Painted Ponies Redux

Here I am riding one of the painted ponies that seem to be haunting me these days. This photo may have been taken at Lincoln Park, although the carousel looks much too small. Was there a smaller carousel in Kiddie-Land? Or was the photo taken at a different park? It doesn’t matter, because the parks are gone, or at least the ones I remember are gone. Lincoln Park, in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, had the longest  run, lasting from 1894 to 1987. In its heyday it was an oasis of delight, a place where families could spend all Sunday afternoon without running out of things to do, eat, watch, or ride. Lincoln Park was where I tasted my first pizza, although I didn’t much like it. I liked the rides, though. I started out on the  Kiddie-Land train and worked my way to the grown-up Merry-Go-Round, Ferris Wheel, Bubble Bounce, Tilt-a-Whirl, Dark House, and Fun House. (I secretly thought the Dark House, with boats sloshing through a watery channel, was more fun than the Fun House.) The Penny Arcade had a “Grandma” fortune-telling machine, and right outside of Kiddie-Land it was possible to ride an unpainted, real pony that walked around in a circle inside a small corral. The real ponies didn’t go up and down, and there was no music. I liked the carousel horses better.

My Uncle Walter worked at Lincoln Park briefly. He operated the Tilt-a-Whirl and then moved up to the Dodgems. He let me ride for free, but I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone. The Tilt-a-Whirl was fun, but I didn’t understand the philosophy behind the Dodgems. I would drive my car very carefully, trying not to bump into anyone, but others would bump into me and start laughing. I thought they were very uncivilized and hoped my uncle would be promoted to a nicer ride, like the carousel. But that didn’t happen because Uncle Walter decided instead to go to California and seek his fortune.

When I grew older, I rollerskated in the skating rink and bowled in the bowling alley. I didn’t get good at either skating or bowling, although I liked the distinctive thunder and clatter of the duckpin alley. There was a ballroom, too, but I never went there. By that time I was too busy doing my French homework and sending out college applications. I should have noticed that the park was losing its magic, but I didn’t. 

Here’s what happened, although not right away and not all at the same time: Duckpin bowling disappeared, as did the equally if not more challenging sport of candlepin bowling. As tenpin lanes took over the bowling landscape, TV shows like Duckpins for Dollars and Candlepins for Cash were replaced by the unalliterative Bowling for Dollars.  And that was only part of it. Theme parks and water parks multiplied like rabbits, and I guess they had a lot more to offer in terms of fantasy and adventure and gigantic water slides, but you couldn’t get there on the Union Street Railway (which was not a railway) or by driving a short distance up the highway. Lincoln Park had this going for it: It was there. 

And how could I almost forget to mention the scholarships? At my high school graduation, after all the diplomas were given out, the local scholarships were announced. These were mostly from organizations like the College Club of New Bedford and the Portuguese-American Civic League, but the biggest local scholarships, one to a boy and one to a girl, were presented by Lincoln Park, and I was lucky enough to receive one. It was more than enough to cover my first year of college tuition, and my other local scholarships paid for most of my second and third years. I didn’t get to meet Cinderella or shake hands with a mouse, but I did get to go to college. Lincoln Park, the College Club of New Bedford, and the Portuguese-American Civic League were my fairy godparents. Some people walk on air, but that night I was walking on glass slippers.

As for the painted ponies, they had their own fairy godparents. Carousel #54, made by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, had been at Lincoln Park since 1920, and it needed a new home. Thanks to the Fall River community it was purchased, refurbished, and moved to Battleship Cove, a “fleet museum” right by the Braga Bridge. I’ve never visited it in its new home, but I like knowing that for two dollars I can have one more ride.

Another Marvelous Fourth of July Parade with the Pickle Pin Club

Evelyn and I started the club because we wanted a club.  We were the oldest on the street, or at least the oldest of the young kids, and we felt it was our duty to organize activities for the others.  Evelyn was nine at the time, and I had just turned ten.  We would ask our mothers for money for refreshments and prizes, and they would give us whatever change they had handy.  We would walk to Vee’s Variety and buy Tootsie Rolls, the ones that cost only a penny, and packets of Kool-Aid.  Then we would ask our mothers for sugar to put in the Kool-Aid.  We held our meetings in our clubhouse.  Actually it wasn’t ours.  It was a tar-paper shack that Evelyn’s brother had built in their back yard, but he didn’t seem to be using it anymore. Because it had four walls and a roof, we thought it was grand.  We had a bag of pickle pins that one of my father’s customers had given him, green plastic pins shaped like pickles with the number 57 in the middle.  Everyone who joined got a pin, and we had a lot of pins left over.  That was how our club got its name.

