Once again Natalia Sarkissian goes cutting edge, writing the first in a new Numéro Cinq memoir series called “My First Job”—to go with the terrific “What it’s like living here” and “Childhood” series already under way. In the essay, Natalia recounts her early career as a Good Humor man, the ins and outs of customer base development, the advantages of having an ice cream truck for driving your friends around on weekends, and the day she made so much money she was throwing dollar bills into the freezer because there was no room left in the cash box. This is a piece of Americana—still in the evenings in my neighbourhood, we hear the musical notes of the Mr. Ding-a-Ling truck (our version of Good Humour). My sons don’t rush out anymore, clutching their dollar bills, but still we look up at each other smile. As with her earlier essays, Natalia brackets off a piece of her life and serves it up to the reader. If you read through all her NC texts (glance at Nonfiction contents page), you’ll see a life emerging: mysterious, scarey, adventurous, sad and triumphant.
My First Job
(In which I break into the food industry, drive a truck and learn about business)
by Natalia Sarkissian
In the swing, on the shady side porch, with the sun breaking through chinks in the trellis, I’m thumbing through the Stony Brook newspaper, scouring the help wanted ads. I’m nineteen years old and it’s a silky June day in the late 1970s, one of those days when the light shines strong and white in a glowing sky while the breeze is still cool and fresh. Wafting up from the Long Island Sound, a rush of that cool, fresh air rustles the leaves overhead and the hair on my neck but still, I’m perspiring. Time’s running out. After three weeks hunting, I’m still jobless. On September 10, I’m to fly to Italy to spend a semester studying art. Such plans require significant cash. Although I have a student loan to cover tuition and airfare, I need spending money. It’s Italy after all. I need lots of spending money.
Turning the page of the paper, jostling the swing, I find an advertisement that catches my eye.
Sell pots and pans! Make $200 or more per week!
So. They’re back but their name and location have changed. Last year, when I visited their office in Great Neck and signed up to be a rep and plunked down $65.00 for a starter kit that never materialized, they were Deluxe Kitchen Gear. This year, they’re Culinary Designs in Smithville. Well, I’m a year older. A year smarter. No con’s going to swindle me out of another chunk of change. I continue to search but nothing I’m remotely qualified to do materializes.
Rich Galen’s over for dinner. He’s a friend of my mother’s. He’s always here, planted in the kitchen on a stool or in the living room in the orange velvet armchair. He’s always bringing my mother flowers or candy. And then there are those round brown eyes that follow her around while she cooks. My mother’s pretty and still kind of young and somewhat lonely. But my sister and I hope she won’t settle for Rich.
Rich is bulky with graying hair (thin on top) and short thick fingers that look like Vienna sausages. He presumes to give my sister and me advice about boys, about our hair, about what we should major in at school (business like him). I know Rich thinks he’s smart and worldly. But he should study the mirror. How can someone who looks like he does know what’s right for girls growing up in this day and age? Besides. We have a father, albeit a far-off father who lives in Texas whom we rarely see but frequently write. We don’t need Rich to butt in.
I’m passing Rich the mashed potatoes when he says he’s given serious thought to my job predicament.
I roll my eyes at my sister. She raises her eyebrows. There he goes again. What now?
You should sell ice cream, is the gist of what Rich says. He did once. It’s easy, he says. A piece of cake. Everyone loves Good Humor ice cream. They’ll assign you a truck. And a route. They’ll give you the ice cream. All you have to do is sell what they give you and you receive a percentage of sales in return. We’ll turn you into a businesswoman yet, he concludes.
They give me a truck? How big of a truck? Can I drive a truck on my driver’s license? I’m wondering these things while Rich’s slurping his glass of tea, his eyes on my face.
Why not? I decide. I like the idea of driving a truck. Driving a truck would be a step up in the world. Right now I ride a purple ten-speed around town.
Next I consider the product. I like Whammy stix and Chocolate Éclair bars and positively love the Candy Crunch with the chocolate center and the Strawberry Shortcake that tastes like cheesecake. I certainly believe in the Good Humor product. Doesn’t everyone? Surely I can sell a lot. And surely I’ll end up making more spending money than I’ve banked on.
