Waiting for Jerry the ice cream man
Hot summer nights on our dead end street were full of mosquitoes, fireflies, kids playing Sputnik, and an interminable wait for Jerry the ice cream man.
Back in the day, our refrigerator's freezer was the size that fit two ice trays and a pound of chop meat. Then that small cool space froze over and there was never room for ice cream except at your birthday!
It was the same way up and down the block on Gless Avenue in Belleville, N.J. Anybody who got rid of their ice box and got an electric refrigerator had about the same amount of freezer space.
Unlike an actual ice box, think: the kitchen on The Honeymooners, where you put in a block of ice and it melted water into a pail underneath, these new-fangled refrigerators used electricity to take heat and make cold.
The biggest drawback in the modern world of the 1950s, which no one thought of it as a drawback on such a modern convenience, was that crust of ice forming outside the metal casing that served as the tiny freezer.
The longer you let the fridge go between defrosting, the thicker the ice formed until you couldn't put anything on the shelf alongside the freezer.
And if you needed to get some ice cubes or, later, a frozen TV dinner out of the freezer, you needed an ice pick (or butter knife, or both) to chip through the ice pack until you unearthed the block that held your treasure.
This is Jersey. It's hot in the summer in New Jersey. We were hot. We sweated and drank tap water from the garden hose to cool off. We ran around in the sun, got sun burn, it peeled, and we went back out in the sun.
We made wooden swords and beat the daylights out of each other until the swords broke in pieces. Then we crawled around in the dirt, set ants on fire, and played handball in the dead end street.
In the summer, it was hot. We played in the heat.
Nobody on the block had air conditioning. The closest our family came was when Dad brought home a Lasko three-speed oscillating fan and put it in the living room window. All the rest of the windows were left open and a slight breeze lifted the thin curtains to shift the air in our four-room cold-water flat.
We kids kept cool by running around outside and making our own breezes. We played hide-and-seek and learned to count to 100 by fives. At our peak on that one dead end block we had up to 28 kids. (We're talking baby boom, here.)
Denise, who lived across the street with a brother Tom and a sister Rosemary, didn't play all that much. She had some kind of heart surgery in the 1950s and we boys had to be extra gentle around her. She was a year older than me but smaller, and a whole lot prettier. Their house had a side yard with garages in the back and the girls would put together a carnival fund-raiser for some charity each year. They'd set up booths and rides and all the kids in the neighborhood would have a great time.
On hot summer nights when we heard the truck horn play "Mary Had A Little Lamb", all of us kids would rush out to "Jerry the Ice Cream Man."
We'd tell him what we want and he'd probe through the thick hatch into the freezer for the ice cream bar or ice pop of our choice. Then he'd give us our change from a change dispenser he wore on his belt.
This scene played out throughout our Belleville neighborhoods, into Nutley and back across the Passaic River bridge to Lyndhurst.
Lon Cerame, the genuine rock and roll teenager, and certified airplane geek, on Gless Avenue remembers that Jerry and his brother George had a small food store in Lyndhurst, where Lon and his pal Dave Macaluso stopped their bikes on the way to Teterboro Airport, and got cold water to drink and shoot the breeze with George or Jerry.
We could hear the ice cream truck calling us from blocks away. Jerry hit our block after dinner time, usually after the mosquito man in the jeep left behind that cloud of toxic spray we all loved to run through.
When Jerry went to help the next kid, now at the back of the truck, he'd get angry when he found the freezer door locked. Now, he had to stop what he was doing to go in the truck cab, turn off the engine and get the key to unlock the freezer,
Good old Jerry never caught the wise guy. So, the more often Jerry got angry, the more Lon sought the perfect opportunity to lock it.
Lon remembers two of his favorites from the truck, one pop called "brown cow" and the coconut vanilla pop that was really good.
My favorite was called chocolate cake, it was an ice cream bar covered with cake crumbs. George Mozeika, who lived a few blocks away on Hilton, remembers his favorite Cho-Cho bars.
Other kids liked frozen ice pops that left a mustache the color of the flavor when you were done eating it.
On our birthday, we got a free ice cream. My birthday was in June so I always got one free ice cream. Our friends born in cooler weather always missed out. Scomp!
Some times you'd hear a kid yelling up to an open window asking his mom or dad for ice cream money and they'd say, "No, we have some in the freezer."
But everybody who heard that, even the kid being denied ice cream, knew it meant the family didn't have the dime or quarter to spare. That's how it was in our working class neighborhood, in the 1950s and 1960s. Especially on steamy New Jersey July nights.
First published at NJ.com, July 23, 2011.
© 2011 by Anthony Buccino
WATCH: The Beatles 'Rain'
You might also like these stories by Tom Perrotta:
Essays, photography, military history, more
New Jersey author Anthony Buccino's stories of the 1960s, transit coverage and other writings earned four Society of Professional Journalists Excellence in Journalism awards.
Permissions & other snail mail:
PO Box 110252 Nutley NJ 07110