Monday, May 17, 2010


When I was growing up in early 60's, it was not unusual for various vendors to drive by my house in Canarsie, selling their wares.

My favorite was Joe (the ice cream man). He was a kindly senior citizen whose upbeat personality, through a heavy Italian accent and misuse of English, represented a safe, iconic, grandfatherly...if not Santa Claus-like figure. His catchphrase to us little kids was, "Gimme alla da munny you got."

Unlike GOOD HUMOR or BUNGALOW BAR, Joe was an independent.

Joe was not tied to company standards. Therefore his white truck with its red roof was a cornucopia of frozen sweets. Plus, he carried a full array of candy, gum and soda. He even sold baseball cards. So aside from getting just about anything that rots teeth, you wanted to buy from Joe because he was such a great guy. A NEW YORK COMPANY, BUNGALOW BAR COULDN'T COMPETE WITH THE STREAMLINE AND MODERN LOOK OF GOOD HUMOR. MY CLIQUE HATED IT AND WE'D REALLY HAVE BE "JONES-ING" FOR ICE CREAM TO BUY IT. WE EVEN HAD A LITTLE SONG THAT DEMONSTRATED OUR FEELINGS; BUNGALOW BAR TASTES LIKE TAR...THE MORE YOU EAT IT...THE SICKER YOU ARE!

I gravitated to Joe's, Centrone's Italian Ices. Despite a nearly guaranteed brain-freeze, I liked it because it was so tasty and lasted a long time. At first you'd scrape a little at a time with the wooden spoon because it was solid. As it thawed, you were able to make better progress. After a while, within the cup, you'd flip the iceberg upside down and get to the real target, the flavorful, pure sugar underbelly. I liked the chocolate best. The grape was okay and I'd tolerate the cola. I'm not saying I wouldn't eat the lemon or cherry if my life depended on it...but without my top three, I'd almost always settle for the nearly impossible to find anywhere else... but Joe's...the ice cream sandwich with chocolate ice cream.

Joe had one major independent competitor named Johnny. His gimmick was occasionally giving a kid a cover-less comic book. Other than that, there was no upside to him. Johnny was intense and impatient with kids. In retrospect maybe he was hyped-up on coffee or some such thing. But his ice cream didn't taste so good and he didn't sell candy. More importantly, unlike Joe, who meticulously explained to his young customers, the price of their items, the amount paid and the change...Johnny's integrity, regarding short-changing people was an issue.

Our moms took advantage of other non-ice cream drive-by vendors too. At a time when most families only had one car, housewives relied on these "peddlers" to save them a seven block walk to the nearest strip mall. In addition to Ruby the Knishman's pushcart, I remember BILL'S SUPERETTE as a convenience store on wheels. MR. BACCIAGALUPE was a rolling fruit stand, Natey the handyman came around to fix household items, sharpen tools, knives etc., and a nameless mobile cobbler repaired shoes.

Our neighborhood also had its share of trucks that had amusement park-like rides rigged to them.


For a dime you could ride, "the whip," "half-moon" or "satellite" and get a prize, (usually better than a Cracker Jack prize) when you got off. SOME MORONS WENT ON SEVERAL TIMES JUST FOR PRIZES.

Canarsie also a truck that sold the world's worst pizza and another called CHOW-CHOW CUP that served up an ersatz version of Chinese food.MY SISTER'S 8th BIRTHDAY PARTY WAS "CATERED" BY CHOW-CHOW CUP. SHE SAYS THAT SHE AND THREE OF HER FRIENDS MISSED SCHOOL THE NEXT DAY WITH VARYING AILMENTS RELATING TO THE BELLY.

To me, the only really important vendors were the ice cream men. And because my favorite (Joe) only worked during the afternoon, his territory was fair game the rest of time.

On hot summer nights, the MR. SOFTEE or FREEZ-R-FRESH soft ice cream truck, (some people called it custard), drew huge crowds. Despite one operator (Kenny), having unappetizing acne and the other rumored to be an ex-convict, we still all raced to avoid the line, (it should be noted that the latter sold illegal, untaxed cigarettes on the sly...even though everyone and their mother knew what he was doing).

At either truck, 15c bought a cone with sprinkles...but for a nickel more, I liked to get a double. My mom preferred the 35c sundae (she called it a frappe) with the wet walnuts, hot fudge, whipped cream and a cherry on top. Eventually, my taste changed...and to this day, I'd kill anyone that got between me and wet walnuts.

In reality, I would take Joe over anyone. My greatest memory of him is from 1962. My day camp, (Wingate), had an outing at the Statue of Liberty. Mom gave me fifty-cents for spending money for a souvenir with one caveat...that I was to bring back ALL the change. She was so serious that if we had a few more minutes before I left, she would have drawn-up a contract for me to sign....even after I swore an oath to that affect. On my way out the door, I was still reminded twenty times to guard that half-a-buck with my life.

On Liberty Island, the campers were brought together for a picnic-style lunch. The food choices were: a random salami or baloney sandwich or for the strange kids, peanut butter (without jelly). Baloney was clearly better. It was thin, soft and easy to chew. It was my unlucky day...I got the thickly sliced slabs of salami that you could break a tooth on. The mess was washed down with a small container SUNNY DEW orange drink. Sunny Dew had so many chemicals and salt that it seemed to scratch your throat on the way down. Even worse, you were MORE thirsty afterwards.

