Dept. of Word Lists

On the Road Again: Images of a Privileged Childhood

These childhood memories employ a number of words that appear in my book "More Words That Make a Difference," with illustrative sentences from the Atlantic Monthly.

The centered sections entirely in blue are complete word entries from "More Words That Make a Difference" and are intended to better familiarize readers with the blue words in the narrative. The definitions in those blue sections fit the words in the narrative, as well.

When the sun rose over the roofs of Brooklyn, I could have been a thousand miles away viewing some exotic city, that was the adventure I considered myself on, the euphoria I was feeling. But I was only five miles from home, in the first fifteen minutes of a business trip with my father, on his way to sell frozen foods to wholesalers throughout the eastern and southern states. I loved every minute of these trips, from the time we left our home in the early morning dark so my father could make his first stops before noon in Pennsylvania, upstate New York, or Maryland, depending on whether this was his New York, Midwest or Southern trip.

euphoria yoo: FAW ree uh
a feeling of well-being or high spirits ("euphoric" is the adjective)
Fifty-one years old, Lincoln was at the peak of his political career, with momentum that would soon sweep him to the nomination of the national party and then to the White House. Yet to the convention audience Lincoln didn't seem euphoric, or triumphant, or even pleased. On the contrary, said a man named Johnson, observing from the convention floor, "I then thought him one of the most diffident and worst plagued men I ever saw." — Joshua Wolf Shenk, October 2005

Above the car's back seat, on a pole stretching from window to window, my father hung his suits and shirts, and in the trunk, besides luggage, a cooler held his samples, kept cold with dry ice, frozen carbon dioxide, which evaporates and must be replaced daily.

My father was on the road 40 weeks a year, one week wending his way through upstate New York, then home for the weekend; then two weeks west to Detroit or south to Atlanta, on carefully mapped routes, making sales calls in towns and cities along the way, almost always in rural and industrial areas where food wholesalers had their warehouses. He usually came home late on a Friday night, driving long hours because he didn't want to spend an extra night away. One week a month he stayed home.

In the infancy of frozen foods and home freezers, my father represented several frozen food specialty companies — Roman Pizza, Sau-Sea Shrimp Cocktail, Rudy's 21 Shrimp in a Basket, and Milady's Blintzes. (Blintzes are Jewish crepes, stuffed with cottage cheese or berry preserves.) Dad was a broker, not a salesman, self-employed but receiving commissions from each company.

Bert Greenman was five feet, ten inches, had a narrow dark mustache, and straight hair he parted to one side and kept down with Vitalis. As a young man he had a rather Valentino-era look.

He put three teaspoons of sugar in his coffee but didn't stir. He smoked two packs of cigarettes a day but put them out after three or four light drags. When he picked up the phone to answer a business call, he'd often motion to me to bring him a cigarette by bringing his index and third fingers toward and away from his lips. My mother smoked, too, and if the house I grew up in was filled with smoke, I wasn't aware of it.

Dad loved being with people, and while driving 20,000 miles a year alone may not say, "I love company," he spent a lot of time convivially with customers and had a lively social life with my mother when he was home. Had he preferred, he would have worked exclusively from his home office, I'm sure, but to represent a new product, and to keep customers buying it, and handling complaints, and fighting the competition, one had to get out there.

convivial kuhn VI vee uhl
sociable; jovial; festive
Closemouthed and closeminded to boot, sitting aloof and glum in the midst of convivial dinner parties at my home, Hopper reminded me of one of his favorite subjects for painting: a Victorian mansion stranded beside a railroad track. He radiated the looming ugliness and the paradoxical, lost dignity of such structures. — Alexander Eliot, December 1979

While his driving was solitary, many of his customers took him to lunch and dinner, and some wouldn't think of having him stay in a hotel when he could be a guest in their homes. One of them was Lenny Troilo, a frozen food wholesaler in Columbus, Ohio who also produced french fries for restaurants. When he came to work in the morning and found us waiting in his office for him, he looked at my father and said, "My God, leave the door open and anyone can walk in." I thought that was hysterical, the kind of banter that said much about their relationship. But maybe Lenny said it mainly to amuse me. I swept his factory floor clean of potato peels while he met with my father, and that night he took us to dinner.

