The vendors usually made their rounds mid-week, which always puzzled me a little. Either they were ignorant of the fact that the husbands held most of the cash, or they were banking on the husbands absence liberating the wives conscience, allowing a free spending attitude to permeate the women on the colony. Either way, I remember them arriving on weekdays, while we were in day camp, either playing softball, or splashing in the pool, or simply lazing around on the grass, in the shade, telling each other lies and battling a fudgesicle to a draw-equal amounts in the mouth and drizzled down the front of our camp tee shirt.
Usually the concessionaire, or colony owner, announced the vendor’s appearance on the colony PA system. Sometimes, though it was the vendor himself. Ruby the Knish Man, whose proclamations were as famous as his dreamy, greasy, sumptuous knishes, stands out above all. Ah, but I digress.
Looking back, it’s truly a remarkable phenomenon-these mobile vendors, like new-world descendants of the old Jewish peddlers who’d roamed the rocky dirt roads of the “old country.” They pulled onto the colony grounds in their dusty station wagons, or panel trucks, and erected a few bridge tables on which to display their wares. There was the bathing suit guy, and the sweater guy. There was the tee shirt guy, and the jeans guy. There was an assortment of anonymous shoe men. Honestly, most of the clothing vendors were forgettable, except, in the late 1960’s, for an old school bus painted in psychedelic colors and covered with peace signs, that had been christened “Bus Stop Boutique.” It was little more than a head shop on wheels, but the time was right, and for kids marooned on a bungalow colony with little access to rolling papers and screens, it was a God send. They also stocked great tie-dye wear, and a varied assortment of the latest record releases. I remember buying James Taylor’s seminal album, Sweet Baby James, for $2.99. Also the second Blood Sweat and Tears, the faded brown cover, with “Spinning Wheel” and “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy.”
Some of the vendors were so colorful and unique that they remain indelibly on my memory circuits even with the confounded passing over more than three decades. There was the “Knishman from Mountaindale.” He would arrive on our colony each and every Thursday afternoon, his truck laden with freshly roasted chickens, brisket, soup, kishka, kugels, cholent, and, of course, those marvelous knishes-potato and kasha. A harried and hurried mom could purchase an entire Friday dinner with some mah-jongg winnings, and save Friday afternoon for sunning at the pool. And they did.
There was “Shimmy the Pickle King.” He owned a huge blue truck, the side painted with giant pickles. His garlic sours were a thing of beauty, a joyous memory forever-crisp, flavorful and tart. They also moved jars of sweet red peppers, sour tomatoes, sauerkraut, as well as nuts and dried fruit.
There was Chow-Chow Cup, of blessed memory. We savored chicken chow-mein that came in that wonderful bowl made of Chinese noodles, and the Chinese hot dogs, just corn-dogs on a stick, really, that came encased in a wrapper with Chinese lettering all over. The egg rolls were loaded with enough oil to slick the hair of the entire Lincoln High School football team. On the first bite the grease saturated the flimsy napkin and stained every article of clothing within 200 yards.
There was an unending and countless assortment of peddlers-honest men and women hustling hard in the heat to make a buck. They hawked everything from pocketbooks to kid’s sweatshirts, from cheap watches to fresh fruit. But no matter what it was they were pushing, one thing was a constant-the rushing tide of the mothers from their mah-jongg and canasta games, and from their poolside sun perches, just to “look, I’m just looking, sweetheart.” Of course, suffice to say that God has failed to yet create a Jewish woman who could “just look”, and, inevitably, you’d return from camp at day’s end to discover some new, hideous, and utterly unnecessary addition to your bungalow, or, worse, your summer wardrobe, an item your mom was certain was “just perfect” for you. Then you did your best to relegate the item to the back and bottom of your dresser drawer, hoping it would be forgotten until well after Labor Day, when, in the rush to pack the bungalow, you might succeed in misplacing it forever.
Of all the vendors that came and went through all those enchanted summers, my favorite, an authentic mountain’s character, was Ruby the Knish Man. I close my eyes and I see his long, thin face, three days salt and pepper stubble riding his gaunt cheeks. His fingers are long and thin, and crooked, and he doesn’t walk so much as lope, a little stooped, until, standing in the concession as he announces his presence on the microphone, you see him stretch and realize he is actually tall. He wears a soiled old sport shirt and a pair of beaten trousers, a baseball cap on his head, and he speaks to the microphone in a voice part gravel, part velvet, and I only wish I’d once thought to record his announcements, because they were rich in ad-libs and merriment.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he would intone, “I am back! Ruby the Knishman is now on the premises, with my delicious and nutritious, hot homogenized, pasteurized, and recently circumcised kosher knishes. We got today for you potato, onion, kasha, mushroom and pizza knishes. Come on, folks, I need the money. I gotta send my wife to Florida. She’s killing me! Oy! Have some rachmunis on an old man and buy a dozen. By two dozen!”
The knishes, at a half a buck each, were the best buy in 100 miles. They were unlike any other kind of knish I’ve had before or since-a fried covering, like a pouch, inside filled with cloudy dollops of potato, or potatoes and mushroom, or, for the adventurous few who also desired to fulfill some dubious dietary necessity-broccoli. I haven’t had a Ruby’s knish-he called them “Mom’s Knishes” because his wife, “Mom”, was their sainted creator-in more than ten years now, but the taste is just beyond my tongue as if it were yesterday.
Ruby is gone now. After he passed on his wife and kids operated a store in Woodbourne, turning out the same remarkable product. That lasted a few summers. I’ve heard rumor of a place in Loch Sheldrake stocking a knish somewhat akin to what Ruby once fed us. But it wouldn’t be the same. Not without the battered up truck he had, held together with spit and a prayer, and not without his glorious and memorable announcements on the colony loudspeaker, and certainly not without being touched by the hands of Ruby, himself, the true Pied Piper of knishes from my childhood, all those years ago.