By: Rachel Erani
Not all heroes wear capes, but mine wore a kippah, and in some circles those two things are synonymous.
On McDonald Ave between avenues S & T, just below the F train tracks in front of Magen David Elementary School, an ice cream truck was parked. Like a lifeboat floating in a sea of rubber and steel, between rows of yellow school buses and silver minivans.
Later on in life, I’ll look at this truck and trucks like this with the disdain of a person who’s watched too many Netflix health food documentaries to believe in the innocence of it all. But back then, Mister Softee was a source of unadulterated joy, a glimmer of artificial light at the end of the long, dark tunnel that was a Yeshiva school day.
It’s no wonder the school administration made a policy prohibiting us from visiting the truck. It didn’t matter how big the kosher certification on the wrapper was or how unthreatening the dude behind the window proved to be, nobody was permitted to buy from it. In the mornings, Rabbi Hilsenrath’s loudspeaker announcements consisted of Tehilim recitations and prayers for world peace. But in the afternoons, they went like: “Wait for the bell to be dismissed and don’t go to the icecream truck on your way out.”
Every bus had a handful of older boys who, learning from their breadwinning dads, took it upon themselves to provide for the rest of their bus.
“Guys, yallah, tell me what you want!” David, my brother’s friend, would say. I’d give him my order: a WWF ice cream sandwich, the one with the picture of Stone Cold Steve Austin etched into its cookie outsides.
Dismissal was the same everyday. We’d wait with our busmates on the cafeteria tables until our bus was officially called to leave. David and the ice cream truck gang would sneak out of the cafeteria just a few minutes before our bus was called.They’d walk out the side exit (I’m pretty sure they befriended the custodians on guard duty), run over to the icecream truck, and read off their list of orders from a crumpled piece of lined-paper. A few minutes later, as the rest of us walked to Frank’s bus, the boys would reach into their pockets and slip us our ice cream bars, careful to make sure the contents of their pockets couldn’t be seen by anyone with authority. It was an impressive operation, really.
But the suaveness that David and them exhibited, that quality that everyone I knew seemed to inherit from our ancestors, couldn’t make up for my utter lack of chill. Every time Michael handed me my WWF sandwich, I’d hug it into my chest like a Wilson football and run to Frank’s bus like my life depended on it. And one time, it actually did.
And that day was a day just like any other.
It’s 4:31 PM. Ms. Jolovitz has just called Frank’s bus for dismissal. As usual, David and the boys have promised to order me a Stone Cold Steve Austin sandwich, and I am eager to shove it in my chubby, prematurely pubescent face. I finally exit the school doors and make my way for the ice cream truck. David slips me my sandwich and I immediately start my marathon to the bus.
Now I’m running like a fuckin’ American Tikki Tikki Tembo, hugging Steve Austin into my chest, my ponytail-braid flopping from side to side, running as fast as my stumpy legs could carry me and a 20-pound knapsack.
A couple of minutes later I find myself lying on the concrete a few feet away from my bus, both knees scraped up, grasping onto a slightly smushed Steve Austin. Some of the 8th grade boys immediately come running over to help. One of them, Michael, becomes my primary caretaker. He carries me to the bus and lays me down on the back seat. My body sinks into the brown leather patched covered in patches of grey duct tape.
“Isaac, pass me the first-aid kit!” Michael yells. Isaac passes it to him, and then untwists the cap of his Poland Spring water bottle to offer me a sip. I thank him but decline. I’m too busy taking bites of Steve Austin as Michael tends to my wounds.
A few minutes go by, and I’m sitting with an empty ice cream wrapper on my lap. My knees are wrapped in bloody gauze, my elbows covered in tiny bandaids. Michael is sitting on the seat next to me making sure I’m okay for the rest of the ride.
Fast forward 11 years.
It’s summer. An overcast Shabbat afternoon. I think it’s around 4:30, that time when after 16 hours straight of eating our moms’ cooking, we finally feel the need to socialize.
Odette is dragging me to a party at Michael’s house. The 5-year age difference between Michael and me is not so dramatic anymore, and I haven’t eaten ice cream since I gave up dairy a few months ago. Michael is no longer the unattainable 8th grade boy who gallantly took my well-being into his hands. Now, at worst, he’s a potential acquaintance. And at best, my naseeb.
I tell Odette how once upon a time, when I was in 3rd grade, Michael saved my life. And how not only that, but he also saved my Steve Austin ice cream sandwich. How he made me believe that chivalry was a real thing before I learned that it was actually just a euphemism, an umbrella term for all the misogynistic traditions I’ve learned to expect from dudes.
I tell Odette that I really want to tell him the story, to see if he remembers, to thank him for his kindness and patience and nursing skills.
“Maybe you shouldn’t say all that right away.” She laughs. “‘Thank you for having me’ is probably enough.”
Odette and I approach the gate of his house. He’s standing there greeting his guests with cheek kisses.
“Do you know my friend Rachel?” Odette says, as she leans in to kiss his cheek. He shakes his head no. I tell him that it’s nice to meet him, just like we all do when we meet people whose names and personal lives we’ve known for years.
“I think you were on my bus back in the day,” I say. He looks skeptical and then he nods his head ever-so-slightly.
“Oh yeah, you do look familiar.”
“Frank was the greatest bus driver, no?” I say. “Craziest guy.”
“Yeah, whatta legend,” Michael says, kissing the next girl on the cheek.
Later that day, I spot Michael in the pool pouring a bottle of Don Julio down that girl’s throat. I look away, then I reach for one of the pareve chocolate chip cookies sitting on the table in front of me.