Ice Cream Man

The summer I turned sixteen, my parents informed me I was to get a part-time job. No longer could I spend all my days watching three-hour blocks of I Love Lucy reruns or setting off on rambling, endless bike rides all over town. Time had come for me to make a living, or at least earn some spending money beyond a weekly chore allowance (and the very occasional babysitting gig.)

Luckily, I had plenty of entry-level employment options within walking distance from home. I could stock shelves at Sav-U supermarket or Payless Shoes Source, bus tables at B&B Lounge, expose myself to a variety of chemicals at Wolf’s Dry Cleaners—there was even a fish market I could work at, although it emitted an odor one could smell from up to a block away.

Such potential first jobs barely crossed my mind, however, for I was fortunate enough to live close to both a frozen custard stand (for the unfamiliar, frozen custard is richer, fattier ice cream freakishly more popular in Milwaukee than most other cities) and a Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors. The former, named General Custard’s (“Food Good Enough to Make a Stand For!”) was a block closer, but also a burger joint. Not wanting to return home reeking of grilled onions and meat every night, I gravitated towards the Baskin-Robbins, which had been in its long, narrow storefront location since before I was born. In addition to loving the stuff (oh how I would anticipate what each Flavor of the Month would be when I was a tyke!), scooping ice cream was also something I knew I could probably do, even with my total lack of experience.

The last week of May, I walked the two-and-a-half blocks over there to ask if they were hiring. Stan, the ancient, white-haired man behind the counter whom I’d later find out had owned and operated the franchise for over 25 years, handed me an application. I could have filled it out at one of the three tables (all of them encrusted with traces of sugar, butter and cone) to the right of the gleaming display freezers stacked with nearly forty different three-gallon ice cream tubs; instead, I took it home, completed it very carefully and brought it back the next day. Stan was still there, tallying up the afternoon’s sales, printing an almost comically long receipt from the cash register. He browsed over the application, and asked when I’d like to work my first shift. I told him I’d be out of school next week. “Come in Wednesday at 3:00 PM,” he responded in a guttural smoker’s rasp I’d soon know very well.

I had done it! I was going to scoop ice cream and furthermore, make money doing so! How cool was that? Apart from my folks, I told no one else of my summer plans; I didn’t want to jinx my good fortune. Of course, being a newbie to the workforce, I had no clue what to expect, but I didn’t care—I found a job right near my house, and I suspected I’d be able to eat a lot of free ice cream there too.

That following Wednesday, I made sure I arrived at the shop minutes before 3:00. As I opened the door, Stan looked up from behind the counter and regarded me as if I was merely another customer, asking, “Whadda you want?”

Caught off guard, I hesitated, “Uhh, it’s me. Chris… your new employee?”

“Ach! Come on back,” he grumbled. I followed him behind the counter and into a rear room partially concealed from the public via two swinging half-doors not dissimilar from those separating the kitchen and dining room in my Aunt Judy’s suburban ranch home, only these were painted the color of Pepto Bismo. Beyond them sat shelves haphazardly stacked with all the crap Stan never threw away: piles of old promotional banners, faded flavor labels, assorted paper and plastic goods like napkins and straws and a somewhat tarnished array of ice cream cake decorations, from frostings and sprinkles to a rainbow of sugars. Along one wall sat a couple of upright and top-opening white freezers populated with brand-new ice cream tubs waiting to take the place of those sitting in the display cases out front after their depletion.

Stan handed me a polo shirt the same color as the swinging doors and an outsized thick plastic binder that was the Baskin-Robbins employee handbook. He ordered me to put the shirt on, sit down at the desk next to the cake decorations and read the book. He then returned to the front of the store to wait on customers, tally up sales and whatever else it was he did all day. I dutifully sat there, scanning the handbook cover-to-cover, learning everything one could possibly know about scooping ice cream and exhibiting good customer service.

At least thirty minutes passed before Stan came back through the swinging doors and bellowed, “What, are you sleeping?” He gestured me to follow him out front, where he showed me how to use the ice cream scooper, craft such delicacies as a fudge brownie sundae or a banana split, run the cash register and use a waffle iron and a spherical wooden tool that formed the freshly made waffles into cones.

