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Feature Fri Oct 15 2010

Tales from a Gringo Paletero

_MG_6201.jpgThis article was submitted by freelance writer Philipp Batta.

At a point in my unemployed desperation, I decided to inquire about the ice cream vendors--the paleteros of East Rogers Park.

Earlier this summer, I was dining with my girlfriend at a local taqueria at Clark and Devon. We were watching one a cart-vendor from the window, watching how he pushed his way up the street. On our walk home, we passed by what I appeared to be a glorious nexus of the paletas, just one of many in East Rogers Park. The storefront window was covered in vibrant ice-cream stickers and a cartoon polar bear happily chowing down on a paleta under the words La Polar. We opened the door.

PB.JPGThe store itself was narrow and deep, illuminated by florescent light. Large freezers lined both walls, blue pushcarts and bicycle carts filled the space between, also covered in vibrant ice-cream stickers. In the back corner there was a desk where money was counted, a couch oddly perpendicular to the TV where Modelos were had, and a back room where junk and parts were thrown.

It was past sunset, and the most ambitious paleteros were just returning to unpack their carts and count their earnings for the day. I was feeling a renewed sense of confidence in my Spanish after having ordered at the taqueria, so I began asking questions in shattered and overly formal high school-level Spanish: "¿Como usted trabaje en la paletera?" Enrique and his wife Veronica, the owners, greeted us. A young girl who knew some English translated between us. We struggled to understand each other until a most intense palatero named Carmello arrived with his cart. In clearer English, he asked me why I wanted to work there. "Hold on a minute, I didn't say I wanted to," I protested. But after several more questions, I figured I had nothing to lose, and agreed to return to the store to try my hand at selling ice creams. Carmello gave me instructions: I was expected to arrive at 10 the next morning with a copy of my ID and proof of residence.

The next two days were rained out, so I arrived on the third day--a bright, sunny Thursday. I picked out a pushcart, cleaned it, packed it with some dry ice and followed the lead of the other palateros in selecting flavors to pack in my cart. This was the pattern that would become the routine for my summer weekends or slower weekdays in the midst of my "professional" job search.

pb3.JPGThis paleteria is open from March to September. Enrique and Veronica have run the business this way for the past 12 years, and in the winter they travel back to their home in Mexico. The couple shared the daily tasks while their daughters Yamilett (16), Paola (10) and Alexa (6) shared the ice cream. I only met Yamilett once, as she usually worked as a cook for a local restaurant, but I ran into Paola or Alexa most days playing with ribbons, watching cartoons or shivering in a half-filled blow-up swimming pool Enrique installed in the back room. Sometimes Paola helped me pack my cart but most of the time we practiced; she tried to talk to me in English and I attempted to talk with her in Spanish.

On my first day I learned the discouraging truth about selling ice cream: you cannot sell in the parks, on the beaches or on school property under penalty of a $50 ticket. Frustrated, I immediately stopped packing my cart. "Then what do you do?" I asked. Victor, Carmello and Juan continued packing and without hesitation and conveyed their advice: "Go to the parks, beaches and schools." As time passed, I realized the subtlety of their advice. Go to the parks in the late afternoon when the grounds are packed with people and let your bells carry the message while you stay safely parked at the entrance. Go to the beaches but stay clear of the beach cops. Go to the schools around 2:45pm and set up outside the playground or on the opposite side of the street.

Every day began between 10-11am, with all of the paleteros packing their carts and exchanging advice, warning about troublesome kids, informally delegating streets and routes. Don Pablo might take the laundromats and auto shops on North Clark in the morning and Juan will wrap them up after lunch time when he goes by the Math and Science Academy or that elementary school on Esther. I usually stayed close by around Loyola Beach and the apartments around Greenleaf and Sheridan. Some of the paleteros went even further down to Division. Five bicycle carts were handed out to the senior paleteros, but they were no less work than the pushcarts. The loose axles, pins, and bolts of the bike carts had you swaying and rocking; it felt like riding on a wobbling cartoon.

