Phil Garber
5 min readMay 22, 2020

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My Favorite Things

Car hops and drive-ins

and Avon is calling.

The milk man, the bread man

came early in the morning.

Doctors made house calls

and barbers cut hair.

These are a few of my favorite things.

(Credit “My Favorite Things” from the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The Sound of Music.”)

Small community stores practiced safe distances until the mega-malls started thriving in the 1960s, drawing hordes of people who could buy anything they wanted under one roof.

Those same malls today offer a perfect laboratory for COVID-19. That’s why the pandemic may usher in a whole series of new services. Did someone say new? More like back to the future. Coming soon to the town near you may be car hops, so you don’t have to go into the restaurant; drive-in theaters, so you don’t have to touch anyone; and more, anything to make it easier to maintain safe distances.

Car hops with waitresses wearing roller skates who brought food to the car tray sounds cool but the practice was a bit before my time.

But I do remember drive-in theaters.

The giant screen was visible from anywhere in the crowded parking lot. The sound came through a little grey box you hung on the window. The sound quality could be a bit lacking. Movies about giant lobster men were the best.

The mosquito repellent coils that were lit and hung from the rear view mirror smelled like marijuana and kept away the bugs. Getting snacks was a challenge to beat the line at the refreshment stand and get back to the car, without spilling the soda and dropping the popcorn, before the movie started.

If keeping people from getting close to others is the goal, how about a return of a whole litany of services that have gone the way of history.

Eliminate the overcrowded, busy hospital emergency rooms. House calling doctors were common. Our family doctor, Dr. Samuel Lipsett, had an office on Midland Avenue. But he didn’t hesitate to make house calls. He would arrive with his black bag that contained all the required medical stuff, take your temperature and then the worst part: Roll over for a shot in your butt.

Who needs mega supermarkets with mega numbers of virus-carrying customers?

In the past, all kinds of food items were routinely delivered right to the home.

You wake up on a Friday morning and there was the week’s supply of milk delivered by who else, the milk man (no milk woman). The bread man (forget about bread woman) dropped off his order and the seltzer delivery man (likewise, no women need apply) replenished the seltzer supplies. Seltzer in blue bottles with silver tops were left in wooden boxes while the seltzer man would take the empties away. In the summer, the kids ran outside when they heard the bells of the Good Humor or Pied Piper ice cream man (women need not apply).

In Staten Island, the vegetable man drove a truck and made his way through the neighborhoods. The driver announced the offerings, in a strong Italian accent, with “get your watermellones, get your watermellones.”

There was also the iceman who came regularly, using his heavy tongs to carry in blocks of ice to the ice box. But refrigerators are better and we don’t need to return to ice, though it was a quaint practice and we’d get free slivers of ice in the summer.

The old-time version of a strip mall was never very crowded and offered convenience and often, personal service by the shop owner.

In my time, there was Emil’s food market, Stone’s candy store, Brody’s hardware, a bakery store owned by a German family whose name I don’t recall and a barber shop known far and wide with the less than complimentary name, Harry the Butcher.

Cleaning supplies, beauty supplies?

The Fuller Brush Man knocked on the front door and announced himself appropriately as “the Fuller Brush Man.” Everybody knew the Fuller Brush Man (never the Fuller Brush Woman). He came with a suitcase filled with a variety of brushes, including hairbrushes that were came guaranteed for life. No planned obsolescence here. I never understood why we needed so many different brushes and I can’t imagine someone returning a brush after 60 years because it finally fell apart. The company was started way back in 1906 in the Somerville, Mass., basement shop of Alfred Carl Fuller.

“Ding-dong… Avon calling!” It was the Avon lady (and never the Avon man, no liberation yet). She visited once a month for the ladies to sample and hopefully buy make-up. More likely than not, while my mother was checking out the make-up, I was in my room spinning 45 rpm records while wearing my official, realistic Davy Crockett hat with the fur on top.

David H. McConnell, a traveling book seller, started Avon in 1886. He smelled gold when he realized that women were more interested in his free perfume samples than in his books.

The encyclopedia salesmen arrived to harang parents into promoting the education of their children by buying the pricey, latest version of the World Book, Funk & Wagnalls and Britannica. They were the gifts that kept giving as families were urged to buy annual updates.

And what did the kids do on Saturday afternoons? Did they flock to the eightplex where hundreds of people sat elbow to elbow and watched one movie with 18 commercials, all for a king’s ransom?

Not way back. Every Saturday, somebody’s mother drove a bunch of us to either the Oritani or Fox theaters, which were across the street from each other in Hackensack. The day included a double feature wrapped around cartoons. It cost $1.25 to get in. It was affordable even with a box of popcorn and a soda.

Door to door sales, neighborhood stores, individual movie theaters all fell on hard times for various reasons.

Door-to-door selling dates back to the early days when peddlers carried their wares in tin carriers or piled in a wagon. But the growth of two-income families and the growth of malls saw the number of door to door salespeople falling precipitously from 33,000 in 2000 to less than 7,000 in 2010.

Depending on how long the pandemic lasts, it may lead to a return to the good old days when stores were small and people didn’t go to places where they were crowded together like sardines waiting to be infected. However, It’s not likely it will ever again cost $1.25 to see a movie.

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Phil Garber

Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer