We had new neighbors. Deb and Mary Anne had moved directly across the street, and it appeared they were in the process of cleaning and upgrading Stan and Jean’s 1960s bungalow. I had introduced myself to Deb only a few days before, but on this day a slightly distraught Mary Anne smiled shyly and walked to the edge of her driveway. “Is there any chance you have a spare key to our house?” she said. “I’ve locked myself out, and we only have one key”.
And so I did as one does in these circumstances, and joined Mary Anne in staring at the locked door. I tried the handle. Yep, it was locked all right. As were all the windows. There was no way in. The only exception was a tiny “milk door”. Mary Anne opened the door and I peered in to their kitchen. So near and yet…
In 1950s and ’60s Winnipeg, home milk delivery from local dairies was commonplace, and many houses had built-in milk doors that facilitated the regular transfer of fresh milk to the kitchen. Just high and wide enough for milk men to pick up empty bottles and leave fresh ones, they were too small to get through and consequently were rarely, if ever, locked. They reminded me of ‘30s gangster movies, where someone would give the secret knock, and a door would slide open. Then a quick transfer of cash through the opening, or a secret password exchange. Much to my disappointment, our house on Riel didn’t have one. And this actually presented an unforeseen problem. Milkmen didn’t have the time to knock and wait at every door, so if there was no milk door they’d just knock and leave the milk on the back doorstep. And our doorstep faced south, so if mom didn’t hear the knock, the milk would sit in the sun.
Back in the ’60s, the remedy for this situation was simple. Our door was never locked, so Charlie, our milkman for many years, just knocked, opened the door, and in his distinctly tenor voice yelled “milkman!”. He then proceeded into our kitchen to put the milk on the table, or sometimes directly into the fridge. Problem solved.
For so many reasons, this would never happen in today’s Winnipeg.
As a youngster I often imagined myself wriggling through these doors; a Houdini trick limited to skinny kids like me. In the moment I peered through the door into Mary Anne’s kitchen, I had solved the dilemma.
He was reluctant at first, but when I told him he was our only hope, my then 11-year old son Christian stepped up. In head-first and lowered by the ankles, he unlocked the door in seconds.