I feel myself smiling. Rich smiles back. He wipes his mouth on his napkin, reaches around his belly, gropes in the tight pocket of his khakis and hands me a slip of paper with a number. Phone in the morning, ask for Stuart, say that ‘The Galer’ said to call.
Thanks I say, thinking that maybe Rich’s not so old and retarded after all.
Then he wants to know if I’m going to ask what ‘The Galer’ means. I spear a tomato. I’m sure I don’t want to know what ‘The Galer’ means but Rich tells us all anyway. Rich was fast as lightning. Sold out of inventory day after day, quicker than tornados bust through Kansas. With a little advice from him no doubt I’ll follow suit.
Ah. I get it. Galer. As in Gale. Gust of wind. I roll my eyes at my sister again. This Good Humor gig isn’t without its price.
Two days later my mother carpools with a friend and lends me the VW for the day. I drive the Long Island Expressway heading west, toward Nassau County. The fields and leafy trees are thick with green and I’m optimistic.
Stuart, the manager at the Good Humor plant, had sounded encouraging on the phone. Still I practice my speech, why Stuart should hire me even though I have no experience driving a truck or selling ice cream. Last night Rich gave me suggestions —tell him you’re a go-getter, you see the angles, you know the hot spots, you’ll get the job done, and to clinch it throw my name in several times—but I’m trying to come up with my own words.
I’m dependable, I say to the whizzing scenery, I follow directions.
Naah. Labradors are dependable and follow directions. I don’t want to be a Labrador.
I’m a hard worker, and put in long hours, I try. Now I sound like a grind. I squeeze the steering wheel. It isn’t easy sounding competent at something about which you know next to nothing.
I love ice cream. I need the money. I can get references from the Public Library where I clerked in high school and from the ladies I babysat for.
Now I sound just like I am—inexperienced and desperate.
After driving for an hour without figuring out what I’m going to say, I exit the highway and promptly get lost. I check my watch. I’m still early—it’s 11:10 and I’m due at 11:30—but I can’t afford to stay lost for long. I ask directions at a Shell station. Ten minutes later I’m at the Good Humor facilities and at the gatehouse I ask for Stuart.
I sit in the car in the parking lot waiting. I watch several ice cream trucks pull in and drive around me toward the dark door of a warehouse. I imagine that inside those recesses they’re filling up with inventory. Maybe if the interview goes well that will soon be me. My heart flips and I’m perspiring. I open the door to let the air blow through but it’s hot air and makes me think of the Galer so I shut the door again. I don’t want to think of the Galer.
After fifteen minutes, I spot a gray-haired man crossing the parking lot. Half moons soak the armholes of his plaid shirt. It’s Stuart. He leads me into a small office and sits behind a metal desk, offering me a perch in a folding metal chair facing him.
When he asks what I think it takes to sell ice cream, I say it takes creativity.
Stuart’s brow crinkles. He’s as surprised as I am by my answer.
Flustered, I wave my hands and explain that creativity in the ice cream business means searching out the hot spots, the best spots to drive the truck and sell, sell, sell.
Stuart likes my attitude. He says I remind him of Rich. He says I’m hired. Then he says he doesn’t want me wasting time trying to be creative. He already has a route charted. He wants me to sell ice cream in the subdivisions near Stony Brook.
No problem. I shake his hand and promise I can start tomorrow.
At 8:30 the next morning I show up at the plant in blue overalls and a pink t-shirt, ready to go. People mill about. They’re all in white. A fleet of white Good Humor trucks are parked in lines. I note different sizes and makes. These weren’t here yesterday, but yesterday I’d come at midday when everyone was already out.
Wondering what my truck will be like, I amble about, waiting for Stuart and instead meet Ray. He’s 23 and graduating from CCNY in December. He’s driven for Good Humor several summers in a row. This year his route is along a section of beachfront in Nassau County. Beaches are the best he informs me. Everyone wants them. You can sell out of inventory in less than a few hours and make a killing at the beach.
Wow, I say. Beaches. I wonder if I can convince Stuart to change his mind. Stony Brook and Setauket and all of Suffolk County are full of beaches. Surely there’s a beach somewhere out there for me?
