C o n e y I s l a n d S u m m e r
The first time I served an ice cream cone to Tommy Gallagher, my younger brother yelled at me for filling it up too much.
"You're just supposed to run it around the rim!" he insisted. And he was always telling me to use sugar cones because I was too clumsy to handle the wafer ones. I knew he was right but I felt sorry for Tommy, so I used a wafer cone, which was larger, and filled it up solid.
Tommy was eight feet one and a half inches tall, and would you believe it, he still wasn't the tallest man in the world. But he was the tallest man in the Coney Island sideshow before it closed down a million years ago. And since then he's been the tallest man on New York City's welfare roll. He was huge
but skinny, and he walked with a limp. He had this enormous tree branch he had carved into a cane. It seemed to me he could beat back gravity itself with that thing. And Sheila wasn't the fattest woman in the world. But she was fat enough for Coney Island. Only, by the summer I worked there, most of her fat was gone. Her skin hung from her upper arms like heavy drapes.
My older brother worked the ice cream stand alone on weekdays, then drove my younger brother and me out to Coney Island every weekend in April and May to work with him. As soon as school let out we worked full time, some nights til way after midnight.
The ice cream stand was my father's idea. To get my older brother off the couch and make some money and learn responsibility since he dropped out of high school last year and was sitting around in his underwear watching reruns all day. We were right on Surf Avenue, only a block off the beach. My father got a really good deal on the place because it was so old. The ice cream machines were kind of fancy with an old- fashioned look, not like those sleek ones Carvel had, but they were always breaking down, and then the ice cream would spoil overnight, and sometimes we didn't have enough money to buy more mix. We lost a lot of money on those days, especially on the July fourth weekend when we hoped to really rake it in.
The place had a cement floor with a drain that backed up a lot and started to stink, and sometimes we just left it like that because it was too disgusting to clean. When my dad stopped by and saw it, he blew his top. But the worst part was the bathroom. It smelled like a stinky gas station restroom, with a tiny sink, brown stained toilet, and a piece of broken mirror hanging on a wire. My older brother didn't care much. He was just as happy sleeping on the couch. But my younger brother, who was fourteen, planned on getting rich and he screamed and carried on every time the machines went down. He was the one who refused to let me have more than one ice cream a day. Not that I blamed him. I needed the money too, and was grateful that I was getting two sixty an hour, which was ten cents above minimum. I was pretty sure if I saved about two hundred dollars I could actually go traveling with my boyfriend the next summer. I had
about sixty saved up when when the summer began. Some days were pretty tough though. I mean, this wasn't exactly the hey-day of Coney Island.
During the week we got mostly welfare recipients. We did great business the day the checks came. They would open their envelopes filled with cash and I felt terrible charging anything at all for our cones, mostly filled with air. My brother pointed out that ice cream stands on the boardwalk charged even more.
On weekends we got just about everyone, and sometimes we’d be so busy I couldn't sit down for hours at a time. About eight o'clock, when the sun was going down, things would taper off. But then around ten we'd get a rush of couples. Mostly they'd be drunk and the women had stopped caring about how they looked
by then. They laughed too much and their make-up was smeared as they dragged around their stuffed animals. Their halter tops hung too loosely and my younger brother would try to sneak a peek at their breasts.
"Tittie sighting," he'd whisper to my older brother. But my older brother was oblivious. He didn't really care about much besides playing boss and running across the street to Nathan’s to get lunch and supper.
In the stall next door was one of those horse race games where people put down a quarter and then aim a hose at a target and that makes the horse move. Whoever got to the finish line first won some stupid little stuffed animal or some cheap plastic toy. When we got to know the guy, (John) he showed us how he fixed each game and how he decided who would win. Mostly he let pretty girls win or else he'd let their boyfriends win something for them, but only if they weren't putzes.
During the week, when it was slow, I'd watch the people playing and try to guess who John would let win. It got so I was right most of the time. Once I tried to signal to John to let this little dirty-faced kid win but he just pretended not to notice and gave the prize to a really sleazy looking woman with too much make-up. I mean, false eyelashes in this day and age?
There were all kinds of characters around that place, most of them pretty sad cases. So, when my younger brother wasn't looking I'd fill up a cone with ice cream for some poor guy who looked like this one ice cream cone was the only good thing that happened to him in his whole life. I did it often for Tommy Gallagher and I would have done it for Sam, if he ate ice cream.
Sam Schwartz was an old Jewish guy who was always writing poems. He loved the fact that his name alliterated and pointed it out to me only ten or twenty times. Tommy and Sam started hanging around the ice cream stand every day that summer. And things were okay until Sheila joined them. Then it got a little crowded and soon enough my younger brother chased them away.
“If we're running a freak show," he said, "we should at least charge for it!"
"Tommy my friend, it's been too long," Sam said when he bumped into Tommy at our ice cream stand that hot April day. It was a warm Spring but too rainy for good business.
"Where you been?" Tommy asked.
"Where? First the hospital, then home. The wintertime I stay in like hibernation. Who can go out when the winds are blowing in from the ocean? From the Atlantic it's terrible. From the Pacific another story. We should all move to California. You're eating ice cream already? Maybe the summer will come faster.”