After the fine cuisine, we were told we would get a snack later on. Then we were given a choice. Being a seven year-old with the option of going into the old, boring statue and getting yelled at by the counselors or remaining unsupervised with all my friends, to flip baseball cards or scream and chase each other...I decided on remaining free.

The first thing I did was buy a coke at the concession stand. Then I ran with the other boys all over the island until our games petered out. Our mob split in two. While some got refreshments, I adjourned with the others to the gift shop.

We went to the display of miniature Statue of Libertys. There was a large, medium, small and a puny. All the kids chose one except me. Alas, even the puny was way out of my price range. All I could get was post cards...but I didn't want them. Instead, I went outside and advanced to the long line at the concession stand, intent to buy-out the joint.

I was finally third in line when a counselor tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Its snack time." When I surrended my spot, I was next but I didn't cop an attitude because I knew we were getting something worthwhile. In anticipation of the snack, my mouth watered until it ran dry. Like cattle, the campers were lined-up in the broiling sun. We waited forever and the snack never came. We were ushered onto the boat that took us back to Manhattan. The ride back took an eternity because we were forced to sit quietly. I was parched but wasn't smart enough to ask to use the restroom, even if only to drink from the sink. On shore, the bus wasn't there yet. By the time we were finally on our way and situated well enough for them to distribute the snack, I thought I was going to die.

Up front, they started handing out ice cream. I was hoping for the usual Fudgesicle but I was so thirsty that I knew I could even deal with a Creamsicle. It then disappointed me to see them handing out dixie-cups. But being the optimist that I am, I still welcomed the lesser choice. As they got closer, I saw it wasn't the usual package and that it was especially small. When I was given mine, the situation got worse. It was third chocolate, one third vanilla and strawberry in the middle. I hate ALL things strawberry! And to my utter agony, the strawberry was my biggest stripe. And because I wouldn't touch, (and still won't 47 years later), even a chocolate piece that was attached to the strawberry, my snack got much, much smaller.

I was tired, frustrated and angry when I got off the bus. Halfway home on my three block walk, some kids waved Joe, (the ice cream man), down. With my last iota of energy, I ran to assure that he didn't pull away before he saw me. I was huffing and puffing as Joe smiled, stuck out his hand and said, "Gimme alla da munny you got." I did and he added, "Okay, thirty-a-fiva cents, whaddaya want." I knew dinner was going to be ready soon. I wanted ices but had no time. Even an ice cream sandwich would leave incriminating evidence around my mouth...proving that I was spoiling my dinner. Other kids behind me we telling me to hurry up. I panicked and said, "Baseball cards!" Joe said, "Howa menny?" I had never bought more than one at a time as Joe added, "You canna have seven...but you getta no change." I nodded.

I opened the cards down the block from my house.


When mom greeted me at the door, I had the big stack in my hand and a giant wad of gum in my mouth. After the usual pleasantries she asked if I bought a souvenir. Naturally, I said, "No." She said, "What did you buy?" I said, "A coke." She said, "Where's my change?" When I said, "I got no change," it wasn't hard for mom to figure out where the excess money went. She yelled so long and so loud about responsibility and trust that it made my head spin. Maybe that's this day, I'm not good with money because as a kid, I didn't get much practice.


Anonymous said...

Great Story. There was also a pretzel guy selling Soft Pretzels, heated on coals. He would park his cart by some of the parks in Canarsie. They were 10 cents each and 3 for a Quarter, and on rare occasions he would sell roasted chest nuts....

Sol said...

Slabs of salami and baloney, peanut butter sandwiches ( without the jelly )....Sunny Dew with its so many chemicals and salt...topped off with a Neapoliten chaser did you guys ever survive this this gastric cornucopia without exploding?

Stewart Katz said...

Great story Steve. It so much reminds me of my childhood in Queens. It seems like a carbon copy!

Anonymous said...

I was brought up in a row home in South Philly. We called your peddlers, "hucksters." We even had one who sold a gallon of bleach for a quarter...that had to be a tough gig.

We mostly had the Jack-n-Jill ice cream truck...nothing special. But when Mr. Softee first started coming around (there were 70 kids on my street), everyone swarmed out of their houses and the lines were long.

We were recently in Los Angeles and Tom and I stopped in an ice cream shop. He wanted a sundae with wet walnuts and they had no idea what he was talking about. - M of M&T

Anonymous said...

This was a great blog. And HAPPY BIRTHDAY to one of the most creative, funny, endearing and spirited people I know. - TICKLEMEERIC

Anonymous said...

I still have a hard time believing how you can remember all of the details.

But Joe was a classic of course. There is no question that his candy display was what made him so special. And he would open the passenger side door of his truck and all of that stuff would come into view. He always trusted us. So when some kid came along and ordered ice cream and JOe had to go to the back of the truck to fetch a cone, we all were huddled around the candy and he had no concern about us stealing anything.

But I think I was the kid who named the guy Mr. Baggicallu. That wasn't his real name as you know. Mr. B. was a favorite of Lou Costello.


Anonymous said...

Wow Joe the Ice Cream Man. I haven't thought of him in 30 years. Great blogs, well thought-out and straight from the heart. When are you going to do one about L.H. Martin? --- EMPTY

Mark Ladenheim said...

Man - Centrone's Italian Ices. I grew up on Long Island in the 60's - what a memory! I loved the chocolate as well. I live in Orange County, California now and still remember that company. Anyone know if they're still in business? Italian ices and good pizza are harder to come here than an honest politician.