BY JOEY SWEENEY
Let me tell you about the first job I ever had — or rather, the first thing I ever did for money. I was a neighborhood “Fresh Pretzels” boy. This meant that, like other boys (mostly) in the neighborhood, on days of my own choosing, I would get up very early in the morning, walk to Furfari’s Pretzel Bakery on Frankford Avenue, and purchase as many racks of hot, fresh soft pretzels as I could fit in the cardboard box I brought with me. Then, I would alight onto the sidewalk, where I would walk up and down the streets of the neighborhood, and sing repeatedly at the top of my lungs:
I was 10 years old.
Upon hearing the cry of my promise/song, those who had a mind to would come to their screen doors, flag me down, and then purchase hot fresh pretzels from me. My customer base was most typically old ladies, but also moms, workmen, and fellow Fishtown street urchins. I would walk from block to block, singing until all the pretzels were sold. And then, if it was still early enough in the morning, I’d hustle back to Furfari’s, stock back up again, and then hit a different part of the neighborhood.
The job did offer windows of promise in this way: If you had your act together, you’d be up at 6, out the door at 6:30, and out on the street screamin’ “Fresh Pretzels” by 7am. You could do multiple runs before it was even 10am.
I was in no way the author of this particular business model. As I understood it, the origin of the trade most likely dated to whenever a pretzel factory was first built in the neighborhood. And through the generations, kids did this to raise money for baseball cards, bicycle tubes, and what have you. And when I think on it now, as archaic as it sounds even within the context of the 20th Century, it still always felt natural that this would be a thing in this particular neck of the woods. Try and disagree with me: Fishtown has never quite lost the vibe of the child labor era.
But other things about the hustle went against type for the neighborhood. Competition, for instance, amongst neighborhood “Fresh Pretzels” boys was met with an almost unspoken gentlemanly silence and deference to one’s fellow boy. If you heard another kid’s voice echoing a few blocks away, you’d simply try to go in another direction. There was also a kind of to-each-his-own grace with which we prepared the beer case cardboard boxes that we’d carry. Though roughly, the contents would all be the same:
· 1 cardboard beer box, the sturdier the better
· 1-2 worn but clean beach towels to keep the pretzels warm
· Condiments (usually Gulden’s Mustard and/or yellow mustard)
· Paper napkins or towels for the customer
Likewise, we all served the “Fresh Pretzels” song. The song was designed to be a loud bray that invited a certain kind of street singing, one also known to rag men and produce hucksters. It was an ancient style, in fact, and to do it, even as a kid, plugged you into that ancient-ness. It could become a wild Zen koan in its way. After loudly chanting it a while in the pre-adolescent mind, the words would madly break off into meaninglessness and at point just simply become the act of making sound itself, before reassembling into a perfect construction, a perfect answer to a simple, pure, and easily satisfiable desire. Fresh is how you want the pretzels that you want and having it already would be nice. As a piece of advertising, it is pure pitch at the Confucian level.
And I did it, all over Fishtown and sometimes even over the other side of York and Aramingo, and every last quarter I ever made was spent on candy store video games or BMX stickers at Jay’s Pedal Power. I had regulars. This one lady on Norris Street, this other one on Gordon, my grandmom and my great aunts, and the regulars in my Mom and stepdad’s bar. Some people just wanted someone to talk to, even if it was a 10-year-old boy shouting on the street with a box full of pretzels. One man once accosted me on Frankford Avenue to tell me I had a voice like an angel. I made haste parting company.
That any of this existed as late as 1980 feels strange. And today, the neighborhood “Fresh Pretzels” boy is survived probably only by the Pizza Truck — a UPS-style box truck painted red with a window and Christmas lights and an old time-y fire bell that signals its approach as it does its slow roll through the Fishtown evening. But let me tell you: I don’t think the neighborhood “Fresh Pretzels” boy is extinct. As recently as ten years ago, when I last lived there, I have a vague recollection of hearing his clarion call one bright summer morning. But I can’t be sure: I was half asleep. It might have been a dream.