Once Upon Young


Tvanillaconewandaflemingwo Jobs. One Only Sounded Cool.

Working as a Researcher Would Boost Her Résumé, But Scooping Ice Cream Left a Sweeter Taste, and Memories to Match

By Wanda E. Fleming
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, September 1, 2008

That summer Americans fell hard for premium ice cream, the expensive yolk-rich kind made of cane sugar and smooth half-and-half. The hunt for it spilled into the tiny parlor that sat on a street of upscale boutiques selling sapphires and suede boots. Customers abandoned plain chocolate and vanilla, and thumbed their noses at the neon-colored sherbets of childhood. They wanted the extravagant.

Running their hands along the glass cases we would later spray and wipe clean of fingerprints, they would pause at the boysenberry. They’d stare at the black walnut and eye the rum raisin. Then came the inevitable pointed finger and the words, “Could I get a taste of that?”

Scooping ice cream had not been the plan. I had yearned for a glamorous summer, but the odds were against it. Home from college, I had the same goal every season — make enough money to meet the demands of my financial aid package. This, however, was the year I bristled at the minimum-wage job and the simple foraging for tuition funds. I also needed a résumé entry, something that after graduation would wow employers. Something that would say, “Hire her.”

So, I hitched myself to two jobs with the intent of mentioning only one. The résumé-worthy assignment took place at a nonprofit legal agency, where I interviewed, by phone, directors of juvenile-offender programs. I sat on the floor of a tiny backroom with walls so anemically beige they surely once were white. The only window overlooked a littered street full of pigeons that pecked at peanut shells and the tossed buns of fast-food burgers. “Whatever you do,” the departing intern quipped, “don’t feed them — they’ll never leave the ledge.” A law student, she had long deserted the phone-interview project.

Surveys now stood in numerous knee-high stacks. Each morning I retreated to my Rumpelstiltskin-style hovel and, like the miller’s daughter with her piles of straw, I flipped through the unfinished questionnaires, making phone calls, turning answers into stats, and stats into findings. The hours droned by with my repetitive greeting and questions barely altered except to say, “So how’s the weather in Albany [Bangor, Dallas, Flint] today?”

The pay was a “stipend,” barely the cost of carfare. But with my official-sounding duties, and the promise of solitude, I grabbed the assignment. I traveled back and forth from the office to the ice cream parlor — downtown, then uptown, then crosstown to home.

Dressed in cotton skirt and sandals for the “real job,” I changed hurriedly in the ice cream shop bathroom, pulling on jeans and the company cap. As I punched my timecard, the owner invariably peered from the open sliver of his door. Leaning back in his chair, after counting the midday take, he mused, “Just in time, I see.”

As June slipped into July and July into August, ice cream checks filled my account. The survey piles shrank to the floor, but my fantasy of glamour and the unexpected began to evaporate. I was wilting. Only ice cream remained.

Unlike the law job, at least this one had Noel. He was what my parents called “flamboyant,” and amid summer’s humdrum, a resuscitator. Clutching his shirt, he sang arias, and whenever he made a point, he waved his cap through the air. At the end of our shift, he would buzz frenetically through his locker on his way to a dance club or late-night movie.

Noel taught me about gospel rock, orchids and how to tilt a sundae glass; the burgeoning foam of his ice cream sodas always braked at the rim.

“You know when you leave, they’re going to make me manager. When all you little bookworms fly back to college, they’ll come crawlin’.”

Before I left for school, the owner did stop counting his money long enough to promote Noel.

On my last day, we were serving stragglers, mostly tourists. It was muggy, and dead. Rain had come early in the morning, ceased and then wrapped a cape of humidity across the city. Noel and I had been playing the game we always played whenever it was slow, after we had wiped down counters and divvied toppings of sprinkles and pecans among the display tins. As customers neared the door, we would forecast their orders.

“See that red-haired guy,” Noel whispered, “a definite Swiss almond.”

“No way,” I insisted. “Rum raisin on a sugar cone; his nose is red.”

“You are so naive,” Noel said. “Do not give up that day job being book-smart.”

This time Noel was right, and he took the lead, 3-2.

Soon we were tied, 5-5. And then not so much an entourage as a trio entered. The reed-thin starlet in the center was flanked by two men, both almost Herculean. Her blue-black hair tumbled down the sides of her face. She was small, almost diminutive, and she was smiling at me. It was Cher.

She looked like she knew the deal. This was fat city, and she was getting her scoop of it. Her eyes wandered over the wall menu.

“Is it possible to split a large single scoop?” she asked. “Maybe chocolate chocolate chip and strawberry?”

His hat affixed, Noel froze. He stared at me. I plunged my metal scoop into the strawberry, digging for the reddest bits, sections where fat berries peeked through. Then I violated trainee Rule No. 3 of the owner’s 50. Never dip a used scoop into another vat of ice cream without first rinsing. I swept the half-filled scoop of strawberry across the dark chocolate chip, and voila! A two-sided globe appeared — pink-red on one side, deep brown on the other.

The big guys stared down at her, the starlet with her cone. She grinned and slipped out the door.

Back on campus I sat on the stairs of the student union listening to my dorm mate Sara wax on about water-skiing. Her hair was now the palest white yellow, a look she attributed to fresh-squeezed lemon juice.

When she finished she asked what I had done all summer.

Just some research on juvenile criminals, I said.

“Cool. Very cool.”

I nodded in agreement.

By then, I was already writing the résumé in my head. As suggested by the career office, I would use action verbs like “assessed” and “documented.” I would not divulge my paltry pay or the 8-by-12 room with its dingy walls and ledge of scavenger pigeons. I wouldn’t confess that ice cream paid my ticket back to campus or that I missed Noel and the way he gripped my hand when correcting the angle of my sundae glass.

As I stared at Sara and her baby-doll hair, I thought I should brag on those arias of Noel. I should tell her about the perfect starlet cone.

But I never did.

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