Current occupation: Architect, self-employed
Former occupation: Architect, firms in New York, NY
Contact Information: Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia, website boucheronarch.com. His academic degrees are Harvard B. A. in English, and Yale M. Arch. His stories, essays and book reviews appear in Atticus Review, Bangalore Review, Cossack Review, Digital Americana, Harvard Review, New Orleans Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Outside In Literary & Travel, Poydras Review and other magazines.
Ice Cream Turkeys
My first day on the job at Baskin-Robbins, I practice scooping ice cream from the tubs in the display case. The metal scoop has a button in the ball to nudge the ice cream. Squeeze a lever on the handle to move the button. Weigh the balls of ice cream on a scale. Three ounces—no more, no less.
Peg, the other employee on duty, tends to customers. The scoops rest in a trough of warm water. Rinse them, and rinse the troughs with a jet to clean the water. Fran, the manager, shows me how to pack a pint carton.
“Don’t hack and dig—lift gently. If you pack it tight, you compress the air out of the ice cream, and that lowers the quality. If you pack it loose, the pint is underweight. Customers come back and complain when they find an air pocket.”
I practice packing pints. By the third carton, I get the knack.
“Now I will teach you how to make a real, honest-to-god, old-fashioned ice cream soda. Start with plain vanilla ice cream.”
Fran shows me how to add syrup and soda, how to use the electric mixer, and what the result should look like. I suck my ice cream soda through a bright plastic straw.
Fran shows me how to make a milkshake, a sundae, and a banana split; the two types of cone, plain and sugar; and the tiny pink plastic taste spoons. A Baskin-Robbins innovation, the spoon allows the customer to get a free sample, as many as they want. For that matter, employees can eat as much ice cream as they want.
“Go ahead,” Fran says, “make a pig of yourself. After the first day, you won’t want any more.”
I did not eat lunch, the training has lasted more than an hour, and I am famished.
“When there are no customers, and you are caught up with restocking, I want you to clean. Butterfat in the ice cream gets on the glass, the ceramic tile walls, everything. Mop the floor. Customers drip on it, and they track in dirt from the street. When you have nothing to do, what do you do?”
“Peg will show you how to work the cash register. I have to get to work in my dark, airless cubbyhole. One more thing. Ice cream is a treat, and Baskin-Robbins is a fun place. Would it kill you to smile?”
“Prices are posted on the wall,” Peg says. She has a tired expression and never smiles. “Memorize them. Don’t turn away from customers. When you give change, count aloud from the amount of the sale up to the amount they gave you. Put it in a hand, not on the counter. If they ask for a receipt, fine. Otherwise, don’t.”
It is September 1976, New Haven, Connecticut. The store is on Chapel Street in the center of the city. Fran and Peg are townies, in their late twenties. I am a Yale graduate student, twenty-four years old. Relations between townies and students are guarded.
Steve, the store owner, interviewed me at the store last week. He is lean and focused, a former Marine. He looks to be in his thirties.
“I have no hobbies” he said. “I read only for news. I belong to no church, club or political party. This is my life. I’m an entrepreneur.”
When the coast is clear, I scoop myself some ice cream. I try butter pecan, mint chocolate chip, coffee, peach, double fudge, raspberry swirl, daiquiri ice. The colors are intense: deep brown, flaming pink, sea green and sky blue. My stomach rebels. Fran was right.
The store smells strongly of sugar and cream. The banks of fluorescent lights overhead are as bright and cold as the arctic. I close my eyes for relief. In my baggy uniform of brown pants, white shirt with a broad pink stripe, and logo cap, I make a poor impression.
“Get a grip,” Fran says. “Adjust the cap so it doesn’t fall over your face. There’s a strap in back. Maybe I can find another shirt in back, a smaller size. You look sloppy. And sleepy.”
I roll up the bottom of my pant legs to avoid tripping. Hidden behind the display case, they can’t be seen. To settle my stomach, I drink plain water. I am still hungry.
When she has a moment, Fran shows me the Bally Box, the walk-in freezer in back. Dozens of five-gallon tubs are stored on wire shelves, big cardboard cylinders with names stamped on them: Pralines ‘n Cream, Jamoca, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Baseball Nut. Some of the tubs are coated with frost. There are plastic buckets of buttercream icing, tubes of dye, boxes of cones, and boxes of supplies like paper napkins. In less than a minute, we shiver.
“I need a smoke,” Fran says.
Steve is in the store to sign checks, monitor inventory, and do other business. He is growing a beard. In one week it is already thick. Fran watches as he runs me through a drill. I scoop, weigh, pack a pint, make a sundae, make an ice cream soda, and work the cash register for an imaginary order. At the end, I hold my scoop at parade rest.
