The Milkman

The milk came in one quart glass bottles wide at the base, narrow at the neck, with an outer cover you threw away and an inner cover with pull-up tab that you put back on after you poured a glass.

You were either Sheffield Farms or Borden’s and a Sheffield Farms customer would no more drink a glass of Borden’s milk than a Giant fan would root for the Yankees to win the pennant. My family was Sheffield Farms all the way and when in third grade they took us down to the plant–I think it was on Eleventh Avenue in the thirties-I felt like I was one of the owners. We watched them milk cows with machines, pasteurize the milk, put it into bottles and listened to them explain how Sheffield Farms milk was never touched by ‘human hands.’

That was before they homogenized milk. The cream always rose to the top and extended two or three inches down inside the bottle. It was thicker and more yellow than the milk and you either shook the bottle to mix it in or your parents poured it off for their coffee. Bottles of cream, heavy and light, came in half pint replicas of the milk bottles.

The milkman would pull his horse up outside a row of brownstones, put bottles of milk and cream into a metal container with square slots and a metal carrying handle. The brownstones had stoops leading up to the first floor entrance, an unlocked outside door with glass panels, and then a small vestibule with a locked inner door. The first floor windows usually had window boxes filled with red geraniums on the sills, and the family of the house would leave yesterday’s empty bottles in the vestibule with an envelope telling the milkman how many new bottles to leave. He’d stand the new bottles on the floor, put the empties into his container, and go on to the next brownstone. Some houses wanted their milk left outside the basement entrance. That was down three steps from street level, and the doors and windows were covered by wrought iron bars painted black.

When he came to an apartment house the milkman carried heavy wooden crates in to the service elevators. The crates had metal slots for the bottles and flanges that locked the boxes together when they were stacked inside the milk wagon. He’d go floor-to-floor, leaving the day’s delivery outside the service entrance to each apartment and picking up the empties. There were no self-service elevators in those days, so the elevator man had to wait at each floor while the milkman made his deliveries. The delivery wagon and the horse would stand outside–the horse with his nose inside a canvas bag of oats. We could go over to it and pet it on the neck, or sometimes the milkman would take off the canvas bag and we would hold an apple or a lump of sugar flat on our palms, so the horse could grab it without biting our fingers.

which my Aunt Margareta said were quieter, more efficient and less smelly, but she always saw the bright side of everything. I liked the clip-clop sound of them coming down the street and didn’t mind the smell and felt sorry when the horses disappeared.

The Japanese had occupied the east coast of China by then and they controlled every port but Hong Kong. Then France fell to the Nazis, the Japanese Navy steamed into Camranh Bay, moved 30,000 troops into Saigon and signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy. Then the War began and the single-family houses turned into rooming houses. They replaced the glass-paneled doors at the tops of the stoops with solid doors that locked. By then the milkmen were gone and we had to walk up to Broadway or down to the Eighty-Seventh Street Market to buy our milk.