The Egg Cream in Mid-Manhattan
The egg-cream scheme commenced one day in the spring of 1982 at the Mid-Manhattan Library on 40th Street and 5th Avenue, where I had gone to research a term paper. It was just before I was thrown out of high school—or “uninvited back”—and was winding my way through a series of disciplinary hearings. The crimes were multiple and I won’t go into detail, not out of shame, but because I no longer feel like bragging about it.
On that fateful Sunday morning at the library, I had pulled a few books and stacked them in a pile on one of the long communal tables on the fourth floor. I probably had a stack of blank index cards with me. I don’t recall the topic. But I do have a vivid recollection of seeing a few sections of the New York Times lying a bit farther down the table in a ruffled pile. I half stood out of my chair, stretched as far as I could, got a finger on the paper, and reeled it in. I could have just stood up to get it, but it was important that it be within my reach, which implied that fate had meant me to take a break and read the paper.
I immediately fell into a perusal of my favorite section—business. At the end, like dessert, were the classified ads. They were broken into categories. The category I found most interesting, and always scrutinized, was “Business Opportunities,” and its subsection, “Miscellaneous.” In missives as brief as haiku, visions of happiness and prosperity would be sketched out by someone who was clearly experiencing a dearth of either or both. One ad caught my eye: the New York Egg Cream Company was for sale. Asking price: one million.
I walked to the pay phone on the fourth floor, which was near the bathrooms, and left a message expressing interest in buying the company.
My one previous experience on the fourth floor of the Mid-Manhattan Library had taken place two years earlier and had involved an assignment for Dr. S., my ninth-grade geology teacher. Dr. S. was in the habit of throwing rocks at us. I mean, he would now and then call on someone and throw a rock at them, so they had to catch the question and the rock at the same time. I always thought this was a brilliant idea, not because someone might get hit in the head with a rock if they were not paying attention, but because of the vote of confidence in this gesture, his faith in our abilities to catch something, to improvise.
Dr. S. wore pink or blue shirts that had white collars and white French cuffs that he folded up to expose his forearms. His hair was cut short at the sides and longish up front, like a European film star. It was a hue of blond that to my untrained ninth-grade eyes seemed suspiciously unnatural, though I could not formulate what it might mean. He smoked before and after class, and had a raffish quality to him. There was something about the lines on his face and especially the shape of his mouth, sensuous and a bit bitter, that reminded me of my relatives from Vienna—my aunt and uncle, and even my father, who was by then about four years dead.
I’ve got kids now; a boy, six, and a girl, ten. I was nine when he died. And now I look at my own kids and I think, “My god, how did I survive it? How did I survive losing my father?” And I also think, “How in the world did he survive it? How did he keep it together and not break out in sobs and tell me he had cancer and they weren’t sure how long he would live?” That time at the country house when we both used hoes and cleared the side of the house of weeds—methodically thwacking at it with our golf-like swings—was he thinking, “This is really beautiful and deep; we have a connection. Will he remember this?” When the black snake was in the garage and he killed it with a shovel while my mother stayed in the car, I stood by the garage door peering into the musty shade, watching the black line that was the snake writhe on the concrete floor under the blows of the shovel until it became two black lines and eventually stopped writhing. Did he think to himself when it was over, “Oh, he will surely remember this”?
I do remember. But it’s important to use the present tense. Because for a long time I didn’t really remember; it was all a jumble of images I had stored in the attic of my soul and made a point of not consulting. I do wonder if, on some level, my rush to experience was spurred by a desire to obscure these memories with new things. For example, the egg-cream cart that I leased the summer after I was thrown out of school and had just turned 17.
But before all that, the tossing, tossed-off virtues of Dr. S.’s teaching style, circa 1979, need to be acknowledged. He had assigned me to write a report on a dinosaur of my choosing. And I had ended up choosing the Tyrannosaurus rex while doing research at a long table on the fourth floor of the Mid-Manhattan Library.
The Mid-Manhattan was hiding in plain sight on 5th Avenue, catty-corner from the grand museum-like structure of the New York Public Library and its lions. It was blandly elegant, and made gritty from practical use—the Port Authority of libraries. It was a library where you could borrow books. A lending library. Only now, thinking about the transgressions that took place there, does the word “lending” seem conspicuous, the middle gesture in “beg, borrow, and steal.”
The dinosaur sin was a form of stealing—or borrowing: I dutifully took notes on my index cards from the article I found in National Geographic on the Tyrannosaurus rex. And I numbered the notes on the cards, as Dr. S. had taught us to do. Later, using my friend’s father’s IBM Selectric—a magnificent machine that pounded each letter into the page with such force it made writing feel like a military exercise—I typed the index cards up in sequence. “See me,” Dr. S. wrote at the bottom of the paper when he returned it.
