A Koolmans Travelsby Claire Hoffman
As summer draws to a close and Brooklyn’s desire for ice cream wanes, the drivers spend more and more time on the sidewalk in their lawn chairs, quietly talking and watching the neighborhood change before their eyes. For over 40 years, the Koolman ice cream truck depot has been a constant hive of activity and routine, establishing itself as the industrial cornerstone of a block in South Williamsburg. Driving an ice cream truck is seasonal work, and October is the beginning of the off-season. The majority of drivers are Latin American immigrants who will now return to their far-flung homes of Ecuador, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo for the winter, coming back to Brooklyn in February when the season begins again. The others, who have made their permanent homes here, continue to spend their days at the warehouse on Grand Street, working on the trucks and passing the hours together in the club-like atmosphere. “They feel like it’s a home here,” says owner Ernesto Navarro.
As the Koolman trucks leave the sun-drenched sidewalks of Grand Street, with its rows of brick four-floor walk-ups, bodegas, hipster bars, and playgrounds, they assume an air of brightly colored efficiency. The humming fleet of more than 40 ice cream trucks is a visual feast. The uniformity of sea green trim and rounded bumpers is broken by all the personal flourishes of a third world bus: Hand paintings of different cartoon characters, saints, mud flap girls, Puerto Rican flags, and piles of parking tickets. Many of the buses date back to the early 1960s, with a retro cheerfulness that has been kept together by forty years of constant daily attention and is shown by the web of wires, screws, rust, string, and other makeshift solutions that cover the trucks.
“Sometimes at night I see groups of people from other countries, artists I guess, and they like to look at the trucks, because they are very, very old and they take pictures, because they have never seen anything like them before,” laughs Ernesto Navarro, 52, the owner of Koolman. He smiles looking lovingly at the huddle of trucks, and says, “It must be like a dream for someone to see them for the first time.”
Even as summer draws to a close, each day at Koolman begins at 10 a.m. when the drivers come to buy and pack their ice cream into their trucks. By two o’clock in the afternoon, the warehouse is emptied, as the drivers leave for their routes throughout the far reaches of Brooklyn and Manhattan, loaded down with their perishable wares of delicate wafer cones and softly melting ice cream. For most, their shift does not end until close to midnight as the trucks pull into the station and are hosed down for the following day.
A model of the work ethic that marks the company, Ernesto Navarro moved to the United States thirty years ago from Columbia, with a dream to become a world-famous Flamenco dancer. He spent his days going to auditions and his nights washing the trucks for Koolman, a small company that was owned at the time by a Cuban immigrant, Gilberto Rodriguez. As he tried to support his growing young family, Navarro continued at Koolman, moving up the ranks to repairman and then to driver.
In 1990, twenty years after he had started, and with the help of Rodriguez, Navarro bought the company. Today, with a fleet of 40 trucks and 60 drivers, Navarro knows the business of ice cream delivery better than the passionate steps of the Flamenco, which he has not danced in over a decade. Rodriguez, who has retired to Florida, still spends his summers sitting amongst the other men on the Grand Street sidewalk, helping Navarro by running the dozen or so pushcart drivers.
The majority of Navarro’s drivers own their trucks and have been with the company for decades. Vincent Gracia, originally from Ecuador, has worked for Koolman for thirty years and has owned his truck for twenty. “It is a small business for me; I have to run my truck like a business,” says Gracia. Each day the drivers must buy a certain amount of ice cream from Navarro, and their success is based on turning a profit on the sales. The drivers are less inclined to talk about the light-hearted confection they sell than the day-to-day concerns of running their businesses, voicing complaints about issues such as the lack of retirement benefits, economic downturns, and the constant breaking down of their trucks. “Today, I don’t care about the ice cream, I care about my profit. It is very hard to make money doing this,” says Harvey Heriberdo, who started driving in 1972.
Ice cream truck drivers share with the police a street view of neighborhoods that few other outsiders possess. This makes for an intimate neighborhood vision that is at once strategic and habitual. Many drivers, such as Gracia, who has been going to the same block of 135th Street and Broadway in Manhattan for thirty years, have laid claim to a neighborhood. Their movements are carefully timed to avoid competition and seek out school breaks, company lunch hours, and large gatherings of their target audience of sugar-hungry children.
As another season has come and gone, Narvarro reflects that some things have stayed the same; people have always loved ice cream. When asked about his preference of the modern ice creams that include bubble-gummed eyed Power Puff Girl popsicles and Pokémon fudge sticks, Gracia says quietly, “I just like to serve the ice cream.”
Navarro laughs at the question of change in Williamsburg since he started in 1970. “Yes, yes, it was much more dangerous. There were drugs everywhere in Williamsburg, and the cops never did anything. Today, I leave the warehouse doors open. I couldn’t do that before. People would come and break the windows of the trucks, knife the tires, try to rob the drivers.” Heriberdo, who was held up seven times in the 1980s and ’90s, says, “It has been almost five years since anything like that has happened. Today the neighborhood is much better— even the kids are less violent.”
“Williamsburg is much nicer now,” continues Navarro, “lots of young people and artists. I remember the first time I saw an artist in this neighborhood. It was 1983, and I saw this guy in a bar, and he was painting. It was crazy,” he says, laughing at the idea. “Now the artists are everywhere and they bring something good to this neighborhood, a nice quality of life.”
Claire Hoffman is a journalist based in Williamsburg.