Photo by Anthony Catalano
The week before my high school graduation, I wandered into the Good Humor ice cream garage on East 3rd Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue, just a block from my apartment. I was looking for a summer job. A friend of the family, a college kid named Keith, was working the books there, and he took me in to see the manager, Tony Puma. Keith said to me, “Meet Tony Puma, the emperor of ice cream.” The emperor was an elderly rough-hewn fellow. The men, they were all men, who worked for him selling ice cream seemed on average to be 40 years older than me. Many of them, I would come to learn, lived in flop houses on the Bowery and had drinking and gambling problems. Keith promised Mr. Puma that I was trustworthy and assured him that I would not disappear with the day’s take after a short time on the job. This apparently was a problem with some of the Good Humor workers. After asking me where I lived and went to school, and satisfying himself that I wouldn’t make too much trouble, Puma hired me.
In the morning, after punching in on the time clock, all the Good Humor men would go to the freezer room and order one or two boxes of each of the different flavors. Toasted Almond, Coconut, Strawberry Shortcake, Chocolate Éclair, Candy Center Crunch, Vanilla Bar, Ice Cream Sandwich, the King Cone and various popsicles. The ice cream cart had two doors that opened from the top, and I’d arrange the day’s supply, putting the ice cream on one side and popsicles on the other. In the middle of the cart was a rectangular area for a large block of dry ice that was provided by the freezer man. I’d grab the two ends of the smoking block with pieces of cardboard from the ripped-open boxes of ice cream. If I wasn’t careful and the slab or the cardboard slipped, the smoking ice would burn me. All that summer I had welts and sores on my hands and arms.
The spot in the garage adjacent to mine belonged to Willie Flynn. He told me he had been selling ice cream every summer for 25 years. As he loaded his cart, Flynn, who was a good 100 pounds overweight, would leave his shirt unbuttoned exposing mounds of fat that cascaded over his unbuckled pants. Each morning, squinting through the thick lenses of the large black plastic eye-glass frames that dominated his square box of a face, Willie would ask me the same question. “You been getting laid lately?” Every two or three days, Willie would ask me, “You want to buy a cock stretcher?” I’d usually ignore his questions, but years later I would sometimes wonder what exactly a cock stretcher was and why Willie Flynn might have been selling them. On Mondays I would purchase a pack of napkins from Willie for 50 cents. Every Friday, he’d ask me, “Who do you like in the fifth today?” and toss me his copy of the Racing Form. I’d run down the page, take a stab with my finger and announce Silver Shadow or Day Breeze or Strong and Sturdy, depending on where my finger landed. This was the extent of my conversations with Willie Flynn.
Sam, another ice-cream man, told me that Willie lived in a three-dollar-a-day room in a Bowery hotel. Unlike Willie, it was possible to have an actual conversation with Sam. Until his sister let him move into her place, Sammy had lived in Willie’s flophouse.
I wasn’t unaware of the existence of the flophouses and shelters scattered throughout the neighborhood. Every day after leaving the Good Humor garage, I’d start walking west and just one block over, I’d be pushing my cart past the Third Street Men’s Shelter, a 7-story brick building that looked like a hospital and took up much of the block between 2nd Avenue and the Bowery. It served meals to over 5,000 men a day and provided beds for many of them. The Men’s Shelter was run by the city. In addition to providing food and dormitory boarding, it also served as the central check-in for all the other municipal shelters. The homeless men who didn’t fit into the Third Street Shelter would be transported in yellow school buses to other city-owned armories and other makeshift dormitories. So the block was flooded with pungent destitute men, many of them in various states of intoxication
The Men’s Shelter was too big and rough for Willie Flynn. Even in the world of skid-row bums and winos, as these men were called by nearly everyone, blacks and whites separated themselves. The blacks were mainly in the city shelters and the white guys gravitated to the Bowery flophouses. As Sammy explained to me without any elaboration, the Men’s Shelter was not a good place for a fat old drunk white man.
So Willy, Sammy and several other Good Humor men had lodgings in the flops just around the corner on the Bowery. Between 4th Street and Canal, there was the Palace, the Comet, the Crystal, the Providence, the White House, the Prince, La Paloma, the Grand, the Andrews, the Majestic, the Uncle Sam, the Confidence, the Sunshine, the World, and many others. According to Sammy, the set-up was similar at each hotel. For three bucks at the Sunshine, which was where Flynn stayed, you got a cubicle that just barely fit a bed and locker. The ceiling was chicken wire. There were bed bugs. But you had your own room where you could drink in relative privacy.
There were also several church mission shelters on the Bowery, the largest being run by the Salvation Army. But the mission shelters afforded little privacy and its residents were subjected to frequent harangues about Jesus Christ, sin and redemption. “The Holy Rollers, they don’t let you alone once they got you,” Sammy told me.
I’d walked by those flops thousands of times, but until that summer had never thought much about the men who lived there. In the winter on especially cold nights there would be trash-can fires lining the Bowery that drinkers gathered around to stay warm. Cheap red wine seemed the beverage of choice. Thunderbird, Ripple, Night Train Express. I’d so often stepped over and around the empty bottles and pieces of broken green glass littering the sidewalks that I didn’t even think about it. For years, from the times I was a little boy, I’d ignored the red-faced men with outstretched hands who regularly beseeched me for a quarter. Until meeting Willie and Sammy, I’d never really thought about the Bowery’s wounded denizens.