I don’t remember which of us first thought of a parade, but we were running out of ideas for field-day-type races and games, and we were giving away a lot of Tootsie Rolls.  A parade was easy.  Everybody came dressed as something or brought something to bang on.  We had no music, but we had noise.  Evelyn and her sister Joan had a supply of dancing costumes that could be customized, made to look patriotic.  I had had only one year of dancing lessons, and my choices were limited to a tutu that I had grown out of or a ghost outfit that glowed in the dark.  Neither was especially appropriate, so I settled for shorts and a t-shirt and an Uncle Sam hat that my mother paid 25 cents for at the 5&10.  It was made of cardboard and had stars and stripes all over it, and it matched the flag I carried.  Evelyn wore one of her dancing outfits and twirled her baton.  I didn’t have a clue how to twirl a baton, but I had an Uncle Sam hat.  Joan showed up in a costume that she said represented Miss Liberty, whoever that was.  Kirsten and Donna and Betsy and Marcia wore red, white, and blue and brought flags and noisemakers.  My brother refused to march with us, but he let us borrow his toy drum.  We gathered at the end of our dead-end street early in the morning of the Fourth of July, and we started to march.  The parade route took us up our street and back down again.  People came out of their houses to watch us go by.  Some had cameras.  It was exciting!

We did this every year for what seemed like a long time but couldn’t have been.  By the second year people were lining the streets with movie cameras.  (Well maybe there was only one movie camera.)  But by the third year Tootsie Rolls and Kool-Aid had lost their magic, my brother’s drum had a hole in it, and somehow my beloved Uncle Sam hat had gotten dinged.  Besides, Evelyn and I were growing up.  

So that’s how it ended.  We grew up, we grew apart, we moved away.  The bag of pickle pins seems to have disappeared, although it may be in my brother’s attic.  Evelyn and Joan are gone.  Kirsten lives in California.  I don’t know where in the world Donna, Betsy, and Marcia ended up, but I hope they are happy.  My brother is the only one who still lives on our old street, but his cat, Trixie, spends more time there than he does.  

Those were the best parades of my life, and no abundance of flags, floats, marching bands, or Clydesdales could have made them more spectacular.  I’m not big on fireworks or picnics or flag-waving, at least not without my Uncle Sam hat, but oh what I wouldn’t give for one more Fourth of July parade with the Pickle Pin Club!

Eating With the Ancestors: Curds and Whey

A while back our neighbors offered us a couple of bottles of raw milk.  Because of complicated laws regulating the sale of raw milk in New York State, consumers who want to buy unpasteurized milk on a regular basis sometimes work around the regulations by joining a buying club or purchasing shares in a herd–essentially subscribing to local milk deliveries on a regular basis.  Our neighbors were going on vacation, but the milk they had subscribed to was coming anyway.  All we had to do was pick it up and of course wash out the bottles afterwards. 

Those milk bottles, with a generous amount of cream at the top, reminded me of the milk of my childhood, but I should say right from the start that milk and I have always had a difficult relationship.  I remember that we had three kinds of milk in our tenement: chocolate milk, coffee milk, and plain milk.  Chocolate milk had some sort of cocoa powder stirred into it, while coffee milk was made with Silmo Coffee Syrup, a long-gone product that was once a staple in the New Bedford area.  Of the three, plain milk was the one I liked the least, although it was the simplest to prepare.  My mother would remove the orange cellophane from the top of the milk bottle, rinse the top of the cardboard cap, and give the bottle a vigorous shake.  Then she would remove the cap, pour some milk into a saucepan, and start warming it up.  Of course when my mother poured the warm plain milk over my breakfast Cheerioats, they immediately turned to mush. Truth is, I didn’t like Cheerioats much either, and changing the name to Cheerios didn’t make them any less mushy.  I didn’t know then, and didn’t learn until I was in college, that other people enjoyed their cereal with cold milk.

Today I like Cheerios quite a lot, but I prefer them with lactose-free milk straight from the refrigerator.  Yes, milk makes me sick–not terribly, horribly sick, just sickish enough to feel uncomfortable.  So, as appealing as those two bottle of raw milk looked, I wasn’t about to pour myself a tall one and drink it down.  I knew what I would do.  I would make some fresh cheese.