He wanted to know how it happened. I told him. It was an innocent mistake, and though I would never have had the resources to articulate it at the time, I think the problem was that I was being asked to follow a procedure that foreclosed improvisation. I could dance, but if I tried to follow dance steps I had a mental collapse, as though imagination had to have free rein or be in complete hibernation. A rock coming at me unexpectedly was something I could work with.
And then, two years later, I was back at a long table on the fourth floor of the Mid-Manhattan Library. I won’t pretend to know the exact timing of the expulsion and that call to the New York Egg Cream Company, except that in the spring of 1982 I was a kid who must have felt like there was a rock coming toward him.
For a long time, food on the streets of New York came in two principal forms. There were hot-dog vendors who also sold chestnuts, sodas, and pretzels. And ice-cream vendors who stood behind orange carts outside playgrounds. These were the yin and yang of New York street food. Both were accompanied by wafting white smoke of one kind or another: in winter, the steam from the hot dogs mixed with the smoke from the coals heating the pretzels and chestnuts; in summer, the heavy lid of the ice-cream cart pulled open to release the billowing white mist from the dry ice inside. The ice-cream man would put his arm down there as though down the throat of a dragon, and when he pulled it out he was clutching your ice cream.
Then something changed. It happened quickly. I don’t know what larger forces were at work. Street carts started appearing selling things not usually found on the streets of Midtown Manhattan. In May of 1981, the New York Times restaurant critic, Mimi Sheraton, wrote a column about the phenomenon: “Today the peripatetic nosher can choose from Mexican tacos, Middle Eastern falafel, Greek souvlaki, Chinese Fu Manchu stew, Japanese tempura, so-called New York-style steak sandwiches and true New York-style hot dogs and egg creams, Afghanistan kofta kebabs and Caribbean beef or chicken curry. The city’s largest and most dazzling permanent summer food festival takes place Mondays through Fridays, from about 11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m., reaching from 46th to 55th Streets along the Avenue of the Americas, perhaps more appropriately called, from now until late September, Avenue of the Street Eaters.”
Some of the vendors crowding the sidewalks of Midtown were solo artists with one cart, but most were well-financed businesses with their own logos, fleets of carts, and trucks to deliver the carts around the city. And they all had their own unique products. This was the era when Häagen-Dazs ice cream—and the idea of luxury being as small and portable and sweet as an umlaut—was new. The most enduring product from this effusion of street food was the Chipwich—an ice-cream hamburger with chocolate-chip cookies functioning as the bun. It was the success of the Chipwich that emboldened all the other business guys with their own notions of what would fly on the streets of New York.
The egg cream, according to Daniel Bell, a famous sociologist, was invented by his uncle Hymie in Hymie’s candy store on 2nd Avenue. The tone of his claim, in a letter to New York Magazine, is half joking, an acknowledgment that the egg cream is among those cultural artifacts of almost no value over which there is nevertheless a sense of contentious authorship. Only later did I grasp that the egg cream belongs to the lineage of other oddly comic Jewish foods like the pickle and the knish. I had no connection to the egg cream as artifact. What caught my eye in the summer of 1981 was the design of the carts themselves, which were handsomely outfitted in brown signage with white letters and topped with a brown-and-white umbrella. I got an egg cream—a chocolate or vanilla soda with a frothy head, a clean under taste of seltzer—and I liked it.
I would often call the numbers at the bottom of the classified ads and leave a message. I always left a message because I always called on Sunday, and never again. Now, for the first time, I called again on Monday. I talked to the owner of the New York Egg Cream Company for a while. We quickly moved past the idea of buying the company and started talking about a single cart. Part of his problem, he said, was that he had built more carts than he had room for on his two trucks. At first, we discussed my buying a cart outright, but then we agreed I would lease it. The one condition was that I set up at least two blocks from his other carts. I had already scouted it all out—his northernmost spot was 52nd Street. I said I would set up on 54th Street and 6th Avenue.
I turned 17 shortly before the school year ended. Shortly thereafter I began working my egg-cream cart. I set up on the avenue in front of what was then the ABC TV building. A hot-dog man was on the corner. I claimed the spot in front of the first of three large planters. A week or so after I arrived, a Chipwich guy showed up and took the second planter. Then another cart took the third planter. In the afternoons a Lebanese guy with a thick mustache would unfurl a blanket and sell counterfeit handbags between the Chipwich guy and me. For the first week I shouted, “Egg creams! Egg creams! Get your egg creams!” like a madman, until I lost my voice. By then I had sold a few. The dollar bills accumulated. I settled into a rhythm.
