Monday, July 26, 2010


     These hot days in the Northeast, recalling some boling summers of decades ago, also bring to mind a routine that a fellow I knew followed seasonally. He was a radio/TV repairman whose self-made career began with early 1920s radio through the great period of that medium in the 1930s-1940s, into the emerging, life-changing TV birth years of the 1950s and toward the beginning of color, though he would not repair the last innovation.

By then, in the early 1960s, John Romaine had settled into a pattern comfortable enough, reliable enough, no-surprises-enough that he didn’t want to tackle new technology. He had his longtime, reliable customers, many of whose families he knew as well as his own, growing up in a small village north of New York City.

Once, he and a partner had a radio/small appliance store, which later sold televisions, including, in 1948, a 22-inch model. That was when the typical screen was 7 or nine inches. RCA, his prime supplier, had come out with a set that projected an image onto a mirror without too much distortion, a forerunner of the projection Tvs of today.

The changing way of American life – the decline of the typical small town in favor of suburban shopping strips and malls – plus a growing number of competitors in what became a huge suburb helped shutter Ro-Field Appliances on Main Street. It was then that John brought his repair business home, making a living out of that. Downstairs in his older house, on a tree-lined street just a mile or so from Spring Valley, he set up shop under a basement window. He stood on a wooden platform to resist shock as he touched high voltage areas, especially in TVs. A large soldering iron was at the ready - to sweat in a resistor or a capacitor. An observer would always find it amazing that an ailing TV or radio could suddenly come to life with the replacement of just one or two tiny parts.

The man would then put the receiver back in its polished cabinet, unless he had removed it in the customer’s home, and then manage his way out of the basement and into a green  Ford station wagon, which could be seen all over Spring Valley and Hillcrest, where John lived. 

That trek out of the basement made over and over was seasonal. In summer, when the breezes might be obtained, the man took to his garage, where he had a second shop much like the one downstairs. Here he was among the birds and cooler mornings and evenings to do his work, leaving the heat of the day to pass.

It is doubtful today if repairs to highly sophisticated electronics could be made in basement and garage shops or that a well-liked neighbor whose family went way back and knew other families that went way back would be driving around picking up, repairing and delivering your TV.

John Romaine did this all year round, whether from basement or garage, and his reputation for quality work and a friendly manner were as reliable as the guaranteed change of seasons.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


     Ice cream, especially in this summer of awful heat, is to adults the childhood reminder that there are Band-Aids when needed. For we too get boo boos, and a treat like we had as kids not only satisfies the palate but nurtures the soul in whatever hurt there is. Sort of like having grandma with you forever.

I am partial to butter pecan but will take coffee, strawberry and a classic -- half-vanilla, half-chocolate. Don't cotton to the cheap stuff, though, and I don't judge by price alone. "Cheap" can mean ice cream with a fancy name but bearing false promise, like a suitor who dresses well and flashes a thick wallet but who is inadequate as good, engaging company.

With ice cream a rarely but deliciously visited friend, reserve it for special need or special fun. For such sacrifice, I want to taste creaminess, flavor and richness. Keep the gum additives on the shelf, use fresh ingredients. The manufacturer can still make money keeping to a high standard -- witness those ice creams that sell well at reasonable price.

There are ice cream favorites for you and me, but once there was a type that is now rare to find, which even then was costlier but which always guaranteed the best tasting experience. And that was hard-packed ice cream.

Sold from old-fashioned fountain service stores -- those downtown, hometown beauties with long marble counters and a soda jerk behind who mixed seltzer and flavor to give you a drink -- hard-packed ice cream was the same lovely variety you enjoyed in a cup or cone at the counter.

Taken from large tubs in a waist-level freezer, this ice cream was so hard that it didn't melt on the way home. It took expertise and strength to scoop out the ice cream, using a stainless-steel paddle and digging down hard, as if mining coal.

The paddle was deliberately shaped so as to slide against the tub wall and slice off the eagerly awaited dessert. The ice cream would be packed, tightly, if done right, into a white cardboard container shaped like a large version of the ones used in delicatessens for take-out potato salad.
Each container had a metal fold-up handle for carrying.

The best ice cream packers would paddle a bit extra onto the top of the container, which when finished, should have had a mound on top. The box top would not close, and waxed paper would instead be stuck to the ice cream.

No ice cream tasted so wonderful as hard-packed, no matter what the flavor. If my dad brought this treat home, we knew either the national economy was picking up or his horse had come in (which can be synonymous).

Today, you might be able to locate hard-packed ice cream somewhere, but even if you do, it probably won't come from a soda fountain, the jerk doing double duty as the experienced and giving packer. And maybe it would not taste the same, either.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. – If you were in the sixth grade hosted by Torger Gram, an English teacher who gave you weekly compositions to write, the heading of this column would be familiar. Of course, it was once a bromide, too, in almost every English instructor’s class, public and private schools.

