This essay was published on The Toast in September 2014. The once very popular literary and culture site is now closed, which is why my essay now appears here:
The Emperor of Ice Cream
I first went to Toscanini’s on an August afternoon with my father when I was nineteen. It’s a café in Cambridge, Massachusetts nestled on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and MIT’s brooding campus, Toscanini’s is the hub for study sessions and Central Square locals alike. The halogens are dimmed a little too low for it to be a family joint probably, because there are rarely families around. My dad ordered rocky road, which Toscanini’s calls “Chocolate Sluggo,” and I got a lemonade. I couldn’t tell if it was the smell of ice and caramel or the guy behind the counter, who for whatever reason, smiled and nodded at the tip jar instead of charging us, but I wanted to work there.
Although I grew up in a small city in Western Massachusetts, my Cambridge bloodline begins at a 5n’10 shop that was once on the corner River Street and Mass Ave. My grandparents met there when my grandmother was eighteen and my grandfather was twenty-one. Their children clung to Cambridge, never leaving the outskirts of the Red Line, except for my father. Instead of planting dead roots like his brother and sister, he rambled, trying to make a career in the music business, moving from state to state and eventually going to New York, where he became a mail clerk for EMI records.
My father didn’t stay in New York for long. He came back to Boston and at age twenty-three and started college. Growing up we would take day trips there. We would eat at the pizza shop he used to go to in Harvard Square and walk by the house he squatted in on Hampshire Street. Cambridge was where he joined his first band and met my mother. However, my Cambridge wasn’t the same vagabonding music-making haven as it was his. My Boston was a gray stress pit where I was just meant to study. Radiating boredom, a quiet city for only the academically obsessed – my struggle began the moment I moved there.
Moving to Cambridge after a summer of working overtime in retail in Provincetown was more of a respite than I expected. There was no ocean breeze, but I didn’t have a job so I spent my summer money on reubens from S&S Deli, half-nocciola half-chocolate milk shakes from Toscanini’s, and paint for my new bedroom walls. My father and his friend drove a van filled with furniture to my new apartment. I was going to start college that fall and study theater design, a teenage dream of mine. But I couldn’t ignore the feeling that my move to Boston felt like a shuddering mistake - one where there was no escape mainly because I was in school. College was a binary fear. The monotony, the requisite classes, the tests and the social posturing were all things I secretly dreaded. Yet, at the same time I was terrified of what it meant to not go, to never have a college degree.
At nineteen I was an impeccably packaged mess. I was in love with Buddhism and meditated two hours a day, ran two hours a day, and I went to class and work in between. Once I went out to brunch with a girl from class and I remember thinking how bizarre it felt to just hang out. My roommate was my only friend and we spent the better part of our time at home battling a mice infestation. Also, my dad was dying of cancer, and there wasn’t a single part of me that wanted to believe it.
Growing up, my father was obsessive in the most deliberate, caring way. He ate the same vegetarian frozen dinner every night. He adorned the kitchen windowsills with an array of empty Vitamin Water bottles that he had refilled with water of various food colors. My father always stayed up later than my sister and I - playing music or out performing with his band at bars. He coaxed me into making bumper stickers that said “peace train take me home again” with a picture of Cat Stevens in jest of our hippie neighbors. He worked compulsively, often sixty hours a week at his therapy practice, and my sister and I would half-joke that he cared more about his patients then us. One Christmas, he gave his state-appointed patients Cuban cigars that the three of us had smuggled back from our vacation to Jamaica. Sometimes he paid me to sew and patch up ripped stitches on the stuffed animals that belonged to his child clients.
I don’t think Toscanini’s has the right to call itself a non-profit, but for as long as I was there a profit was never made. Every night the till was under. Gus, the portly middle-aged owner, encouraged us to give out ice cream to those who seemed nice or attractive, worked in academics or a liberal media outlet, or were just our friends and regulars. Perhaps half the people were paying customers but during slow hours when tips were low, we might act a little soft – doling out ice cream and coffee to just anybody in exchange for extra tips.
