The world is far different today than when I was a kid. How many generations have said the exact same thing?
Cave Man: Me cold.
Cave Woman: Me cold cold.
Cave man: Me cold. Me strike rock against rock. Fire! Me warm!
Cave woman: Me cold. Move over!
You get the idea. Every new invention or discovery propels the next generation into new territory.
We go to the grocery store now to get our oranges pre-peeled, our apples pre-sliced, our lettuce pre-washed, and our beef already cut in cubes for stew. Our milk comes in throwaway wax cartons that aren’t recyclable. But they make great counter-top compost bins. This was not always the way.
In the olden days, the milkman came in your unlocked back door, called out “milkman” and then set your order of glass bottles on the back steps. You would leave out your empty bottles for him to take back with him. They would get washed, sterilized and re-used. No plastic waste, no wax containers in the landfill.
One night at supper (you call it that in the Midwest) our mother took the glass bottle of milk out of the refrigerator and started screaming. A black thing was in the bottom of the bottle.
“Oh!” she cried. “There’s a mouse in the milk!”
The five of us kids sat around the table, utterly horrified that there was a rodent in our white magic, because all good Midwestern children loved their milk back in the day. How else did this female author get to be five feet, ten inches tall by the age of fourteen?
Our father didn’t participate much in our mother’s drama. All he did was say,” It’s not a mouse.”
“Of course it’s mouse! It must’ve gotten in at the bottling plant! I can’t believe there’s a mouse in the milk!”
“It’s not a mouse,” our father said calmly.
“Yes, it is!” our mother insisted.
As the five of us sat there, losing our appetites for any meat we might have been served that night, I shifted in my chair. Dad was pouring the contents of the bottle into another container to get to the bottom of things. I didn’t want to see a drenched mouse plop out of the bottle into the second container.
After he poured out all the milk, the black thing remained. Upon closer inspection, our mother determined that it was a piece of steel wool left over from scrubbing the bottle, still looking gross covered in milk, but not nearly as gross as a dead mouse.
Our mom ranted a bit more about the steel wool, dumped out the milk and got a fresh bottle from the fridge (we drank a lot of milk as kids). She said she would demand another bottle in exchange for the spoiled one. She was worked up, for sure.
Another time I was headed down the back steps to the basement to take a shower in our second bathroom and encountered a mouse trying to get out the screen door. I opened the door and let it scurry outside, hoping it wouldn’t run into the kitchen and jump into the fridge and into a bottle of milk (which of course, it did not do).
The meter man used to come inside our unlocked back door, go down the basement steps to read the meter, then come back out, simply warning us by calling out “meter man.”
Once, as a teen, I was home alone, taking a long shower in the basement bathroom which also had the meter in it (it was a homemade remodel job). I was singing along to Chicago Transit Authority, minding my own business, when suddenly a man pounded on the door to get into the bathroom, where I was naked and afraid.
To say he scared the crap out of me would be accurate.
Ah, those were the days, when strange men wandered inside our unlocked houses to bring milk and see how much electricity we had used. We didn’t use natural gas back then — we had an oil furnace with a huge black cast iron oil tank in the corner of the basement. Talk about creepy. Our mom thought she was making it better by hanging up a bamboo curtain in front of it. She was not. Behind that oil tank was the perfect place for the boogie man, or the meter man, or the milkman to hide.
Everything from those days is gone now — no more milkman, no more meters inside the house, no more glass bottles of milk, no more oil furnaces or people who leave their back doors unlocked. The only thing that remains is the sweet music of Chicago, played every summer at Music in the Park, by aging musicians who can remember back to a simpler time.
A time of dead mice in the milk, or maybe just a piece of steel wool.