Fresh cheese is an Azorean treat, a simple cheese made with only two or three ingredients: milk, rennet, and sometimes salt. My mother made it often, possibly because she had extra milk in the refrigerator and the milkman was coming the next morning, or possibly because she knew my brother and I liked it.  Despite my problems with plain milk served in a glass, I loved most foods prepared with dairy products, especially fresh cheese but also goldenrod toast, cream of tomato soup, and creamed anything.  But could my mother have had another reason to include this shimmery white wonder in her cooking rotation?  Could there have been another explanation for the popularity of fresh cheese, or queijo fresco, among people of Azorean ancestry in the New Bedford area. 

I made my fresh cheese, and I made it again, and when the raw milk was used up I made it with pasteurized non-homogenized milk.  I could have used homogenized milk.  My mother did after homogenization became the standard, and the cheese tasted just as good, although the texture was a bit grainy.  I could have used low-fat milk or skim milk, as those work, too, as does goat’s milk.  (Ultra-pasteurized milk would not have worked, and neither would soy or almond milk.)  I chose whole milk simply because that’s how my mother made it.  After months of experimenting with different types of molds (my mother used a one-pound coffee can with top and bottom removed) and different types of rennet, I finally produced a cheese I was happy with.  And while I was testing out variations on my mother’s recipe and hunting down other recipes on the web, I learned something interesting: when the coagulated milk has been spooned into its coffee can or cheese mold and the whey is draining out the bottom, most of the lactose in the milk drains out with it.  

My ancestors came from the island of São Miguel in the Azores.  I have traveled several times to mainland Portugal and the Azores, and the only hotels where I was served fresh cheese with my breakfast–two different hotels on two different trips–were in Ponta Delgada, on São Miguel.  Nowhere else in this country of amazing cheeses was I served fresh cheese, although my hotel in Angra, on Terceira, included the different but equally wonderfully São Jorge cheese as part of its breakfast buffet.  I can’t help wondering whether the residents of São Miguel have an especially high incidence of lactose intolerance.  I’m only guessing, of course.  I’m guessing that my mother, a descendant of Micaelense parents, was lactose intolerant, although the term was not tossed around in those days.  I don’t think she knew that when milk is heated some of its lactose is broken down, but she fed me a cup of warm chocolate or coffee milk first thing in the morning, every morning, for years.  It seems that whenever she reached for a bottle of milk with one hand, she reached for a one-quart saucepan with the other.  And she made fresh cheese often.  

Last weekend our neighbors offered us another half gallon of raw milk.  The bottle is in the refrigerator right now, a gleaming reminder of what life was like before something as simple as milk from a cow was subjected to commodification and hyperregulation.  But what do I know about the dairy industry?  Here’s what I do know:  If I warm a quart of milk in a saucepan, if I add a small amount of powdered or liquid rennet, if I let the warm milk set for a few minutes, if I transfer the curdled milk into a cheese mold, if I patiently wait for the whey to drain out, if I do all of this and maybe add a couple of optional extra steps, I will have a smooth white cheese about the diameter of a coffee can and slightly more than an inch tall.  I will cut myself a good-sized wedge, and I will salt it generously.  When I taste it I will think of the cheeses that my mother made, and I will be surrounded by memories that I do not have of ancestors that I never had a chance to meet.  The cheese will not stand alone.

The Wegmans Parking Lot Riviera

The lead story in this morning’s Ithaca Journal was about how Canada geese have invaded area parks and disrupted peaceful family outings just by doing what geese do naturally and leaving behind what geese typically leave behind.  I can understand the concern.  There are a whole lot of these geese living in our city–about 240,000 in all of New York State, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation, and we have our share–and they’re not about to walk away from a grassy area just because some nice people want to have a picnic.  In fact, when they see that picnic basket I’m sure images of free food pass through their heads, and I can’t really blame them.  Living in today’s world takes energy and inventiveness, and geese don’t have credit cards to use in area restaurants.  But, because I had other things on my mind this morning, I set the newspaper aside.  

So I was surprised, as we were leaving Wegmans after our weekly grocery shopping expedition, to see a whole flock of Canada geese wading in the lake that the week’s rain had left at the edge of the parking lot.  Some were just strolling along the shoreline, enjoying the sun.  People were feeding them.  They like people, and they seemed happy to have found a place to hang out on a hot day.  

They strut their poise and stateliness.  Wouldn’t they make handsome carousel animals? 

The Horse in the Calendar

Lately I’ve had horses in my head, mostly made of wood (the horses, not my head), painted in vivid colors, and engineered to prance counter-clockwise in a circle.  The track at Belmont Park is an oval, not a circle, but like carousel horses the thoroughbreds run counter-clockwise, just as they do in every other racetrack in the United States.  Before the American Revolution, racing in the Colonies was clockwise to conform to the practice in the mother country.  I’ve read that our change of direction was meant as a deliberate expression of our independence.  In England most of the racetracks are still clockwise, but a few now copy our habit of racing against the clock.  