Steve turns to Fran.
“He got the basics. Don’t forget to void the transaction on the register.” He heads to the office.
“Does he ever relax?” I ask.
“Silly question,” Fran says. “I’ve worked for Steve for five years. He delegates the daily operations, and I do bookkeeping for his other business ventures.”
He leaves with a stack of papers.
“Overworked and underpaid,” Fran says. “But I keep him out of financial hot water. And I get to order peons like you around. I’m naturally bossy. Can you tell?”
“Is Steve married?” I ask.
Fran snorts. Does this mean yes or no?
“Are you?” I ask.
“No, but it’s sweet of you to ask. No boyfriend, either. Maybe it’s the facial hair. I have a better mustache than the men I date. And bigger balls.”
When Fran catches up with paperwork, she decorates ice cream cakes. The cakes are round or square, vanilla or chocolate, decorated with buttercream icing in swags, ruffles and flowers. The store sells them by custom order. Fran keeps a few on hand for emergencies. With a squirt gun, she has inscribed “Happy Birthday” on one in a flowing script. The roses look real, in shades of yellow, pink and white, with green base petals and stems. They even have thorns, little spikes of brown amid the dizzy swirl of sugar.
“My specialty,” Fran says. If you stick around long enough, I’ll teach you how to make them. We all need a little oomph in our lives. Roses made of sugar and shortening—what could be more heartfelt?”
Some Yale college students are in the store, back from summer vacation. They read the names of flavors aloud, laugh, ask for a taste of this and that, and agonize over what to order. I smile, dole out pink plastic spoons, and hover with my scoop.
“You can mix flavors,” I say. “The prices are 35 cents for one scoop, 65 for two, 95 for three. Cone or paper cup, same price.”
A girl dressed in Army green and camouflage exclaims over one of the seasonal flavors: “Ah, Baskin-Robbins at its most synthetic!” She orders one scoop of vanilla.
I try not to stare at the girl. Each student pays, and they exit the store, laughing and licking their ice cream cones. They linger on the sidewalk in the late summer sun, then drift away.
“Get a grip,” Fran mutters.
Later the same day, students enter from my graduate school class, including Lisa. Lisa is married, from Long Island. We are next-door neighbors, in third floor apartments in shabby houses behind the Yale gymnasium. Lisa’s husband Tim is exactly my size. He borrowed my suit for a job interview and returned it pressed and dry cleaned. He got the job.
“What are you doing here?” she asks.
“What do you think? Scooping ice cream. Would you like a taste?”
“No, I always get the same thing, Rocky Road. It’s unhealthy, but aren’t they all? One scoop in a sugar cone, please. I might as well go all the way.”
We exchange ice cream and money. Lisa lingers as the other students leave. She licks her treat thoughtfully.
“Do you really need this job?” she asks. “Check with financial aid. They have all kinds of scholarships, teaching assistant gigs, little pots of money for the asking.”
One evening, the store is crowded after a nearby movie theater lets out. The theater shows “blaxploitation” films. The downtown population of New Haven is mainly black. A child of the suburbs, I have little experience with race. I work quickly to serve customers in the order they came in, glancing from faces down to ice cream and up to faces. I mistake one woman for another, and she takes offense.
“We all look alike to you, don’t we?”
“Sorry, ma’am. I got distracted.” I placate her, ring up the sale, and move on.
My work partner for the night shift is Stanley. As we slide our bodies in the narrow aisle behind the display case, he avoids colliding, and he reaches around or past me with ease.
“This is nothing compared to a restaurant,” he says. “I worked as a galley slave and on the floor as a waiter. Waiter is better. The tips are good money, but watch out for crank customers. They can ruin your night. Plus, the kitchen screws up your orders, so you have to check each plate before you serve it.”
Stanley has slick, black hair and a breezy manner. He ought to be in a nightclub, dressed in a tuxedo. Instead, his shirt is spattered with ice cream. The glare of the fluorescent lights makes him look thin and washed out. The glass hood of the display case makes a loud thump when I drop it, missing his wrist.
“That thing can do serious damage,” he says. He shows me how to open and close it with the least effort. When the store empties, Stanley does not restock or straighten up or clean. He talks. He has no point to make, no story to tell, and no strong opinions, but silence is a threat. Out of boredom, he lights a cigarette.
I busy myself with chores, wiping the glass and tile until they sparkle.
The store is crowded, I am in the middle of a transaction at the cash register, and the customer asks me to change a twenty dollar bill. Peg is busy at the far end of the counter.
The customer is a young black man from out of town. He wears a silk scarf knotted at the throat. He keeps up a stream of talk, while others wait behind him. As I close the register, I sense that something went wrong. I serve the next customer and the next, and I forget about the incident.
