When I was eleven years of age, my family moved to an Italian community in South Brooklyn known as Gravesend, which was located a few miles north of Coney Island. Like any eleven year old kid, my summers were occupied with having fun and keeping cool.
A favorite pastime in many New York neighborhoods was “Stickball.” But to a New York City kid, the mere mention of the word Stickball, would conjure up an image of the ball which was used in this game: a little pink, high-bouncing, rubber ball made by the Spalding Sports Equipment Company.
We called it the “Spaldeen.” The Spaldeen was much like a tennis ball, except without the fuzz. It was also soft, allowing a fielder to catch it with his bare hands, thus eliminating the need for a baseball glove. The Spaldeen seemed to be made for stickball and stickball seemed to be made for the Spaldeen. Even a tennis ball would not have sufficed: it had to be a Spaldeen.
What made the game so attractive was the fact that all you needed, besides the Spaldeen, was a stick, cut from an old broom or mop. There were usually plenty of broom and mop handles lying around but every so often we found ourselves without a Spaldeen, in which case, we would all chip in until we accumulated the price of a new Spaldeen – fifteen cents – then run to the nearest candy store to buy it.
Stickball was usually played in the middle of the street. It required only a few players, possibly four to six. The batter would let the ball bounce once from the ground and then he’d take a swing at it with the stick. Whoever caught the ball would roll it along the ground at considerable speed to the stick lying on the ground in front of the batter. When the ball hit the stick and bounced up, the batter had to catch the ball or forfeit the stick to the player who caught and rolled the ball. In this way, anyone who succeeded in catching the ball had a chance to be the next batter.
Invariably, on hot summer days, we could count on a visit from the iceman who arrived about the same time each day. The Depression was behind us and the war was over but many families were still using iceboxes in their kitchens. Of course, iceboxes needed periodic deliveries of ice and on hot summer days, the iceman proved to be a godsend to the kids in our neighborhood, especially those in the middle of a game of stickball.
The ice truck was basically a small open flatbed with side retention planks. It carried several giant rectangular slabs of ice, standing side by side and covered with canvas to retard the melting process.
It was amazing how accurate the iceman was with his ice pick, cutting the desired size cube of ice. He would cut a large cube from the slab, place a burlap bag over his shoulder, and carry the ice to the customer’s house.
Of course, when the iceman left his truck, anyone with a pocket knife could mount the back of the truck, chip away at a slab, and distribute pieces of ice to his waiting friends in the street. But such acts of thievery were unnecessary because this iceman usually left some pieces of ice within reach near the back of the truck before leaving to deliver a block of ice. In other words, the guy had a heart of gold.
When we got our ice, we would take an ice break, which was far better than a seventh-inning stretch. Each of us, sitting along the curb had the knack for cooling off. We found that it was best to take a bite of the ice and let it melt in the mouth while rubbing the forehead with the rest of it, repeating the process until the ice was completely gone. In this manner, we were able to cool ourselves off both inside and outside at the same time.
We never asked the iceman for ice and he never offered it, but often, as he was leaving to go to his next stop, one of us would yell, “Thanks” and the iceman would respond with a glance over his shoulder and a smile. He was a kind of hero who created lifetime memories without even trying.
When we had money, which wasn’t very often, we would walk to Cuccio’s on Avenue X, where the world’s best Italian ices were sold. As we walked in through the front door, we couldn’t help being distracted by the pleasant aroma of breads and cakes which permeated the air, causing us almost to forget what we came for.
A lady, who also smelled like breads and cakes, would come from behind the counter to scoop out lemon ice from a tub in the freezer. She would pack the lemon ice into small pleated paper cups and top it off into a smooth conical mound. As we left the bakery, each of us was completely absorbed in his own lemon-ice world.
The manner in which we ate lemon ice was the same for all of us. We would start by attacking the mound on top and working our way into the cup. Then we’d squeeze the cup until all the lemon ice was gone and when it was gone, we would open the pleated paper cup into a perfect circle and we would lick the entire inside of the cup, unmindful of anyone who might be staring at us. Our lemon ices were usually gone before we got home.
I probably wouldn’t eat lemon ice like that today, at least not out in public, but at that time, neither my friends nor I were embarrassed about licking the inside of the cup. We were oblivious to anyone watching us because I guess we didn’t care. It was neither a question of pride nor of shame. We were just kids behaving like kids.