Walking to the farmers market earlier today I noticed a truck that I’ve seen around town, the Armato Ice & Firewood truck, parked on 17th Street with two men hauling bags of ice to the sidewalk. I saw it for the first time last winter down on East 3rd Street when I watched it go rumbling by on 2nd Avenue. I remember feeling sorry that I didn’t have my camera with me on that day—with the tree branches all white and snow coming down—so I could take a picture of the truck, which I imagined must be loaded with firewood for all the fireplaces in New York.
When I saw it again today I was thinking of icepicks, having just read an article in the New York Times by a writer named Wendy Ruderman all about the old-fashioned icepick and how it is experiencing a sort of vogue among modern-day bad guys thanks to its being sharp, easy to hide and cheap. You can buy an icepick at the hardware store for three dollars and change and it’s not illegal to carry one, even though a lot of hardware stores won’t sell them without checking the ID of who’s buying.
Wendy Ruderman’s article is full of the kinds of details that work for a story in much the same way that a little sprinkle of salt works for a piece of toast with butter on it:
According to newspaper accounts, two young Brooklyn “underworld characters” were found dead in a vacant lot in New Jersey in 1932. Their bodies, each stabbed at least 20 times with an ice pick, were stuffed into sewn sacks. One victim had only one cent in his pocket.
In 1944, a jury found Jacob Drucker guilty of the murder of Walter Sage, a Brooklyn moneylender whose body was found “riddled with ice-pick holes” and strapped to a slot machine frame.
“Let me put it to you this way,” said a former New York City police detective. “An ice pick stabbed through the temple and through the brains was not uncommon in homicides.”
The article also quotes New York City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr.—who drew up a bill that would ban the sale of icepicks in the city to anybody under 21—as saying that he doesn’t know of “any legitimate use for an icepick.” When I read that comment I thought of my friend Jo, who uses an icepick all the time. Jo sells turkey at the farmers market on certain days, where I’ve often seen her chopping ice with an icepick, and every time I’ve thought of murderers. One day while Jo was chopping ice and I was sitting on a crate watching her, she told me that sometimes while she’s doing it, she thinks of her grandfather, who made his living chopping ice out of the frozen East River in the wintertime and selling it, and how all these years later here she is, the Italian apple not too far fallen from the tree, still in New York City and still chopping ice.
One of the Armato Ice guys came around from behind the truck and I asked him if they use icepicks for work. He said he’s never carried an icepick on the truck. The ice in his bags all looked like machine-made cubes of ice, so I supposed they probably don’t really need an icepick on the delivery truck. He said, “How come?” I told him about the article in the Times and he said, “Well, maybe I better start carrying one, then.”
I had my camera in my bag so I took a picture of the truck. As I was doing it a man stopped beside me and said, “Could I ask you what your interest in that truck is?” He seemed genuinely curious, so I told him. I told him about how sometimes happening upon old-fashioned businesses like firewood and ice delivery makes me happy. I told him what I had just asked the Armato ice man—about whether or not he had an icepick—and what the ice man had said. And then I told him about the article in the Times and what it said about how the old-time gangsters would jab people to death with icepicks and their bodies would be found riddled with icepick holes, and that now, apparently, the icepick as a murder weapon is making a comeback.
The man listened, and then he said: “Oh, it never went away. They always used ‘em. I know ‘cause back in the ‘80s I was a gangster.” I asked him if he had ever been stabbed with an icepick or used one, and he said he had not, but that he’d been stabbed a lot with knives. “Right here, I got stabbed,” he said, and he showed me a skinny knife-blade-sized scar on his upper arm. “And here, and here and here.” He showed me other scars, all about half an inch long. “And I got shot too,” he said. “I got shot right in the head, right here.” He made a gun with his hand and put it to his temple. He said the bullet went in, didn’t kill him, and that God had finally gotten him out of all that trouble, for which he was very grateful.
I still had my camera in my hand, so I asked him if I could take his picture and he said I could. He told me that he grew up around a lot of Italians out in Ozone Park, Queens, and that he himself was of Jewish and Puerto Rican extraction, and then he stood in front of what used to be Barney’s department store on 17th Street and smiled for my camera. He was very cordial. He reminded me of some of the flower district cats who live up on 28th Street and keep rats out of the florists; all rough around the edges, but harmless to anyone who is not a rat.
September 1, 2012