To the people who came to Christopher Morley Park in Roslyn, he had no name. To them, he was “the ice cream man.” He was just two hands and a smile handing back ice cream from the van window. To me, he was my older brother, Andrew.
Once, he worked on Wall Street. He was a handsome man who felt comfortable around pretty women in bars at night. Now he spent his days selling ice cream to an endless line of kids, moms and dads in bathing suits, perhaps daydreaming of a beach faraway.
All day long, while he sold bags of potato chips, cans of soda, and all types of ice cream, he would do this sort of jerky, robotic motion — turn to the right — stoop down, hand the item out the window and collect the money.
Then when the night came in and the park became silent and empty, he would quietly lock up the van and get in his car, which had more than 200,000 miles on it, and a makeshift wooden bumper roped to the front, and drive off.
His drinking days were over now. They neared their end one night after he took a severe beating when someone followed him home and robbed him when he was drunk. When the eye swelling went down, he put on the last suit he owned and went looking for a job. He didn’t get it.
Left in the wake of too many nights of heavy drinking were memories of pain and misery. In the long run, they didn’t destroy him, but somehow made him stronger. He was determined he would never take another drink again.
One day years later, I went to Christopher Morley Park looking for him. I had never been there. When I found the van, I slipped into the high driver’s seat and sat quietly watching him work. He nodded and smiled as he asked what I was doing in the park. “Stay, and we’ll talk when the line ends,” he said.
Occasionally, he would ask me to toss him a diet root beer or a bag of chips, all the time hunched over as he worked the long line by the swimming pool. The energy of the line seemed to give him purpose. In the last 10 years of his life he remained sober, and he became an important part of his family again.
He died broke of a brain aneurysm in March 1999. He was 60. When a notice ran in the local newspaper, none of the people from the ice cream line had any way to know it was him. When a new face appeared in the van window that summer, they could only wonder where he had gone.
Perhaps if a headline had said, “Ice Cream Man from Christopher Morley Park Dies,” they would have known. Instead, a death notice said he had worked on Wall Street as vice president of the order room at Drexel Burnham Lambert. He was there for 25 years until the firm went bankrupt in 1990.
They put him in the back of a black Cadillac hearse and drove him out beyond the end of the Long Island Expressway to the veterans cemetery. He had served in the Army for two years in Europe in the 1950s. They gave him a soldier’s funeral with a folded flag and a recording of a bugle playing taps.
On that afternoon in the park, as I watched him sell ice cream from a van window for a guy who paid him minimum wage, he taught me something about living this life that we all pass through too quickly. It was a lesson about trying to live it with grace and dignity and style, no matter what.
Reader Pat Fenton lives in Massapequa.