Like most any block on the Lower East Side in 1978, East 3rd Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue had its own distinct character. There was an Italian butcher shop, a bodega outside of which Puerto Rican men played dominoes, and, on the northeast corner, a large store that sold boots, jeans, socks and shirts for working men. But it was mainly a residential block of five and six story walk-up tenements. Nearly all the buildings had external fire escapes, although there were also a couple of townhouses. At 55 East Third Street was the Catholic Worker building, known as Maryhouse, which until 1974 had been a music school settlement house that taught poor immigrant children. By the summer I worked at Good Humor, the music school had been taken over by Dorothy Day and her anarchist compatriots and transformed into a house of hospitality that provided beds and meals for women. Unlike the Men’s Shelter, a block to the west, it was a dignified and civilized place. Day’s saintly followers also put out a radical newspaper that agitated for social justice, which my father read regularly. I was only inside the building once, wandering in with a friend going to meet his cousin who spent time there ladling out soup. The cousin had bad skin and was from Buffalo. The soup was terrible, but the place was less glum than I would have expected. No armed guards, no preaching, no uniforms, and all the volunteers were exceedingly polite.
About a hundred yards to the east, on the same side of the street as the Catholic Worker, just past the Good Humor garage was the Hells Angels motorcycle gang’s headquarters. The white bikers on that street had always seemed a bit out of place to me, but the Hells Angels had been there going back to the 1960s. Every day on returning to the garage, I’d push my ice-cream cart past their collection of Harleys. A handful of the gang would usually be seated on a bench outside. Even in the heavy heat of a New York summer, they’d be outfitted in denim jackets and leather vests decorated with all kinds of patches. The most noticeable of them was a huge hairy guy named Big Vinnie. He had a full beard, was heavily tattooed and often wore leather gloves with metal studs sticking out of them that went halfway up to his elbows. I’d been told he’d been arrested on a murder charge the previous summer for throwing a woman off the roof of their headquarters and that he was out on bail awaiting trial. The rest of the Angels were considerably less ostentatious.
The Hells Angels had guard dogs, a couple of German Shepherds and at least one pit bull. That summer one of the dogs tore up my pants leg as I was walking past their building on my way home at 4:00 in the morning after a night at a disco. But Big Vinnie had yelled at the dog to leave me alone, and thankfully it complied. That incident was unusual. Generally the Angels kept to themselves.
The Fourth of July was always a big day for the Hells Angels and that summer was no exception. They hung a huge American flag that stretched from the south side of the street to the north, barbecued meat on a sidewalk grill, and shot off thunderous fireworks all day long. The first week of July was loud throughout the neighborhood. Back then kids could buy almost any kind of fireworks in Chinatown and there were block parties everywhere. But the Hells Angels were particularly enthusiastic. One year their patriotic exuberance resulted in a building catching fire and burning down, and later on I heard about a 14-year-old kid killed on the block on a July 4th when a metal drum filled with explosives ignited.
So the Angels weren’t entirely harmless. Still I didn’t pay them much mind. Some residents on the block felt they were friendly enough and that in fact they helped keep the block safe. Except for the Independence Day celebrations and their dogs, they didn’t bother me. One thing I can say with certainty is that not a single one of them bought an ice cream bar from me that entire summer.
A Good Humor man knows. It took a while before I figured it out, but after a couple of weeks I could spot customers from half a block away and know what they were going to order. That black guy in the suit, Strawberry Shortcake. Puerto Rican bike messenger, Coconut. NYU college girl, Toasted Almond. The elderly-bent over Chinese lady carrying plastic bags, Creasmsicle. A pinstriped fellow coming out of Citibank, Candy Center Crunch.
It really wasn’t bad for a summer job. On a good day I could clear forty bucks, which was a lot of money back then. I was outdoors and didn’t have a boss constantly on my back. Pushing my cart, two miles to my spot and two miles back, wasn’t bad exercise. The temptation to eat several toasted almonds over the course of a long afternoon often proved irresistible. I consumed a lot of ice cream that summer.
Towards the end of the summer, I encountered a collision of the little worlds of East 3rd Street. After returning to the garage in the early evening, counting my money and wrapping it in a rubber band along with a form reporting how much I’d sold that day, and putting it all in an envelope which I handed to Tony Puma, I walked outside into the twilight. There was a drunk from the Men’s Shelter stumbling down the street, stopping in front of the row of Harleys, mumbling something and then gently stroking the seat of one of the bikes. Then two Angels moving faster than I’d have guessed possible knocked the bum down and began kicking him in the head and the stomach. After watching this for a few seconds, I heard myself yelling, “That’s enough, that’s enough!” And then there was another guy in my face, his spittle flying, yelling something I couldn’t understand except for, “You want to get involved?”
Looking back at the Good Humor garage, I saw Willie Flynn standing in the garage doorway looking at me and shaking his head as if to say, “No kid, don’t get involved. There’s nothing you can do.” The guy in my face kept yelling, “You want some, you want some,” as the other two kicked the man on the ground. Blood was coming out of his head. Deciding that I didn’t want some, I turned around and started walking home. Half a block away, there was a parked cop car and I ran up to tell the officer sitting in the driver’s seat what I had just seen. The cop, who looked like a kid, told me, “O.K. we’ll check it out as soon as my partner gets back from the corner grocery.” I mumbled in an embarrassed way, since maybe he didn’t understand that they’re kicking this guy right now. Then the cop looked at me funny and said a little louder than before, “I heard you the first time.”
The next day I went to work as if nothing at all unusual had happened.
Jacob Margolies is a writer and lawyer living in Brooklyn. He is the General Counsel for America at The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest media company.