Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War


War is declared between the truckers and the pushcart vendors…and it looks like the pushcarts are winning.

Written in 1964 but with a framing story set in 1986, reporting on events that supposedly took place in 1976, this is an amusing story for kids in grade school about how the “little guy” can sometimes at least fight the powers that be to a draw. Traffic in New York City had been getting worse and worse leading up to the events that begin this book: trucks were getting larger and more numerous to the point of rendering even New York cabbies uneasy. The pushcart vendors and even the pedestrians are getting nervous, but it isn’t until the hot and sticky summer of 1976 that the war begins. Trucks start “accidentally” nudging pushcarts out of their way, damaging the carts in the process but it isn’t until Morris the Florist refuses to move his pushcart out of the way of Albert Mack, who needs to deliver a truckload of piano stools, that the pushcart vendors realize that there IS a war. Moe Mammoth of Mammoth Moving, Walter Sweet of Tiger Trucking and Louie Livergreen of LEMA (Lower Eastside Moving Association) have held a secret meeting and decided that Something Must Be Done about those pesky pushcarts clogging the streets so terribly badly. Unfortunately, the pesky pushcart vendors turn the tables on the truckers with a simple child’s tool: a pea shooter.

Specifically, a pea shooter equipped to handle peas with pins stuck through them, just long enough to flatten a truck’s tire. 18,991 flat tires later, the traffic congestion has eased considerably, especially after the city passes and enforces an ordinance that fines a truck driver $5001 for leaving his stalled truck in the middle of the road. This first phase ends, at least from the pushcart vendors’ perspective, when Frank the Flower is caught winding up with a pea shooter, and is taken into the police precinct where he confesses to ALL the flattened tires. As the police assume they’ve got the one peashooter in custody, the remaining 500 odd vendors must stop their “pea pin” activity or put the lie to Frank’s own lie made in order to protect them….fortunately for the traffic flow of Manhattan, the children take up the slack gleefully.

Between the vendors and the children, enough of the truck traffic congesting Manhattan has been cleared up that people can enjoy themselves again, and even getting clipped by one of the cabbies leads to true love. Not even a Tacks Tax and a raid on Posey’s Peas serve to end the euphoria; it isn’t until the truckers plot to kidnap Maxie Hammerman the Pushcart King after a raid on his shop fails to lead to his permanent detention that something more must be done. The three heads of the trucking companies only lose their month’s profits in a poker game with Maxie and the chief of police when they arrive to talk sense into him. A truce ordered by the mayor results only in pushcarts being “accidentally” damaged by trucks. At last the pushcarts arrange a Peace March; all 500 will march along three main arteries, blocking them completely…and it might have worked if Alfred Mack hadn’t found himself facing down one-third of 500 pushcarts coming the wrong way down a one way street. He rammed through the line, jumped a curb and into a cafeteria opposite. Political machinations worthy of a Daly ensue, and the pushcarts have their licenses revoked. This results in bags of letters to the editors about the lack of pushcarts after the licenses are revoked, but it isn’t until the Battle of Bleeker Street results in a considerable number of New Yorkers expressing their opinions of truckers with the contents of a streetful of fruit and vegetable vending carts that the mayor realizes pushcarts are a force to be reckoned with.

He, Maxie Hammerman and the three heads of the trucking company sit down together to negotiate the “Courtesy act” restricting the size of trucks on the streets of New York, among other things, an edict which survived to “today.”

Fifty years on, The Pushcart War is a bit outdated, true, and in the fifty years since the book was published, a few things have changed for the better, but the basic plot device in this book still might hold true: New York City traffic is still bad (second only to Los Angeles) but there aren’t quite so many pushcarts around as there were in the early ’60s and they’re still a viable way to get your lunch. As a kid I missed a lot of the lesser jokes, such as all the trucks’ cargoes begin with p, ranging from piano stools and popcorn makers to punch bowls and, of course, the all important peas and pins.

There’s a point to this book, and Merrill is absolutely clear about that, but even if the moralizing were removed, this would still be an entertaining afternoon’s read.

1$3,600 today, allowing for inflation

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