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A Nickel’s Worth

By Shelley Evans

He might have been a jockey in his younger days. At not much more than five feet tall, his lean, wiry frame blended in among the kids who swarmed around his old VW Beetle. Maybe his jockey past was just my wishful thinking, born of the imagination of a horse-crazy city-locked girl. Regardless, horse history or not, Jimmy was a South Burnaby neighbourhood icon. There wasn’t a kid in town that didn’t strain to hear the jangle of his ice-cream laden VW and answer its call like the rats of Hamelin. His appearance heralded the start of summer vacation.
Long before today’s commercial ice-cream trucks that troll suburban Vancouver neighbourhoods with speakers blaring “Turkey in the Straw,” there was Jimmy. On the dusty, Steinbeck days of summer, kids stood roadside, kicking at rocks, summoned by the music-box jingle of his impending approach. Seeing us, Jimmy would pull over, his tires sending clouds of rock dust churning into the air around us. He would step from his car, and elfin-like amble in an odd semi-hunched shuffle (surely caused by a fall from a galloping thoroughbred) toward the back of his Volkswagen.
He wore small wire-framed glasses, through which shone sparkling blue eyes. Crinkled lines creased their corners from years of smiling at the world. His hands were rough and weathered, perhaps from holding back those powerful steeds, or at the very least, the hallmark of what had been his trade before he retired and re-invented himself as Jimmy the Ice Cream Man.
The rear of his ancient sky-blue Beetle had been converted to a small freezer, accessed through doors modified from the rear windows. “Jimmy’s Ice Cream” was emblazoned on the doors- although it would be many years before I would be able to read the cursive writing of the painted words. The freezer doors would swing open in a cloud of icy mist to reveal frost-laden boxes of frozen confections. Clutching their coins, kids would crowd to find out what the offerings of the day were.
To my four-year old eyes, even more fascinating than the contents of the freezer was the mechanism that Jimmy had strapped to his belt- the precursor of the ATM- a metal coin dispenser. His wizened fingers deftly depressed the buttons at the top of the metal cylinders, dispensing a seemingly endless supply of pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters at lightening speed. Such magic! What I could do with such a machine.
The youngest of five children, for much of my childhood my family was on social assistance- my parents working at several jobs trying to make ends meet. Like a too short ribbon, those ends just never quite seemed to be able to touch. While aware of our poverty, my parents more than amply made up for our financial shortcomings with an abundant supply of love and laughter. Nonetheless, I stood behind the hoard of roadside kids as they made their frozen purchases from Jimmy; I clutched no coins in my small hands.
One blistering August afternoon, when I had wearied of watching ants crawl in the sun-shocked grass and it had been too hot to even play in the garden hose, I heard the familiar chorus of Jimmy’s car turn onto our street. My Mother pushed open the back screen door, the one that smelled of dust and rain, and placed her hand on my shoulder.
“Here you go,” she whispered softly, and pressed a nickel into my palm. I looked down at the coin with wonder. There was not a nickel to spare in our house. I knew this to be so- because I heard it spoken as often as the words of the national anthem. I clutched the coin tightly as I hugged my mother, and lit out for the side of the road where the swarm was gathering.
As child after child received their ice cream and frozen treats, I hung back. Although I had witnessed these transactions many times over, I wanted to make sure that I knew exactly what to do. By the time it was my turn -I was alone. I grasped my nickel so tightly that its edges cut into my palm.
“And what can I get for you, Sunshine?” asked Jimmy, turning toward me. I knew that to Jimmy, every little girl was named “Sunshine,” and every boy was “Sunny.” Sometimes I wondered if he had a Sunshine or a Sunny of his own.
“A grape popsicle, please,” I replied decisively.
“Grape, grape… let me see here,’ Jimmy’s head disappeared into the freezer as he rummaged through the cardboard boxes. “You’re in luck, Sunshine- one grape popsicle left.” He pulled his head out of the freezer and extended the popsicle wrapped in its ice crystalled paper. “That will be ten cents.”
The sun became hotter. Ten cents. My precious nickel instantly became a source of shame. Just as quickly, I was consumed by guilt- knowing that my Mother could scarce afford the nickel.
I stood mute, staring at Jimmy. He bent down toward me, which was not far, and looked me in the eye.
“What is it, Sunshine?” he asked quietly.
I silently held out my hand and opened my sweaty, dirt-creased palm to reveal the nickel. I could not hold back the tears; they erupted of their own volition, silently flowing down my cheeks. I stared down at the nickel in my hand.
“Not to worry, you can pay me the other nickel tomorrow,” I heard him offer gently.
But there would be no more nickels tomorrow, or the day after that.
I heard my voice brokenly stammer, “No, thank you… I don’t have- I’m not allowed…” The tears choked off my words. I knew I was not to accept charity.
Then a most remarkable thing happened. A wondrous thing, now forever locked in my snapshot memory box of childhood summers.
“Let me show you something,” Jimmy said. He reached toward a small wooden-handled ice pick that was stored in a groove on the inside of the freezer door. He deftly began to punch a dotted line of holes between the two popsicle sticks, cleanly snapping it in two.
“I forgot to mention that half a popsicle is exactly a nickel,” he winked.
I solemnly held out the nickel and exchanged it for the sugary pink ice on a stick.
He smiled and closed the freezer door, shuffled back into his seat, waving as he pulled away from the side of the road.
It was the first of several five-cent half popsicles that punctuated my childhood. Jimmy the Ice Cream Man dispensed both charity and dignity from the back of his VW freezer that day.
Every time my own children shout “ICE CREAM TRUCK!” as summer days get long, I think of Jimmy, the hunched, “might have been a jockey” man with sparking blue eyes who took my nickel, turned it to ice, and made me a better person.

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