The Ice Cream Wars

by

12/26/2021

Neighborhood: Lower East Side, Lower Manhattan

During the summer of 1978 I worked as a Good Humor man. 

I would push a cart from the Good Humor depot, located at 3rd Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue, on the Lower East Side, to Exchange Place in the financial district of lower Manhattan, where I would sell the company’s offerings to traders, office workers, messengers, or anyone passing through. 

It was my first job after graduating from high school and, in its way, a coming of age experience.  

I learned about the blend of monotony, desperation, and obsession that dominates life for so many. And I experienced the abuse those on the lower rungs of society endure on a daily basis, along with the unending conflict and competition that characterizes capitalist society. 

The depot on East 3rd Street has long since closed, and the multitude of flavors I sold – chocolate eclairs, toasted almonds, strawberry shortcakes, raspberry blasts – are distant memories. In this brief memoir, I try to capture this period in New York and the conflicts and anxiety, as I experienced it.

Early June 1978 – First day on the job:  On the wall at the back of the depot is a sign that says, “THEY’RE NOT PEDDLERS. THEY’RE VENDORS!“  

I start on the same day as a man with the last name Niemeth. He is only a little older than me and is overweight, bespectacled, and articulate. We meet Tony, the manager, an elderly Italian man, and are given metal change dispensers, and two blocks each of dry ice and several boxes of ice cream, which we load into our carts. Niemeth and I then begin our trek to the financial district. The heavy summer heat is stifling.  

When we reach Mott Street in Chinatown, a cop with a mustache stops us. “Are you selling here?” he asks us threateningly. “No officer. We are walking further downtown,” Niemeth answers. “Have a nice trip,” the policeman sneers.   

Niemeth, somehow, has a wife a children. He seems to be perpetually down on his luck, bouncing from job to job in a desperate effort to make ends meet. I later begin to think that it is because he does wacky things that get him into trouble. Shortly after we begin working, Tony reprimands Niemeth about the way he is loading his cart. Rather than keeping the different flavors in the separate boxes in which they come, Niemeth empties them all into a pile that resembles a termite mound, mingling the assorted offerings into a disorganized heap. Sometime after finishing my stint at the company, I hear Niemeth was seen selling knishes in lower Manhattan.

I become acquainted with several other vendors. The majority of them are old men who have been peddling ice cream for years. Among them is a tiny man, called Pussycat, who used to sell ice cream outside my middle school during my boyhood. He grunts a lot. As kids we used to take pleasure harassing him, asking for flavors we didn’t really want and distracting him in any way we could. My coworkers also include also a red haired middle-aged Eastern European we conveniently call “Red,” who sells me napkins. There is also a tall odd-looking middle-aged man with a crew cut named Bill. One day when I’m using the urinal in the depot’s restroom, he comes running behind me saying, “Peetah, Peetah …WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” There is also a recent parolee from Sing Sing who always wears shaded sunglasses and seems to glare menacingly at everyone. 

More than anything, the work is characterized by monotony. As a teenager, I can eat several ice cream bars a day without gaining weight. Several customers crack, “You’re eating up your profits.” Another constant refrain, particularly on hot days, is that I must be making a fortune. In fact, I am earning a 28% commission and am lucky when that amounts to the minimum wage. 

I come to conclude that commission work imprisons the mind. All I can think about is money. At the end of each day, the vendors return to the garage and sit around a table where they count their cash, note it in the ledger, and turn it in. The question is always whether you’ve gotten your bagel, which means that you’ve sold $100 worth of ice cream. One day Pussycat, the tiny old man I used to torment as a child, boasts that he got a triple bagel. No one believes him.

Over time I speculate about my customers’ buying habits. It seems like English people often ask for a Toasted Almond, fantasizing that they are biting into something genteel and sophisticated. Wall Street suits order a Chip Candy, dreaming that the chips and “candy” they are chewing is some kind of windfall. Blacks often order Strawberry Shortcake, maybe recalling desserts they ate as children in the Deep South. In fact, there are likely no such patterns, and my stereotyping is largely the work of a bored, immature kid spinning bigoted generalities that he can laugh about with his friends. 

One day the side of a bus swipes my cart as it is turning a corner. It drags the cart, with me in tow for several feet before the driver realizes what has happened and gets out to check on me. Nothing serious. I am not badly injured, and the dent is barely noticeable. Still, buses, like cyclists and pushcart vendors, often hug the curb, and you have to be careful around them.

A few days after I begin working at my spot on Broadway and Exchange Place, a Mister Softee truck parks itself directly across the street from me on the other side of Broadway. My business dries up, and I see lines of customers waiting to buy its concupiscent swirls.

I complain to Tony, our manager, about the truck, and he says, “Don’t worry, it will disappear.”  

A few weeks later, a different Mr. Softee Truck stationed several blocks away does disappear. It blows up, injuring 150 people, some of them critically. Do I know something? Should I go to the authorities? Other Mr. Softee drivers are alleging that competitors bombed the truck.

It is subsequently determined that a 2 1/2 gallon can of gasoline stored inside the truck caught fire, causing a secondary explosion that ruptured the truck’s gas tank. 

After a few weeks on the job, Bruno, an elderly Good Humor man working a couple of blocks from me, starts striking up conversations with me, largely consisting of pleasantries. In due time I learn that his interest is less than paternal. One day he tells me he is going to ask Tony, the manager, to move me to another spot because I’m eating into his sales. I preempt him later that day by telling Keith, the assistant manager, that Bruno is harassing me. He laughs, telling me that Bruno spends all his earnings at the racetrack and assures me he will tell Bruno to lay off. I later hear that Keith indeed speaks to Bruno who yells and screams like there is no tomorrow about the injustice of stationing me in his territory. However, I hear no more from him.

