Sunday, May 22, 2011

Carriage Trade


Photo courtesy Flickr

Before the automobile carved new channels into the face of the city, retailers offered particular services to busy women who were raising families. I’m talking 1952, when females wore white gloves in public (carrying an extra, clean pair for back-up, not such a bad idea now with MRSA). There was a riding stable close to the Arboretum, and, if memory serves me correctly, one prominent matron still used a horse and carriage to get around town.

On the days a woman visited the Medical Dental building, she could slip in to the best department store in town through a connecting back door. Frederick and Nelson offered child care and a fleet of forest green delivery trucks. Seeing one come down the street was always cause for rejoicing, or at least mild curiosity. It was ordinary for a shopper to bus downtown, make selections, and have them sent to the house. Frederick’s sold cases of toilet paper long before the Big Box bundles became a standard unit of volume. Many of our older houses have a cupboard close to the bath that is the same size as those cases of tissue. Frederick’s deli offered early versions of frozen, prepared dinners.

The culture that supported Frederick’s evolved from upper and middle-class nineteenth century households run by women who had people in service. They  used the time the help afforded them to educate their children, and were traditionally responsible for the spiritual welfare of all members of the household. When the staff split for industry after the first world war, electric appliances took up much of the slack. Delivery service protected the energies of the woman running the show. After World War Two, the automobile replaced delivery, promising lower competitive grocery prices and greater self-determination.

Between appliances, the automobile, and mass public education, the matron morphed into teamster, chamber maid, and nanny. The cultural environment did not respect physical labor, and the sports environment did not train women to use and protect their bodies during the hard labor of lifting toddlers and humping supplies from garage to pantry.


Fifteen years ago, I realized I was spending twenty hours a week behind the wheel in second gear on crowded city streets. A couple of weeks of casual phone research encouraged me to throw away the car. I haven’t regretted that decision for a moment. Last week I enjoyed lunch with a childless friend who finds herself overwhelmed with elder care. I had accepted a ride home because the house was between Lily and her next destination, a routine stop at a rug cleaning place. I couldn’t resist remarking that perhaps the trip was not necessary.

My friend grew up in a very comfortable early suburb of Seattle. Her family did Fifties culture to the hilt. Lily is now managing two households, hers and her parents’, that are built and engineered around cheap oil, personal transportation, and unpaid domestic labor that isn’t even counted as work.

When I was herding a Volvo station wagon full of junior high school kids around town, I thought of myself as Mrs. Wheels. I was only too happy to retire and substitute professional drivers and warehouse staff. The digital revolution has slipped in to displace Mrs. Wheels as surely as the grocery boy who set cartons of chow on my grandmother’s kitchen table. Replace the green van with one of another color, and you’ll shave days off the month’s responsibilities. Avoiding that steering wheel reduces stress: face it, driving is a real time life and death contest, and the time is not always right for Mary Poppins to become Danica Patrick.

I routinely ship small parcels short distances. I should have been doing so long before I got rid of the car. Any shipper has packaging on the shelf, and it’s well worth a few dollars to be able to bring freight, that’s what it is, to the counter and have it disappear into competent hands. An account with a shipper who offers pick-up service might make sense for Lily. As a security measure, I subscribe to the concierge function at my shipper. They hold parcels shipped to me at their address, and I take an extra five minutes on the way home to pick things up.

I shop on foot one Friday afternoon a month for routine sundries (using my rolling suitcase), and pick up fresh food three or four times a week when I get off the bus. Once or twice a year my partner visits the Big Box to stock up and comes home in a cab. I think the same outfit delivers, as do several vendors of organic produce and the dairy that also brings coffee and cookie dough. One of the big grocery chains delivers, and I think there’s an on-line giant that provides groceries, too, as well as everything else a heart might desire.

A Navy supply trick prevents emergency runs to the store: keep two of each staple in reserve, and replace the replacement for the replacement when you use something up. Lily could shave pounds and hours off her work load simply by buying three of everything for a while instead of one. Little efficiencies will add up to a much simpler system. Even running errands in a car can be eased by stowing freight in dairy crates and moving it with a folding hand truck. There’s no reason stock could not be stored directly in the garage on adjustable coated wire racks, ideally ones set on heavy wheels. The manufacturer offers a security model surrounded by a not unattractive lockable cage.

My notion of supply was formed on a Northern California cattle ranch in 1952. The summer range house, twenty mountainous dirt road miles from the nearest town, had a six by eight pantry off the kitchen. My hostess kept cases of food to feed the hands. Each morning she offered me my choice of a candy bar from one of several cases. Doling out food is a powerful gesture, and Bett’s was the ancient one of a chateleine.

A 3G wireless connection and a laptop are the twenty-first century version of the ivory tablet a medieval housekeeper hung from her belt to keep notes about what to do. Protecting one’s wit and judgement is the key to the mint. Doing so requires healthy selfishness.

9/11 was a spectacular example of what the military call a force multiplier. The perps leveraged four planes and a few hundred thousand dollars into a strike with lasting worldwide effects. Dairy crates, adjustable coated wire shelving, a folding hand truck, a laptop computer with fast wireless connection, taxi cabs, and a shipping service are the force multipliers that enable a housekeeper to leverage herself back into the land of the conscious.

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