I thought of all this Saturday as I was sipping my manhattan and watching the pre-race coverage of the Belmont Stakes.  Although I have never ridden a horse, I love horse racing and have been to races at Saratoga and Canandaigua and at tracks in California and Dublin.  According to the Chinese calendar, I was born in the Year of the Horse or, more accurately, the year Wu (Horse).  I first heard of the Chinese calendar when I lived in San Francisco in the late 60s and early 70s.  The calendar is very complicated and I won’t pretend to understand it, but I believe the twelve animals used to indicate the years are technically part of the Chinese Zodiac.  Every year has an animal assigned to it, and at the end of twelve years they start all over again.  I remember going to Grant Avenue to watch the magnificent parade held each year to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The parade would feature an assortment of floats and marching bands, but the finale would always be the many-footed dragon that would dance and bob and threaten and delight to the sound of drums and firecrackers.  During my time in San Francisco I always lived close enough to Chinatown to spend a lot of time there, and once I had an opportunity to see the dragon up close, although certainly not personal.  It was the year I took a course in spinning and weaving; our class was held in the Chinese YWCA, and our instructor had arranged to let us into the gym where the dragon lived in all its glory while it was being assembled and adorned for the big day. 

I loved those parades, and I loved the dragon.  But am I attracted to the sport of kings because I was born in the Year of the Horse?  It’s possible, I suppose.  As for the Belmont Stakes, the odds-on favorite, American Pharoah, proved that he was a true descendant of the daughters of the wind by winning the Triple Crown by a splendid margin.  I am truly happy!

More Circles: The Horses of Destiny

After France, we found we missed all those noisettes we had been drinking in Parisian cafes. The noisette, an espresso with a touch of cream, was our drink of choice for a whole glorious month, but when we returned home we realized there were no noisettes to be had unless we made them ourselves. That was why, a few days later, we headed for Destiny USA in search of a Nespresso machine. 

Destiny USA is a shopping center in Syracuse. It used to be called the Carousel Center because of the restored antique carousel in the food court on the second level. Built in 1909 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, the carousel had several homes before being purchased for the Carousel Center, where it was placed in 1990. It survived the mall’s name change and remains a hard-working carousel with unusually fierce-looking horses, some outfitted with weapons and some with animal skins on their backs instead of saddles. 

Did we buy a Nespresso machine? Mais bien sûr! Then it was off to the food court to watch the horses go around and around. 

Going in Circles: The Carousels of France

We passed one on our first morning in Paris.  We were walking down the Rue de Rivoli, and there it was in the Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville, a lovely double-decker merry-go-round with old fashioned horses and carriages.  I was confused, because I was on the lookout for the Apple Store, one branch of which was in the Carrousel du Louvre near the inverted pyramid.  The carousel we saw was definitely not an underground shopping center, and it turned out that the shopping center had nothing to do with carousels.  (I hadn’t noticed the difference in the spelling; I was in another country, after all, where they spelled in a different language.)

But wait, there’s more.  Paris is full of carousels.  We saw one near the Eiffel Tower, one in the Jardin du Luxembourg, and one near the St. Paul Metro station.  And when we left Paris for a short trip through Normandy and Brittany, we saw carousels in Saint-Malo and in Honfleur.  Most of them were not limited to horses but included lions and tigers and elephants and chickens and cars and planes.  I loved all of them.

When I was a child, my mother would occasionally take me to Acushnet Park near Fort Rodman in New Bedford.  The park is long gone, and it never was serious competition for Lincoln Park, whose carousel had an impressive collection of horses and carriages.  Lincoln Park is, alas, also gone.  I was very young when Acushnet Park disappeared from my life, but I still remember the carousel, which was not limited to horses but included geese and rabbits and other animals.  I was particularly fond of the rabbits. 

On the carousel in the Jardin du Luxembourg, the children riding the outside circle of horses are given sticks that they use to attempt to spear metal rings from some sort of ring dispenser.  I remember once riding a carousel in Oak Bluffs that featured a ring dispensing machine, but I don’t remember being given a stick.  We had to reach out and grab the rings with our fingers, and I think there was a knob on the horse’s neck to hold the collected rings.  I wasn’t fast enough to grab more than one each time around, but the Oak Bluffs kids would grab two or three at once.  Anyone who got the “gold” ring would win a prize.  It was fun, but I really wanted to ride a rabbit.