My first and only foray into food service was at a yuppie ice cream parlor tucked into the parking lot of a working class strip mall. Most of my preppy co-workers had been recruited from a suburban private girls school. I was a public school truant who’d wandered in off the street — a cool loser who wanted everyone to believe I’d already figured out who I was and what I wanted to be.
Regardless of our respective pedigrees, we were told we’d been selected from a large and competitive applicant pool. In the weeks leading up to the grand opening, the district manager stood by with her scale and stopwatch, judging our practice scoops, which had to be uniform, and our waffle cones, which had to be hand-folded. Those who passed muster were issued stiff red aprons and shiny square spatulas, and trained to justify the exorbitant prices — nearly double what the local Baskin-Robbins charged — and to push the most exotic and expensive toppings.
I don’t know what kind of genteel gastronomes management was expecting, but as soon as we opened for business, we were besieged by an endless parade of thick-necked, gold-chained guys and their hair-sprayed acid-washed girlfriends. They came by foot, bus and Camaro, waving their cash and barking their orders, expecting instant gratification even as the line wound around the block.
As much as we came to passionately despise the kiwi-consuming clientele, we dreaded the district manager even more. She’d come rolling up in her vanity-plated VW Cabriolet, stopwatch and clipboard in hand, eager to dole out pay-docking demerits for our subpar scoops and crooked cones. When the task of managing our motley crew from afar became too much she announced the installation of a new on-site second in command: Tracy.
Besides the fact that she was also broke and from my school, Tracy and I had nothing in common. She was a powerful social magnet, impossibly beautiful and a natural tanner. As her first directive, Tracy called the group together to tell us we’d soon be launching a new sundae promotion, which involved making our own whipped cream. As per management’s orders, Tracy was in charge of keeping a close inventory of the nitrous, which was to be stashed in the safe and doled out to us one cartridge at a time.
Tracy took her job seriously but it quickly wore on her as it had worn on us all. One night a guy came in minutes before closing demanding “sweet cream,” which we’d sold out of hours ago. His refusal to take no for an answer sent me clambering into the frozen depths of the walk-in where I stumbled onto an undocumented case of nitrous oxide chargers. I called Tracy into the back and showed her what I found. We exchanged an immediate look of mutual understanding. The only reasonable thing to do was kick the bum out and share the bounty with the crew.
We passed around the empty whipped cream canisters, holding the nozzles to our mouths, welcoming the coming rush of the gas. There was something magical about that dirty juice, a potent truth serum that allowed us to see that we were more than just of bunch of empty-headed rich kids, a queen bee and a misfit loner. The job may have thrown us together, but it was sharing the juice that made us stick. From that night on we were united, and we were on the noz.
Not surprisingly, doing non-stop whip-its made us not only incredibly euphoric but also incredibly sloppy. When it was too hot to smoke outside, we’d just light up behind the counter. When customers came in, we’d serve them one-handed, cigarettes dangling from our lips. “Are you sure you don’t want some whipped cream with that?” we’d giggle cheerfully as the ashes scattered over their orders. By the time management got wise, the summer season was at its peak, and we knew a mass purging was unlikely. We made a pact to stick it out until fall or our firing — whichever came first.
As August drew to a close, we had lost a few of the crew, but the friendships we forged felt lasting. One of the private school girls invited Tracy and me to an impromptu party while her parents were out of town. Even though she lived only a few miles up the road from the shop, her house sat on the cusp of golden suburbia, at the terminus of the 58 bus route; the edge of the world I as knew it.
With uncharacteristic trepidation, I followed the scent of Polo until it led me straight into a throng of orthodontically advantaged partygoers who appeared to be cast straight out of a John Hughes movie — boys with mushroom haircuts, khakis and sweaters draped over their shoulders, girls in pleated shorts and oxford shirts. I came straight from work that night in my tattered muscle shirt, denim cut-offs and ice-cream-encrusted Chuck Taylors. I never felt so exposed, or so invisible.
The lights from the in-ground pool cast an otherworldly glow onto their sun-kissed faces as the oscillating chords of The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” blared from speakers hung along the backyard perimeter. I wanted to fit in, but I knew then that I did not and could not — not outside of the world created by the ice cream shop. All I could do was lean against the doorframe of the pool shed with a cigarette and a wine cooler in my hand, taking the party in with equal parts bemusement and detachment.
I don’t know what Tracy would have made of their exotic revelry. She didn’t come that night. Maybe she already had other plans. Or maybe she already knew the party was over.