“You never really know someone until you’ve gone camping with him or delivered milk to him.”
– Art Waterman
I never did find out what happened to Art on his camping trip, but I understood what he meant by the other thing. In particular, I was disgusted with customers who neglected to wash empties before setting them out on the porch—resulting in slimy fingers when I picked them up with my bare hands and carried them back to Art’s ancient GMC step van. Art never budged from the driver’s as I sprinted from van to porch and back again until the last of our cargo had been delivered, at which time he would shift his prodigious weight just enough to retrieve his awesomely fat wallet, from which he would carefully extract one dollar and seventy-five cents. My pay for the entire shift.
Looking back, I often wonder why he didn’t make it an even two bucks. I can only surmise that child labor came cheap in those days, and although I’d broken many a milk bottle, I’d yet to break the glass ceiling.
Oh, well. The job had its benefits. I was getting plenty of healthy exercise, what with all the running and jumping, high-stepping yapping dogs, stiff-arming slavering Dobermans. Moreover, the job afforded a close encounter with a girl on whom I had a burning crush but was far too shy to approach in any other context. The nearest I dared get was her family’s front porch, under cover of predawn darkness.
Claudeen’s family was huge—twelve children in all. That’s a dozen quarts of milk—enough that I was able to arrange the bottles in various patterns—circles and x’s for starters. When that brought no response, I arranged them like ten pins, and then in a precarious pyramid. Claudeen was evidently unmoved.
Perhaps I should leave a love note? I’d heard tell that that lonely housewives are open to having affairs with milkmen, but that wasn’t likely to happen to me. For one thing, I was just a kid, Claudeen wasn’t a lonely housewife, and in any event Art would no doubt start honking the horn long before any seduction got underway.
As the days wore on, I grew increasingly desperate. Late one night, as I pondered weak and weary in my lonely basement bedroom, a plan began to take shape. I could put something INSIDE the milk that would get Claudeen’s attention. But what?
Opening my Gilbert Jr. Chemistry set, I weighed my options. Ferric ammonium sulfate? Sodium thiosulfate? Tannic acid? Powdered charcoal?
The set had come with a booklet of recipes, but I could find no instructions for concocting an aphrodisiac. Instead, I found a lot of warning labels. Aha! That’s it! Instead of poisoning the entire family, I’d affix a poison label to a milk bottle—just to let Claudeen know that I meant business.
The next morning as I loaded up the van, I secretly labeled a bottle and hid it in a crate behind Art’s seat. Then we were off, me chuckling softly under my breath as we went about our rounds. Art kept a route book handy, even though he didn’t really need it, having made the same rounds for forty-some years. I remember he would always say, “Two of ‘em,” or “Four of ‘em,” at each stop. Why not just say, “two” or “four?” And why stop at every stop sign and signal every turn when ours was the only vehicle on the streets at that hour?
“Twelve of ‘em,” he announced. Whereupon, I reached for the designated bottle only to discover, to my utter horror, that it was gone!
I carried twelve bottles to the porch, and twelve empties back. It took awhile, for the spring had suddenly gone out of my step. We continued on as if nothing bad had happened, although I was now sweating bullets. Finally, I could stand it no more. “Art,” I said, “I have a confession to make.”
I would never have thought a 1943 GMC could turn that fast. Brakes screeching at every stop, we retraced the route, me running as if my life depended on it. Back and forth, round and round we went—ignoring stop signs, signaling no turns. As I remember, even the van’s headlights had been switched off.
Finally, I spotted it, and never in my entire life was I so happy to see a skull and crossbones. The storm door was cracked open and a pale hand was reaching out—like Dracula’s automated coin bank. But I got there first, and snatched the bottle away.
“Sorry—wrong bottle,” I explained to the startled housewife.
So the day was saved, though for a time I figured my career as a milkman’s assistant was probably finished. But no—pretty soon we were both laughing. Running the route backwards, breaking speed limits and all, had evidently given Art a new perspective. What fun! Maybe we should do it more often? I suggested.
The answer to that was NO. However, I did keep my job, although my chance of ever getting a twenty-five cent raise from Art Waterman was right up there with scoring a date with the elusive Claudeen.