Monday, March 16, 2009

Deck the Deck with Boughs of Ice Cream

It’s a sad thing when important parts of your past disappear off the face of the earth. For example, in the last few years the house where I met my wife was torn down to make way for a Walgreen’s. We’ll never be able to go back to that place and relive our first night together. Okay, so the place was a dump and sort of felt like a run-down version of the Clue estate where Professor Plumb and Colonel Mustard killed people with candlesticks. Does that make it any less special? Yes. But does that make it any less special to me?

Another little bit of spilled milk I’d like to cry over is the absence of what was once called “The Deck” in my hometown of Chebanse (pronounced Shuh-BANTS for you non-natives). What used to be a cozy, wood-paneled ice creamery in between the community center and the convenient store now is just a tiny lot of unmowed grass. But in a village of only 1200 citizens, how many people are going to want ice cream on any given night? How does a small business like that stay alive? It was inevitable that the place would eventually close, but a series of unfortunate events sent the entire structure to its grave.

My connection to The Deck was that I worked there one summer. It happened to be the same summer that I worked at the new Dairy Queen just a few miles north of us, so I was sort of an ice cream entrepreneur that year. I called myself The Dairy King. I wish that was a joke.

While DQ was a well-run franchise with rules and product consistency and income, The Deck was more of a mom-and-pop situation run by the parents of a high school friend. Parents I don’t recall seeing. Ever. And that’s sort of where the problems—and the fun—started.

Our little sweet shop was set up as—you guessed it—a deck, with benches lining all sides of the little lot and a tiny wood-paneled “store area” at the back end. Inside, one Taylor ice cream machine churned up vanilla, chocolate, and twist (always a crowd-pleaser) flavors of America’s favorite frozen treat, and up against the back wall of the tiny room—which was about the same size of the interior of a sedan—ran an assortment of candies, fruits, and other unhealthy toppings.

There was also a Flurry machine, which mixed up our Blizzard knock-offs to the delight and discount of all our customers. This actually was in the time before McDonalds “invented” the McFlurry, which of course is now a household name. Back then I could find nothing but humor in the clear theft of a product name. Sort of like how Wal-Mart has suspiciously familiar-tasting sodas called Dr. Thunder and Mountain Lightning, which also are funny.

Our shifts were short—four hours at a time, and then our replacement would step in and take over. In a way, it sort of felt like jail for those four hours. We’d get maybe five or six customers in an afternoon shift, twenty on a good night. If it was raining, forget about it. Nobody’s braving a downpour for an orange slushie. So to while away the hours, we’d read magazines. Except for the fact that I was the only male who worked at The Deck, so all the magazines were Seventeen and Cosmo and crap like that. I really got in touch with my feminine side during the hot, long summer days of ’98.

We also had a little tape player, which I remember using to play the soundtrack to the hit movie, “Godzilla.” Mostly there was that Puff Daddy song that sampled “Kasmir” and a catchy Jamiroquoi jam that would get stuck in my head all the time. If not that, it was the radio. Horrible, horrible music that summer. Remember Brandi and Monica’s “The Boy is Mine?” Shania Twain, “From this Moment?” Natalie Imbruglia, “Torn”? I had nightmares about those songs. Just me, women’s periodicals, and bad pop music.

But there were perks, right? There had to be perks.

Yeah, there were perks. I’ll hire Forrest Gump to explain to you what, exactly, those perks were: “All the ice cream you could EAT.” We technically weren’t supposed to eat the inventory without paying, but I was told by some of the veteran Deck employees that it was not only okay, but sort of expected. I was sixteen years old, five-foot-eleven, and about 125 pounds. I was so skinny that if I turned sideways it was like I disappeared. Could hula-hoop with a Cheerio. Mountains of free ice cream weren’t going to hurt me. I needed to fatten up a little bit.

(Now, of course, I’d like to send some of my superfluous pounds back in time to sixteen-year-old me and tell him he’s welcome.)

So I’d experiment. By mixing together two flavors that had no business going together, I discovered a few culinary delights that actually could’ve been marketed had anybody listened to me. It was like Iron Chef and ice cream was the secret ingredient. That’s how good I was. A couple of my favorites: Chocolate ice cream with bananas and brownies, and blue raspberry slushie flavoring blended into vanilla ice cream with the Flurry machine. So stinking good. My cheffing is extremely iron, folks.

I didn’t work particularly hard at that place, but the Dairy Queen and another job painting houses took a lot of energy out of me. This was an easy way to make a few bucks doing not a whole lot. Plus, ya know, the free ice cream.

You’re wondering what ever happened to The Deck. Not why it closed—it’s probably fairly obvious why it closed—by what it had to be completely ripped up and destroyed. Well, the story goes that the owner of a pizza restaurant in the neighboring village bought The Deck and wanted to move it next to his restaurant. So they lifted up the store portion of the business and carted it to Clifton. It sat out there next to the pizza restaurant for months—years, maybe—but never did reopen. Eventually I came home from college one holiday and it was gone.

Back in Chebanse there’s this pointless deck sitting right in the middle of the “downtown” area. That’s prime real estate I guess, so they tore the rest of it down. Now, as I mentioned, it’s a grassy lot. Maybe someday they’ll put a Home Depot there or something.

Losing this place where I used to work isn’t as sad as losing the building where I met my wife, but it was still part of my history and I wish it was still there, if for no other reason but to visit and reminisce. Does the fact that it was a sad, cramped, money-sucking ice creamy failure make it any less special? Yes. But does that make it any less special to me?

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