Nationwide, returning students would be asked to build descriptive, adjective-laden sentences (hopefully) by relating what happened to them in a relatively carefree time. The paragraphs would be about the same across the U.S. – details of trips with family, hanging out with friends, birthdays, swimming, even boredom – but different as well, unique to the area.

So it is that we come to the summer of 1954 in a village called Spring Valley, 30 miles north of New York City but with the suburbs yet to build out, still far removed from Gotham save the visiting of summer bungalow dwellers. This is still a community where the soon-to-be sixth grader, the fellow or gal who would write compositions for Mr. Gram at the North Main Street School (or for teachers at the South Main Street, Monsey or St. Joseph’s schools) was probably third generation Valley, at least, headed for the same desks their parents sat in (some of whose reputations would precede them). In many cases, kids who played together were the sons and daughters of people who had also mutually passed sleepy summers in the Valley.

Vacation time would bring youngsters together at the Spring Valley Theatre, where we would watch “Stalag 13,” “House of Wax,” and, later, The Diary of Anne Frank,” “On the Beach” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” We would buy candy from Brown’s next door since the theater charged triple for Necco wafers, Jugifruits and non-pareils. What Brown’s did not have was Bon-Bons, a box of vanilla ice cream bits covered with chocolate. The cost was 25 cents, almost double the admission sticker for the Valley Theatre (14 cents).

We might head back to Brown’s after the movie, if we could afford a soda, or go across Main Street to Arvanite’s Luncheonette. (In later years, there would be trips to Perunna’s, Bartero’s or Martio’s for pizza.)

Since we had free summer time, our parents would send us on errands. We might go to DeBaun’s Hardware or K&A for something, or to the five & ten or to Slavin’s Drug Store. Haircuts would be had at Balogh’s, Rocco’s and a few other places. We took our portable radios to Ro-Field Appliances and picked up dry-cleaning items at Ideal Cleaners on Church Street.

No matter where we went “downtown,” we’d end up in Memorial Park, where we’d find other pals on the swings or the merry-go-round. We might also head up Church Street to West Street, past the Ukrainian Church and onto the old Erie tracks, which could take us to Monsey and the sandstone Indian caves down in the glen. If we came back to West Street, we might play with the huge piles of scrap metal at Consolidated Stamp or head off to the Clopay factory on Church where boys found scraps of shade material to use in building summer huts.

Days were spent outdoors, under shade trees, playing canasta or other card games with friends, and on some occasions, indulging in an innocent-enough “spin the bottle,” organized whenever three or so girls located three or so boys.

The hot nights were endured without air conditioning, tarrying out as late as we could, given the 9 p.m. Spring Valley curfew, “enforced” by friendly police. Some evenings found the boys sleeping outdoors in their huts in the woods not yet bulldozed for post-World War II development.

Each summer was its own, with physical and mental development driving moods from one to the next for growing youngsters who enjoyed themselves without much money, who had few luxuries, but who enjoyed pals who seemed to be there forever. The key ingredient in these sleepy seasons was stability, in a village that never seemed to change. 

Come September, it was easy for many Valleyites to write “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” since that time had passed so easily, so simply, with good memories. All across America in that year of 1954, the writing surely came fairly effortlessly as well, with distinct area flavor. Yet not one experience elsewhere was fully interchangeable with that in Spring Valley. That was our unique gift.

Monday, July 5, 2010


     ANYWHERE, USA – The young woman, about 17, joined by another of the same age, stood side by side in the time capsule that is an ice cream shack. They could have been my high school classmates, 1959, or my sons’, late 1980s, or the 27 year olds of today, back in 2000.

What is it about young women working part-time at Dairy Queen, Mr. Frostee, Carvel’s, any ice cream take-out place? No matter what generation, the dress is the same:  shorts, tops; the hair is pulled back; the overheard conversation is about boys, college; there is sometimes a vacant stare: the daydream of youth; and the attachment to job, place, time is so fleeting that it will be remembered hardly at all.

Except maybe if the summer also includes romance.

Now, not to be sexist, young men working the Dairy Queen shift are also in passing time, place, but there seems less vacant staring and more of “What’ya need?” and getting the order out. The female/male difference – Venus/Mars – is there, too. And it seems most ice cream shops employ young women, not young men.

In high school, a fellow like me (or you?) might have had a crush on one of these ice cream girls; later, you might have felt fatherly; now it’s grandfatherly.

But it is also reassuring, especially on this July 4th weekend where there is so much pessimism in America – worries about the loss of jobs and the shrinking of the middle class; costly wars that seem endless and confusing; budgets in trouble; greed; lack of personal responsibility. In all this, the nation that began with difficult birth against heavy odds, this child called America, is still not fully grown, ready for retirement. Young people – like the women and men of the ice cream shops, with their dreams, their needs, their concerns, their many flavors – promise to whet their appetite on the next frontier.

No wonder American apple pie is often a-la-mode.