My father was a spice salesman. It was a dull and thankless job that required him to visit about three dozen supermarkets every week. He’d finish his workdays coated with nutmeg and onion powder, his hands bleeding from having torn open hundreds of boxes and having extracted thousands of glass bottles from between corrugated dividers.
On Saturdays, he’d sit at his desk and fill out sales reports. He printed in all uppercase letters and blue ink, using thick pads of forms that he’d pull from the oversized brown briefcase that he carried with him, and that always made him look as though he were about to leave for the Far East. I can picture him, even now, dressed in colorful robes, riding a camel along the ancient trade routes across Persia to China, then taking a boat to Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
But the truth is, he never went to any of those places. His territory covered the Bronx and parts of Queens. His most distant calls took him to northern New Jersey.
The position did, however, deliver occasional benefits. Every two years he’d come home with a brand new company car. It was the early sixties. I was in the third grade, and my primary source of excitement was coloring books and Silly Putty, so new car day was a pretty big deal. Air conditioning, push-button transistor radio, and intermittent windshield wipers all gave me something to talk about in school when the other boys were bragging about their Schwinn bikes with the twin headlights and chrome fenders.
Once, my father requested whitewall tires, but his employer considered them an unnecessary luxury. Then my uncle got a 1964 Chevrolet Impala, and when he came over to our house, he made sure to mention that it had whitewall tires. Everyone went outside to admire them, because it was about as close as we ever got to a genuine thrill. After the relatives left, my parents downplayed the whole thing, saying that my uncle was just showing off. As usual, I was confused by the episode, unsure how something that had seemed so important yesterday could transform into such pointless extravagance today.
We did eventually get whitewalls, and by then they had somehow returned to their former glory. When the car needed to be washed, I was always given the honor of scrubbing the tires. They were the only part of the car that was pure white, meaning that was the place where a thorough cleaning produced the greatest contrast. I was meticulous about it. If you were going to have whitewall tires, after all, you wanted to make sure the neighbors noticed. They were a status symbol, and a sign that we were cool.
If you weren’t there, it may be hard to understand how a white stripe on a rubber tire could impart coolness to an entire family. But remember, it was an uneventful time, and standards were lower then. This was back when guys plastered their hair with axle grease, and stood for hours staring into a mirror, trying to perfect a facial expression that said they didn’t care what they looked like. Girls had nervous breakdowns if someone mentioned the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, or just about anyone who was between seventeen and twenty-three and could hold a guitar right-side up. Herbert Hoover was still alive, although barely. And most of our toys were made of wood.
I’m not sure if wood exists anymore. Real wood, I mean — the kind that comes from trees, and doesn’t disintegrate in humid weather. Toys from my childhood were indestructible, and so they never broke or wore out, and would get passed down from older brothers and sisters, and even cousins. That’s why, when something new showed up, our blood would begin pumping again. It almost didn’t matter what it was.
Every few months, my father would pop the trunk of the car and reveal treasures he’d gathered during his travels. It might be balloons or banners from a grand opening, or stickers that said “59¢” and “Sale!” My favorites were the cardboard floor displays he’d bring home when the stores had extras. Folded flat, they had to be assembled according to precise instructions. Tabs were inserted into slots and tubes were guided through pre-drilled holes. The completed construction would usually be a four-foot cube that my younger brother and I would then modify for our own use. If we had two, we’d each get inside one with our feet sticking out the bottom. Then we’d run at each other while waving the tubes in the air, resembling a weird combination of samurai warriors and sumo wrestlers. The loser would topple over, ending up with his head against the radiator and a paper cut across the bottom of his nose. The winner would have to explain to our mother what in the world we thought we were doing.
Sometimes we’d set up one of the boxes and pretend it was a computer, like we’d seen on some cartoon. We’d cut a slit into the front and draw lights and dials around it. Then I’d get inside with a pencil. My brother would write questions on a scrap of paper and push it through the slit. I’d scribble the answer, make some machine noises, and push it back out.
A couple of days later, the boxes would be in pieces, with bits of cardboard scattered around the room. My brother and I would have grown bored with the games, as we’d eventually grow bored with everything.
I still find myself wondering if my father got tired of being a salesman. And if so, did it happen gradually, or did he wake up on a Monday morning and suddenly dread going to work? When he started the job, he no doubt imagined his territory spreading in all directions, like a kingdom. Did he anticipate acquiring vast wealth from his role in the spice trade? Maybe it was all brand new and shiny, like those company cars. But things lose their shine after a while.
On my tenth birthday I got a Schwinn bike, a gift that drove me to the brink of delirium. I rode it whenever I could, on the shortest trips and to the farthest reaches of my own kingdom. Sooner or later, though, it too became old and familiar. I lost interest, just as I’d lost interest in the coloring books and the Silly Putty. And this was a bike that had twin headlights and chrome fenders. Believe it or not, it even had whitewall tires. Remember those?