The June days lengthened. I had no one to tell me to go home and call it a day. Sometimes I lingered there on the relatively empty avenue, making a few late sales, just for the pleasure of being able to. I was in charge of this little company. I was its only employee.
I had, by then, a weirdly loving relationship with Midtown Manhattan. The previous summer I had only lasted three weeks as a bike messenger before I convinced the owners of Speedy Messenger Service to let me be a salesman, whereupon I put on a jacket and used my father’s old briefcase to cold-call mail rooms of large corporations, asking for meetings. Now and then I got one. Sometimes in the evenings I would change into shorts and a T-shirt and coast down on my bicycle to sit on a huge granite bench at the base of the Exxon building, where I would smoke a joint.
Then, with a Walkman on, I would begin to coast among the floating debris that the mass exodus of workers had left behind. The bags and papers and cups drifted in circles, pulled by an unseen wind moving through the grand plazas that sat at the base of the huge glass monoliths of 6th Avenue. I circled with it on my bicycle, following the swirling debris like a dancer pirouetting in the dust of a just-vanished stampede. There was something about the enormity of the buildings, the density of it all, that made me seem very small and safe—a solitary molecule pulsing through the bloodstream of the world, present yet hardly noticed—a feeling I very much enjoyed, even craved. Midtown was full of places where you could feel hidden in plain sight.
The messenger summer led to the egg-cream summer. I now see—in both cases—one finds a way of dealing with the enormity of the city, and the world, the Borges sense of endlessness, by throwing oneself into it within a kind of lifeboat. In my case, the boat was my messenger bike and later, the egg-cream cart. That summer I had the shopkeeper’s epiphany that it took about four days each week to earn back my expenses. And then, on Thursdays, I would cross into a zone in which every additional dollar I pocketed would stay in my pocket. When the July days began to shorten, I began to stay past dark, moving my cart into Times Square. I worked Saturdays and Sundays, too, taking a spot in front of a famous diamond jeweler on 5th Avenue until the hot-dog guy on the corner, George, ousted me; more specifically, his sons came over, told me to move, threatened me, and when I started talking—“The egg- cream customer is not the same thing as a hot-dog and soda customer!”—George’s son looked up the street for a beat and then turned and punched me very hard in the mouth. I bled on my shirt. My lip got fat. I pushed the cart all the way back to the garage, went to the hospital, and got stitches on the inside of my lip. Throughout this ordeal, I wept copiously until I had no more tears. Then I went back to the garage, got my cart, still with a good amount of cold milk and seltzer and chocolate and vanilla syrup, and pushed it down to Times Square to pick up some of the lost business. I was nestling in the little ship I had built. Bobbing up and down, reminding myself with every beat of my heart and every dollar sale that I could take a blow and keep on going.
The poet Harvey Shapiro remembered the iceman coming down the alley with a big block of ice on his back. In his imagination, in his poem, in my memory of his poem, it is early morning, and the sun finds its way into the alley, hits the block of ice being delivered to Shapiro’s home sometime in the 1920s, making it gleam. The meaning of the image, for me, was that a block of ice would be delivered in the age before refrigerators, and this delivery would be witnessed by a child, and then written about long afterward by a much older man, incredulous that he’d once lived in such a world. I could go check that poem and find the precise wording, but the poem, the image, the feeling, exist within me, even if inaccurately. Fact-checking memory is so perilous.
But that is just what I did recently, when I went online to look at the classified ads in the Sunday New York Times business section from the spring of 1982. I was looking for the specific ad that I responded to from a pay phone in the Mid-Manhattan Library. The one advertising the New York Egg Cream Company.
I found the page, and even before I found the specific ad, I was fascinated by the arrangement of words, the density of the type with its cacophony of needs, hustles, pitches, pleas. It all read like a secret code. What it revealed was the world I experienced on those streets: the signs, the neon, the expectant faces. An analog world functioning with the arrogance of the present tense, unaware of how antiquated it would one day seem. These images from 1982 rushed up in my memory, so foreign yet familiar. I may as well have been standing at the refrigerator, recalling the iceman coming up the alley early in the morning.
Thomas Beller is a writer and associate professor of English at Tulane University. He is a longtime contributor to the New Yorker and also writes for the New York Times, Vogue, Town and Country, and the Threepenny Review, among others. He is author of The Sleep-Over Artist (2000), How to Be a Man: Scenes from a Protracted Boyhood (2005), and J. D. Salinger: The Escape Artist (2014).