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From the American Scene: Memoirs of a Pumpkin-Seed Peddler

During the early 1930s, my brother and I contributed considerably to the litter of Crotona Park. But we also satisfied a deep-seated need of several thousand Bronxites, for in those lean years we supplied the means for long sessions of noshing at very nominal cost (nosh: a nibble, a snack). We were pumpkin-seed (semichkes) peddlers.

We also sold polly seeds and indian nuts, but our main item was pumpkin seeds. We began our career with them and they remained, even after we added refinements, our best seller.

Pumpkin seeds and polly seeds, I’m given to understand, were (and perhaps in some places remain) delicacies among East European Jews. “On Saturdays, after tea,” my mother-in-law tells me, “we used to sit in a circle and split the shells and spit them out until we were knee-deep in them.”

Although only autumn leaves and soft snow ever piled up above our ankles in Crotona Park, the empty shells of our merchandise left sure signs of our route—along Crotona Avenue in front of the benches, in the grandstand of the soccer field, around the soccer field itself, and in the byways and aisles surrounding Indian Lake.

As with more popular items before and since, our products were actually mostly packaging. My father used to say that the seed slivers were as big as “the yawn of a flea.” They were largely noise (in the cracking of them) and thin shell.

But there were veritable addicts who couldn’t sit on the benches or watch a soccer game or engage in a political argument without pumpkin or polly seeds. They would hold a fistful while the other hand moved up and down like a pump feeding the mouth.

Pumpkin seeds, for the uninitiate, are the flat, flounder-shaped kernels of the pumpkin. Those we used to sell were thinner and sparser and nuttier than the moist seeds straight from the pumpkin; our seeds were “fresh roasted.” Frequently, we would warm them ourselves, even though they came already roasted. A bloated, dead-white pumpkin seed, apparently soaked in a salt paste, used to be dispensed from the globular glass vending machines in front of candy stores. Ours, may I say with the pride of a salesman, were, except for the roasting, au naturel.

As for “polly seeds”: “polly” is, of course, a synonym for parrot. Parrots were often fed the black-and-white striped seeds of the sunflower. The sunflower seeds therefore became “polly seeds.”

For a while, this semantic confusion, the idea that persons and pollies ate the same food, bothered me. However, I felt better when I noticed one day at my aunt’s that all a polly did to a seed was puncture a hole in it to scoop out only a portion of the meat. We human beings split it skillfully down the middle, separated the halves, and got a full seed.

Indian nuts, tiny, brown, brittle-shelled, round nuts with tender sweet kernels of meat, were a new-world delicacy. Although they were preferred by gourmets, the general attitude of the confirmed pumpkin-polly-seed customers was that they were treif; few of them ever bothered with the nuts.

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My Brother and I became entrepreneurs in the desperate days of the middle depression, toward the end of Hoover’s term. Literally every penny was needed by our household for day-to-day living. Selling newspapers or shining shoes were out of the question for us; my mother said only shkutzim or grobe yiden did that. It was my mother, though, who first saw the connection between a little glass cup in which she kept toothpicks and pumpkin-seed selling.

She didn’t have to go far to be inspired in the direction of peddling. At that time, the streets of the Bronx were filled with itinerant peddlers. Indeed more business was done along the curb than in the conventional stores fronting the sidewalks. I recall that even Gypsies, whom one only sees in the movies today, used to drive around in ramshackle, squarish carts cluttered with brooms and brushes and clinking pots and pans.

The big street-merchants were the fruit and vegetable peddlers. They worked with horse-drawn open wagons which were gay with neat compartments of varicolored merchandise and brightly painted price signs on brown paper bags. They cried their wares in incomprehensible bellows: “Potoh! Apoh! Matoh!” These cries were a code announcing their presence in the street below to housewives deep in the recesses of their apartments; they trumpeted these sounds even when they didn’t have the particular items they represented.