banter BAN tuhr
teasing or joking in a playful, good-natured way
For Roosevelt to "walk" in public, he had to balance on his locked braces and pretend to be using his legs while he was actually shifting back and forth from his cane to the man (often one of his sons) whose arm he gripped on the other side. The strain always left his suit soaked with sweat, the hand on the cane shaking violently from the effort, the son's arm bruised where his fingers had dug in. And all the while he would be smiling, keeping up pleasant banter, pretending to enjoy himself. — Garry Wills, April 1994       

I didn't know it at the time, but the most difficult part of my dad's job was his customers' complaints. He never said anything about them, but after he died in 1993 and I went through his office correspondence, I read several letters to him that revealed aggravation that I wasn't aware of — about shrimp in the basket that stuck together when it defrosted in a restaurant, indicating that it had defrosted once before and been re-frozen; about blintzes that fell apart when they defrosted; about shrimp that tasted good but smelled funny. In each letter the wholesalers said they were returning the merchandise; the company was out their sale and my father his commission. Many wholesalers wrote, in a variety of ways, but always in a businesslike tone, "Bert, two weeks ago you promised me shrimp-in-a-basket banners for my customers to hang on their drive-ins. Where are they? They're screaming." None of this was my father's fault. He relayed requests for signs to the office in the Bronx but they didn't follow through. And who knew where a truck's cooler had malfunctioned on its journey from the factory to the wholesaler and been restarted after a hundred cartons of food had defrosted? But Dad was the face of these companies, the only person his customers knew to rail about their problems, although when they did rail, it was in a businesslike and civil manner.

rail rail
to use bitter, harsh or abusive language, usually in print or public speech; complain violently
No American poet has proclaimed his contempt for this country more noisily than Allen Ginsberg. Ever since he first recited "Howl" in a San Francisco coffeehouse, in 1956, Ginsberg has been railing against the horrors of urban life, the stupidity of our government, and the crimes of what used to be called the military-industrial complex. — James Atlas, December 1984

I never knew how much money my father made, but I knew he didn't make much, and as his extra expense on the road I spent as little of it as possible, assuring him that I loved cafeterias, which was true, especially the S&W and S&S cafeterias in southern states, where my dishes of choice were chopped sirloin steak and filet mignon. Filet mignon, you say? Expensive, no? No. In those chains a filet mignon with a strip of bacon wrapped around it cost ninety cents.

My father would try to arrive at a motel early enough in the evening for me to do some exploring in the woods or fields, an accommodation of his that led to my only scolding on one of our trips. Instead of helping him unload the car, I got one look at the lush surrounding woods and took off. "Hey," he called out. "Leaving me to empty the car?" He didn't actually yell; all he ever had to do was raise his voice for me to feel severely admonished. I felt especially contrite, being inconsiderate to a father who was always kind, never saying a mean thing to me, never belittling me, or even teasing me over something I did wrong.

admonition ad muh NI shuhn
a cautionary reminder
I who am blind can give one hint to those who see — one admonition to those who would make full use of the gift of sight: Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind. And the same method can be applied to the other senses. Hear the music of voices, the song of a bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra, as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object you want to touch as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never smell and taste again. Make the most of every sense; glory in all the facets of pleasure and beauty which the world reveals to you through the several means of contact which Nature provides. But of all the senses, I am sure that sight must be the most delightful. — Helen Keller, January 1933

When we stayed at a hotel — always in a town or small city — our routine after dinner was to walk on Main Street, visiting shops or looking in their windows; charming streets that are rare in this era of malls. I especially liked fishing tackle stores, and every town had one. I hadn't the slightest interest in fishing, but I loved the accoutrements, the rods and reels, and especially the lures and flies.

accoutrements uh KOO: truh mints
furnishings, equipment or accessories that lend identification to someone
Sherlock Holmes stories have been translated into fifty-six languages, including Esperanto and shorthand. There have been at least 264 movies, 630 radio plays, thirty-two stage plays, twenty-five TV shows, and fifteen burlesques featuring the detective, as well as a ballet, a musical and an oratorio. So familiar is Holmes that he is instantly recognized by his accoutrements alone — the deerstalker cap, inverness cape, and curved pipe — even by people who have never read a word of the stories. — Cait Murphy, March 1987

We did go fishing once. On Sundays, when we couldn't visit customers, we did something recreational. On Presque Isle, a peninsula that juts into Lake Erie, off Erie, Pennsylvania, I fished for bluegills with a drop line, then threw them back, the first of two times I've ever fished. In Greenville, South Carolina, Dad took me to Paris Mountain State Park, whereI looked for creatures but saw only one, a five-lined skink, a speedy, white-striped brown lizard with a startling electric blue tail that ran by me so fast that I saw only a blur.