But you can’t possibly have been assigned a beach, Ray is saying. You’re a new hire. He lifts his chin and his chest seems to swell. Ray’s tall and athletic, with blue eyes and very tan. If he weren’t so full of himself, his seniority and his route, I might even find him good looking.
I ask him what he knows about sales in subdivisions.
He smirks and merely says good luck.
Jerk, I think, as I watch him strut off.
Stuart finds me. He says the way I’m dressed it was easy spotting me in the crowd. He wonders if I can please find something white to wear from here on in? He doesn’t think I need a uniform, but white would be nice.
Sure, I nod. I can do white. But what about the beaches? Beaches bring in more revenue.
Stuart says all the beaches are taken. Stick to the subdivisions where, he calculates, sales will be strong. Unless I don’t want the job after all?
Of course I want the job.
My sales truck is small with just one seat for the driver. The side of the truck’s decorated with an ice cream bar and the Good Humor logo. Two doors–one the the side, the other in back–provide access to the freezer.
On my first day I find out that if I don’t keep the doors padlocked kids will distract me at one door while friends swipe boxes out of the other. A few days later, when I tell Ray, the know-it-all college student from CCNY, about how I lost lots of dollars, he smirks and tells me to put the cheap stuff (Whammys for example) within easy reach. Candy Crunch, Chocolate Éclair and Strawberry Shortcake boxes should be put in deeper, out of the way. I guess I could have come up with such a layout if I’d thought about it.
Since I live an hour away from the Good Humor facilities, I get to keep the truck twenty-four hours a day. When I’m off duty, I hook the freezer to a socket in the garage with an extension cord. Only when I’m low on inventory do I have to drive into Nassau County. This means I can even use the truck for personal reasons without anyone knowing or objecting. Like tonight. I’m going out to a party in Port Jefferson and I’m going to drive the truck. My friends think it’s cool I have an ice cream truck to drive around in. They’re expecting free merchandise. While I might treat them just this once, I’m hoping that I can sell some of my high-end wares (Candy Crunch) at the end of the evening to non-friends with the munchies.
I’m not making much. Because I’m not selling much.
Here’s a usual day:
I start out at 10 am. Driving up one street, down another, ringing the bell like a moron for hours on end. A few kids come out, every now and then, but they only have small change for Whammys. There’s not a lot of money in Whammys. I take time off for a swim at 1 pm, usually at West Meadow. And then I’m back at 2, ringing the bell again, until 6.
Today I’m surveying customers, asking where other customers are. My customers say that kids are at camp or visiting grandparents or on vacation. Then they say they are leaving for camp or on vacation soon too.
My low customer base dwindles.
Cost of Sales
Rich drops by after Sunday supper. He says he has a vested interest in me, his young protégé. He wants to know how things are going. When I tell him I’m doing just fine, he says he’s been thinking long and hard about my predicament.
His advice: Study the newspapers. Find the ball games. The parades. The garage sales. Do some recon.
Recon? I wonder.
It turns out recon is short for reconnaissance.
Rich also says to drive by the smaller beaches further out. They can’t all be covered. If no truck’s there, then why not move in? He smiles and sits back in the orange armchair.
When I object and say Stuart said to stick to my route or else, Rich says what Stuart wants is revenue. Deep down Stuart won’t care where the revenue comes from as long as no one complains that I’m horning in on their territory.
After a minute Rich adds he wasn’t called the Galer for nothing. That he isn’t a successful businessman today for nothing.
A few minutes later he offers to treat the whole family to a Good Humor bar of their choice. That is if the Good Humor lady, who seems rather humorless, is still on duty and can be persuaded to unpadlock her locks and restore good humor (here he laughs and says no puns intended).
Out on the dark driveway, the leaves rustling briskly overhead, I dig through the freezer, filling Rich’s order. I guess I should be thankful. His ideas aren’t bad.
Wind bag, I say instead, and slam the freezer shut.
My mother and Rich are out to dinner and so the rest of us (my sister, me and our two little brothers) are eating takeout pizza. My sister and I are wondering if Rich’s doing something stupid like asking my mother a question we think he has no business asking her.
Here’s why we’re worried: he sported a blue button-down with a red and white tie when he came by to pick her up. He never wears button-downs over here. Especially not ties. And then he winked and called us “his” girls and boys and gave us the money to pay for the takeout pizza. He’s been doing a lot of treating around here lately. Too much treating and acting proprietary and shooting off with all sorts of advice.