The daily task of loading up your cart was an endeavor of pure craft. I learned to fit over 50 different flavors into a two-foot-wide cubby and find them upon request. There's no reason for neatness, because the potholes and bumps will lay to ruins your delicious stacks; the real secret is to put contrasting flavors near each other so you can find them fast. You don't put vanilla, pina colada, and coconut next to one another; you've gotta space them out with reference flavors like chocolate next to vanilla, pineapple next to pina colada and so forth. But out on the streets, if you can't find it quickly, you've gotta convince your customer that mango is way better than strawberry. "No tengo, perro, esta es mejor sabor."

I won't tell you about the real cost of ice cream. But I'll tell you that I paid the same percentage of my sale to the shop no matter how I set my own prices. There's a very complex calculation that happens when I set my prices--a formula that relies on confidence, desperation, and weather. Here are some factors and the price equivalents that I have developed:

A sunny day starts prices at $2.00; add 50 cents for temperatures above 90 degrees, subtract 25 cents for every convenience store within sight that sells ice cream, add $1.00 if your customer runs to your cart, subtract $1.25 if your customer is being dragged away by his/her mother, subtract 50 cents if your customer is a fellow vendor, or trade paletas for elotes, add $1.00 for weekends, subtract 50 cents for crowds, add $1.00 for beaches. And I always made sure to cover the cost of all the paletas I ate.

pb2.JPGOn Friday my of my third week out, I pulled up to my favorite little shady patch just short of the beach in Loyola Park. I was squared away: I'd packed my money on a belly pouch, and started carrying a can of mace as a result of the mugging stories I'd heard around the paleteria. That day, my trouble didn't come from criminals but from one of the beach cops I'd heard about. Officer Dan, a plump, mustachioed man in aviator sunglasses, rode up to my cart on his ATV.

"Where did you steal this cart from?"

"Steal? No, I'm selling."

"You got a permit to sell on this beach?" I showed him some formal-looking document that Enrique taped to the side of my cart.

"Nope, that's a food vendor's license. Who let you have this cart?"

After recovering from his abrasive accusations that I had stolen an ice cream cart and reassuring him that in spite of my being a gringo, I was in fact a paletero, we started talking about other local vendors. Officer Dan let me know that the Heartland Café on the beach, a block from where I was set up, pays heavy taxes for the luxury of their prime location. He didn't want to see me within a thousand feet of the café or else he'd "dump out my ice cream and tie my cart to the lamp post." He seemed to like the fact that I spoke English and could actually understand his threats, but I sympathized with his obligations and we came to an agreement in which he would help me out if I stayed clear of the café. I later found out that Victor paid daily bribes in the form of coconut paletas to his beach cops.

pb4.JPGMost of the kids to whom I sold were pleasant at best, and insistent at worst. At the end of the school day, they would swarm the cart, pointing at flavors, opening my doors for a peek, and haggling for free ice cream. I handled the rush with the resolve of a stoic lunch lady, and never got too overwhelmed. What I never expected was a lone kid to steal a paleta. One cold day on the beach in September, I was heading home early when a boy on a bike approached me. We talked a bit, and then he suddenly opened my cart, took out a mango and promptly rode off. So I proceeded to do what any self-respecting adult would do if a kid stole his ice cream: I chased him down until he fell off of his bike. I looked at his wide-eyed, fear-stricken face, and suppressing my laughter at the situation, said "you never steal from working people...never." I helped him up and let him keep the paleta.

From time to time, I would sell to employees from Fig Media under the L at Granville. After the second or third weekend, I looked them up and found they did DJ, photo, and video production work. I brought them my business card and explained my background. They were impressed and offered me an internship. I never would have found Fig without my paleta cart.

The paleteros woke each day with a determination and resourcefulness that takes many seasons to develop. As I learned from their trade, my time selling paletas became my serendipitous entry into a job in my own field, a more than ideal conclusion to my summer.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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