For two summers straight I sold shave ice to sunscreen-slathered Northerners who arrived in droves to the beaches of Florida with the seagulls that circled like vultures overhead. It was good business for me and the seagulls. When the sky was clear and the temperature broke one hundred degrees, the tourists sweating white bullets would line up for forty feet, their children in erratic orbit like the swarms of mosquitos that hung in the air around the dumpster across the walkway. Occasionally the odd adult would sidle up to my counter and order a ball of sugared ice with dignity and discretion.
I was not born a salesman. I got into the business through two friends of mine who had the job before me. The stand was owned by a local businessman, Chad, whose waxy smile did not detract from his complete sincerity when he said things like “bottom line” about sugar, syrup, and ice. He brought me up in the game, taught me the craft of chiseling mounds of ice into perfectly spherical snowballs that lasted a glorious thirty seconds in the noonday sun. (I respected him for this reason alone.) He did not, however, tell me anything that was of use when it came to bringing in customers. There were the cheap gimmicks, of course, but I felt these were more appropriate for faceless commercial retail than homegrown craftsmanship. So I was at a loss as to how to respond appropriately when approached for my wares. I found myself awkward, self-conscious, ill-fit to turn out shave ice at a rate abreast of the bustling economy of cheap food vendors and kitschy craftsman that owned the space with territorial aggression. Instead of plodding along with my own irrelevant sensibilities, I decided to become someone else.
Showmanship in marketing existed long before I got into it, perhaps even pre-dating the primordial shave ice. But when the stakes are high, when the eyes of the performer make contact with the bovine stare of a hungry customer, a sense of the self becomes involved. The temptation to not just sell the ice but to celebrate it became the nucleus of my assumed identity. As Claudia Rankine commands in Citizen, “Don’t say I if it means so little, holds the little forming no one.” I took this to mean that I could not simply exchange my identity for another, more enterprising persona. Rather than callously shedding this vital “I” from my performance, I made “I” the curator of the artifice, the channel through which I could observe the old masters. As with the stars of Paris is Burning, my stage ego straddled the border between appropriation and mockery, most often by exaggerating the ethos of the sales boy for the “I”’s amusement. To what extent did I become this rootin’, tootin’ ice slinger as an essential means for me to play the role of “the salesman”? I was terribly vulnerable to the desire portrayed by Carax in Holy Motors. I wanted to step into an identity the way one steps into a pair of pants. Carax captures this paradox perfectly in a scene where the protagonist, playing the role of an overworked father, scolds his daughter for lying to him about her crippling introversion. “Your punishment, my poor Angèle, is to be you. To have to live with yourself,” he admonishes. Moments later he is a back alley loan shark, his hands bloodied by his latest debtor. I, too, after wiping my syrup-stained hands, had to load my materials back into my car, had to return to what I called my “real” life, and decide whether it was “I” who had peddled pure sugar to pre-diabetic children.
My own transformation started with “Howdy”. I’m from Florida, a far remove from the real South, and I come from a long line of New Yorkers. Among my family, “howdy” is merely a sardonic shorthand for southern comfort and hick culture. My mother would rather die than catch me stringing a bolo tie in preparation for the county fair, Kenny Rogers playing on the stereo. But on the beach, with sunshine in my eyes, it gave me a strange sense of pleasure to own this “howdy” while white-nosed Northerners in bent-brim baseball caps quickly consumed all commodities that my hometown had to offer. As the next customer reached the front of the line (often with sugar-deprived toddlers under each arm), I would give the counter a hardy swipe with the rag I hung over my shoulder and emit the most melodious “howdy” I could muster. I never chewed tobacco, but to get into character I would imagine myself spitting into an aluminum spittoon with great conviction.
Now, it’s very hard to nail a “howdy” without following up with an accent. The twang was hard to master, but it served me incredibly well once I did. I’m not here to speculate about the atmosphere I was creating for my audience. Whether the southern angle made their vacation a more alienating or fresh experience was hardly a concern of mine. But I found myself much more sociable playing a part, fingering my belt buckle and tipping my broad-brimmed hat at whoever walked past.
This was all well and fine but my experience was not without a minority of inquirers who made the act especially difficult to maintain. They came in two general varieties. Most typical among them was the informed consumer. This type considered the reading of food labels a special sort of civic engagement and demanded a lot from the beleaguered shave ice boy standing before them. Early in my career, these inquiries were met with ineffectual bluntness. On my second day, I recall a seemingly innocuous young woman asking about the sugar content of the syrup I was pouring over her shave ice. “Ma’am, you would not believe how much sugar will dissolve into a gallon of water. I mean really unbelievable amounts. I asked my boss, I said, ‘Chad, do I really put this much?’ I didn’t want to be blamed for putting someone into diabetic shock or something, you know what I mean. He said, ‘Alex, just keep on pouring.’ So yeah, there’s a ton of sugar in these. Pretty good, though.” She hustled her children toward the gift shop around the corner where push pops and ice-cream sandwiches could be purchased out of an ice box.
Following the informed consumer is the wise guy. The wise guy sees the illustrated sign, the colorful syrups, the pomp of salesmanship (and beneath this thin veneer, the stench of capitalism) and seeks only to unnerve my entire performance. “Hawaiian Shave Ice?” they ask me. God curse Chad for accentuating the glossy banner strung in front of my stand with this qualifier, “Hawaiian”. “So what’s the difference between a regular ol’ shave ice and this Hawaiian variety?” they ask me. This detail became integral to my act over time. On any given day I would try not to give the same explanation twice, but I had my favorites. Most often I distinguished my “Hawaiian” variety by the angle at which the blade was positioned against the ice block. A traditional shave ice was set at a brute 40 degrees, while this “Hawaiian” shave ice was set at a brisk but gentle 15 degrees, its product fluffier and more absorbent. If my explanations invited any skepticism from my audience, I would flash a confident, southern-grown smirk and imagine spitting into my aluminum spittoon.
It was in light of these experiences as a performer and a salesman that I meditated on the relationship between one’s identities. The most obvious characteristic of this period in my life was the reflex to greet someone with “howdy” in passing salutation. Never completely ironic, never completely sincere, I’ve accepted this idiosyncrasy as an unfortunate symptom of my shave ice days. But more than that, I’m asked to consider what it would’ve been for things to be otherwise. Was my performance an act of self-betrayal or a reinvention? When Plenty Coup, a native American mystic and chieftain of the Crow nation, was faced with the erosion of traditional values, he was called upon to make the same evaluation. His wisdom shows us that articles like the coup stick, a symbol for resistance and perseverance, can easily become lost to the pages of obscure prerequisite literature, but the transcendent values guided by the “who” of a people can survive any shift in context. I believe that, even in deceit, something of my real self propagated my actions and gave shape to my salesman alter-ego. I’m reminded of an exchange in Holy Motors:
L’Homme à la tache de vin: What makes you carry on, Oscar?
Mr. Oscar: What made me start, the beauty of the act.
L’Homme à la tache de vin: Beauty? They say it’s in the eye, the eye of the beholder.
Mr. Oscar: And if there’s no more beholder?
The foxy capitalist that hustled shave ice on the beach in those days is still very much a part of who I am, not in its very nature, but as a reflection of myself. With each encounter I became more of the shrewd businessman who helped me shave my first ice, but under the brim of my hat I still felt the rush of a mad satyr hiding before everyone’s eyes.