One day, while I’m stationed at my spot, a man who identifies himself as the manager of a nearby building vociferously complains about the ice cream sticks and napkins he is finding outside the building.  He ends his diatribe saying I am nothing but a peddler and he threatens to call the police. I recall the sign posted at the back of the depot, and swelling with pride, I say, “Don’t call me a peddler. I am a vendor!” He seems a bit taken aback by my response, perhaps wondering how the two differ. We go back and forth for some time, and he ends up telling me that he is merely asking me to clean up any wrappers and napkins his tenants have left on the sidewalk, which I agree to do. 

Working the streets of lower Manhattan brings me into contact with all manner of vagrants. One day a man who looks like he’s in no shape to even eat ice cream requests a vanilla pop, and I foolishly give it to him. I tell him that will be 45 cents. He complains that the ice cream is hard and simply walks away without paying, ice cream in hand, triumphantly exclaiming, “I’m keeping it!” On another occasion, a wino approaches me and asks me for a dollar. In a response I later attribute to the heat, fatigue, and an unrealistic view of my own virility, I tell him to get lost or I’ll beat the #@% out of him. He leaves and returns a few minutes later and says that he wants me to know that he’s not afraid of me. Puffing out my chest, I respond that I’m not afraid of him either, and he says he knows I’m not afraid. He then walks away again, saying he’ll kick my ass. The truth is that he outweighs me substantially, and if we tangled, I’d have to rely on my youth, speed and sobriety or I’d be in trouble.    

On another day a group of kids surrounds me, trying to distract me with various requests while they dip their fingers into the cart. A construction worker observing the incident subsequently tells me he saw several of them making off with pops, and hands me a heavy metal cable, urging me to use it the next time I see them. Given the way I used to treat Pussycat when I was a kid, there is some poetic justice in this incident. When the same pack of kids approaches me a few days later, I brandish the cable and they scatter.  

Towards the end of my stint, I am walking my cart down Exchange Alley, an extremely narrow street off of Broadway, that is nonetheless open to car traffic, when a customer runs up requesting a vanilla pop. I stop the cart to serve him, but there is a car behind me that I am blocking. I hold out my hand like a cop, motioning for the car to stop, and serve the customer. As I resume walking down the alley, the car follows closely behind, so closely that it brushes against my legs. It taps me again and then again. It appears that the driver took offense at my signal to stop, and is letting me know it. I manage to move to the side and the car squeezes past me. A teenager sitting in the back, probably the driver’s son, gives me the finger, and the car drives off.  

 “You’re short, kid. You’re short.” The man says it again. He is not referring to my vertical span. I am closing out my account on my last day of work, and Max, the bookkeeper, is taking my inventory. “Okay, okay, you don’t have to rub it in,” I say. It turns out I have eaten a lot of ice cream. Oh well, time to pay for it now. Max lets me slide on $40, classifying the missing boxes as “cripples,” an industry term for ruined product. The rest though is worth well over $100, which means that the ice cream that I gorged on is coming out of my final check, which will be in the single digits.

Despite the tedium and the indignities endured while pushing that heavy cart down the sweltering streets of lower Manhattan, I remember experiencing life more intensely during the summer of 1978 than I have since. Is that nothing more than nostalgia? Or is it simply that tumult and emotion are characteristic of our teenage years? Possibly. But that summer was extraordinary. As an adult, I spent years working as a Field Agent at the National Labor Relations Board running union certification elections at businesses across Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island. In that work I witnessed, at the street level, the rough and tumble of contested labor-management battles and the brutality of unscrupulous employers and crooked unions. In ways that I could only appreciate later, that summer had opened my eyes and helped prepare me for what was to come.

***

Peter Margolies grew up on the Lower East Side during the 60s and 70s and spent his entire career working for the federal government. He has written and recorded several songs and has a blog containing some original philosophy, which he is attempting to compress into a book. 

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§ 6 Responses to “The Ice Cream Wars”

  • Hanna says:

    Peter! What a thoughtful piece, a totally different take on the Good Humor tales I heard from Jacob— and so nicely tied to your life. Thanks for a great morning read

  • Susan T. Landry says:

    i remember well the Good Humor depot on east 3rd, part of the holy trinity — the other two of course being the Hells Angels and the Catholic Workers Maryhouse. in retrospect, Good Humor was indeed the halfway point between heaven & hell. it’s great to get a personal story from the trenches; the carts were so ubiquitous as to become invisible; but as so often is the case with city familiars, these anonymous carts are helmed by armies of real people. i absolutely love bird’s eye views of enterprises such as these. this story supplies all the tiny details that you know lurk within any street business, but rarely do you get to enjoy the reality behind the cheery exterior. thanks for bringing us along for the ride! (i also enjoyed reading the writer’s reveal of having worked for years at the National Labor Relations Board. divine justice.)

  • Thank you both for your kind remarks. They are appreciated.

  • Jeff Loeb says:

    Great read, Peter. Thanks for sharing and crafting your story.

  • TSB says:

    “Shortly after we begin working, Tony reprimands Niemeth about the way he is loading his cart. Rather than keeping the different flavors in the separate boxes in which they come, Niemeth empties them all into a pile that resembles a termite mound, mingling the assorted offerings into a disorganized heap. Sometime after finishing my stint at the company, I hear Niemeth was seen selling knishes in lower Manhattan.”

    Something so utterly brilliant and real about the strangeness of these details – the termite mound, the Knishes, all of it. Something uncanny about it all.

  • Thank you all for your very kind assessments. These incidents had been swirling around my head for decades and it was a relief to get them out.

§ Leave a Reply

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