After eating I decide we need a pick-me-up so I treat my sister and brothers to ice cream sandwiches. We eat three each. They had gone slightly mushy because I’d left the side door open accidentally while reorganizing the back of the truck before the pizza arrived.
Sales still suck. I went to a Little League Game yesterday near Smithville but couldn’t stop because a Good Humor truck was already there. Today I drove 15 miles to a garage sale, but as soon as I arrived a thunderstorm hit and no one stopped to buy anything. Potential customers all ran for their cars. Back at the subdivision kids bought just a few Whammys.
I’m low on Whammys and ice cream sandwiches and will have to go and replenish inventory soon.
Extraordinary expense and income
My mother says she’s thinking things over. She’s smiling. Her eyes are bright and the corners of her mouth tremble. We tell her we’re happy she won’t be alone anymore but a look passes between my sister and me. Underneath we’re glad we’ll be gone to college (me on my semester in Italy, my sister upstate) if our mother decides yes and Rich, the Galer, the hot air vendor, moves in.
It’s July 4th and I’m due to go with friends on a picnic. Instead, I hop in the ice cream truck and drive and drive and drive. I don’t know where I’m going and I end up on a leafy road in a golden, rolling part of the county. I hear strains of Souza and across a field of corn, spot men and women in black uniforms fringed with white. They wave shiny instruments back and forth as they blow and march. Girls in silvery suits throw batons. And bystanders. There are tons of bystanders. I drive around the field and park on a shoulder. Soon a long line forms at my truck. I can’t manage to sell fast enough. The next thing I know, I’m out of Candy Crunches. After that the Chocolate Éclairs. I hardly have time to make change and wonder if I’m calculating correctly. Still there’s no time to refigure what people owe and no one seems to object. I just hope I’m not shortchanging anyone, especially myself. I start to throw dollar bills in the freezer because there’s no more room in my pockets. A woman with two kids asks for something to drink. I have one six pack of Coke, a personal stash in the cab of the truck. I sell each can for $1 each. If only I had more! I wonder if I should drive off and look for a place to buy soft drinks to sell. But just as soon as it started, the rush subsides. The band’s gone, the parade’s over, the bystanders are leaving. My truck is empty except for the bills. I count and find that in less than a half an hour I’ve sold over $800 worth of goods. My take: $160!
I sell in the subdivisions. I sell at garage sales. I sell at neighborhood beaches with few sunbathers and no other ice cream trucks. I never manage to match the earnings of the day at the parade but on the whole I don’t do too badly. Sometimes, on weekend nights, when Rich is over watching TV with my mother, I park outside of bars and sell to hungry bar hoppers.
I like driving my truck around the island through the green grass to the gold dunes and the blue Sound. I like ringing my bell, watching people smile and run toward me. I like handing out Good Humor, making change. Mostly I like feeling free and on my way. Money and wheels can do that for you. Now I see what Rich means about the liberating aspects of business, but there’s no way I’m switching majors. Business, for me, is just the means to an end.
Stuart’s pleased. He thinks the money I’m making comes from sales at the subdivisions which he says I’ve done a good job developing. It was what he expected when the Galer made the recommendation.
The Galer helped me out when I needed help. He didn’t let my bad attitude stop him. I’ve decided he’s not such a jerk after all. Maybe he’s not as fat as I thought him either. And his fingers, now that I’ve been really looking, aren’t like Vienna sausages. They’re broad, it’s true, but they’re not stubby. So if the Galer makes my mother less lonely, if she can take that force and air, why shouldn’t they get together?
Still, I haven’t thanked him yet. I’m not sure I can, even if I am thankful. He’s not the kind of guy you can say thanks to. He’d take thanks as encouragement and who knows what he’d get all blustery over next.
It boils down to this: Rich can’t take our father’s place. He needs to stop trying.
Three weeks are left to this summer job. I plan to keep selling Good Humor. I plan to keep driving along winding roads to find new venues. I’m creative that way. And determined. I’m flying off in just a few short weeks to study art in Italy and I need money.
by Natalia Sarkissian