The Way Things Used to Be – The Ice Man

The most interesting deliverymen to watch were the short, dark, silent men pushing metal-wheeled pushcarts loaded with three hundred pound cakes of ice. The cakes, covered with quilts and burlap sacks to slow melting, were a foot and a half wide and high and six feet long. It took guys the size of Abe Simon, who got knocked out twice in twelve months by Joe Louis, to move the cakes around the icehouses and load them onto the pushcarts.

The big apartment houses on West End Avenue and Riverside came with white electric refrigerators in their kitchens; the brownstones on the side streets still used iceboxes. They were about four feet high with a door at the top for an ice compartment and below the ice compartment, a second door opened onto food storage shelves. The outer walls were wood, the inner walls tin, zinc or some other metal, and the space between was filled with sawdust or cork for insulation. Coiled rubber tubes touched against the inner walls carrying the melt from the ice compartment down to a drip pan on the floor and keeping the food cold. You emptied the drip pan every morning and the Ice Man would bring a new cake every few days depending on how hot it got inside your kitchen.

During the winter, people could keep food in boxes outside their kitchen windows, but as the weather turned warm the Ice Man would come every day pushing his cart bearing two or three of the oblong cakes covered with thick green or brown quilts and burlap potato sacks. He’d wave or smile when I came to watch him split the ice, but he hardly ever spoke. I think that was because he was shy about not speaking English well. He always let me stand next to his cart and watch as he scribed a quarter-inch-deep line across one of the cakes with a scrape of his tongs, then gave the scribed line four or five quick stabs with his pick and broke a perfect foot-and-a-half cube free of the oblong block. He’d cover one shoulder with a doubled-over burlap sack to soak up the melt and on hot days, hand me a chip that tasted of burlap sacks and quilts to suck on.

He’d pick up the fifty pound block with his tongs, swing it to his shoulder, and holding the tongs by one handle, put his other hand on his hip and skip up the steps of a stoop nimbly as a mountain goat. We had three different Ice Men in our neighborhood and they looked so much alike I thought they might be brothers. Later I found out that two of them came from Naples, one from Sicily and they’d never seen one another before they began delivering in our neighborhood.

They always wore clean blue or red T-shirts and one of them had a sheet of leather he put over his shoulder to carry the ice instead of a burlap sack. You could see the muscles of their biceps and forearms bulge as they chipped the ice, or swung the heavy cakes up to their shoulders, or put a cake into a wooden tub so they could scale it into chips. The tubs were skillfully built of vertical slats of wood, like the butter tubs in the dairy stores only smaller in circumference and deeper.

They were deft with their ice picks and they made chipping the long cakes into foot-and-a-half wide cubes and scaling the big cubes down into drink-sized chips look so easy that one day I asked the Ice Man to let me try it. He held up his hand to tell me to be careful and passed me the pick, handle-end first. I took it, but when I stabbed in the pick to split off the cake he’d scribed, the handle bruised my palm, and when I tried scaling the ice inside the wooden bucket down into drink-sized chips, I hurt my knuckles against the cake of ice and against the wooden slats. The Ice Man smiled, shook his head and took back his pick.

Toward the end of the thirties and the beginning of the forties the people in the brownstones began buying refrigerators, and the Ice Men with pushcarts didn’t come around anymore. Instead there was a yellow truck with the word ‘ICE’ on each side in giant silver letters. There were shelves inside the truck that carried preformed fifty and hundred pound cakes of ice on shelves, not just to our street, but to the whole neighborhood. There was a machine next to the rear door of the truck that turned a fifty pound cake into chips when the driver, a tall surly man with a big belly, pulled a metal handle.

The truck driver never used tongs or an ice pick and he never swung the ice up to his shoulder. He put the ice into buckets and he put the buckets onto a green metal cart shaped to hold them. He didn’t skip up the steps of the stoops nimbly as a mountain goat either. He backed up, one step at a time, tugging the cart behind him, grumbling and cursing. If you asked him for a chip of ice from the floor of his truck, he cursed at you.

Years later, when Mayor Lindsay banned automobile traffic from Central Park on weekends as part of his effort to transform New York into ‘Fun City,’ he issued a permit for an ItaloAmerican Civil Rights March to be held on Columbus Day. The idea was by emphasizing the cultural contributions made by Marconi, Fermi, Toscanini and Caruso among others, to overcome the violent stereotypes shown on TV and in the movies . The march ended in Central Park, right at the Columbus Circle entrance where, according to one of the tabloids, two hecklers were hospitalized with multiple accidental ice pick wounds. tunnel freezer