HERE COMES THE VEGETABLE MAN
Story submitted by Vanessa Mason, Library Member
My mother used to always say we missed so much because we had not grown up on a farm. I can appreciate what she meant. The fresh air, the starry nights, milking the cow, and growing your own food can leave you feeling very grateful for that which nature so generously offers. I grew up in Detroit, a cosmopolitan blue-collar city in the southeast region of Michigan where huge auto factories that spread out across the metropolitan area kept countless families fed. It seemed every father and uncle to be found worked on a Ford, Chrysler, or General Motors assembly line. Indeed it was the automotive industry’s dominance that secured Detroit’s nickname as The Motor City.
Back in the day, the Motor City, or Motown by which it was otherwise endearingly referred, was known throughout the nation for its two greatest contributions: a booming auto production industry and the incredible Berry Gordy-produced talent. The tunes of Mary Wells, Tammi Terrell, the Temptations, and the Supremes infused the neighborhoods, united the City through rhythmic sounds, and carved out a prominent place for Detroit on the nation’s map. The annual Auto Show at Detroit’s Cobo Hall gave Detroiters a preview of all the new models for the upcoming year. My sister was selected as one of the models for the show. She was very excited to acquire this gig. She learned how to work her charms in order to engage consumer interest and educate audiences on the vehicle’s newest gadgets and features. Sadly, the auto factories would later close, one by one; Motown Records would follow shortly after.
The negative connation that is currently associated with Detroit at first left me feeling ashamed whenever someone would ask me where I was from. However, over the years, though the city has radically declined, my sentiments for my beloved hometown have made an about-face. For whenever I think of home now I think of my mother who worked and struggled and struggled and worked as she lovingly cared for her family on a skimpy income at an earning rate far below her education and qualifications. Underemployed, underpaid, overworked, and stretched for cash were conditions she patiently and routinely endured. She found extra work wherever she could, taking in ironing for the lady around the corner, and whatever dignified thing she could do to be able to make, among other expenses, the three-cent milk money to go with the brown- bag-bologna- sandwich lunches she prepared for us each morning. Going the extra mile was par for the course for making it through the day. Back then, wives were not allowed to apply for credit without a husband’s permission, which she most certainly did not have. The biggest tragedy of my life is how my mother was cheated out of her inheritance and her dignity by much of her own family and many others who seemed to make it their mission to burden her existence. To quote a brother’s loving eulogy to his famous sister, [It seems that] genuine goodness is threatening to those at the opposite end of the moral spectrum.
When I think of Detroit, I also think of my teachers who in a time when such funding existed used those resources not on themselves, but rather to take us on field trips to places I might never have been able to afford — places like Greenfield Village, an indoor/outdoor museum complex founded by industrialist Henry Ford. This popular tourist attraction preserves and exhibits items of historical interest, such as the chair in which Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Greenfield Village is a step back in time to horse-drawn carriages, railroad junctions, and a peek into Thomas Edison’s innovative research laboratory. The Village, along with the Henry Ford Museum which shares its site, captures the history of early American living.
Through teachers there were opportunities to experience other local fascinations that were financially out of reach for us personally. Ms. Tucker, the wonderful Music teacher would take us downtown to Ford Auditorium each semester to hear the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Ms. Tucker exposed us to a wide variety of composers and some of the most magnificent concerts I can recall. She was solely responsible for the musical arrangements of all school events and choreographed each Spring festival and every Christmas pageant for all the years that I attended Custer Elementary and beyond. Were it not for her dedication and willingness to share her musical gifts, I would not have enjoyed those great introductions to the Hansel and Gretel Opera and The Nutcracker Suite.
Detroit was 143 square miles of charm. With its connection to Canada, it seemed even larger. The Detroit-Windsor tunnel provided a short route to Canada. During summers, a boat that ran the Detroit River twice daily carried tourists and families to the Bob-Lo Island Amusement Park. I got the chance to go one time with a playmate’s family who lived across the street. It was one of those spontaneous opportunities. I recall that one day just as the streetlight came on — our signal that playtime was over — Delphine casually mentioned that she would be going to Bob-Lo the next day.
What is Bob-Lo?
You never heard of Bob-Lo? Wanna’ go?
