Soft Serve Summer

One teenage summer I was hired to sell soft-serve ice cream on the corner of Eighteenth and Main in South Belmar, New Jersey. I opened the stand in mid-morning and closed my shift at four. I had just enough time to get home, shower off the sugary goo and get to my other job counting out cash drawers at a popular saloon on the beach. The legal age for working at the bar was twenty-one. I was eighteen.

On the east coast the common name for soft serve was carvel after the brand that invented it. Learning to dish it up was the easiest gig to master. I started the day pouring gallons of ice cream mixture into the top of a big aluminum tank, replenished the cones, cups and toppings and waited to pull the lever of creamy goodness for the crowd.

Most summer businesses wisely set up on the boardwalk or Ocean Avenue where the action is. The carvel stand opened a mile and a half from the beachfront as a gamble, a beacon of delight beckoning vacationing families. George the owner gambled himself a bit at Monmouth Park Racetrack during the day and at all-night card games. In the 1960s the Jersey Shore had its share of mobsters conducting illegal poker games in summer cottages up and down the Atlantic coast.

I spent a lot of time perched on a stool reading books and magazines that summer. Very few customers came for carvel during the day. The crowds were seaside, swimming, surfing and sunning. A little boy popped up and down at the window one day. I heard him giggling under the ledge where I couldn’t see him.

“I think I hear someone,” I said out loud, “I wonder if I should make a chocolate or vanilla cone.”

“Chocolate!” Came the response loud and clear.

I held the cone out the window without saying a word. A head full of tight black curls slowy pulled up the thin shirtless brown body of Perry. He reached his hand out for the cone.

“Twenty-five cents please.” I said.

“Don’t have no money,” said Perry. “It’s already made so jus’ gimme it.”

I tried to tell him I couldn’t do that but his persuasive smile matched his logical entreaty. I cautioned him not to tell anyone. He did tell someone, of course—all his friends. One by one they appeared below the window in the same way Perry did, as if bobbing up and Unknown 2down was the normal way to get a free cone.

At one point George told me the reason we didn’t have customers was because too many Black kids were hanging around. We both knew that wasn’t true. He loved those funny bobbers as much as I did but that’s what he told his white friends and family to justify his failure.

Between George’s lifting cash from the till and my give-aways to Perry and his friends the post Labor Day accounting showed two thousand dollars in the red.

George, curiously unconcerned, laid plans for his next scheme. 

Taking The Blinders Off

After separating from my mother in the 1960s, my father grifted around Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with a string of girlfriends in swanky neighborhoods—Manhattan, Palm Springs, Brentwood and Palm Beach. A lawyer, he engaged in non-contractual legal work negotiating contracts for labor unions.

He eventually bought a coal field on a railroad spur south of Terre Haute, a semi-legitimate business with headquarters in Chicago. He registered the business as Great Lakes Coal Company. Loan guarantees from the State of Indiana paid for equipment to strip and haul the coal from the land. Once he had the equipment financed, he had leverage to obtain bank loans for mining operations.

The price of coal dropped in the 1980s, and when he could no longer make a profit, he shut down the company and walked away from his financial responsibility to the State of Indiana. With the help of a La Salle Street lawyer, he concocted a scheme to defraud the banks holding his loans, starting with hiding his assets in a trust.

I was named one of the beneficiaries as well as the trustee.

My father directed me, as the trustee, to stash $500,000 in a Canadian bank he’d found for this purpose and subsequently to invest $250,000 of the stash with his broker. I signed a lot of legal documents, blinding myself to what the consequences of my own actions might be. He bragged to me and his closest friends how he was getting away with cheating his creditors, the State of Indiana and the IRS. Breaking laws came easy to him, doubled down with the aid of a high-powered attorney. I trusted that he’d keep me from legal harm. I secretly feared he’d harm me in other ways, however, if I didn’t go along with his scheme—by cutting me off, not from his money, but from his approval. That fatherly approval seems to have been an ancestral deficiency, masked as love. It has caused permanent fissures in my entire family and led to my own fits and starts in psychotherapy.

He flew to Las Vegas, checked into Caesar’s Palace and pretended to gamble away his money to provide an alibi to bank investigators for why he was broke. Florida th-11homestead laws protected his property from creditors, so he moved from Chicago to a get-away home in Palm Beach where he could live with his new girlfriend and her little boy.

“I’m done with Chicago,” he told me, “I can’t stand living in a town where a ‘queer black man’ is the mayor.” He’d repeat that forcefully to friends over the phone adding, “There’s nothing here for me anymore.”

When Harold Washington was running for mayor I never heard my father express prejudice or bigotry of any kind about him. But he was obsessed with saving face, not from family and friends, but from future marks. So after Washington won the 1983 election, my father used sudden hatred for the Mayor to concoct a dramatic reason to get out of town before the creditors closed in and exposed him. He seemed to embrace his manufactured prejudice. He knew his wealthy friends would nod in solidarity. And they did.

Perhaps that is the genesis of  blustering bigotry—the need to hide from a completely unrelated truth.

Like cheating your creditors.