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Archive for March, 2011

Encounters with ice cream stand tall among my strongest childhood memories. I’ll never forget the rush of excitement that accompanied the approach of the ice cream man into our neighborhood, bells ching-a-linging on his white truck with its freezer packed with an array of wondrous frozen treats.

An illustration of Elsie the Cow, the Borden Dairy mascot, adorned the truck’s side, reminding us of her vital contributions in helping satisfy my and my friends’ collective craving for creamy sweets. Those brief stops of the ice cream truck on our street presented my first decision-making experiences: Fudge bar? Ice cream cup? Popsicle (orange, lime, cherry or grape?) Or ice cream cone in the snug paper wrapper?

Ice cream delivered direct on a hot summer day. There was nothing like it.

Several familiar dairies churned out ice cream for us in New Jersey, but the PenSupreme brand sticks in my mind. (Consulting Google, I discovered the company still exists, based in Lancaster, Pa.). I especially liked their vanilla and chocolate ice cream cups, the chocolate providing semi-sweet contrast to the vanilla’s pure sweetness. And if you let it sit just a little bit, the creamy melted-ness made it even more fun.

We had a local Dairy Queen, a little walk-up business that quickly dispensed soft-serve cones, dishes and milkshakes for consumption in your car. You could take them home, but they’d be soupy by the time you arrived.

But my most vivid memory of all is of Costa’s ice cream parlor, on French Street in downtown New Brunswick. My mom was the kind of person that never met a stranger, so she and Mrs. Costa had struck up a friendship. Seems like mom, my sister Ida and I visited there at least once a week, maybe more often.

There were “5 &10’s” in town – Newberry’s and Woolworth’s – predecessors of today’s huge department stores. They featured soda fountains that served not only ice cream and shakes, but also hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches and fries. However, for me Costa’s was the best: cozy, friendly, casual.

I remember dishes of ice cream, served in icy tin bowls, or real milkshakes made with one of those machines with a steel rod that spun milk and ice cream together in tall metal mixing cups. The creamy, frothy drinks it produced never failed to delight.

Costa’s was more than an ice cream store, however. It was a “variety store,” selling an assortment of stuff ranging from toys, baseball cards, and cheap jewelry to handy household items, combs and brushes, and my favorite – comic books. Back then Superman, Popeye, Archie and Little Lulu comics only cost 10 cents each. Once in awhile they arrived at the store in “giant” sizes, priced at 25 cents apiece.

I was an avid book reader, but comic books were my special vice. Whenever I was ill, perhaps with a cold or a virus and had to stay home from school, my mom would drive to Costa’s and soon return with an armload of comic books. Made it almost fun to get sick!

For me, Costa’s was mostly a place to receive stuff. But one Christmas it was where I found something neat to give. “Christian home” was not a term we ever used to describe our family surroundings. But my mother loved records (the old 33 and 45 rpm vinyls, played on real record players) with hymns sung by people like Tennessee Ernie Ford and Teresa Brewer. She also liked religious artwork.

So leading up to that Christmas, I had diligently saved my weekly allowance (I think I got 25 cents a week) and went to Costa’s to buy a replica of Leonardo daVinci’s “The Last Supper” that had been hanging on a wall for sale there. The artwork had a light mounted at the top of the frame so it could be viewed at all times, day or night.

Mom loved that picture and for years displayed it proudly in our living room, visible day and night for all to see. The original painting by da Vinci is world famous, of course, even subject of some controversy today, thanks to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. But all I knew back then was it seemed like a nice picture of Jesus depicted in a familiar Bible scene.

One other thing: In da Vinci’s painting, no one’s eating ice cream.

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Saturday evenings were “bath night” in the Tamasy household. Today I scarcely miss a day without a shower, but back then we just took once-a-week baths. I guess we didn’t get as dirty in those days. Just “sponge bath” during the week, then a complete dip into the tub on Saturday.

But the steamy bath, long enough to wrinkle fingertips and toe tips like prunes, actually was the prelude to the big event – gathering in the living room with my mom, dad and sister in front of the television set to watch the newest broadcast of “Perry Mason.” I’ll never forget the ominous strains of the show’s theme song, “Duh-duh dahhhhh, dun-DUN!”

We would gather on or in front of our couch, its floral slipcover concealing time-worn armrests and cushions that had remained quite serviceable, if not nearly as appealing to the eye as they had been at one time. Decorative slipcovers could add years to old furniture.

Every Saturday night viewing was accompanied by the scent of Charles Antell hair cream – greasy goop Mom applied faithfully to my hair, post-shampoo. For what reason, I really don’t know. After all, throughout the week I had been applying Brylcreem religiously – you know, “a little dab’ll do ya”? Maybe she just felt I also needed a different kind of dab – whatever Mr. Antell’s concoction was made of. Nevertheless, I would sit patiently in front of Mom on our red, low-nap carpet as she rubbed the cream into my scalp.

But the legal mystery was the highlight of the night – and often, the entire week. We would watch with fascination as Perry (portrayed by the inimitable, hulking Raymond Burr), aided by his faithful secretary, Della Street, and detective Paul Tragg, unraveled the case through courtroom testimony to reveal the perpetrator’s true identity and motive. Whether it was “The Case of the Bullied Bowler,” “The Case of the Glittering Goldfish” or “The Case of the Scarlet Scandal,” you knew Perry would get his man (or woman). You just weren’t sure how.

Peering over our shoulder from shadow boxes on the wall between our living room and the stairway to my room upstairs were porcelain figurines my mother had collected during the years she spent in Germany while my father was serving in the Army. Gaily decorated ballerinas and dancers, crinolines flaring beneath their tiny skirts, stood in rapt attention as Perry’s nemesis, District Attorney Hamilton Burger, tried in vain to trip up the adept defender. When the verdict was rendered, I almost expected them to pirouette in delight. But they never did.

Usually the experience was capped off with a bowl of popcorn, which Dad popped fresh for the occasions in a large pan in the adjoining kitchen. Nothing like the aroma of hot, newly made popcorn, doused with melted butter and generously seasoned with salt. Those buttery servings ultimately might have contributed to the cardiac miseries my family encountered in later years, but that’s a matter for another day.

Perry Mason, popcorn and Charles Antell pomade. Now, those were the days!

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