He must have traveled more than 30,000 miles a year in the early 1950's, almost completely on state roads, both because the Interstate highway system was in its infancy, and because it didn't pay to get on an Interstate when he had stops to make in between highway exits. Every afternoon, he'd pull over to the side of the road for a 15-minute nap, while I explored the neighboring field or woods.

At our business stops in rural areas, I couldn't wait to explore the alluring nearby fields and woods and streams, not just to walk and observe nature but to capture little creatures to bring home, for which I had brought a small fish tank and burlap bags for, hopefully, snakes.

alluring uh LOO: ring
charmingly or subtly attractive; enchanting
The early twilight of a Sunday evening in Hamilton, Bermuda, is an alluring time. There is just enough of whispering breeze, fragrance of flowers, and sense of repose to raise one's thoughts heavenward; and just enough amateur piano music to keep him reminded of the other place. — Mark Twain, January 1879

My first on-the-road catch ever was a box turtle crossing Maryland Route 301 on the first day of one of our southern trips. I saved its life, I was sure, and during the trip kept it in a carton, feeding it grass. Once home, I released him in my fenced-in backyard. How he escaped I didn't know. 

My luckiest and richest catch, during my sixth-grade spring vacation, occurred along the Erie Canal, in Utica, New York. While my father talked with a customer, I began turning over small boulders along the canal, for that's how you find creatures; they don't stay around, waiting to be caught. And then a bonanza. Under one rock, in a depression a foot deep, a nest of garter snakes, dozens of them, all intertwined in weather still too cool for them to have gone their warm weather separate ways. I bagged perhaps a dozen of them, braving their only weapon, flipping their writhing bodies this way and that and defecating, hoping the strong acrid smell of their feces would repulse their predator. Not this predator.

acrid A krid
sharp or biting to the taste or smell; irritating to the eyes or nose
A chain of cities unreels in my memory like a roll of archival film. I rewind to Ankara, Turkey, in the mid-seventies: An acrid pall shrouds the minarets. The city has some of the worst air pollution on Earth. Each room of our large house has an electrostatic air-cleaner; an army of plastic woodgrained boxes tries mightily to zap particulates before they reach our soft American lungs. But this brown haze is winter coal smoke. In the spring the stars blink and wheel high over the Balgat hills, pristine and clear in the thin, dry Anatolian air. — Michael Benson, July/August 2002

In the motel that night, I thought I should give the snakes some breathing room, so I put the bag in a desk drawer, untied it, and closed the drawer. I'd gather them up in the morning. Next morning — surprise, Greenman! No snakes. Foolishly, I hadn't realized that the back of the drawer was open to the rest of the desk. But drawer after drawer was empty, too, and I found none of them around the room.

We left the motel not telling the manager that the next guest in that room might be checking out soon after they had checked in. The bathtub would have been a better holding place. During a later trip I caught a green snake (that's the species' name) and did place it in the motel bathtub. But it crawled down the drain, which I discovered when I next entered the bathroom  and saw only its head sticking up through it. Each time I stuck my head in to see if it had emerged it stuck its head back in. We left that one behind, too (hapless me), hoping the next person who ran the bathtub looked kindly on a harmless and beautiful little green snake.

hapless HAP lis
tending to encounter misfortune;  unlucky; unfortunate          
If you listened to the radio at all in the years 1937 to 1950 (and if you were alive to be doing much of anything back then, you probably listened to the radio quite a lot), then you must have heard Ray Erlenborn. Not heard of, mind you — just heard. He wasn't one of those sonorous voices announcing grim news from Europe, or an intergalactic gangster purring threats at Buck Rogers, or a hapless family man yelping above the din of comedic mayhem. He was, instead, the thrummmmm of tanks chugging into battle, the woo-wooooosh of a spaceship accelerating toward Altair 7, and the wheeeeeeee-crash! of a comic hero barreling out the front door, late for work, and running headlong into the mailman. Erlenborn was a master of sound effects in the heyday of radio. — Adam Goodheart, June 2000

