages like Hummers in the 1950s.
My father would tell our mother that he'd be back in a couple of hours. We needed fresh air. Then he'd wheel us down the block and park us in front of the local gin mill, next to a bunch of other snot-nosed kids in carriages. He'd swagger in, grab a stool by the window, and drink ten-cent beers with his buddies all afternoon. He'd tap on the window now and then, and bring out some pretzels if we were carrying on. And this was perfectly normal.
Try it today.
When he'd bring us home, my brother and I would have rosy cheeks and our father would have a rosy nose, and my mother was happy that she had some time alone. Normal.
Every apartment building had an incinerator with an acrid fire that never went out. We took our trash into the hallway, opened the door to the chute, and let the garbage fall five stories into the basement inferno. There was no such thing as recycling. In the 1950s, there was an endless supply of stuff, and pollution was normal. The war was over; everything was available again, and there was no longer a need to save tin cans to build ships. And those cans sounded so good to me as they crashed and echoed into the raging fire.
Every boiler burned what must have been crude oil when I was a kid. Combine these with the incinerators and every building was vomiting black smoke into the sky. Perfectly normal. We all choked on it, and the sheets on the line in the airshaft between our kitchen window and the neighbor's got sooty as soon as my mother washed them, but that was just how it was.
The public schools burned coal, and some still do. I first saw this when I was a few years in the business and making my way around the city. I met this man who shoveled and raked coal in a dark basement of a school. His face was older than he was, and it could have been 1900 that day.
Times change, but in some places, it changes slowly.
We wore our shoes until they had holes in the soles, and then my mother would take them to her father, who was a shoe repairman. He had a small shop on East 93rd Street, on the first floor of a tenement building. He lived upstairs, and the building is still there. He fixed shoes, and blocked and cleaned hats with carbon tetrachloride. The place reeked of it. He smoked unfiltered Camels and died from lung cancer a few days after JFK was shot. He'd tell my mother that she shouldn't have waited so long with the shoes, but she wanted to get the most out of those old soles. He'd rebuild them, and we'd wear them until they no longer fit. And then we'd pass them on to younger cousins.
We had steam heat. Everyone had steam heat. We started it by banging on the pipes with a metal spoon; and we stopped it by opening a window. This is how you controlled steam heat in an apartment building, and many people still use this method today.
My grandfather bought my grandmother a washing machine. It had a big tub with a white-enamel finish, and scary rollers up top that you operated with a crank. My grandmother stored paper bags from the grocery store in the washing machine, and she did her laundry on her knees in the bathtub, rubbing the clothes clean with bar soap on a galvanized-steel washboard. This fascinated me, and I asked my mother why she wouldn't use the washing machine. "Because she doesn't like new things," she explained.
Times change, but some people don't.
Can you remember when barcodes were new? It wasn't that long ago. Many people looked at those little black lines and hoped that they would just go away. The amount of work getting a barcode on every item in inventory was too much work to imagine. The industry will never accept this, and besides, things are fine just the way they are. Right?
Imagine a world without barcodes.
Someone applies for a job nowadays, and we Goggle him or her. A world of information pops up, and it's all there for free. Not long ago, a young guy posted on one of the Internet bulletin boards that he didn't know what he was going to do about the way his father was handling the family business. Maybe he'll quit, but then, what would he do? His father was screwing the customers, and here's how he was doing it. And he wasn't paying most of his taxes either. And here's how he's been getting away with it. You want details? This guy will give you details. And all of this was going out onto the World Wide Web, where it will stay forever.
Was a time when, if you had to bitch about something, you could sit at the bar with your buddies and a friendly bartender and get it all out of your system. The next day, hardly anyone remembered what you had talked about, and you felt better.
Times have changed, and people now bitch in chat rooms. And some of them think no one's really listening, and that all of this complaining goes away when the sun comes up. It doesn't.
I was doing a seminar at a trade show and that young guy with the crooked father showed up. He has an unusual name, and I recognized him by his nametag. I asked him if he was the guy who had posted about the family business, and he nodded and said that he was. He just had to get it off his chest, he explained. He had to share what he was going through with the other guys. They'd understand his feelings. He felt a lot better now that he had told the story.
I asked him if he realized that what he had posted would be in Google's memory for all time, and he said that he wasn't worried about that. I asked him why he wasn't worried, and he said that he just wasn't. Not that many people use Google to check out other people nowadays. Right?
Times change. Just about everything does. But knuckleheads? They will always be with us.