But dealing with them was serious business; the buying of food for the family involved silver coins. We children had little to do with them. But there was a whole fraternity of penny merchants who satisfied the giant collective sweet tooth of youngsters and adults alike. In the summertime, there were the ices and the ice-cream men; in winter, the sweet-potato man; all year round, the bagel lady or the coconut man.

There was a curious localization of many of these enterprises. Our type of pumpkin-seed peddling, for instance, seems to have been confined to Crotona Park. The arbus and bubbis man (hot chick-peas, salted and peppered) reigned on Manhattan’s East Side, in the stronghold of Orthodox Jewry.

Ices were sold variously in various sections of the Bronx and Manhattan. In my neighborhood, they came ready-made, that is, the flavor and the pulverized ice were already combined. The white-aproned salesman stood behind his orange or red handcart and scooped out the white, chocolate, red, orange, or yellow ice and packed it into small white tulip cups. There were one-cent, two-cent, three-cent, and five-cent sizes; all came with substantial air holes between the ices and the bottom of the cup, but the top was piled up to overflowing. One ices man also put up a product he called custard. It wasn’t the sickly-sweet, sticky, marshmallowish custard of the Coney Island boardwalk, but a kind of mellowed, smooth ices.

In Manhattan and in the 149th Street area of the Bronx, ices were made up while you waited. The merchant had a block of ice in front of him covered with a wet rag. He would pull aside the covering for a customer, scrape off enough ice to fill a little cup, and then flavor it. The bottles of flavor always reminded me of the hair tonics on a barber’s shelf. Selecting a strongly-colored liquid, he would sprinkle it on top of the shaved, colorless ice. With a curious logic I never questioned, my mother always warned me against this type of ices; she said it was made of ice.

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The sweet-potato man was universal. I still marvel at his subtle sense of pricing. “Give me a one-cent piece,” you say to him. He pulls out a drawer in his hot metal chest, the lowest compartment of which contains a fire, and surveys the brown and black chunks. Then, he picks up a gnarled scrap and wraps it in a piece of crinkly tissue originally used to envelop oranges or tomatoes. “What about that one?” you say for the sake of argument, pointing to another scrap, actually no larger, no healthier looking. “Two cents,” he says.

The knishes wagon, popular in Manhattan and Brooklyn, somehow never caught on in the Bronx. Bagels, those deliciously doughy concoctions, tasteless save for the heavy grains of salt, were and still are widespread. The jelly-apple man who dipped apples on a stick into a great polished brass pot (that used to remind me of a witch’s cauldron) full of a warm, brilliant red goo was extant in all the boroughs. I’ve never seen the chestnut man but in mid-Manhattan. The turkish-candy (munelech) man carried his tray throughout the city. The black and orange umbrella-covered frank-further wagon also made its slow way all over. The peanut vendor with his whistling, puffing little brass stove was to be found near almost any park. The sweet-corn man, wheeling a great pot of boiling water in which the corns churn around violently, is in season a fixture of Manhattan’s garment district.

The coconut man, I believe, was pretty well localized in the Bronx, although approximations have been reported to me in all the boroughs. His main item, of course, was slices of coconut which he kept in a jar full of opaque, white coconut juice. The man I remember particularly used to go fishing for a slice and made a ceremony of finding it. He was quite a showman. He had inserted several coins inside two halves of a coconut held together with rubber bands. Whenever he took up a position at a corner, usually near a school at lunchtime or when school let out, he would shake this maracas and chant in a thick accent I took to be Italian: “Coca-nots, coca-nots.”

One of the most important wares of the coconut man was “shoe leather.” This was made, as far as a layman can figure out, by putting dried apricots under a steam roller.

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As for pumpkin seeds, they were never sold by themselves in the street. The coconut man kept them in sealed jars and dispensed them by the cup. They were evidently a slow-moving item, for the jars were usually filled to near the top. Downtown in the Times Square section, they were sold from open-topped pushcarts, either in little cellophane bags or from great wooden cups.

