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Where have you gone, Mr. Greenberg?

Journal Correspondent

AUGUST 2, 2018 – A few weeks ago on a Sunday morning, I came home from a temple meeting and opened the refrigerator only to discover everything was warm. I had to wait until the next day for a service call to hear the dreaded verdict: the compressor had given up. It didn’t pay to fix it, so I had to buy a new refrigerator.

Today there are so many choices, from color to material to size, from those with automatic ice makers to those that offer cold drinking water on the door at the push of a button. We take all this for granted.

Looking back, I remember our first GE refrigerator. We were thrilled to have it delivered to our third-floor apartment in Mattapan. It was quite an improvement over the icebox that used to stand in our kitchen. Some of you may remember those iceboxes, which are now as extinct as the dinosaurs.

In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, an icebox was an insulated chest with a compartment on top for the ice, shelves below it for food, and a drainage system for removal of the melted ice. At least that’s the way they were described. In most apartments, including mine, my mother and father were the drainage system. One of them had to pick up the big square pan that caught the melted ice, carefully carry it over to the sink, and pour the water out. If you waited too long, you had a lot of water to wipe up as well as the footprints your shoes made on the once clean floor.

But in the dark ages, every triple-decker in our neighborhood and most others, from the 1850s until after World War II, had an icebox to keep food cold. The only place you might see one of those kitchen iceboxes today is in an antique shop. Folks have turned those cooling units into party bars. And, if you look up the price of some of those old iceboxes, you’ll be sorry your family threw yours away.

The ice came from a warehouse where your iceman would go to get big blocks of ice. The most important part of the operation was the iceman; ours was Mr. Greenberg. I don’t believe we ever gave him credit for all his hard work.

After buying enough blocks of ice to fill his truck and his customers’ iceboxes, Mr. Greenberg made his appointed rounds, schlepping his big blocks of ice up and down the stairs, placing each order into the customer’s icebox, and never outwardly complaining if the customer wanted an extra piece of ice or none at all.

So how did he know what size to bring each client? All he had to do was look up at the windows of each apartment for the colorful cardboard sign. Though some of the older signs had sections that showed 10, 20, 30 and 40 (cents, that is), some signs read 25, 50, 75, and $1. I did see a sign that said 10, 15, 20, and no ice. Since all you had to do is remove the sign from the window if you didn’t want any, I thought that was very odd.

Looking back, I now realize what an arduous profession this was. With his tongs, Mr. Greenberg had to pull a large block of ice closer to him and chip away at it with his pick. He hefted the customer’s order onto his shoulder with his tongs, his back protected by a leather cape. He carried that ice up the stairs to each apartment and never complained (aloud, that is) when the customer changed her mind about the size of the piece she needed, or if she needed ice at all. No matter his frustration, he kept his cool and never lost a customer.

As for the kids in the neighborhood, the best part of this operation was the ice chips left in the truck after Mr. Greenberg finished his chipping. I can still remember how cool and smooth those crystal clear pieces were. We loved every lick and we didn’t mind the drippings that covered our play clothes. Some of the older kids even followed Mr. Greenberg to his next destination, not quite ready to give up their free treat.

Since we never knew any better, we kids thought that iceboxes were going to be around forever. I never realized how much my mother wanted a real refrigerator but because of the war, all manufacturing was limited to military supplies. Once the war ended, companies had difficulty meeting all the refrigerator requests. As is the Jewish way, my aunt knew someone who knew someone who could get my mom a refrigerator. Soon, everyone had their own refrigerator, and the days of the iceman had come to an end.

Myrna Fearer writes from Danvers.

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