"Would you like one?" I offered.
"No thank you, Sweetheart. It repeats on me. You know Tommy, the rents are going up next year."
"Who do you think? The big shots. It's not good enough we pay almost our whole check for rent. Ah forget it. I curse my children that's who. Sure, they live in New Jersey they don't have to worry. So what would be so terrible if I came to live with them? I could see my little maidele Wendy. Did I tell you
I wrote a poem for her? Here, let me find it.”
Sam dug around in his pocket for his wallet. Inside was a small, dirty piece of paper written in his scratchy handwriting.
" ` I have a little girl in Teaneck. She's so pretty she makes my heart break.' Well...it's not finished yet.”
"I like it," I told him. "It's not easy to find a rhyme for Teaneck."
"So, Darling, what are you doing here? Your family owns this place?"
"My father bought it for my brother. I'm just doing this to save some money to go to Japan with my boyfriend next summer. I wanted to go this summer but I didn't have enough money."
"Japan? Why Japan?"
"My boyfriend likes Kyoto. He says only the Japanese can make gardens like that. And Haiku. He likes Haiku."
Sam looked puzzled.
"You know, those little poems with only seventeen syllables?"
But Sam didn't get me.
"Here, I'll tell you one: `O colorful sky! How lovely a piece would be for my dull collage.’ "
Sam smiled. "Very nice. Did you write that?"
"Me? Nah. I read it in a book. Anyway, my boyfriend says the Japanese are the only people in the world who can express every human emotion in seventeen syllables."
"Is that good?"
"I guess so."
"And your parents would let you travel so far? You’re still just a baby!"
"I'm sixteen. And anyway, my boyfriend's a lot older."
"What's a twenty-five year old man doing with you? I wouldn't trust him."
"Oh it's not like that. But anyway, he went this summer without me."
"You're better off, believe me. You're so young you still have your baby fat."
"I'm on a diet. But it's not easy in this place."
My boyfriend wanted to be writer. He taught English at my High School. I met him when I joined the staff of the school newspaper last September. He told me I was special and that I showed promise as a reporter and so he was teaching me about "observation" and asking the right questions. He spent every summer traveling and writing about his adventures. I wanted to go to Japan with him this summer but I was broke. Even if we had stayed in youth hostels and hitch-hiked everywhere, he explained, there was no way sixty bucks would cover it. I couldn't really blame him for taking off without me. He did have an artist's soul and, after all, that's what I loved about him. Besides, working in Coney Island could provide some good material, he said. I was supposed to record everything and save it for him for when he got back. A million stories in the naked city and stuff like that.
"So Sam, where did you hear about the rent?" Tommy asked.
He had been wringing his large red hands, waiting for a chance to interrupt.
"From Sheila. What is it, you don't talk to her anymore? She's your neighbor."
"She's a butinksy."
"Everyone complains about the yenta but everyone wants to hear her news."
Sam's left eye began to tear uncontrollably. He wiped it away with a real old man's handkerchief.
"How am I going to make some money, Sam? The welfare isn't enough."
"I know, I know. But you can't read or write. I told you I would teach you but you-“
"Can it, Sam. Here comes Sheila."
"Enjoying the weather gentlemen? Don't be fooled. Winter still has a few tricks left." Sheila's pasty face was dotted with sweat from walking the few blocks from her apartment. Her sparse yellow hair was pushed back off her forehead with a rolled up kerchief.
"So Sheila, what do you know about the rent increase?" Tommy asked.
"I know what I heard. Ten per cent increase starting January first. I'll have to get some new customers. Hey girlie, does your mother need a house cleaner?” she asked me.
"Sheila, take it easy on yourself!" Sam protested. “ Your knees are all swollen from the arthritis." Then he turned to me. "She collects disability then runs out to work. I never heard of such a thing!"
"What do you know? You get help from your son," she snarled.
"What help? It's not like it used to be, Sheila. In those days days you could walk with your girl on the boardwalk til midnight and not worry. Remember? My brilliant son the lawyer thinks -"
"Stop bellyaching. As soon as you tell him about the the rent he'll send you more dough," Sheila waved Sam off. " But what about you, Tommy? What're you gonna do?" she baited.
"That's none of your business," he said, abruptly.
"You think those Russians will keep you in pierogis forever?”
"What Russians?" Sam turned to Tommy. "What is this? Something new?”
"The guy who owns Little Odessa over in Brighton. He saves the left-overs for me. I pick them up most nights," Tommy explained.
"So now you're taking a hand-out?"
"Listen to Mister High-And-Mighty! If it weren't for those Russians, Mister Big here wouldn't have made it through the winter," Sheila sneered.
"They said I reminded them of a giant in the circus back back home."
"Since when do they have circuses in Russia?" Sam asked.
"He's on the dole from the Russians and you're on the dole from your kids. I'm the one who's getting screwed," Sheila snapped, like a Chihuahua. She even had small pointy teeth that were yellow and broken and when she picked on Tommy I felt bad for him. He was big but kind of slow. For some reason, most everyone I met in Coney Island I felt bad for. Especially those tired little kids who fell asleep at the bar while their parents drank beer from quart bottles, ate raw clams and ignored them. Joey the Filipino clam-shucker actually got me to to taste a raw clam, and then laughed at me when I tried to chew it. "No chew! No chew!" he shouted, cracking up.
