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LAURENT D'ENTREMONT: Remembering when traveling salesmen came door to door

Laurent d'Entremont.
Laurent d'Entremont. - TINA COMEU PHOTO

WEST PUBNICO, N.S. – Like I wrote many times before, the world during my childhood days was totally different than what it is today.

Everybody was poor; at least money-wise. There were other riches but everybody was equally poor.

My grandfather was a poor lobster fisherman in the days before fishing brought prosperity to many coastal villages. My grandparents lived across the road and I visited every day.

My grandmother led a busy life and had worked in lobster canning factories as a young girl. The most important thing to my grandmother was her life as a homemaker and her family. Her house was always kept scrupulously clean, as if she was expecting the king of England and the Pope on the same day.

At that time travelling salesmen selling dry goods came door-to-door. The best remembered would be Dick Pothier from Wedgeport, who had started out in the early days on a bicycle, and Norman Nelson, who sold Red Ball rubber boots and waterproof clothing to fishermen. The joke was that every newborn baby looked either like Winston Churchill or Norman Nelson.

There were other salesmen, like Danny Star for example, but let there be no doubt about it, Max Star was the all-time favourite when I was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s.

My grandfather remembered the olden days when Max Star started coming to Pubnico with a horse and wagon. He often said that no man was tougher in cold weather than old Max and that he was as strong as an ox.

Many will remember Max Star (1889-1967) with his old 1938 Plymouth sedan. The car was loaded with clothing to the roof, only leaving room for the driver behind the steering wheel.

Max Star was from the “old country” and spoke with a thick accent. He smoked home-made cigarettes with the lit butt glued to his lower lip. He usually wore a heavy overcoat and a flat cap with a clip on the front. In the winter his flat cap was made of leather.

The dry goods salesman left his aging Plymouth at the road and walked to the houses. He had to since he only could see straight ahead to drive; he never would have been able to back out of a driveway with zero visibility.

Normally my grandmother would have felt ill at ease speaking English but not with Max Star – after all he had been coming to Pubnico since the beginning of time.

Everybody loved the good-natured “peddler.” He was welcome in all homes, besides his English was no better than hers, as they were both speaking in their second language.

The legendary salesman played his role well, knew how to entertain and make small talk. All the women were “Mrs. De-an-tre-mont” (not an easy word to pronounce for some). He would ask if the baby was walking yet. How were the men doing at fishing? When money was tight, as it often was, he would let them have things on “tick” and they would pay him next time. It would almost – only almost – be a sure bet that he always got paid. Star was much more than a salesman. After most of a lifetime on the road and welcomed in every home, he was more or less family.

It was in this setting that he found my grandmother weeding her flower garden in front of the house. Old Max, who had no use for the letter “W”, said, “vell, vell, Mrs. De-an-tre-mont, that yellow flower in your garden is the biggest buttercup I ‘ave ever seen.” My grandmother explained to him that it was not a buttercup but rather a chrysanthemum.

“Vel, vel,” the salesman said, “I never heard that ‘vord before, how do you spell it, are you sure it’s not a buttercup? My grandmother said, “It is spelled K-r-i, or is it C-r-i? Or is it K-r-y? Oh well Mr. Star, perhaps it is a buttercup after all.”

Likely it did not happen exactly like that but a good story nonetheless.

laudent@hotmail.com

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