Springtime. I had just quit my job as an Assistant Manager at one of the city’s finest restaurants. It was a quick and painless decision. Essentially, I believed that I should not have to work under harsh conditions such as fluorescent lighting while having the word “Assistant” in my job title and wearing pantyhose. (Looking back, I see that the latter might have been more tolerable had I had the wherewithal to utilize garters and stockings.)
Now, I was unemployed. This state produces a feeling that is extremely enlightening and exciting for two weeks. I didn’t use an alarm clock. I would drink with my friends late into night. Sometimes, I would get lucky and get to lie in bed all afternoon with boys who didn’t work either. (This was Williamsburg, after all.)
But after a while, I started to notice my rapidly depleting funds. Things like “rent” and “bills” and “food” loomed larger in my mind. So, I began the job search. I would wake every day at the tender hour of 2PM, take a shower, and sit myself down at the dining room table with one peach towel wrapped around my body and another wrapped around my head. I’d smoke cigarettes, make phone calls, and listen to music. I’d try to figure out what kind of job I could live with now. I considered talk show host, advertising copywriter, and circus performer. But apparently you need experience to land those jobs. I pondered the merits of being a rock star over an actress, or an actress over a rock star.
Such thoughts kept me busy for a few days as I was reduced to subsisting on potatoes and broccoli. Sometimes I bought 42-cents worth of thinly sliced turkey and smeared it with mayo. The trick to eating when you’re broke is to not eat for as long as you can after waking. If you get up at 2PM (for example) try to hold off eating until about 6PM. Then, eat again around 11. Voila! Two meals a day.
One morning, while sitting at the kitchen table, it occurred to me to call upon that most common dispenser of information–the dictionary. It had answered so many of my questions in the past; why not that of career choice? After trolling “A” to “F” I was not feeling any more inspired about work prospects (though I did finally answer my long-standing question on how to spell “bacchanalia”).
I put the dictionary down and smoked my way thoughtfully through a few more cigarettes. And on my sideboard, I spotted it: the Brooklyn Yellow Pages. An informational tool chock full of businesses requiring employment. My employment! I eagerly set to scouring it. Acupuncturist? Hmmm. I didn’t want to touch people. Appraiser? I know nothing of fine jewels...yet! (Wink!) Carpet Installation? Sounds a bit boring. Escort? Have to touch people there, too. Keep going. Florist? I love flowers! What a pleasant sounding job. I’ll just earmark that page and come back to it. Hypnotist? Sounds cool, too. I could travel to elementary schools and make 3rd graders bark like dogs. Or help people like myself quit smoking; now there’s a noble pursuit. Another earmark.
I was feeling better already.
And then I flipped to “I”: Ice Cream Dealers. Eureka! It was April, I reasoned; the Joe Kool trucks would soon be setting out for the season. There must be an opportunity there for a dependable driver with a clean license and a clean record. Not just someone to dole out ice cream, but a mentor with a ready smile. A friend to the kids. An idol, really. I pictured children running towards the Pied Piper chiming of my bells. Yes. This was it.
I picked up the phone and set to work making cold calls (no pun intended). Some places were ice cream dealers who only made shipments to parlors and groceries. I asked for help. Were they aware of any Ice Cream Truck businesses? I got names and numbers. Finally, I reached the proprietor of an ice cream truck garage.
“I want to be an ice cream man!” I announced triumphantly. “Who I do need to talk to?” There was a phlegmy chuckle on the other end of the line, then a reply in a thick Russian accent.
Yes, own truck. Yes, needs driven. You work good?
Sir, I am the very best worker in the world.
You want job?
OK. We meet. Maybe I like you. Then you paint truck. I show you work. Then it’s good.
Oh yes. It’s very good.
I met my boss-to-be the next day. He was older. Curt and ingenuous. He was wary, but warmed up to me quickly given my easy-going nature and adorable countenance that practically screamed, “You want this ice cream. Trust me.”
OK, lady. I like.
My new boss took me to Home Depot to get supplies. I needed to paint the truck as every ice cream man does at the beginning of the season.
“Your truck will be the prettiest,” I promised him. “I can paint. I’m an ARTIST. I live in WILLIAMSBURG.”
I painted my truck for two days. Perfect lines. Red, white and blue–the American Dream trifecta. A Bomb Pop on wheels. I received stickers with pictures of the ice cream bars that I was to sell. These I placed carefully around the service window. So many more choices than when I was little; I gazed upon them with awe and respect.
After a day of waiting for the paint to dry, I was anxious to hit the streets. I arrived at the warehouse the next morning and filled out an ice cream order with my boss who helped me stock my truck with frozen confections. I was also given a notebook in which to write down how much ice cream I bought and sold each day. I would receive a 25% commission on what I sold or a 30% commission if I bought the gas myself. I opted for the 30%, figuring I’d get the 411 on affordable petrol in the hood. I would need to meet with my boss once a week at his office in Brighton Beach to give him his profits and show him the notebook.