So I learned you just can't chew a clam. And also, not to feel so sorry for everyone. Because, like Sam said, I had to save a little pity for myself in case (God forbid) I needed it one day.
"Got a cigarette, Sam?" Sheila asked.
"You think I'm taking up smoking now I'm sixty-five?”
"Why not? You're too old to worry about dying young.”
I thought Sheila was joking and I laughed, but she wasn't, so I apologized to Sam.
"No, Darling. Sheila thinks old age is a disease reserved for a few unlucky souls." Sam wiped his left eye again. "But you know the truth? It's only the lucky ones who get it!"
"You think you're lucky, Sammy, to be old and living in this shithole where your kids won't even visit? Why do you think they send you money? It's a buy-off, Buddy."
Sam just waved her off, used to her insults, but I hated her for it. Why did she have to be so mean?
In mid-August I wrote a letter to my boyfriend, to an address he had given me before he left. I wasn't sure exactly where he was but it was the only address I had. I described Sam, and Sheila, and Tommy, and even John the scam-man, and Joey the clam-shucker. I explained about chewing clams and fixing
the horse races. I thought he might be able to figure out some interesting story to tell about all this. I thought Coney Island might be interesting too. I mean, no one ever really thinks about where old sideshow freaks end up. But I was careful about not getting too emotional and blabbing about how much I missed him and all. He didn't really go for that stuff much.
"Sweetheart, you have a little cup of water?" Sam asked me. He never asked for anything else. "It's so warm today a person could pass out."
I gave him the water when my brother wasn't looking.
"Thank you, Darling. You have a kind heart."
"That counts for squat in this world, Sam," Sheila said.
"Sheila, try to control yourself. She's only a child. She shouldn't be working here to begin with."
"Why not? I been working since I was a kid."
"You sat on your fat ass and let them stuff you like a goddamned goose," Tommy said.
"All right, all right," Sam said. "Listen, Sweetheart, just ignore them. Having a kind heart counts for a lot, believe me."
"Yeah, take a lesson from this loser girlie, and you'll go real far. He was born in this rat hole and he'll die here too."
"So what's wrong with here? I worked here, I made a living here, and raised a family here -"
"And then they dumped you, Sammy, and you ended up stuck here with a buncha freaks, without a pot to piss in"
"Listen to how she talks. You're a misery, that's what you are. You think everyone has to be miserable with you, well forget it, Miss. I'm not miserable, and Tommy's not miserable and she's not miserable either," he said, pointing at me as his voice got louder and shakier.
"Don't make me laugh," Sheila said snidely. "She's not miserable, she probably just likes working in this stinking pigsty," she said as she stared at me.
"She's only trying to make a little extra money...to go to Japan with her boyfriend," Sam said, defending me.
"To Japan? She'd have to work here ten summers to make enough money. Japan!" Sheila snorted.
"What do you know? By the time she has the money saved, her boyfriend will have everything ready so they can go together and see the gardens and read little poems..." he looked at me uncertainly, "with only seventeen words?"
"Syllables," I mumbled, feeling ridiculous.
"She's got a kind heart alright, that's why she's working here. And she's going to be right back here next year too, daydreaming about a trip around the world while her 'boyfriend' is off sticking it to some slant-eyed bitch!"
"Now you stop that!" Sam demanded. And amazingly enough, she did.
"Don't take it personal," Sam said softly to me. I knew he was right but, like a jerk, I took it personal anyway and started to cry and went in the back, to the bathroom where I watched my face turn red in that broken piece of mirror.
Sam knocked on the door. "Sweetheart, you're too sensitive."
"But she's right, Sam."
"Don't take her so serious. She's just a poor, ignorant woman whose own children have no use for her. Come on, you're a smart girl. You see how she is. People like her, they'll eat your heart out and come back for a second helping ."
He waited a moment, I guess expecting me to say something.
"You're a young girl. You have your whole life ahead of you. You'll see, you'll grow up and find a nice man and get
married. Here, listen to this. You like poems. I wrote it a long, long time ago, before you were even born. When my daughter moved out to get married: `A heart must be big, big as the sky, to love everyone worth loving. But the bigger the heart the harder it is when it's time to say good-bye.' Well anyway, it was printed up in the paper at the time." Sam paused for a breath of air.
I came out of the bathroom and dried my eyes on my dirty apron.
"Trust me, Sweetheart, it'll all come out alright for you."
But how could it? It was the rainiest summer in God knows how long, and business was terrible, and the machines kept breaking down, and I couldn't save any money, and if I didn't, my boyfriend would go without me again next summer, and there was no good story material here anyway, and the smell of old
milk on my hands made me want to vomit when I hauled the garbage to the curb at midnight surrounded by the buzzing of a million half-dead fluorescents.
Sam put his bony hand in mine, but I pulled away. It felt like a wafer cone in my hand; like it would definitely crumble if I even so much as breathed.
Copyright 2018 Rachel A Levine