“The register tally was twenty dollars short,” Fran says the next day. “That usually means someone is stealing from the till. I’m not accusing you, but I have to answer to Steve.”
I tell Fran about the man with the scarf.
“A quick change artist! They roll through looking for an easy target, and you were it. Didn’t Peg show you? Always place the customer’s money on top, like so. Do one transaction at a time, and close the register after each transaction. If they ask you to change a bill, politely ask them to wait, and finish what you’re doing. Close the register. Then if there’s no one waiting, you can make change.”
“If it happens again, I have to take it out of your pay.”
Steve calls a staff meeting. It is timed between the day and night shifts, five o’clock. Four of us stand in back, near the Bally Box, with one employee up front to serve customers. Fran stands at Steve’s side, holding a clipboard. Steve now has a full beard, dark brown, and he wears a Marine windbreaker.
He reviews employee rules, like punching time cards in the wall clock beside him, how taxes are withheld from paychecks, and the schedule for raises. For the first three months, an employee is on probation. Steve mentions the quick change artist and the daily register tally.
“I want all of you to try harder, be more accurate when ringing up sales and making change. No loans from the till. No smoking in the store.”
“Now, about the tub count. At the start and end of each shift, you count the tubs in the Bally Box, and you record the number on this log. Some of you are not doing this.” He looks at me. “Inventory is down one tub. If someone is stealing ice cream, I will find out.”
“No one told me about the tub count,” I say.
Steve looks suspicious, but he lets it go. After some business with Fran, he leaves.
“What would I do with a five-gallon tub of ice cream?” I ask. “It wouldn’t fit in my refrigerator.”
“You’d be surprised. People sell them, or throw a wild party, or repackage the goods like a drug dealer. Black market Baskin-Robbins—it’s the biggest secret in the ice cream world.”
In November, as Thanksgiving looms, Fran tells us to make ice cream turkeys. A novelty dessert, they are wildly popular. Fran already has a dozen orders, and she expects dozens more before the big day.
“This is how to fill slack time. I still want you to clean, but I need to stockpile turkeys. You start with a melon mold. You fill it with Jamoca Almond Fudge, cover the open side with wax paper, and store it in the Bally Box.”
“Later, you invert the mold, add two sugar cones for drumsticks, and glaze the bird. As a final touch, I add stitches in buttercream icing and a ruffle on each drumstick. Here’s a picture of the result. Isn’t that special?”
“How many should I make?”
“As many as you can. A week before Thanksgiving, we go into production mode. I’ve stayed here until midnight, decorating my heart out, doing stitches with my eyes closed. The Bally Box is stuffed with turkeys.”
“Are they a money maker?”
“You better believe. Steve likes that.”
“What about you?”
“I get paid for overtime. As an artistic medium, I prefer decorating cakes.”
Ice cream has the following composition by weight: 10 to 16% butterfat, 12 to 16% sweetener, 55 to 64% water, 9 to 12% milk solids, and less than 1% stabilizer and emulsifiers, which prevent fat and water from separating. By volume, ice cream contains as much as half air. Sherbet contains dairy products and egg white. Sorbet contains only fruit juice and ice. Baskin-Robbins sells all three types of frozen confection.
The company was founded by Burt Baskin and Irv Robbins in Glendale, California, in 1953. From the beginning, the store featured thirty-one flavors. The recipes are a closely guarded secret. Fran has all the facts at her fingertips. She attended a training seminar for managers.
“That was when I was gung-ho for Baskin-Robbins. Now, I’m just a jaded employee.”
She is teaching me how to make roses. Mine look like drippy lumps.
“You need to get a feel for the pastry tube, how to hold it. Not to mention what a rose petal looks like.”
Gracefully, with perfect economy, she forms a rose.
“You make it look easy.”
“Also, the buttercream has to be the right temperature. Cold and you can’t squeeze it, warm and it sags instead of holding the shape. Your tube has been out of the freezer too long. That’s why your petals plop.”
I arrive at the store at five o’clock for the night shift. It is late November, and the sky is getting dark. Fran has her coat on.
“Last minute change of personnel,” she says. “Stanley called in sick, so you’ll be working with Mark. Mark is new, you’re in charge. Do you know the store procedures, how to lock up, and so on?”
“Crash course.” She hands me a key. “This is the front door. If there’s an emergency—a fire, earthquake, burst water main—call that number on the wall. That’s Steve’s home phone. Don’t call the police or the fire department. Any questions good I don’t have time to answer I’m out of here ciao!”
I am still in my coat, holding a key in my palm, blinking in the fluorescent glare.
“Hi,” I say to Mark.
“So you just started?”
