The comedian Jerry Seinfeld has a short, hilarious monologue about the panic that ensues when families realize they're out of milk, or that their milk is past its expiration date.
He hits the nail right on the head. In my home, "milk awareness" is also an impulse. I don't even put milk on the shopping list. I don't have to. Reflexively, before I leave the house, I go to the refrigerator to verify the supply. It's like checking the fuel level with a dipstick before setting off in a small plane. Must be done.
When I was a kid growing up in New Jersey in the '60s, this concern did not exist. We – along with millions of other Americans – had a milkman who assumed responsibility for my family's supply. His name was Mr. Basille. He wore a white cap, drove a white truck, and was jolly. His most intriguing gloss, for this 5-year-old, was the coin changer hooked to his belt. I couldn't take my eyes from it. He noticed this one day during a delivery and allowed me to depress one of the levers, which led to the discharge of a quarter into my grubby little hand. When I moved to give it back to Mr. Basille, he said, "Keep it. I've got a load of 'em."
Of course, the milkman delivered more than milk. There was cheese, butter, and eggs, and – I can still taste it – chocolate milk. Another boon was that one didn't have to be home to accept delivery. Every porch had a small, insulated, aluminum box which was more than a drop-off point for the goods; it was also a sort of communications junction between my family and Mr. Basille. If we needed to modify our order, my mother would pen a note – "Please add a quart of buttermilk next delivery" – and place it in the box along with the empty bottles. And lo and behold, the buttermilk would magically appear.
All of this was about more than convenience and economy (remember, we didn't have to drive for milk, and those bottles were recyclable). There existed a close relationship between families and their milkmen. Mr. Basille even had a key to our house, for those times when it was so cold outside that we put the milk box indoors, so that the milk wouldn't freeze. And I remember Mr. Basille occasionally taking a break at our kitchen table, having a cup of tea and telling stories about his route, like the one about the kid who was nice but just couldn't keep his hands off his coin changer. I listened with rapt attention until realizing that he was talking about me. But I knew all was well when he winked and finished up his tea with a sigh of deep satisfaction.
Home milk delivery is all but extinct in the United States today. The reason seems to be twofold: one, the appearance of giant dairies allowed the production of cheaper milk, thus making it difficult and eventually impossible for milkmen, who distributed for smaller dairy farms, to compete. And two, milk became ubiquitous. It's for sale everywhere, from supermarkets to bakeries to gas stations. It may just not have been practical for this one product to have a dedicated delivery service.
But pragmatism is cold comfort. In any age when people pay so much money for things they don't need (like 500 cable TV channels and cellphone Internet access), I'll bet they would pay a small premium to be relieved of just one small task – that of ensuring that the fridge is never bereft of a container of ice-cold milk.
Recently, during a trip to the town dump, I saw an old aluminum milk box on the heap. In a fit of nostalgia, I took it home and planted it on the back porch. Every so often one of my son's friends will ask what it is. "A milk box," I tell them, to which one confused lad replied, "What do you do with it?" So I commence my narrative of my boyhood, of life on a residential city street, where anonymity was unknown and there was a cast of interesting and often colorful itinerants: the Good Humor Man, the mailman, the guy who drove the fruit and vegetable truck, and, of course, Mr. Basille the milkman. These familiar faces meant that there were that many more sets of eyes on us kids, helping to keep us on the straight and narrow and threatening to tell our parents if we should ever stray.
Yes, our milkman delivered more than milk and eggs and cheese. He radiated constancy, dependability, and a sense of caring – priceless commodities in any age.