Within an hour, one of my co-workers arrived, also named Chris and also Stan’s grandson. Two years older than me, this other Chris had worked there for some time; as Stan left to go home for dinner (he also lived in the neighborhood), his grandson would continue my training. The other Chris was fun because he was a smartass and a co-conspirator. That first evening, when it came time to get ready for closing, he showed me the bathroom in the back where I’d prepare the mop to clean the store’s tiled floors. Next to a rusting sink and a mirror desperately in need of a streak of Windex was a slightly cracked sign from the Milwaukee Health Department: in funky, early ‘70s-style lettering, it said “Wash Your Hands,” the words actually rendered within the shape of a hand. Directly underneath it, a plastic shelf held a yellowed, dusty bar of soap.

“You know, the soap’s older than that sign,” the other Chris remarked. I nearly believed him.

In those hours when it was just us two Chris’s at work, we had a blast—especially in the colder months as up to an hour would often pass by without a single customer. We’d hang out in the back room, rummaging through piles of old stuff such as a poster for “Monte Carlo Stripe” (a flavor inspired by the long-forgotten 1977 flick Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo), making note of such peculiar stock as a cardboard box of Maple Nut topping stamped with a then-six-year-old expiration date. Whenever the front door opened, the other Chris would suddenly snap to attention and proclaim, “INCOMING!” (a M*A*S*H reference), our cue to emerge from the back room and actually do some work.

I certainly enjoyed working with him far more than my other co-workers, two guys both my age. Frank, who wasn’t much for conversation, had started working there only weeks earlier but never failed to lord this sort of dubiously-won authority over me. When not telling me what to do, he sat next to the rear counter, doodling in a well-worn spiral notebook. Joe, on the other hand, might’ve been less friendly than the other Chris, but I appreciated his droll demeanor. A regular customer who lived three doors down would come in at least once a week and always order the same thing: two scoops of chocolate chip topped with hot fudge. During one of his visits, Joe said to me, quietly and pointedly, “I’ll take care of Monty Clift over there.” At the time, I had no idea who that was; in retrospect, Joe’s assessment of this handsome, if somewhat creepy guy was spot-on.

Joe could be a co-conspirator as well. Once, we were in the store alone together when an obscenely large, hairy, yellow-brownish rat emerged from under the rear counter. I quickly ran into the back and grabbed a broom, but before I could return to the front, we suddenly had customers (INCOMING!) whom thankfully did not see the rat behind the display cases. Joe quickly put his hands up in a “NO! NO!” sort-of-way at me to prevent the customers from witnessing me running out with a broom in hand (was I planning on sweeping the rat away?) Luckily, the vermin soon disappeared back under the counter and we never saw it again.

I can only imagine what one of our customers would’ve done upon seeing a rodent in the store, for many of them were nuttier than the massive plastic container of macadamias we had for a special Hawaiian-themed sundae. Baskin-Robbins was where I learned the actual cardinal rule of working in retail or food service: contrary to popular belief, the customer is hardly ever right, but it’s polite and often expected to let them think they are. The mother and daughter who sample a dozen different flavors and then leave without buying anything? The middle-aged man who asks for a scoop of “Blue Chocolate Chip” (meaning our most popular flavor Mint Chocolate Chip, of course) two minutes before closing on a Saturday night, the floors all mopped and chairs upside down on the table tops? The wispy young couple whom, upon inquiring how long we’ll have Bubblegum ice cream and, after being told just for the next two months, whining, “For the whole year???” All of ‘em wrong to various degrees, but not yelled at, turned away or (openly) made fun of by me and my fellow scoopers.

A few customers made this exceedingly difficult. I’m thinking of the clueless woman who asked me, “Is this your first day?” as I stood there, the only employee at the store, my right hand bleeding profusely from a mishap with our nefarious cake-cutter as I could not help but betray my impatience with her ninety-nine questions about the display freezer full of prepackaged ice cream quarts and pints. Even better was the lady to whom I accidentally served a scoop of Fudge Brownie when she had asked for Chocolate Almond (they looked almost identical.) Whereas you or I would likely just say, ‘Hey idiot, this is the wrong flavor,” she took a seat at a table, ate her ice cream cone and spat out all of the brownie pieces into a napkin. She then left this napkin full of masticated food bits on top of the counter right under my nose and said, “I don’t remember these being in Chocolate Almond,” and left. I believe I was literally speechless for the first time in my young life.

