My Life as a Small Boy, Eating Ice Cream
By David Hartley Mark
“Let be be finale of seem.
“The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.”
--Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice Cream”
I grew up in a time and place when ice cream was neither as common nor easy to find as it is today. We did not have the vast array of “super-premium flavors” or ice cream parlors competing for our calorie counts or pocketbooks. Ice cream was a simpler treat; for me, it was a daily reward. Every weekday, after the East Side Torah Center, the Hebrew Day School I attended from kindergarten through 8th Grade, dismissed at 3:30 pm, my mother, who taught there, took me around the corner to Gilbert’s Pharmacy, which was an old-fashioned, dark-cornered emporium packed full of treasures.
Gilbert’s was not only a pharmacy—we never got prescriptions there—but it had an entire selection of penny candies, a freezer full of ice cream confections on sticks, and wonderful shelves of cheap toys: metal airplanes that shot sparks out of their tails, toy cars, trucks, and tanks, dolls that went “Mama” when you punched their tummies, decks of playing cards, children’s board games, craft sets, puzzles, and more.
There, I could buy a bag of blue and grey plastic soldiers, one cannon included, for just one dollar, or a plastic ship’s model to build with airplane glue. The glue was a restricted material, I recall, and the clerk—his name was not Gilbert; I don’t believe he had a name—would not sell me more than one tube at a time. In fact, if I came in alone, I had to bring a note signed by my mother, in order to purchase the tube, which cost a dime. Those were the days when J.D.’s, our term for juvenile delinquents—a wayward child or teenager of the sort we young Jewish children most certainly were not—were likely to take a bunch of tubes of glue, squirt them ‘til empty into a brown paper bag, and snort the contents until they became “high” on the fumes. We knew well enough not to do such a foolishly dangerous act; it would destroy our precious brains, and our parents required us all to take our brains to college one day. They had to remain intact and in good working order.
But, the ice cream: that was important. For a single, thin dime, I could buy a favorite—and there were so many from which to choose: I could get an ice cream cone, always vanilla, wrapped up in paper, with a cardboard top, specially designed to protect the ice cream, though the cone itself would always have become soft and pliable from being wrapped-up in the paper, hardly the crisp and crunchy type one could buy from an actual ice cream store.
We had no such stores in the immediate neighborhood, and anyway, the rabbis probably would not have considered them kosher. There was always some sort of issue with the gelatin, which certainly would have been manufactured from the hooves or bones of animals which were not slaughtered properly, in the kosher manner. Keeping kosher was simply one of those things we did. We were Orthodox Jews; we did not question the why or wherefore; we simply followed whatever laws the Torah doled out to us, as interpreted by our rabbis. And, whenever in doubt, the answer was probably “No.”
For this reason, our school principal and synagogue rabbi, Rabbi Nunberg, required that all school lunches we brought from our homes had to be dairy. He supposed that all of our mothers’ kitchens were being kept kosher, but he was a realist, and dairy was the safest compromise when one doubted the kashrut of others. Since my sister Pearl attended public school and could bring whatever she wanted for lunch, she often got kosher baloney, which I adored but could not have in school. On those rarest occasions when we grabbed the wrong bag from the fridge and accidentally switched lunches, my classroom rabbi, Rabbi Rifstein, ruled that I was to eat alone in the chapel while my friends ate communally in the lunchroom. This didn’t bother me; I could savor the baloney longer, and enjoy a book, rather than participate in my friends’ inane conversation. They often discussed sports; I didn’t care for sports. I preferred to read.
As for the ice cream cone, that was just one of my choices from the freezer case in Gilbert’s Pharmacy: there was also the vanilla pop, encased in its thin shell of chocolate, which I had to lick carefully, lest the chocolate all crack and fall off, thereby necessitating my quickly wolfing it down, hardly enjoying it, then. There was also a variant of the pop, known as the “Cho-Cho Bar,” named for the solemn-looking polka-dotted clown on the wrapper (I didn’t care for clowns, and tore off and discarded the wrapper as soon as I left the store), and whose ice cream had a malted-milk flavor, tasting more exotic than plain vanilla.
Beyond Gilbert’s, ice cream opportunities in the neighborhood were slim. In those days, buying ice cream from the supermarket was an uncommon thing; we rarely kept it in the house. I don’t believe it was as readily available as it is today, and certainly not as tasty. But in the spring and summer, the Good Humor Man and the Bungalow Bar truck were fixtures in our neighborhood. It was always magical to hear the Bungalow Bar truck coming down Grand St., and we kids would come running when we saw it: the truck resembled an actual bungalow, a white truck with its roof covered with faux brown shingles, curving up at the end, like a fairytale cottage. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the ice cream choices, though: I believe it was mostly vanilla pops and ices.