Next, I learned my turf. Every ice cream driver has a section and a permit for that section only. I learned about Kings Highway. What side of the park I could cruise. Schools to hit up at 2:30PM. Why to avoid Hasidic neighborhoods on the Sabbath. I drank in this new knowledge with a hopeful heart for the first time in so long.
My first day on the job. I’d been driving around for a few hours, learning the streets and ringing my bell. No bites yet, but kids were still in school and it was 63 degrees out and sunny. I was patient. At last I saw a walking jackpot: six kids with a basketball on Ave Y. I cruised over and came to a stop. Dangling my torso out the window, I slapped my hands together.
“What’s up shorties! Who wants what?”
Questions flew at me:
“Who are you?”
“Are you our Ice Cream Man?”
“Hey, you’re a girl! Why are you driving a Joe Kool truck?”
“Where’s our other Ice Cream Man?”
“I killed him,” I said. “This is my truck now.”
There was silence for a moment. Then explosions of: “Cool!”; “No you di’nt!”; “Oh, man!”
“Do you live in that truck?” one excited seven-year-old asked.
“Of course!” I tell her. “I got ice cream beer in here. Ice cream soup. Ice cream hot dogs. I got it all.”
They loved me. I could see it in their eyes. This was the new era of the Ice Cream Man. I got them their treats. Asked them their names. Told them mine.
“You’re nice,” one boy said. “The other ice cream man was always yelling at us to hurry up.”
“Yeah, well. That’s why I killed him.”
They ate it up equally, the ice cream and my kidding. I wanted to stay and talk to them, but knew there were many more children in the turf who needed ice cream. I had to be fair.
“See ya tomorrow, guys!”
“Yea! See ya tomorrow Ice Cream Lady Lola!”
Being an Ice Cream Man had its kickbacks. The biggest, naturally, was free ice cream. Every day, I would bring to work a small cooler filled with my homemade lunch. On the way home it held Bomb Pops, Chipwiches, Strawberry Shortcakes, and Neapolitan sandwiches. There was nothing like coming home, kicking back in front of the TV, and popping the cooler.
Ice Cream Men do not get a day off unless it’s raining. Noon to midnight, seven days a week. It’s a long day, but since you are essentially your own boss, I could come and go as I pleased. That was a nice advantage. I would roll down to work around noon in my 82′ American Eagle hatchback with its cow-print seat covers, blasting Motley Crue and soaking up the city. Now this was the kind of job I could learn to love.
And then there were the kids. Consistency equals regular customers in the ice cream business, and my kids knew where to find me. Packs of them would wait for me. Stoops of screaming kids hurling themselves toward my truck. Jumping, dancing, skipping, yelling. Making up songs about me: “Ice cream lady Lola’s here! Lola’s here with her ice cream beer! No more tears when Lola’s here!”
They’d surround the truck hollering to mothers seated in windowsills to please give me some money. They’d beg me to wait as they ran to the house to procure funds: “I’ll be RIGHT BACK, Lola! Don’t leave!”
I’d cut the engine and hang as long as I could. Sometimes I’d allow one or two kids in the truck to help me and to go for a spin to the next block. They’d sell the ice cream for me and I’d pay them in iced booty. This got so popular that I had to create a schedule: “No, Daniela, you’re next Tuesday. Anthony, you and your brother come tomorrow.”
Among the regulars, I definitely had my favorites. On West 3rd, there was Gennaidy–the pint-sized Russian kid who cursed like a sailor–and his best friend, Timothy, a sweetly rotund Chinese boy. On West 1st, there was Nicholas, a quick-talking Romeo in the making. And on the south side of the park was Stan the Man, future prom king. All of them would come running from a block away when they heard my bells ringing.
One Sunday in early June, I brought my friend, Nick, visiting from Oregon, on my route. I had been regaling him with stories of my new career and he was anxious to accompany me.
It was a slow and lazy day. I drove and Nick worked the window. When we rolled up to West 3rd, I was surprised to find the block empty. Gennaidy and Timothy always waited for me. Puzzled, I pulled up, rang my bells, and even called out their names. A minute later, they materialized from Timothy’s backyard.
“Why weren’t you waiting for me?” I admonished with mock upset.
“What’s up sucka?” Gennaidy said. “We was chillin’ with Timothy’s family. They’re all, like, off the boat.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
Timothy explained politely: “My parents are having a barbecue. The whole family’s here. Come on back. We’re having crab legs.”
Nick and I looked at each other, eyes wide, and grinned.