I suspect Stan had seen it all. I didn’t know much about his past, although the other Chris once disclosed he had worked as an ambulance driver (!) before he bought the franchise. Stan was a constant presence, opening and closing the store every day and night, usually handing off the reins to his young male scoopers for hours in between. His equally ancient wife Adeline would occasionally come in to help decorate ice cream cakes. She was quiet but nice enough, her most distinguishing feature being her two-toned hair (as my mother described it), probably due to a messy dye job. Although he was a crotchety old fart, Stan knew what he was doing as a manager—he would have had to, given that he’d been running this franchise and presumably turning a profit for nearly three decades.

Still, Stan had his own share of quirks. Every night, he’d prepare a sink full of soapy water to prep rags for wiping down all the counters and tables. The water was always SCALDING HOT, as I discovered the first time I stuck my hand in it. In time, I’d come to prep it exactly that way, with the other Chris once reaching in for a rag and exclaiming, “Hey, that’s STAN hot!” He also loved contemporary country music (he was of the age where you’d expect him to be more into big-band oldies or polkas) and regularly used such dated colloquialisms as “darn-tootin’” and “cotton-pickin’”.

Stan once even ended up on the 5:00 news: that first Christmas Eve I worked there, I was home in my bedroom when my mom called out, “Hey Chris, your boss is on TV!” Running over to the living room, I learned from our television that some guy had taken a massive cement truck for a joyride and ended up crashing into Stan’s garage, mere blocks away from my own house. Adeline showed up at the store days later, a few yellowed bruises on her face. “I guess you heard we had a dramatic holiday this year!” she remarked with folksy understatement of the sort one often encounters in the Upper Midwest.

As the lowest on the store’s totem pole, I must have worked those first ten or fifteen Saturday nights in a row before I finally asked Stan if I could have the next one off. He gave it to me, but he also occasionally gave me a rough time. More than once, he pulled me aside and said, “Y’know, I’ve had people ask me, ‘Why doesn’t that young man of yours ever smile?’”, insinuating I was the sullenest of his four teenaged scoopers. The accusation always maddened me because I suspected it was the dour Frank they were talking about, but I wasn’t comfortable shifting the blame over to him, which would be akin to tattling. It bugged me, but I learned to put it aside. Initially, the job’s benefits far outweighed any of these frustrations: free ice cream, for sure, but also a lot of autonomy—particularly on winter weeknights, when I’d be the only person at the store. I’d sit in the back, do my homework, and occasionally watch a 13” black-and-white TV while my mom would swing by with TV dinners and fast-food takeout, since my usual shift would go from 4:00 to 10:00 PM, not allowing me to leave for a meal break.

However, little things began gnawing away at me. The other Chris left for a stint in the Army (INCOMING!) and Stan never replaced him, resulting in more work for all, but also additional shifts spent in close quarters with no one to talk to but Frank. I remained the new guy more than eighteen months after I started; I was also getting paid less than minimum wage, which I was too green and meek to do anything about. When I once asked the other Chris how come we were paid so low, he said, “Oh, that’s because the job is agricultural,” some hot garbage I could never confirm or deny given this was the age before Wikipedia (or the Internet, even.)

As the next summer came and went and I entered my senior year of high school, I grew to loathe those six-hour weeknight shifts, the measly pay, the same three co-workers in different permutations, the waffle cone maker that never failed to burn my fingers, the endless parade of customers asking to taste this flavor and that flavor on the little pink sampling spoons we had in abundance. I had particular contempt for the plastic cutout of a giant, grinning anthropomorphic pink spoon hanging over the doorway to the back of the store—Baskin-Robbins’ half-baked idea of an unnamed cartoon mascot (Spoony? Scoopy?) I’d look up at it and think, “What are you so happy about?” and picture it accidentally falling off the wall, hitting Frank in the head.

