My parents had grown up in Jersey City, N.J. in the 1930's and moved out to the suburbs of Lawrenceville, N.J. twenty-five years later. When I was growing up, all my relatives, including my grandparents, still lived in the city in rented flats downtown near the Hudson River in the shadow of the Colgate-Palmolive factory. In those days that area of Jersey City was not the "gold coast" it is now. It was a lot more rundown and a pretty rough and tumble neighborhood.
It was pretty great. I was in a place where I could walk everywhere. To the candy store, the grocery, the Hudson River, the park. I was living with my grandparents who like most grandparents wanted to buy me all the kid junk my parents would normally say no to. It was noisy, busy, teeming with all kinds of different people, interesting, and exciting. Incredibly to a young kid from suburbia, we were visited on our block every day by Sabrett hotdog carts, Italian ice carts, ice cream trucks, and lots of other interesting vendors. The Italian ice cart is where this story begins.
I had my first honest-to-God, all-out, no-holds-barred fistfight in Jersey City the summer I turned twelve. Jerry Geckle grabbed my head by the ears and started smashing it onto the pavement after I hit him with a lemon ice. This was in the grand tradition of kids throwing food at each other rather than just eating the thing. Jerry had thrown some lemon ice at me first and I was just returning the favor, but Jerry was two years older and took it as a personal insult that I would dare to presume that we were on the same level when it came to throwing things at each other.
I came home to my Grandmother crying, cut, and lumpy. She begged me not to fight with Jerry again. She said his mother would come and beat her up. (He belonged to a very tough family). My friends rallied around me as I sat on our stoop with an ice pack on the back of my head. They told me Jerry was really sixteen (even though he had just finished sixth grade) and that a "geckle" was a lizard.
The first piece I ever wrote and was paid for was a longer retelling of this story. I was taking a course on teaching writing and we were asked to write about a childhood memory and to employ all five sense as we wrote. The first thing I thought of was summer. And then lemon ice. Which I love. The best lemon ice I ever had used to come off of the pushcart that made its rounds in that Jersey City neighborhood every summer. And then I remembered the incident with Jerry. That flowed into the story. The result of that assignment was the story I called "The Reverse Fresh-Air Fund."
The teacher and the class really enjoyed it. She even suggested I send it in for possible publication. I submitted it to New Jersey Monthly and was extremely surprised to get a call a few weeks later offering me money for it! They published it the next summer under the title, "Summer in the City."
Getting paid for that piece gave me a big confidence boost when it came to writing. It also reinforced the idea that you don't always have to have a clever plot or incredible surprise ending for everything you write. Sometimes just telling a story well is enough to earn you an audience. So, in at least one small way, my professional career as a writer started with a lemon ice.