“Sure,” I said. “We’ll say ‘Hi.’ You guys watch the truck. And don’t steal anything!”
I had met Timothy’s parents before; they were always in the front yard landscaping things and giving friendly waves to the passers by. As Nick and I made our way to the back yard to find a family party of over 20 relatives, Timothy’s mother greeted us: “Welcome, Timothy’s ice cream friends! Sit and eat!”
Timothy’s parents were the only ones in the group who spoke conversational English, but the rest of the family smiled and waved and made room at the picnic tables. Plates were set before us. Quickly they filled with mountains of grilled crab legs and giant prawns from the South China Sea. Someone opened up a cooler of Heineken and offered it around. Nick accepted lustily. The designated ice cream truck driver, I could only look on and sigh.
As Nick and I basked in our good fortune, the family resumed their party. They talked and laughed, pantomiming for us on occasion. We had no idea what the stories were about, but we always tried to laugh at the punch line. We ate three or four platefuls of sweet crab, rubbing our bellies and enjoying the afternoon sun on our faces. Every 20 minutes or so, Timothy or Gennaidy would come and give us an update on the truck.
After an hour and four plates of food each, it was time to get back on the road. We walked back to the truck where I grabbed two-dozen ice cream bars. These I brought to the backyard. I laid them on the table, put my palms together, and bowed: “Thank you so much! Ice cream for everybody!”
Wallets and bills were out in a flash, but I refused.
“No, I can’t accept any payment. You fed us too well! Please. Take these.”
There was a wave of dissent and shaking heads.
“You shouldn’t refuse them,” Timothy warned. “They won’t give up.”
I had to resort to walking backwards to my truck, hands in front of me: “No, no!” I repeated. “Please. This is for your hospitality!”
I started up the truck and let her run for a minute. As we were pulling away, Timothy and Gennaidy loped up to the window and demanded a ride to the next block. We drove over to West 2nd. As we let them off, Timothy turned back, giggling, and threw two crumpled 20 dollar bills into the window.
“Ha ha! That’s from my parents!” he yelled as they ran off.
Unfortunately, days like this were short lived.
Back at the warehouse, the other Ice Cream Men treated me indifferently or with scorn. I was the only American on the job–not to mention the only woman. I was also very popular with the customers. Rumors circulated that kids were crossing King’s Highway to get their ice cream specifically from me. This did not sit well with my fellow vendors.
They began sabotaging my truck.
Every night, we would pull the trucks into the warehouse and plug the cords into the freezer to keep it cold overnight. On a few occasions, in my second month, I would arrive to start my shift and see my cord unplugged from my freezer. I asked Vincent, the warehouse mechanic, what I should do. He helped me rig my cord so that it was locked inside the door of my truck. But that didn’t deter my vandals.
One afternoon, I came into work a few hours later than usual. The warehouse was empty. I stocked my truck, opened the windows, and settled into the driver’s seat. As I started pulling out, I looked ahead to see if I was rolling steady. It was then that I saw a freezer cord dragging along with me, its line almost taut. I threw the truck into park and jumped out, figuring the cord had caught on my bumper. I walked around to the front, dropped to the floor, and surveyed the underside. I was dumbstruck. The plug had been wrapped several times around my rear wheel axle. Immediately, I yelled for Vincent.
“Vincent, look at this! What’s the deal?”
He kneeled to the floor and craned his neck.
“Ooh, man! You been sabotaged again!”
“But why wrap the cord around my axle?”
“Lola. Baby. Those cords have, like, 2000 watts of electricity. If the cord had snapped . . . the entire truck is metal . . . You would’ve gotten zapped, kid.”
“‘Zapped’? As in, electrocuted?”
“Yea, man. They fuckin’ with you now.”
“Vincent,” I cried. “We’re Ice Cream Men. We’re supposed to have honor. This is crazy!”
Vincent shook his head. I looked at my truck and thought for a minute. My decision was quick.
“Shit, Vin. I ain’t gonna die over a couple of Chipwiches. I’m out.”
With dejection I watched as Vincent untangled the cord from around the axle and threw it against the wall. I climbed into my perfect red, white, and blue truck for the last time. I pulled forward to park it, got out, locked up, and handed Vincent the keys.
“Tell Russian Boss Guy what happened,” I said. “Tell him that I was unfairly targeted.”
“And tell the new driver to watch Gennaidy’s language and to buy him a slice of pizza when his mom forgets to give him lunch money. Tell him that I got a new shipment of Chocolate Eclairs for Stan The Man at the park. Oh, and Melissa’s birthday is next Thursday. Make sure she gets a Sailor Moon pop. And . . .”
Vincent just looked at me sadly.
“Tell them I said goodbye.”