The final straw came in January. One otherwise unremarkable evening when I was in the back searching for a new tub of Jamoca Almond Fudge, I heard a sudden THUMP. Looking out, I saw that Stan had accidentally dropped an opened, full tub of Cookies N’ Cream face down on the floor behind the counter. He proceeded to pick it up and place it back in the display case without so much as wiping any residue from the exposed surface. Once again, I was speechless. When he wasn’t looking, I examined the tub for hints of dirt or crumbs or other floor particles but couldn’t detect any (of course, Cookies N’ Cream can conceivably mask such stuff.)

That night, I decided I’d give Stan my two-week notice. I didn’t want to work there anymore and the Cookies N’ Cream fiasco was only part of it. I had four months left of high school and was just beginning to open myself up to the world. Over the past year, I’d discovered how much fun it was to hang out with friends and have a social life instead of watching TV every night. The idea of spending most of my evenings and weekends sequestered in a half-dead ice cream parlor for four bucks an hour was none too appealing; I estimated I wouldn’t be giving up much in terms of spending money. I’d worked my first real job, but it was time to move on and enjoy my newfound social life—I could always look for another job come summer.

When I told Stan of my plans, he didn’t say anything, just a near-quiet harrumph as he continued refilling the hot fudge dispenser. My last day ended up being the last day of January with just Stan and myself at the store. We had no tearful goodbyes or any goodbyes at all, period—after mopping the floor and wiping down the counters and tables, I hung up my pink polo shirt for the last time, and walked out into the chilly air, taking the five-minute route back home I had walked hundreds of times over the past two years.

Exactly two weeks later, whizzing past the store with a buddy on our way to the movies (see, I was socializing!), he remarked, “Hey, this morning in church, they said that the ice cream guy died.” Upon hearing this, I’d like to think I turned as bright white as the painted exterior of my mother’s Grand Am that I was driving.

“WHAT?!”, I responded, “You mean STAN?!!”

“Yeah, you know… the ice cream guy!,” he replied, not knowing I’d worked for the man until very recently. Somehow I managed to maintain control of the car, not pulling off to the side of the road as we headed to the Skyway Cinema to see Groundhog Day. The next morning, I phoned St. Helen’s rectory and the secretary confirmed that Stan’s funeral was scheduled for noon that day. I didn’t ask about the cause of death and never found out, too embarrassed to call up the store, much less inquire in person. I assumed it was something like a heart attack or a stroke—the man was in his late ’70s, after all. Even though I rationally knew I didn’t cause Stan’s death by quitting, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly guilty at the unfortunate timing.

I happened to have off from school that day, President’s Day. My mom and I talked about attending the funeral but I decided I’d rather not have to face Stan’s family or my ex-co-workers. She said to me, “Can you imagine if that big pink spoon hanging over the doorway had shown up at church? He’d probably wave and say, ‘Bye, Stan! I’ll miss ya!’” I could always count on her to lighten the mood.

Stan’s family kept the franchise running for a few more years; it was a pizzeria after that for some time. It currently houses a tortilleria, or tortilla factory, reflecting the steady influx of Latinx people over the past two decades into this formerly overwhelmingly white neighborhood. That summer after finishing high school, I worked the first of a series of entry-level retail jobs that paid marginally better than Stan did, but I never liked any of them as much. I now know I left Baskin-Robbins a little hastily—I could’ve easily stuck it out for another six or seven months before beginning college (I commuted downtown to Marquette University that first year, so I could’ve stayed even longer.) Still, I acquired my first taste of what it was like to have a job. As with that infamous mother-and-daughter duo who tried a dozen different flavors without buying a single thing, I just had to sample other jobs and find out what type of work I was and wasn’t suited for; in the latter category, that was my next job, a first (and to date, last) foray into real food service, bussing tables at a chain buffet joint.

Stan was far from the best boss I ever had, but with decades of work experience behind me now, I can at least appreciate what the ice cream man accomplished. Yes, his franchise was part of a massive international chain, but by the time I arrived there, Stan’s constant, long-term presence had turned it into something more like a neighborhood institution. On those rare occasions when I get a scoop at a Baskin-Robbins (there aren’t too many in New England, where I now live), I always tip my pink plastic spoon to him.

Formerly, Stan’s Baskin-Robbins. RIP.
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