When my father traveled alone, he stayed only at hotels, but when I was with him he stopped at a rural motel whenever he could so I could get out at six in the morning to birdwatch and search for frogs, toads and snakes. When I'd return at about seven he'd be getting dressed. It was hotels, though, that gave these trips much of their atmosphere, hotels in small cities like Sunbury, Pennsylvania, Gloversville, New York and Zanesville, Ohio. On the lobbies' comfortable upholstered couches and leather easy chairs I read the folders for the local attractions, although we rarely went to any. Mezzanines surrounded the lobby atrium and were lined with more couches and chairs, as well as desks holding hotel stationery and postcards. At hotel newsstands I'd buy Popular Science magazine, mainly to pour over the ads for coins, stamps, tattoo kits, Indian arrow heads and magic tricks, and the everpresent correspondence course in taxidermy. (I'll tell you about my brief experience as a taxidermist another time.) From the ads for them, I fantasized raising chinchillas, angora rabbits, quails, pheasants and bantams. I never bought anything but I often conjured up images of a backyard filled with quails, pheasants and bantams.

conjure up KAHN jer uhp
to bring into existence as if by magic
Dubrovnik is, of course, unique — the most complete and perfectly walled city to be found on any coast. Standing out over the water with its battlements and towers, the compact old city is like a dazzling series of magnificent stage sets conjured up to bring the past to life. Indeed, a dozen plays and operas are staged in its squares and on its castle walls during the summer festival. — Scott Corbett, December 1966

 Slight and significant experiences peppered my trips. In Richmond, Virginia I was startled to hear my father's customer, a burly man who worked with his father, call him "Daddy." That's common in the South, my father told me later. Along a road in North Carolina we passed a chain gang, pickaxing the stony roadside. They were chainless, but nearby stood a guard with a rifle.

In Greensboro, North Carolina, while my father was visiting a customer, the heads of a dozen or more black men turned in my direction when I entered a luncheonette to buy a soda. I thought it was because I was a kid. Silly, ignorant me. Years later I realized it was because white boys in 1952 North Carolina did not enter "black" restaurants.  Only once did I see graphic indication of segregation, when we passed a sign hundreds of feet off the road, that said, "Colored Motel." Only once, Greenman? That was simply because I never rode a bus in the South, entered a men's room, drank from a fountain or noticed that while distinguished looking black men carried our cafeteria trays to our table, no black people were being served.

Sometimes when he called on a customer, he took me in with him to introduce me, especially if the customer was also a friend. My father's manner with customers was not just cordial, which is how salespeople are supposed to be — he really liked his customers as people.

cordial KAWR juhl
warm and friendly ("cordiality" is the noun)
There was little cordiality, during the administration of John Quincy Adams, between the occupants of the Capitol and of the Executive Mansion, or, as it has been called since the occupation of Washington by the British, the White House. The interior of the building was then burned, and the exterior walls were so blackened by the smoke that they were painted white to conceal the marks of the conflagration. — Ben Perley Poore, March 1880 

I'm pretty sure that it was observing my father with his customers during those years to which I can attribute my having always felt comfortable with strangers anywhere. Which leads me to my favorite television personality, a man I feel an affinity to. Several years ago, in a book titled I Remember Brooklyn, by Ralph Monte (Birch Lane Press, 1991), I discovered I shared an aspect of my upbringing with Al Roker, the NBC-TV weatherman, who spoke in the book about his childhood days riding on his father's Brooklyn bus route with him on days off from school and hanging out with him at the depot where drivers picked up and dropped off their buses and socialized. Watching his father greeting and talking with bus riders, many of whom knew his name, and mingling with passengers himself, does a lot to explain the affable man we see on TV.  Because I knew my father, I know Al Roker. It's all genuine; he doesn't have a factitious bone in his body.

factitious
artificial; contrived; lacking authenticity or genuineness
For many non-Scots "Scotland" immediately conjures up the Highlands, Rob Roy, Braveheart, kilts, and bagpipes — images that have nothing to do with most Scottish people for most of the country's history.  Not only is this imagery largely factitious and foolish in itself, but the numerous tartans sold to every gullible American tourist named McSomething are the inventions of astute Victorian businessmen. — Geoffrey Wheatcroft, November 1999

Although I have a wife, three adult daughters and five grandchildren, I am still in many ways that kid on the road with my father, wishing I were once again gliding along a state highway in Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, anywhere; stopping at a Dairy queen, walking the main street of some small town, writing a postcard in the lobby of a small hotel, on the road with my father once again.

He never came home without bringing me postcards and matchbooks he collected from the hotels and motels he stayed in. I have them all, but I only have one postcard that he wrote to me. It was from the Anthony Wayne Hotel, in Hamilton, Ohio, and postmarked November  20, 1951.