However, in the Bathgate Avenue market in the Bronx, pumpkin seeds were extremely popular. This was a street emporium stretching from 174th Street to Claremont Parkway. The gutter was lined with pushcarts selling clothes, food, furniture. The stores had open doorways and overflowed onto the sidewalks. Among the more popular of these establishments were the appetizer and nosherei shops. Both of these types had huge sacks of pumpkin seeds squatting in front of their entrances. The housewives would buy the seeds by the half-pound, and on Sundays the family would go to the park and eat them hour after hour. The seeds were also sold by the cup to the youngsters accompanying their mothers and carrying the shopping bags; the seeds helped break the boredom of waiting outside while your mother conducted lengthy negotiations inside the chicken market or dairy store.

No one seemed to have realized the natural opportunity awaiting a pumpkin-seed entrepreneur who brought the seeds directly into the park. That is, until my mother suddenly had a business vision in a toothpick cup.

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I May be giving my mother too much credit for pioneering. But I have a piece of evidence, circumstantial though it may be, which seems to justify the conclusion that our family was indeed the founder of park pumpkin-seed peddling.

You see, the first cup we used was large, about two-thirds the size of the little glass in which cheese-spread is sold today. We offered one cup for a penny. Soon after my brother and I made our appearance in the park (working alternately, since my mother wasn’t sure the whole enterprise was worth the investment of another cup), competition appeared in the form of a brother-and-sister team who offered two cups for a penny.

Our business began to fall off almost before it started. “Only one cup for a penny?” customers would ask derisively. “I can get two.” Our answer that our cup was a larger one didn’t satisfy either them or us; we didn’t know whether it actually was. We did know, however, that if we offered two of our cups for a penny we would be out of business. (As a matter of fact, our cup was so large that my brother on his first trip out, apparently anxious to establish good will, filled it a little too generously and grossed forty-five cents on a fifty-cent investment.)

While my brother was selling, I pretended to be an innocent park sitter and bought two cups from the glum-faced little girl. I looked at her cup closely. It was as tall as ours, but—and here was the gimmick—it was very narrow, and the bottom was only a stem. It was a salt shaker with the top unscrewed. Four of these cups, we found by checking, equaled only one of ours. Of course, we switched our cup, offered two cups for a penny, and not only stayed in business but exactly doubled our profits.

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I submit that if anyone else had originated this type of peddling, he would have begun, like ourselves, with one cup for a penny. Only a Johnny-come-lately competitor, without ethics, would offer two. (It is interesting to note that after pumpkin-seed peddling became an established enterprise, a number of newcomers offered three cups for a penny, but did not succeed in driving the price down still further. The price had become stabilized and these cutthroats, evidently unwilling to study the two-cups-for-a-penny market, dropped out quickly.)

There were at least four other kids who made a career of pumpkin-seed selling for several seasons. In addition to the brother and older sister, both of whom were younger than my ten-year-old brother, there was another brother team. Although my brother and I felt proprietary about certain routes in the park and were angry when the others intruded, we never had any serious run-ins. We even became friendly with the brother team. The boy and girl, however, snubbed our attempts at acquaintanceship.

There was one young boy, around eleven, who sold peanuts in nickel bags. I don’t think he was much of a businessman. Aside from the prohibitively high cost of his merchandise, he enjoyed his work too much. He loved to go into a tapdance before a group, not caring much whether or not his extra-special offer would help sell a bag. (He’s probably a fabulously paid Hollywood dancer today.)

The other types of park vendors offered competition only in a general sense—if you were eating ice-cream or candy, you couldn’t crack pumpkin seeds. The men—not so much the old, shuffling ones, but the middle-aged men who were scraping together the barest provision for their families—used to look at us with a bitter, suppressed anger.

