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Streets And Streetcleaners

May 25, 2008
Between the twenty story buildings on Riverside Drive and West End Avenue, 88th street was lined with five story brownstones - most of them single family homes. The street in front of the houses was lined with sycamore trees protected by five foot high protectors made of vertical iron staves held together by horizontal iron bands. The staves ended in spear points at the top and were painted green. Later, after the War, most of the paint had worn off and we'd grab the top section of the staves and bend them toward us to show how strong we'd grown.

The brownstones had stoops leading up to the main entrance on the first floor where there was an unlocked door with glass panels and a vestibule leading into an inner door that was locked. After the War, they replaced the glass-paneled doors with solid doors and put lock on them as well. There was a service or basement entrance down three steps from street level. The basement door and windows had wrought iron bars in front of them. Many first floor windows had window boxes on the sills, with red geraniums in them.

There weren't many cars driving down 88th Street or parked along the sidewalks back in the 1930s and the streets were always clean. People didn't throw things down in the streets in those days, partly because everyone on the street knew everyone else and didn't want to be seen throwing things down, and partly because they were not the kind of people who throw things down.

There was also a man with a Kaiser Wilhelm moustache who wheeled a cart with an olive drab refuse can along the street. He wore gloves, a brown Department of Sanitation (DSNY) uniform and a drum cap like a French army officer's. He carried a stiff-bristled brush and a broad shovel stored handle-down in slots next to the refuse can. He'd sweep dog droppings, horse manure and other refuse into a pile next to the curbstone with the stiff bristled brush and then pick it up with his shovel and put it into his can. He also had a wooden tool about three feet long with a sharp metal point so that he didn't have to bend down to pick up paper or cigarette and cigar butts from grassy areas and one April morning just as he turned down 88th Street shortly after noon Oberstleutnant Wolfram von Richthofen of the Luftwaffe was leading the Condor Legion in one of the early experimental carpet bombing attacks over the town of Guernica.

When his refuse can was full he took it to one of the DSNY bins placed along the avenues. The bins contained several barrels and DSNY trucks with swinging hatches on each side would pick up garbage from the bins and cans left outside houses. Two uniformed men dumped the cans through the hatches until the truck was full and then one climbed on top, stood on the mound of garbage inside and the other man picked up the cans and either passed or tossed them up. The man on top caught the cans, dumped out the garbage and dropped the can back down for the man on the street to catch and leave on the sidewalk. (This was before the garbage trucks had scoops in the back and conveyor belts to carry the garbage up into the truck.)

(Originally published at AuthorsDen and reprinted with permission of the author, Herbert Lobsenz).
About the Author
Herbert Lobsenz studied literature at Heights College, NYU, went into the army during the Korean War and, following Robert Jordan of For Whom The Bell Tolls, became an EOD specialist. His second novel, Vangel Griffin (1961), won the Harper Prize and appeared on the Times best seller list. His latest novel, Succession, will be published in May 2008. Visit Old Time Writer.
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