Hi ya Butch,

Just arrived in this burg. Just missed the snow up north. The radio says that they have 8 inches of snow up there. When I left Sunday it had already started and I put my tail between my legs and ran. Kiss your family for me.

Dad

(The 1-cent postage stamp was stuck on upside down, for love.)


Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Department of Word Lists.

Bob Greenman is the author of Words That Make a Difference; and, with his wife, Carol, More Words That Make a Difference, vocabulary enrichment books based on words and passages from The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly. Bob taught English and journalism at James Madison and Edward R. Murrow High Schools, and at Kingsborough Community College, all in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a newspaper in education consultant for The New York Times, and his website has a section devoted to journalism education. Click here to read more articles by Bob Greenman.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Thursday March 25th 2010, 11:38 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I almost missed this marvelous entry as the 'Word of the Day' didn't include a link! That's how I arrive at the offerings.

Eventhough I was caught up in the article, I wasn't distracted by the word notes. Quite the contrary, I got to wondering about the word 'wend' and what its past tensee might be, and how else it might be used.

That investigation led me on one most intriguing adventure. What an interesting word! I had often wondered how we went from 'go' to 'went', but never connected the dots properly.
Thursday March 25th 2010, 2:21 PM
Comment by: patricia H.
Great article and what a wonderful father Mr Greenman had.
Thursday March 25th 2010, 8:28 PM
Comment by: Susan V. (Phoenix, AZ)
How wonderful!! Mr.Greenman took me back to my childhood of summer vacations in a 1951 Pontiac 4 door sedan with my parents. The small town motels owned by the lady in the office and her husband, no Holiday Inns back then. I could smell the interior of our car and the "clean" of the rooms at each Mom & PoP motel. Most likely Pine-Sol now that I think about it.I collected my own box turtle one summer and how he escaped from our yard remains a mystery to this day. M&M cafeterias were the most lavish of places. When in the South I took a drink from a water fountain marked "Colored Only" before my mother could steer me to the "right"one and a dear old colored lady smiled at me, turned to my mom and said, "the child don't know and I hope she never does. It will make the world a better place, don't you think Mrs,?" Some kindnesses and truths we never forget. Thank God.
Thursday March 25th 2010, 9:12 PM
Comment by: Susan V. (Phoenix, AZ)
How wonderful!! Mr.Greenman took me back to my childhood of summer vacations in a 1951 Pontiac 4 door sedan with my parents. The small town motels owned by the lady in the office and her husband, no Holiday Inns back then. I could smell the interior of our car and the "clean" of the rooms at each Mom & PoP motel. Most likely Pine-Sol now that I think about it.I collected my own box turtle one summer and how he escaped from our yard remains a mystery to this day. M&M cafeterias were the most lavish of places. When in the South I took a drink from a water fountain marked "Colored Only" before my mother could steer me to the "right"one and a dear old colored lady smiled at me, turned to my mom and said, "the child don't know and I hope she never does. It will make the world a better place, don't you think Mrs,?" Some kindnesses and truths we never forget. Thank God.
Friday March 26th 2010, 8:10 PM
Comment by: Adele C. M. (Charlotte, NC)
A lovely, lovely story. This was extremely warm and enjoyable!
Saturday March 27th 2010, 12:41 PM
Comment by: Udo B. (Gluecksburg Germany)
That is always fascinating: reading such a text like this one.
And, of course getting the feeling of the Language; linked to passing times, as well as in Susan V.‘s comment too. Thanks a lot.
Sunday March 28th 2010, 4:13 PM
Comment by: Karen F. (New Castle, PA)
What a kind and gentle time the early 1950's were, and how I miss them. I was 5 years old or so and rode with my father on his coal truck every day. We delivered coal to those who had coal furnaces and Daddy was a great talker. His treasured customers shared good and bad stories with him and always had some kind of treat for my. Our town was made up of many ethnic groups and I had the pleasure of becoming a lover of all kinds of wonderful foods. Thanks for bringing back so many memories on this rainy Sunday afternoon
Tuesday March 30th 2010, 12:01 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
One could call this beautiful piece of writing, "Life of a Salesman." Touching and true!
Monday August 23rd 2010, 10:29 AM
Comment by: richard O. (Weihai, Shandong China)
Charming story. Wish it were mine.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.