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I hated pumpkin-seed peddling and I think my brother did also. Every time I left the house with a bag or a little basket under my arm, I felt almost sick. I tried to hide my wares; at least, no one in the streets had to know what I was about. After the first sale, I would begin to feel somewhat better. My constant oppressive worry, though, was that I would run into a schoolmate and, most embarrassing possibility of all, into the girl I was currently conscious of. Whenever I found myself approaching people my parents or I knew, something would grip inside of me and my “fresh-roasted-pumpkin-seeds-polly-seeds-indian-nuts-two-cups-for-a-penny” would come out choked and blurred. I would pass by, trying not to look at them, and hope I wouldn’t be stopped for a sale.

During slow periods, usually early Sunday mornings, I would stroll rather aimlessly along, munching at the seeds. Often I would be brought back to consciousness by the gibe, “Eating your own profits?” I would grin foolishly and start my chant again.

Many were the times I wandered off the trade route to watch the tennis matches. This was the world of the country club to me: the crisp, white-dressed, graceful men and women who spoke with the accents of college, who drove cars, who taught school, who smoked cigarettes from large flat cases, and who made jokes that amused everyone but puzzled me. (I could take a stand almost in the middle of a group and not be noticed; the servitor is invisible.) I was enchanted by the scoring—intricate, generous, and colorful as compared with soccer or baseball (what a wonderful word to use for a score: “love”), and I got to know the names and standings of the various players. The tennis people rarely bought my merchandise, partly because I tried to hide it when I came there, but also because they didn’t quite know what to do with the seeds. My business fell sharply during tournament time.

My brother had more adventures than I. Once, two kids ganged up on him as he was cutting across the park. They knocked the bag out of his arm, shoveled up handfuls of the seeds, and ran away. another time, three lonely girls almost kidnaped him and his pumpkin seeds. On another occasion, a disgruntled and eccentric customer egged on his dog to bite my brother. My father and brother kept the incident quiet, so as not to upset my mother.

My brother recently confided to me his favorite deviation from routine. When no one in the “firm” was around to check on him, he would stop to watch Hank Green-berg practice. Sometimes, he would even put his bag down and throw a couple of easy pitches to the Hank. (Greenberg used to visit his family who lived in a house overlooking the park.)

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My father, my brother, and I bought the seeds on Bathgate Avenue. At first we carried them in a small paper bag with the sides rolled down, as a man rolls up his shirt sleeves. As the level of the contents dropped, we would fold over another inch. Our first purchases of stock were in one- or two-pound quantities, but we were soon buying five and ten pounds at a time. The pumpkin seeds, as I recall, were seven or eight cents a pound, but if you bought ten pounds, they were six cents.

We often talked of getting a hundred-pound sack, which would have cost only four dollars, a saving of two cents a pound, but either we didn’t have the money to lay out all at once or, when we did, we suddenly lost faith in our ability to sell that much. Actually, in our good seasons we sold three or four hundred pounds.

My father used to watch us carefully, all Sunday long, particularly my brother. He would sit on a high rock and follow my brother’s slow peregrinations, rather like a shipowner spying his ship into port. He carried a large reserve bag of seeds to replenish our supplies.

We sold almost all year round. When there weren’t soccer game audiences (soccer was played deep into the winter), there were bench sitters and the schmuessers around Indian Lake. Often the paths circling the lake would get so jammed with clusters of men wagging their fingers in each other’s faces that we found it difficult to make our escape. And, although normally these would make fine customers, they were often too absorbed to notice us. In the spring and summer, there were the baseball fans, not such good customers, but good enough. We got a dark suntan early every summer. Our business was at its peak on Sunday afternoons, but we used to go out on weekday evenings in summer for an hour or so along Crotona Avenue.

The profits, once we introduced that two-for-a-penny cup, were enormous, several hundred per cent. A six-cent pound of seeds brought about a quarter. On a crowded Sunday when there was a good soccer game scheduled, we might make as much as a dollar and a half each, working from around ten in the morning until after nine at night.

