Su Lum: Slumming
Boonton, New Jersey, the town where I grew up, was an industrial sort of place. The biggest industry was E.F. Drew, a large “soap” factory right in the middle of town, which, depending on the winds and the weather, often smothered the community with a heavy cloud of aroma which I would instantly recognize to this day.I put “soap” in quotes because they did not produce bars of Ivory or boxes of Rinso; rather, they filled railroad tankers on feeder tracks with indeterminate sludge which was shipped from here to there.When I first came to Aspen I had a friend at the concession stand at the Wheeler, who made me a gift of a lard-sized box of popcorn oil, the smell of which makes you slather wetly for a big bag of popcorn. I was surprised, not to say horrified, to see E.F. Drew on the carton.But it was a big old factory, employing a lot of people, and there was a huge pocketbook factory down by the river (still standing, glass broken) that I also never saw the inside of, and a stocking and underwear factory in two buildings across the street from each other with an upper story walkway from one to the other.There was a beeswax factory at the top of our hill, a smallish square building made of cement and skull-sized round rocks, which our neighbor, Mr. McCarthy, would walk to every morning with his lunch box and there was a perfume factory, NORDA, that smelled even worse than E.F. Drew.There was a Valentine factory where I worked one summer counting envelopes and stacking very corny penny Valentines into piles on my big table. Into a plastic bag I’d put the counted envelopes (little white paper bags, really) and one each of the stacks of Valentines into it and would then throw the kit onto a conveyor belt for sealing and shipping. Women fainted from standing in the heat. I made $27 a week and thought I was the richest kid in the world. Later, the town became marginally famous for early plastic dishes called Boontonware, now collectibles – I had a set of pink and charcoal gray, the latest color fad, bought from the “seconds” outlet. The plastic was not tough enough and developed stained grooves from scraping knives. Ellen Anderson, of our Sheriff’s emergency services department, was in The Aspen Times the other day and told me her father had designed the script Boontonware logo – a small world after all.There was a big market for unskilled labor back in those days and anyone over 16 could get Working Papers. My favorite job was waitressing at the lunch counter at one of the drug stores, my pockets always jingling with tips.Boonton had an A&P and a few mom and pop groceries, men’s and ladies’ clothing shops, shoe store, stationery store, the 5&10, hardware places. There were very few restaurants because nobody ate out much except at the Sweet Shop after a movie date (the movies and newsreels were our television).There were dairy farms with real cows in meadows, the cream-topped bottles delivered to our door (“MILKman!” Marty would announce as we screamed, running away in our slips). “LAUNDRY man!” “BREAD man!” Most of us had gardens and “put up” provisions for the winter, with not an apple or a green bean wasted. A bit of meat or fish, a baked potato and a glass of milk to wash it down – nothing fancy. My job was to go down the spidery stairs to the stale-smelly cellar to get the evening’s vegetables and dessert of canned peaches or pears, flying back up and bolting the chain without looking left or right at the formidable websIt was a self-contained town. We didn’t buy things “on time” and didn’t worry about the economy crashing because there wasn’t much to lose anyway.All the little stores have disappeared now, dead or gone to malls every one. I’m not saying it was idyllic – I couldn’t wait to get out of there – but it was steady, very steady.Now the old mom and pop places are curio shops, or SHOPPES. You’ve never seen so many curios in your life – half-baked antiques, scratched Boontonware with those knife grooves.
Su Lum is a longtime local who doesn’t think we have advanced very much as a species. Her column appears every Wednesday.
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