It was summertime 1948 — in a matter of months we would reach a sweet age — driving or owning a car! Time to scramble for that hard to find job. A school mate called with a job he didn’t want and asked if I wanted to fill in for him. Yes! This was a changing point in my life!
Early Saturday morning, a short 66 years ago, I took the No. 11 bus and found myself standing on the corner of Broadway and Pike, right where the QFC is now. It was around 6 a.m. and very quiet — no cars, no people, with nothing open.
I heard the big old Chevy truck before I saw it. The driver extended his arm and introduced himself.
“Hi! I’m Walt Eckerman! So you’re my new Iceman Swamper!”
“Yep! That be me,” I answered.
This happy older guy spoke loudly so I could hear him over the grinding of the transmission.
“This is going to be a good day,” he announced as we drove north on Broadway in a neighborhood that is now part of I-5.
The area was mostly lower income in those days and everyone had ice boxes to keep their food cold and fresh. Refrigerators had barely been discovered and were cost prohibitive.
The houses were old and in need of repair. A few had crudely made additions in order to harbor those down on their luck who came from places like Seattle's Hooverville — a shanty town prevalent across the country during the Depression. Those folks had really experienced squalor and were just happy to be dry. Years before, my dad took me to one of the settlements south of the train station. We snuck food into a good friend and his family. I’ll never forget the houses made of cardboard, a few pieces of wood and anything else to keep out the cold.
Walt pulled the truck in front of our first stop west and downhill of Volunteer Park and handed me a sheath, ice pick, tongs and a money pouch.
“There,” he said. “You’re an iceman, Dick!”
My first challenge was to climb some rickety stairs one flight up, which was no easy task carrying 25 pounds of cold weight on my back. It was customary to knock at the door and yell, “Iceman!” and then just walk on in since those needing ice would hang a card in the window depicting an order of a 25- or 50-pound chunk. The smaller piece was 25 cents and one cent tax, the larger was 50 cents plus two cents tax. Some paid with three tokens equaling one cent.
At the bottom of the icebox in the kitchen was a sliver of ice covered with food. The new block ice had to be shaved to fit, which was tricky as it had a grain. I was careful not to let any loose ice fall, as both kids and dogs would dive to the floor to eat it. Skill perfected, I said goodbye and left with my 26 cents.
One of the sheds I delivered to was so small I had to bend down to enter. The elderly lady inside gave me a freshly baked cookie. I thanked her and, while balancing the cookie in my mouth, I moved a moldy grapefruit to the cooler box below. When I left I told Walt and he instructed me to run to the corner store and buy another one with route money. After exchanging it without the lady knowing Walt said, “Good deed, Dick! I’d do the same!”
Ice melted fast and ice meant dollars so we had to get a move on! One of the many housing arrangements was a women’s residence. Walt told me to get the third floor and he’d get the kitchen. He threw a thong full of 75 pounds of the cold stuff over his back and smiled. Something was up. I climbed the stairs with a 25 pound chunk, knocked and yelled, “Iceman!”
I walked in as a pretty young lady was midway pulling up her panty girdle. She was trying desperately to find privacy but fell backwards. I stood there and seriously wondered if I should I help her or just go directly to the icebox. Now I got why Walt was smiling. On my way out I saw 10 toes below the living room curtain. Needless to say the next two apartments I knocked loudly and deliberately before entering.
The work was hard manual labor but it was rewarding in that I got to see how some people lived. The degree of poverty I saw did not exist in Madison Park. When work is hard, time goes by fast. As soon as the sun was high we ate lunch. Walt gave me a sandwich and told me about his life and struggles through the lean years, when most others were dirt poor too. I didn’t realize how poor we were growing up in Riverton Heights, as there was nothing else to gauge our wealth or lack thereof.
Next we drove to the ice plant on Elliott Avenue and refilled our truck. Walt owned two trucks and he introduced me to his other driver, who said he and his family lived well but that it was a matter of time before the “refrigerator” would become mainstream and put him out of business.
The west side of Lake Union was next on our route. There were houseboats of all sizes, many in need of repair. The dirt road was full of chuck holes. We had to climb down very wobbly stairs and walk planks covered in sea moss, some under water. It would have been almost laughable if it weren’t so dangerous.
All the houseboats had an aroma — some good, some not so good. As I balanced the ice atop the box, a cat jumped up and a dog pawed my leg. If I had kept some of that sandwich, I’d have shared it but instead I just patted both on the head and gave the kids some ice shavings and went on my way. All the cats were plump probably because of a diet of Norwegian wharf rats. I saw some of those rats that day, a few bigger than a cat.
Caring not that my feet were wet I was grasping how well I had it compared to some and was appreciating this eye-opening experience.
After serving the West side we drove to the East side where the planks were easily a block long to accommodate the many houseboats. The roads here were much worse. If we had started on this side of the lake first we would have surely blown some tires but now that our load was lighter it was doable.
There were other obstacles. A large bird, maybe a parrot, landed on my shoulder jolting my ice balancing act. The owner said he was friendly and handed me some bird seed to give him which he crunched next to my ear. I laughed nervously but maintained.
Boat people were a happy lot even helping me up the planks. Curiously there was little regulation about building plumbing or additions and some had no plumbing whatsoever.
In the ‘50s friends and I moved into a big houseboat amongst a neighborhood of beatniks who were great people. One morning one of the houseboats was missing and two weeks later a new very modern two story houseboat with a roof garden appeared. There was unrest in the neighborhood and which created a change in ambiance. Taxes increased as the new structures were brought in. It was too much for most people so they sold cheap and moved.
Later I moved to Madison Park and actually owned several refrigerators. Life in our nation is changing drastically once again — funny how human nature can adapt no matter what. What a great ride!