The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street
We'd been in America just three months when the horse ran over me. I don't know exactly how old I was. Six perhaps? When I was born, they didn't keep records. All I remember was running down Hester Street, looking for Papa. Overhead, a bleached sky was flanked by rooftops, iron fire escapes. Pigeons circled, street peddlers shouted, chickens squawked; there was the strange, rickety calliope of the organ-grinder. Great upheavals of dust swirled around the pushcarts, making the shop signs swing back and forth like flags. I heard a clop, then I was tumbling. There was a split-second flash of hoof, then a white-hot bolt of pain. Then: nothing.
The horse that trampled me was pulling a penny-ices cart. What a peculiar twist of fate that turned out to be, no? If I'd been crippled by, say, a rag man or a coal vendor, I would never have become Lillian Dunkle, as the world knows her today. Certainly, I would never have become a legend at all.
The public, however, always assumes that my fortunes are due solely to my husband. Oh, how the media hates its queens. How it begrudges us! That horrible photograph the newspapers keep running nowthe one that makes me look like Joan Crawford getting an enemais all the proof you need. So quick they are to judge!
But let me tell you, darlings: the Wonder Tundra, with chocolate chips, rainbow sprinkles, M&M's, or chopped peanuts mixed in to order. Our signature novelty cake, the Nilla Rilla, molded into the shape of our trademark cartoon monkey, coated in shaved coconut with the secret cookie-crunch layer inside. We'd first marketed this for birthdays and Father's Day, but do you realize how many of you ordered versions of this for your weddings? We did one custom cake for a reception out in Syosset that fed 215 people. It would've made the Guinness Book of World Records if Bert had remembered the goddamn camera.
The Tower of Sprinkles. The Mint Everest. The Fudgie Puppie. All of theseall of these, millions sold every yearwere my concoctions, my ideas. In our heyday we had 302 stores nationwide. We revolutionized production, franchising, marketing. You think this was an accident? President Dwight D. Eisenhower himself once christened me "The Ice Cream Queen of America." I have the signed photograph of us (with Mamie, of courseall pearls and bad teeth) shaking hands in the Rose Garden. I'm wearing my first-ever Chanel suit, too, very nearly the color of strawberry ice cream. (And this was years before Jackie Kennedy, thank you!) Today I have no fewer than three dozen engraved plaques, trophies, ribbons. A cut-glass bowl. Even a ghastly pewter commemorative ashtrayhow I'd love to give it away, except what do you do with something with your name on it from the Children's Association for Diabetes Research, for God's sake? Plus an entire wall of certificatesfrom the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce. The American Dairy Association. Dow Chemical. Even the Institute of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, India. Yogis love ice cream, apparently. Who knew?
Yet when people hear my name now, all they think of are sordid headlines. A single incident on live television. Claims of tax evasion and an arrestwrongful, too, need I remind you? Un- funny jokes on Johnny Carson, that schlemiel. You want funny? Please. I know from funny.
Just yesterday my grandson informed me that I'm even an answer in the latest edition of Trivial Pursuit. "Wow, Grandma, how awesome is that?" he said. Live long enough, I suppose, you see everything. But it's a witch-hunt. WPIX was only a local station, for God's sake. And we aired at 7:00 a.m. on a Sundaya Sunday! And maybe I had had a few drinks. But darlings, you try hosting a kiddie show for thirteen goddamn years. But, oh. I'm getting ahead of myself.
Excerpted from the book The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman. Copyright © 2014 by Susan Jane Gilman. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
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