“With any luck, it will be a quiet night.” I walk to the back to punch in and take off my coat. I return to the street door and try the key in the lock. It fits.
Customers straggle in. I straighten up and clean, while Mark studies a high school physics textbook. Thanksgiving is past, so we no longer have to make ice cream turkeys. When the movie theater lets out, we have a flurry of customers, and I lose myself in the activity. I look up to serve the last customer, a man in a sportcoat. He produces a handgun and points it at me.
“Take all the money out of the register, and put it in a paper bag.”
His voice is even, his manner is calm. He looks middle class. The gun looks larger than the ones on television.
Mark is frozen, I see from the corner of my eye. It is about eight o’clock, and people are passing on the sidewalk. Maybe someone will enter the store, I think, witness the scene or scare the man away.
He wags the barrel of the gun.
I hunt for a paper bag. Normally, there is a stack under the counter near the cash register, white paper bags printed with Baskin-Robbins polka dots. Tonight, all I find is a flimsy plastic bag printed with “Thank You!” I spot a brown paper grocery bag wedged in a crack.
“Is this okay?”
“Yes. Hurry up.”
I open the cash register, place all the dollar bills in the bag, then the rolled coin.
“Do you want the loose change?”
“Clean it out.”
I scrabble the coins from the drawer and dump them in the bag. I fold the top and push it across the counter. The man grabs it with his free hand.
“Don’t try anything,” he says, as he walks sideways to the street door, still pointing the gun in my direction. He exits, looks to the right, and turns left.
My heart is racing. I exhale, try to calm down. It’s over and no one got hurt. A woman enters the store.
“A pint of Cherry Jubilee, please.”
“I’m sorry ma’am, but the store was just robbed. I have to close.”
“Can’t I just get . . .”
“Sorry.” I usher her out the double glass door and turn the key in the lock. The bolt has shot, but a small push bows the two leaves. It would be easy for someone to break in.
“Mark, do you know how to do this?”
I return to the counter. The phone is a pay phone. I fish in my pants pocket, find the right coins, and insert them. I dial the number on the wall. It rings ten times, and I hang up. I try again. On the sixteenth ring, Steve answers.
“The store was robbed at gunpoint.”
“How much money did they take?”
“I have no idea.”
“Did you do much business tonight?”
“Some. I can’t figure out how to lock the street door.”
“Stay there. I’ll drive into town.”
Twenty minutes later, Steve appears, wearing his Marine windbreaker. He glances around the store.
“What about the lockbox?” he asks.
He shows me the lockbox, which is screwed to the underside of the counter, hidden below the cash register.
“In the course of a night shift, you slip large bills into it. That reduces the amount of cash in the register in case of a robbery. I have the only key.”
He opens the lockbox, which is empty. He shows me the bolts at the top and bottom of the street door. They slide into the head and sill of the frame to fix one leaf of the double door.
“You guys can go home. It’s almost nine o’clock.”
Mark and I punch out, put on our coats, and return to the front.
“I had an employee who got robbed once,” Steve says. “He jumped over the counter and chased the crook down the street, shouting.”
The financial aid office runs a referral service for architectural odd jobs, small free-lance projects. Mrs. Grant gives me the name of a couple who want to finish their basement. They hire me to measure the raw space and draw a plan. The billing rate is three times the hourly wage at Baskin-Robbins. Lisa was right.
I walk into Baskin-Robbins with the brown pants and the pink-and-white shirt neatly folded.
“I washed them,” I say to Fran.
“So, armed robbery was not in the job description. What can I say? Did you go to the police?”
“They sat me down in a cubicle with a binder of mug shots. The man may have been from out of town. He wasn’t in the binder. It’s unlikely he will be caught.”
“You were at the end of three months’ probation. You would have gotten a raise. Steve likes you.”
“Go figure. He’s not good at expressing emotion.”
“What about the loss from the robbery?”
“Peanuts. It hardly made a dent in the balance sheet. Besides, insurance covers it. An ordinary business expense.”
“It wasn’t ordinary to me.”
“Oh! Remember the missing tub? The police raided Stanley’s house and found it in a chest freezer. Steve fired him.”
“How did the police knew where to look?”
“An anonymous tip. Like I told you, ice cream is hot.”
Fran is decorating an ice cream cake with sprigs of green holly and red berries.
“Actually, I’ll be leaving, too.”
“What will you do?”
“Attend culinary school to become a pastry chef.”
“Have you told Steve?”
“Not yet. Maybe after the new year. I can’t leave him in the lurch. Besides, who wants to be unemployed for the holidays?”
Fran sets down the pastry tube and lifts the cake she has just decorated.
“Now, is that a masterpiece or what?”