For sheer exoticity of choices, one had only to wait for the Good Humor Man. Our local functionary was named Hymie; that was the only name he had: just Hymie. He was a bit chubby, but not in a jolly sort of way. I suppose he liked children well enough, and he was patient enough to deal with us small people, but he was no Santa Claus type. We knew him to be Jewish—everyone in our immediate neighborhood was Jewish—but that was all. He would reach deep down into the hand-cart labeled GOOD HUMOR on the side, and magically extract whatever treat a child desired, and it only cost a quarter.
Hymie also had a scar on one cheek, starting right below his eye, and ending at the corner of his mouth. This gave him a sort of dangerous, yet exotic look, like a pirate playing the part of an ice-cream man. He never spoke of it; he rarely spoke at all, and so we never learned how he got the scar. Obviously, we made up all sorts of tales about its origins: Hymie the pirate chief; Hymie the romantic lover, defending his girl against an army of miscreants by throwing ice-cream pops at them, ninja-style. We could go on for hours with our Tales of Hymie’s Exploits.
The only person not impressed by Hymie’s talents or his scar was my Nana, of course. She loved all of us, her darling grandchildren, but lacked patience in dealing with our desires and personality quirks. Nana was a no-nonsense sort, and considered us to be, not children, really, but Miniature Adults, and treated us as such. I recall one afternoon when she was babysitting me; it was a balmy, early-springtime, perfect New York day, and we hurried out of the courtyard between the buildings—we never called it the courtyard; we called it, simply, “Between the Buildings”—and Hymie appeared, in his customary street position, near the Grand St. mailbox.
I stood and studied the pictures of the various products on the side of the Good Humor wagon, while Nana waited for what seemed to her to be a Long Time. She waited; I kept deciding. When, in her judgment, I took too long in making my ice cream selection—I recall it was the Choice of a Lifetime (or so it seemed to me) between a Strawberry Shortcake and a Chocolate Éclair (or was it the Chocolate Candy Bar, which had a piece of genuine chocolate sandwiched in the middle, an extra treat after licking off all the layers of vanilla ice cream and chocolate cake-crumbs?), Nana finally turned to me and asked, a bit crossly, “Can’t you just get a vanilla pop?” Which was all well and good, since that was probably the only choice you could buy, back in her day—if they even had ice cream available off street carts, ‘way back when she was a youngster. I could not, absolutely, even conceive of Nana as a little girl. It seemed as though she had always been just Nana: grown-up, straightforward, and hardly one to suffer fools, or vacillating grandsons, gladly.
In the end, of course, I got my ice cream, and we walked off, my holding it in one hand, contentedly licking, the other hand grasping hers, tightly. Nana and I always got along; she was happy that I read so much, and encouraged my questions, even when she couldn’t answer them.
As for Hymie, he, background, scar, and all, remained a mystery. Years later, in the early 1970s, when I, like Alfred Kazin, loved to wander about my City, I began to curiously explore the seedier, but tantalizing neighborhoods: in particular, the strip joints on 42nd St., near 8th Ave. Of course, I never went in, though it wasn’t because of the yarmulkeh-skullcap I used to wear; I had long ago relegated that bit of ethno-religious identification to my pocket, not wishing the world to ask, “Now, where is that yeshiva boy off to?” since I believed that it was, frankly, None of the World’s Business Where I Went, and Why.
So it was a great surprise one day when, walking near one particular strip joint, I saw and heard my old friend and Good Humor procurer, Hymie, standing in the entrance of the establishment, calling out its attractions and advantages to the public. He held the questionable office of “puller-inner” to the Pink Pussycat Gentlemen’s Club, a sad eminence, indeed.
“How the Good Humor Man has fallen!” I thought to myself, or words to that effect. I did not rush up to Hymie to renew our acquaintance—I doubt he would have remembered me, or the many Strawberry Shortcake and Chocolate Éclair bars he had tendered me, years before—but I did reflect that, in New York City, his rise and fall in life might not be, at all, unusual. Truly, Hymie was still in the Good Humor business: he had moved from selling Good Humor from an ice-cream wagon to pandering for good humor in a sex club.