The people who know Gus are the people who romanticize the smell of the ink from the Boston Globe wafting down Mass Ave on the weekends. They’re also the ones who actually get the paper delivered. Gus is a portly guy breaching the end of middle age, a kind weird uncle figure. The way he made ice cream was like an old Indian woman cooking chai: he would measure the ingredients in handfuls and chuck them into the ice-cream machine, usually while telling a story or singing along to a Smokey Robinson record.
I was unstable but so was everybody else who worked at Toscanini’s. Propped up on a cot in the ICU, my father was my unconscious audience as I recounted stories about my coworkers. There was Steve, the long-time manager and closeted heroin addict, Henry, a fifteen-year old bulimic dancer who had been kicked out of his home in the projects and now lived with a teacher. Sara, a pathological liar, who would enthrall us with her incredibly tall tales of her adventures in the army, multiple abortions and famous musician boyfriends. And Rory, who owed nearly $100,000 in student loans, worked eighty hours a week between two jobs and was the most miserable person I’d ever met.
Two miles away from Toscanini’s at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, my father slept, eighteen, twenty hours a day. He would awake in startled fits, always alarmed that he was stuck in a hospital bed. His motor skills had withered to the point where he was hardly mobile and his speech had become mute and hollow. He was like a pancake on a hot skillet - bubbling and animate for maybe a minute or two and then silent and still. Now nearly unrecognizable, my father, who as long I had been alive had never worked for anybody but himself, whose loud laugh and howling temper once threatened the tense silence of Brigham Circle, was now a human pancake.
During the last handful of years of his life my father became one of those unruly cool dads, perhaps exceptionally unruly. My sister and I had no curfews and he would congratulate us when we regaled him with stories of crazy nights out. After he and my mother divorced, he bought a house that he spent hours decorating. Each wall was covered in framed photographs, pictures of Red Sox players, portraits of musicians, and paintings. On weekends, his band would rehearse in our living room, beckoning complaints from the neighbors. Months before he died, he suggested that I drop out of school and do something worthwhile, like make a film or bicycle cross-country. Things that I wanted to do, but were always stifled by the feeling that college was some inexplicable gift, a privilege, and I should get it over with.
When you’ve led a life marred only by inconveniences it’s hard to imagine something actually awful happening. Time hit my father’s body fast. He went from a fifty-eight to a ninety-eight over the course of a few months. The stem-cell transplant had deflated his immune system. He was frail, and his thoughts were slow, muddled with medicine. When we went on walks he was like a fly treading through water, slow and persistent. Still, I thought it was a phase that his body would eventually drift out of. Then pneumonia hit, a storm that rendered him unconscious for nearly two months.
On July 11th, I woke up to a voicemail from my dad’s fiancée. Things are very grave, was all she said. I hopped on my bike and bolted over the Harvard Bridge, down Longwood Ave, ignoring all lights and my peripheral vision. I told myself that the ride to Brigham and Women’s would be a metaphor for my father’s health: If I survive then he will too. It was a superstitious prayer. I arrived unscathed, but my father had suffered a stroke in the middle of the night and was in his final hours.
After my father’s wake, Gus told me I could come into work as much or as little as I wanted. I finally took my dad’s advice and dropped out of school, and I started working all the time. I would let customers’ orders spin around my brain and push out the thoughts of my father. I liked it when people would ask me how I was, and I would churn the word “OK” around in my mouth, suck on it a little and hope that when I finally spit it out it might become a little true.
I started eating egg and cheese sandwiches every day. I ate grapenut ice cream for breakfast during the morning shift, and salty caramel ice cream for dinner when I worked nights. I got fat. A few times I walked instead of drove the three miles to work in a savagely gusty snowstorm. I slept no less than eleven hours every night. I dated an alcoholic insomniac who talked about music in the same incessant, annoying way my father did.
It was winter and there was no heat in our apartment. I was mourning in a quiet, icy city. I would wake up every day under seven layers of blankets too cold to cry. Then, one day, in the midst of my depression, it realized I could leave. I could quit Toscanini’s. I could abandon Cambridge: the infinite distance of Mass Ave, the still numbingly bleak nights, and the swamps of students. And so I did. I went to New York, perhaps a subconscious way to follow my father’s path, but maybe because I just liked it better. I never returned.