The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street opens in 1913 on a spunky young girl fleeing Russia for New York with her family. Crippled and abandoned on the Lower East Side, she hustles her way into the Italian-ice peddling racket and travels across America in an ice cream truck, building an ice cream empire in a story that spans 70 years. The book examines the immigrant experience, particularly on the Lower East side, and themes of independence and appearance, as the protagonist remains a hard-drinking woman even as she becomes the wholesome “Ice Cream Queen of America.”
Susan Jane Gilman, also the author of best-selling memoir Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, will read at Barnes & Noble UWS tonight at 7 p.m. We spoke to her about childhood shopping treks to the LES, her mentor Frank McCourt, and her favorite places for an ice cream fix.
My grandmother grew up on the Lower East Side—on the corner of Orchard and Grand Streets. She and her parents, my great grandparents, had immigrated from Poland and started off on the LES as peddlers, then gone on to own a little haberdashery. My great grandparents lived above their shop until they died in the late 1950s.
I myself grew up on the Upper West Side (in the ’70s, when it was still very rough and ragged), and my mother used to take us down to Orchard Street twice a year to buy our school and summer clothes. She would always point out where my grandmother had lived, but mostly, I experienced the neighborhood as a series of hot, cheap clothing stores full of zaftig women who pinched my cheeks and told me not to gain any more weight. They thoroughly humiliated me before loading us up with piles of Health-Tex clothing. Afterwards, though, I always got a pickle from Guss’; my reward from my mother. I loved the barrels.
I really wanted to make the streets come alive, with all the squalor, color, stench, and chaos of the early 20th century. And so read everything I could get my hands on—history books, testimonials, memoirs. I walked the streets as they are today. I went to the Tenement Museum several times and took the tours. I reviewed the notes I’d taken when I’d interviewed my grandmother back when she was alive. I interviewed my father, who has vivid memories of all the years he’d spent at his grandparents’ tenement apartment on Orchard…I went to the New York Historical Society…I did everything I could to get a profound sensory understanding of what it had been like to live there from 1913 until the Great Depression, as my protagonist, Lillian Dunkle, did.
It’s now the go-to destination in Manhattan for cool consumerism instead of cheap goods. I was just down there last night, and my jaw dropped when I came across the Rivington Hotel, which looks like something out of James Bond. The dramatic changes are just that—dramatic. There is nothing subtle about the boxy helix of that glass high-rise towering about the old streets—nor the uber-chic bars, the precious boutiques, the gourmet tea shops…. Now, I would love to outfit myself for fall and summer on the LES, but I likely can’t afford to! The days of rag men, tailors and sweatshops are long-gone, of course, but the cheap wholesale clothing stores are falling by the wayside, too. I’m waiting for the double-decker tourist buses to squeeze their way in.
That said, the tenement buildings themselves remain, along with some immigrant enclaves, and the streets are still narrow and humble, somehow. There is a palpable sense of the history, which I love. But now, when I wander through the LES, I try to look up more instead of gazing at the storefronts at street-level. Looking up, you can still see the fire escapes. The rooftops and cornices and the general, gritty silhouettes of the buildings.
Absolutely. They epitomize both the promise and the disillusionment of the immigrant experience. On one hand, these neighborhoods have offered a toehold—a place where people can come and start a new life, sometimes even alongside fellow countrymen. They are famous for being places where you start and leave, which is inherently promising. But also, of course, their reality could not be further from the classic myth of America. Immigrants who arrived on the LES were often stunned by how terrible the conditions were—especially after they’d been sold a lavish bill of goods by the shipping companies. As the Italians used to say: “I heard the streets in America were paved with gold. Little did I know that I’d be doing the paving.”
Considering themes of immigration and migration, how do you feel about the new wave of “immigrants” in lower Manhattan? The ongoing development and gentrification, and the increasing influx of the wealthy and their accoutrements?
The influx of is wealth making it exponentially harder for anyone who is not fantastically wealthy to live here in New York. I suspect that the LES will soon lose its status of an immigrant neighborhood—if it hasn’t already.
You talk about the emblematic appeal of the Statue of Liberty. Do you think it still holds the same promise for newcomers? Or is there perhaps a more fitting symbol or representative landmark for immigrants to America in the modern age?
I still get shudders when I see the Statue of Liberty, but I do wonder how today’s newcomers feel. It seems to me that modern immigrants come to America more for economic reasons than for personal liberty. Maybe I’m a cynic, but I wouldn’t be surprised if our massive shopping malls and supermarkets awe them more than our Lady of the Harbor. The sentimentalist in me hopes I’m wrong.
I have to ask–your book is dedicated to Frank McCourt. Is that THE Frank McCourt? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_McCourt
What’s the story?
Frank McCourt was my high school English teacher, and largely the reason I’m a writer today. When I took his Creative Writing class at Stuyvesant High School, he became my mentor and my champion. He had me submit a piece I’d written to The Village Voice. They published me when I was 16, and paid me $200—more than I’d ever earned in my life. Frank urged me on throughout college and beyond, and we remained friends ever after. The first Irish wake I ever went to, in fact, was for Angela, his mother. He sent me an ARC [Advanced Reader’s Copy] of Angela’s Ashes, and when he won the Pulitzer, I called him to celebrate. “It’s so overwhelming,” he told me. “I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
“Frank,” I said, “look at your childhood. This is the other shoe.”
He was the first person I called when I first made The New York Times’ bestseller list; I cried into his answering machine. Later, we celebrated the launch of Teacher Man together. When I heard he was dying, I flew back to NYC to see him. Now, I miss him every goddamn day. He was that pivotal teacher, that catalyst. I owe him my life, and so I’ve dedicated my novel to him.
To me, ice cream is like sex. Even when it’s not so great, it’s still pretty good. And you’re having it! I am an equal opportunity ice cream eater. I like Breyers and Baskin Robbins and Haagen-Daz and Big Gay Ice Cream and Emack and Bolio’s and the Laboratorio di Gelato and basically anything anyone anywhere wants to concoct. I draw the line, though, at garlic ice cream. I ate it in California; frankly, it was revolting.
Bradley Spinelli (@13_Spinelli) is the author of “Killing Williamsburg.”