I remember one Sunday when we made a killing. All morning it stormed and it looked as though there would be no game. But around 2 P.M., the rain stopped, the sun came out, the grandstand filled. Since we lived just around the corner from the park, my brother and I hurried home to get our seeds. We sold everything we had in about a half hour. When the other pumpkin-seed businessmen finally arrived from their more distant headquarters, they found every spectator supplied. We cleared about three dollars each that day.

Most of our sales were for one penny. A two-cent customer was a rarity; three-centers and five-centers were positively of the elite—these were usually automobile owners who imperiously waved us to their cars. Once I made a ten-cent sale, but not until I had gone through an extended discussion with a smart-alecky customer about how much I wanted for selling out my business. We also had regular buyers who, though they maintained an impersonal and solemn relationship with us, saved their purchases until we came around.

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As our experience in the business increased, we added polly seeds and indian nuts. My mother got us two small baskets, which originally carried cherries, from Bathgate Avenue fruit dealers. Although the polly seeds were several cents more a pound, we still offered two cups for a penny; we tried to keep our profit the same by skimping the cups. The indian nuts cost over twenty cents a pound and so we had to charge two cents for the smallest container we could get, a kind of eye-cup.

Once we tried to refine our sales by offering the seeds and nuts in little bags. But the ten small bags we bought on speculation went very slowly. We even tried a mixture of our three products in one bag, but it didn’t take. We concluded that a good part of what we sold was the intangible pleasure of watching the seeds being scooped up and poured out into a palm.

I always kept counting my money and knew to the exact penny how much I had made. I did this addition in the darkness of my pocket, letting the coins slip through my hand. After a while, my fingers became sensitive enough to distinguish pennies from dimes, and nickels from quarters and half-dollars (few as the latter coins were). This facility stood me in good stead some years later when I sold soda and beer at the Lewisohn Stadium Summer Concerts, where change had to be made with lightning rapidity or you’d lose an arm.

Competitors and hi-jacking juvenile delinquents weren’t our only troubles. The cops were a thorn in our side. It seems pumpkin-seed peddling was illegal, either for hygienic reasons or because of child-labor restrictions. The park policemen chased us out whenever they caught us, occasionally leading us un-dignifiedly by the collar to an exit. But the blue-uniformed, bright-badged patrolmen were visible to us over a distance, and we kept a wary (and often, weary) eye out for them. Our more serious enemies were the plainclothesmen who were sent out periodically to pick up the kid peddlers.

I was caught only once, but it was a deeply impressive affair, filled with humiliation and adventure. We were almost literally “arrested.” The tall, bored detective hustled my brother and myself and several other kids (bagel and candy peddlers) into his green sedan, and drove us off to the police station. There our names and addresses were taken, and at the next change of tours, the cops on our respective beats dropped by our houses to tell our parents.

We were picked up at about three o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, and until my mother came, we had two hours in the back-room of a police house. That was when I was permanently disillusioned about policemen. I saw some of them change clothes: an impressively-uniformed, husky man turned into an ordinary, rather slight, straw-hatted civilian; a lumber-jacketed young fellow seemed to be masquerading after he became a blue cop. I was also shocked to hear some of the words they used so casually.

My mother came storming into the building at about five o’clock. I must confess that, although I was worried about what was going to happen to us, I was enjoying my enforced short vacation from peddling and my glimpse of behind-the-scenes police life, and regretted having the interlude end. My mother indignantly stumped over to the desk sergeant before even checking for us.

“You’ve got a lot of nerve,” she shouted at him, all five feet of her poised in indignation, “arresting little boys who are trying to make a couple of cents in America, while you sit at your desk making a big salary. Why don’t you go out and catch crooks and robbers?” And so on for a full five minutes.

The sergeant was very happy to get rid of us, and though he kept repeating to my mother not to let us go peddling again, we were never again bothered by a plainclothes-man in the park.

My mother obviously had struck an effective blow for free enterprise.

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