All of us have access to a set of cocktail-party facts that it seems like we were just born knowing. Mine tend to be seasonal. Winter: Snizzle is a kind of slow-falling hail. Autumn: Historically, more serial killers have struck in the fall than any other season. Summer: Ice cream makes you hotter.
Actually, I can pinpoint the origins of this last one. I came by the information in 1988, during the reading-comprehension section of a standardized test. I don’t remember why it makes you hotter. I assume it has something to do with the energy expended during digestion. I didn’t do especially well on the test. I also stopped eating ice cream.
This wasn’t a great sacrifice. I come from a long line of lactose-intolerant Eastern European Jews, and keeping ice cream in the house was a bit like stockpiling blowfish. I don’t crave ice cream, largely because you can’t crave what you don’t understand. Always one to mine ice cream for gobs of cookie dough and brownies, I’ve never really liked the stuff. Frozen cream. Why? Sugar I can get behind, but that’s cheating. I’d eat balsa wood if you battered it in sugar.
The existence of Tasti D-Lite alone holds a special fascination for me, as it seems ludicrous to go out of your way to make a low-cal empire out of what amounts to a coffee condiment. But even I have to respect Tasti. It’s a real part of the city, and it speaks to that miraculous sliver of New York that overlaps L.A.: the vain. Low-cal, nonfat, late-night, after-gym vanity. And vanity we can all get behind. Plus, Tastis have that hole-in-the-wall neon quality, those scribbled-in flavors of the day, their own fro-yo Nazis grudgingly giving out samples. Whether you like ice cream or not (and with the exception of judicious doses of really good mint chocolate chip, I don’t), Tasti is what happens when a small-town treat meets big-city psychology.
But since April, that psychology has shifted toward the former. Like those fun facts we all know, it’s hard to pinpoint how a sudden acceptance of cellulite-inducing ice cream came to be. Which came first: the collective change in views toward fattening desserts and rainbow sprinkles, or the opening of purveyors pushing fattening deserts and rainbow sprinkles? The ice-cream juggernaut or the ice-cream marketing? It’s tough to say. All I know is that I had never heard of Cold Stone Creamery until this spring.
One day I looked around, and Cold Stone was chocolate-covered and hygienic and everywhere. Ben & Jerry’s we accepted because it spoke to that sliver of New York that overlaps Burlington: pot smokers. But Cold Stone (which I inverted to “Stone Cold” for a month before someone corrected me) is a cheery thing of the Southwest—the blurry-aired, turquoise-speckled region of this great nation’s belly. A place that should know better than anyone that ice cream makes you hotter.
Alas, ’tis the season for frozen confection, and last week after dinner with friends, I walked straight past a Tasti and was pulled into a Cold Stone Creamery on 72nd Street. As if the Time Warner Center wasn’t enough to suck me back into suburbia, only a few blocks up Cold Stone reeked of familiarity. It was well lit and had shiny tables and professional photographs of women enjoying ice cream free of irony and sexual innuendo. Cold Stone sells perfectly wholesome, thigh-expanding treats to hardened New Yorkers. Toto, I thought, don’t sweat it—we’re still in Kansas.
As I perused the easy-to-read and graphically enhanced board of flavor options, my mind blanked. Without my glasses on, the flavors blurred (pineapple and Butterfinger? That can’t be right) and my stomach screamed. I tried to focus. The manager, who did not identify himself as such, came up behind my friends and me and started recommending flavor combinations. I nearly pepper-sprayed him.
We stared blankly at him for long enough that he finally offered a “This is my store” and grinned. This is my store. It was the kind of pride of ownership that you imagine every fast food chain dreams of when it hires people to run its franchises. My friends encouraged me to try the ice cream. As I attempted to find the flavor that had the least amount of actual cream in it, I couldn’t help but think that this kind of pressure would never happen at Tasti, a delightfully unfriendly institution that doesn’t lend itself to indulgence and is therefore easy to slough off if you want to. Reject a tennis-ball-capacity waffle cone full of cake batter and fudge and you may as well kick a puppy.
And that’s when the singing started. Every time you place a tip in the tip jar, the entire staff of the Creamery sings a handful of nonsensical ditties that sound as if they’ve been snatched from a straight-to-DVD Barney video. The staff is super-duper psyched about ice cream and they want you to know it. They are like a militia of sweetness Spartans, such is their near-oppressive shouting. Now I suppose this one act is vaguely New York, as it is reminiscent of the nail salons throughout the city in which everyone stops what they’re doing to say “hello” as you walk through the door.
But this tip ’n’ sing creates quite the dilemma, since you feel bad (for both you and them) by making them sing, so then you don’t tip and feel bad about that. In the end, I chose a small cup with candy-bar chunks—easy to free from their frozen prison of lactose. The woman who rang me up handed me my change and thanked me for coming. I dropped the coins into the jar as stealthily as I could.
I was baffled. Where do they find people on the island of Manhattan so dedicated to ice cream? The manager I can let slide, but where did the employees come from? Were they imported? I’m all for unexpected pockets of cheer in a bustling metropolis, but I just couldn’t muster the “I’ll have what they’re having” reaction I get when I see two people making out in Central Park or laughing hysterically on the F train. I don’t like to be made to feel uncomfortable if I’m not buying into sanctioned fun. If I wanted that, I’d find a senior prom in Arizona to go to. It’s only been a few months, but for me Cold Stone Creamery feels like the edible version of Orvis or Rockport. Someone has to frequent these places to keep them open, but they stick out no matter how prosperous they become.
Perhaps Cold Stone Creamery will eventually blend into its urban environs. For now, the place feels not so much a part of the city as a part of some Tales from the Crypt plot in which we revisit this scary, overly lit place in the light of day and find that it has vanished.