She asked her mother who asked my mother. By a miracle her mother and mine both said yes. I refer to it as a miracle because we never had money to go to such places. Any suggested event, if considered at all, required deep contemplation for how we could possibly make it happen financially. Something as simple as a short school supply list would give us pause. If privilege is the ability to do anything without having to think of the consequences, our family had little of it to exercise. Every cost had to compete with a list of 99 other needed expenses. We hardly ever put a dent into that list. By the time the most critical needs were prioritized the bottom 95 items were deleted from the list because…..well…..we had no choice but to kiss those conveniences, those dreams, those necessities goodbye. From a front porch view, we would watch our neighbors who had a more secure financial stream, pile up into their vehicles and head for the beach or to the stadium to enjoy a professional sports event, or set off on a family vacation.Vacation.
I could never come up with anything when the teacher would ask us to write about what we did over our summer vacations. I had never taken a vacation. Correction. I have never taken a vacation even still. When I hear people lamenting about “not being able to take their vacation this year” as if it were some birthright; or when students approach me with the request to reschedule the exam so that it does not pose a conflict with their pre-scheduled vacation – as I take this all in, I realize that we each live in a very different world. That Bob-Lo excursion represented a tremendous sacrifice that even at just 8 years old I was well aware my mother was making. Bob-Lo island amusement park was one of the most exciting and memorable experiences I’ve had in my life, and the first and only time that I have ever been on a boat.
I can best recall my hometown in the context of my childhood while Detroit was in its prime. Life was simplified. On Sunday afternoons after church, we would sometimes catch a movie at one of the neighborhood movies theatres. To pay for admissions we would use the coins that we earned from recycling pop bottles at the Moreno’s Market around the corner. These corner grocers dotted the municipal landscape, all Mom and Pop vendors where, before the influx of credit cards, you were permitted to feed your family “on the books”. The accounts were manually-maintained by the store owner in well-worn spiral notebooks held together by a dozen or so rubber bands. The corner grocers were community fixtures. Major supermarkets nearby meant that you never had to venture too far from your neighborhood for much of anything.
Approximately twice a month on Saturdays, the Vegetable Man would roll down our street in an orange bus. He would always park in front of our house because we lived smack dab in the middle of the block. I can remember watching my mother and others climbing into the bus and loading bags with fresh collards, okra, beets, and other produce. A produce weighing scale hung in the middle of the aisle. I did not realize the value of it then, but that Vegetable bus served as an essential gathering place for neighbors.
On hot evenings Mr. Softee would jingle down the street. The little kids and big ones too gathered at the truck’s side-sliding window, quarters in hand, to pay for soft-swirled ice cream mounted high on cones of various shapes and sizes. The Vegetable Man and Mr. Softee were part of the local color that added texture to Detroit’s hometown feel that I loved and miss. You knew your neighbors……all of them! What they had for dinner each night; where they went to school and where they worked. You even knew their cousins; and, they knew yours.
Neighbors were one great big extended family. We would get together, young and old, for street block parties and backyard talent shows. We played baseball in the alleys. The telephone pole served as first base. My mother and Ms. Gertrude, who lived two houses down, established two official girls’ teams – the Alley Cats and the Magnetics. Ms. Render down the street designed little blue play shorts for the Alley Cats and little pink play shorts for the Magnetics. For the bigger games we hiked over to a nearby baseball field in Highland Park, a 3-square mile enclave completely bound by Detroit. My older sisters would play and us younger ones would watch. My third oldest sister could really play…..won every game for her team; and when she switched from the Magnetics to the Alley Cats, she won those too! There were refreshments after the games at Ms. Gertrude’s house, which was irrefutably the most beautiful home on the block. Pizza, potato chips, and all flavors of Faygo pop were enjoyed by the baseball players as reward for their hard work. Detroit was once a grand city. I witnessed a slow deterioration growing up but remnants of what once was, were still evident. Though not the State’s capital, Detroit was the site of the Michigan State Fair for many decades. The fair would open each year for exactly ten days from late August to Labor Day. The fairgrounds were a sight to see especially at night with all the flashy lights and colors. You could see the Ferris wheel from quite a distance. We envied the residents who lived along Woodward Avenue because they could catch all the views of the fair from their balconies and porches. Anyone living near or along Woodward had a vantage point from which they enjoyed easy access to all kinds of interesting sights.
One has to appreciate the significance of Woodward Avenue. This thoroughfare separated the East side from the West and ran straight down the middle of the City from the foot of the Detroit River to the north border at Eight Mile Road, the gateway to the suburbs. One day, to save bus fare, I walked home all the way from downtown along Woodward Avenue. I walked six miles due North, then another two miles West before reaching my destination. I felt like a tourist as I took in the sights along the way. It was one long continuous moment of landmarks. Among them were the Art Institute, the Historical Museum, the 203 acres of the campus of Wayne State University, the Detroit Main Library (I’ve yet to visit a public library that surpasses its exquisite architectural beauty), the elaborate Mauna Loa Polynesian restaurant, the Fisher Theatre, General Motors headquarters, and the renowned J. L. Hudson’s department store.
