JIM CREES: Everybody needed a skinny kid

A friend of mine recently looked at a house on the market and came back from the excursion all excited over the fact that there was a clothes chute in the home.

“What a great idea,” she gushed.

Indeed.

Little did she know that “back in the day” virtually every home had a clothes chute. Growing up in Detroit, we didn’t call it a clothes chute. My mom called it “the intercom.” It’s how we communicated between upstairs and downstairs.

Mom would go to the clothes chute and yell down to the basement where we had a rec room of sorts, “Get up here for dinner!” We would even request snacks by screaming up the clothes chute and my mom would actually drop stuff down in response.

Very effective… though sometimes messy.

The clothes chute was an important part of the architecture, but not nearly as important as the milk chute.

The milk chute was really, Really, REALLY important.

The milk chute was generally located immediately alongside the back door.

It was roughly six or eight inches wide and 10 to 12 inches high. The chute was lined with — I guess — tin or aluminum… some kind of metal sheeting.

Its purpose was simple. The milkman (Twin Pines in our case) would drive along the street, jump out of the truck with his clinking carrier of milk bottles, open the milk chute from the outside and place the bottles in the recess. Mom or whomsoever would take the bottles out of the chute from the inside and stick ‘em in the fridge.

The transaction was completed in the milk chute as well. There was a form for any special orders — cottage cheese or orange juice — to be left in the chute, and payment was placed there as well.

BUT!!!!!!!! The real importance of the milk chute had virtually nothing to do with milk.

Being located next to the back door, the milk chute allowed access for the back door “key.”

When someone left their keys at home, either by mistake or in our case, on purpose, there was always the milk chute. I say “on purpose” because in my family, we never carried house keys. We had the milk chute.

In many (I’d guess most) Detroit families, there was natural progression of responsibility. Simply put, the skinniest kid in the family was the house key. Either the kid was expected to kinda shimmy through the chute and open the door from inside, or — in our case — my dad would pick up the skinniest kid and feed him through the milk chute, dropping him into the basement stairway landing inside.

If dad wasn’t around to help, the skinniest Crees kid slid through the chute as best possible. (Some people left a milk crate on the ground next to the back door to help in this effort — a foot step, if you will.)

As one kid grew up and became too big to be “the key,” the next kid took on the awesome responsibility.

At some point, all the kids became too big to slide through the milk chute. This was quite a complication.

Believe it or not, my mom, on occasion, asked other moms for the loan of their skinny kid to get into the house. There were six kids next door, so there was a constant supply of back door “keys.” If the neighbor kids were unavailable, mom (and any other mom as well) never hesitated to commandeer a random kid strolling down the sidewalk to open her back door.

This may sound amazing to some, but ask any Detroiter growing up in the 60s and they will verify these facts.

Later, when we were considerably older, I would simply shove my arm through the milk chute and reach around to the back door lock to open it.

Believe it or not, a lot of people simply left their back door keys in the milk chute. I delivered the Detroit News and at a lot of houses put the paper in the milk chute. You’d be surprised at what people left in the chute.

A lot of money… which was never ever touched except by the milkman, meatman, mailman, or newspaper delivery boy — each who knew what the payment was for leaving it in place for the person coming to collect it.

I once found $125 in the milk chute waiting for a guy to deliver a new sofa. The house keys were there, the money was in an envelope, and instructions to the furniture guy on where to move the old sofa.

Incredible if you think about it.

During winter paper deliveries, some nice grandmas would leave a cup of hot cocoa in the milk chute for me.

The milk chute was a vital part of every home in my neighborhood.

If I were calling out my friends and they didn’t hear me, I’d open the milk chute for amplification.

More often than not there would be a shout from the kitchen, “Jimmy Crees, close that milk chute. You scared me to death.”

What an odd world.

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Posted by Jim Crees

Jim is the editor in chief of the Pioneer, Herald Review and Lake County Star. He can be reached by phone at (231) 592-8360 or by e-mail at jcrees@pioneergroup.com.

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