Sunday, December 27, 2015

Benny

This photo was supplied by Mike Guarriello on Facebook. I have been looking for a photo of Benny for years! Thanks, Mike! Here's the story.

Ice cream trucks are part of life growing up everywhere; even in Brooklyn. But we didn't have an ice cream truck on Kings Highway; there was too much traffic. But we did have Benny; and his pushcart. 

Usually; in subdivisions such as the one I live in now; there is an ice cream truck that makes the round on weekends, and during the evenings after dinner. You know the type of truck I’m talking about; obnoxious musical chimes heralding the arrival of an old beat up truck which bears absolutely no resemblance to the ice cream trucks of my youth. Those were sturdy, insulated, thick walled vehicles with freezer doors on the sides. And within those doors were delights which I haven’t seen in years.  I'm thinking about the Toasted Almond Crunch bar. And the bench mark of all ice cream trucks was Good Humor. If it wasn't Good Humor, we threw clods of earth at the truck, signaling to the driver that this was marked territory.

That truck was magical to me when I was 3 and 4; but by the time I was 7 years old, I was allowed to walk all the way up to Kings Highway by myself, and that’s when I first met Benny, as well as saw my first ice cream pushcart.  It was hard to get it rolling, but once it was in motion it was equally hard to stop! It wasn't refrigerated like the big trucks. It was cooled with “dry” ice, which was a whole other level of fascination, and mischief, for a 7 year old. But let me tell you a bit about Benny.
Benny was the ice cream man in my neighborhood. His route extended from the corner of Kings Highway and East 14th Street, to Ocean Avenue and then down to Avenue T, where he rented a small garage in back of a single family home. Actually, he just rented a part of the garage; a small corner large enough to store the magical “dry” ice; and a freezer which was replenished as necessary by a big truck. When I was 8 years old I became Benny’s “helper”.

Benny was Jewish, from the Lower East Side; and as such, he really had a lot in common with my Uncle Irving, who had also been raised there. They were about the same age. But that’s where the similarities ended. While Benny used to “hook” school, Uncle Irving actually finished high school. So, while Benny went on to become the neighborhood “Good Humor Man”, my Uncle Irving went on to a career in the Garment District as a furrier. Both men fascinated me, if only for their different lifestyles. Both were bachelors, but economically they were worlds apart. Benny lived in a rented room somewhere, while Uncle Irving lived in the larger hotels in Manhattan.

But, anyway, the story I am trying to tell is about Benny. It was, after all, his pushcart that I’m writing about, and the closest it ever came to fur was the time I hung some raccoon tales from the handlebars. The tails came from Uncle Irving, who used to keep us well supplied with them each year. Wait; he is part of this story.

Benny had two habits in which he liked to indulge. Both interfered with his selling enough ice cream to afford spending his winters in Miami; which is where he always went for the cold season. He liked to bet at the Off Track Betting parlor on East 16th Street, just up from Dubrow’s cafeteria. He also liked to have his hair cut once a week. That’s how I got the job.

I had been buying ice cream from Benny for about 2 years when he first asked me to “cover” for him while he went for a haircut. Being left; as an 8 year old boy; with an unlimited supply of ice cream, plus a pocketful of coins and bills was one of the thrills of my summer days. Benny’s haircuts were legendary for the length of time they took. He could be gone for hours; or merely minutes; depending on how the ponies were running, or ruining, his day. He combined the two errands into one, to “save time”, he used to say. That was fine with me. I would hold forth on Kings Highway and East 14th Street, across the street from Miles Shoes, and only 2 doors down from Byhoff’s Sporting Goods, which also sold records.  They had a speaker outside, so, I even had music while I worked.

The winters in Miami were a source of irritation to my Uncle Irving, who worked ALL year, but could not afford to take the winters off. They were both Jews from the Lower East Side, and my Uncle had gone to the trouble of getting an education and carving out a career for himself, while Benny hung around pool rooms and gambled on horses. The fact that Benny could afford to winter in Miami really rankled him. And that’s why I never told my Uncle the whole story.

You see, while Benny actually did spend his winters in Miami, he was working. Somewhere today, down in Miami, there is someone my age with the same memories as I have of working for the Good Humor Man; because that’s what he did when he went there, he sold ice cream; just like he did during the summer in Brooklyn. I hope, after all these years, that this will make my Uncle feel better about the whole thing.

6 comments:

  1. My favorite was a chocolate eclair. Benny would push the cart in by the pump between 2 apartment houses on Avenue R. He had a bicycle bell? And, I'm stretching my memory, I think I do remember the raccoon tails. I have lots of great memories of growing up around Kings Highway. While I took a great deal of photos at Dubrow's Cafeteria, I wish I had taken more photos around the neighborhood.

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  2. Thanks for the comment. Benny was a character. Do you remember how he used to yell - "Who wants me? Who wants me?" as he made his rounds pushing that cart. And yes he had a bicycle bell. It came from my bike. He was a bit of a derelict in many ways, but a character to be treasured. BTW Chocolate Éclair was my favorite too, until I discovered the Toasted Almond Bar!

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    1. Great story. What was Benny's last name?

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    2. I wish I knew!

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  3. Benny was my ice-cream man as well! I grew up on E. 13th St. between Aves. S & T - and this lanky, wiry, wonderful man who's arm seemed to extend 4 feet down into the "pit" of that ice-cream truck - was our most welcome sight on summer afternoons!! Thanks so much for this terrific piece of local history!!!

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    1. Thanks to Mike Guarriello for the picture. I had a different photo posted before as I did not have a picture of Benny until last night. All hail to the crowd on Facebook- especially the 11229 crowd and Sheepshead Bay Memories.

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