Once the world’s tallest department store, Hudson’s served as the flagship downtown retailer. There were 14 floors of an indoor cultural experience with premium merchandise ranging from clothing to furniture to bicycles to marked-down items in the budget basement store. A stroll through the first floor aisles would offer a blended whiff of perfumes and colognes. Chandeliers hung over cosmetic counters, where you could sit for a free 30-minute makeover. A number of restaurants and also full-service barber shops and beauty salons occupied the mezzanine. There was a bookstore and a pharmacy and even a bakery. You could live in the place.
Hudson’s had this wonderful relationship with the City. Each Thanksgiving, we would watch the J. L. Hudson Thanksgiving Day Parade on television. The parade marked the beginning of the holiday season where the Mayor would present to Santa the “keys to the City”. One time, we actually went downtown to experience the event in person. The crowd was enormous. It seemed all the residents of Detroit and the surrounding suburbs were there lining the blocks around J. L. Hudson’s department store. Throughout the holiday season the outside windows and walls of the building featured animated displays with fantasy themes. Each Christmas, the entire 12th floor of the store was transformed into a Christmas wonderland. The gloved elevator operators would load shoppers and tons of eager kids into the lift and express their cargo non-stop all the way up. It was breathtaking to see this spectacular vast space when the elevator door opened. To try to take in the extravagance all at once was an impossible feat. It is a memory that I cherish even more now that the store is no longer there. When J. L. Hudson’s department store was imploded in 1998 half the city’s residents witnessed the dramatic event. It felt like the end of a love affair, an eye-watering display that clearly-delineated the final scene of a great era.
Along with the wonderful sites I miss all the Midwest indicators that identify home, like the four distinct seasons…..those cold and bitter winters that followed the vibrant colors of the brisk autumn months; and, the Spring season that burst into being and contrasted so sharply with the earlier winter months. I recall with a kind of fondness that I cannot even explain the sparring matches between the flashes of lightning and the loud crackling of thunder during those unpredictable thunderstorms. They use to scare me until I grew to love and appreciate them. Detroit was a place where you could enjoy that small-town air. Yet it was a city big on style. The City’s population peaked at nearly 2 million in the 1950s. Detroit prospered for decades with autonomous pride before it caught a new groove from the riots in the late sixties. The 1967 riot was arguably the greatest disaster to befall the city. It was a bloody and violent destructive storm, from which the City has never recovered. During the post-riot years a number of changes took place. There was considerable tension among differing ethnic groups. Rightly or wrongly, residents who could afford to, moved away. And large-scale layoffs changed the economic climate and diminished hopes for many.
The factories are no longer there. Motown has long departed from the City. The house I grew up in is gone. Today, most of the residential neighborhoods are in decay. Only the downtown area of the once self-contained urban region shows signs of rebirth with its new sporting venues and the riverfront walkways and parks with more developments underway. City utilities, such as water and waste management, regularly betray their tax-paying residents by delivering substandard services to those who are clinging to the lowest rung of the economic ladder. However noble the efforts by grass root community organizers, inner-city Detroit where the homegrown people reside hasn’t managed to live down its current crime-infested reputation or amass enough funds to make much of a positive change for their neck of the woods. Too often, their burning grievances are left unheard.
Despite what it may have succumbed to, Detroit provided me a wonderful legacy and many great memories. Sure there was social and economic unrest, but overall it was a wonderful place to grow up and I am grateful that I was there while the city was still thriving. I would not mind at all the single chance to relive just one day at home perhaps sitting next to my mother on the front porch swaying side by side on the floral green and white canvas-covered glider. Shielded from the sun by the wood-woven shade, there we would be, watching the neighbors climbing into their cars, fancy free….Mr. Kelly washing his car, Ms. Dunson trimming her hedges, and the Gilbert twins riding their bicycles up the street and back down again; my mother and I relaxing taking it all in as we share a half pound of batter-fried jumbo shrimp from Dot and Etta’s Shrimp Hut and then washing them down with gulps from a 16-ounce bottle of Faygo Fruit Punch pop. Oh yes! From the scenes playing out before us, we learned how to create our own little vacation.
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