Koolvan

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You’ll be lonely without me
You’ll be thinking about me
As you sit and hear the band pack up …

Sometimes when the Koolman comes by at night you can tell by the tune that someone’s caught a chill out there. The kids still buy their lollies but the mood’s so slow you could set your drink on it, and no-one quite feels like ordering a dagger ice. Now you’re not all that interested in the details of the score; it has that F sharp note you hear going down corridors in the federal narcotics department, and the kinds of bodies they pull out of Koolvan freezers are clients more of the penny arcade than the private detective. But you like to keep aware of the window all the same, and there’s something in that Koolman melody it always opens a lizard eye up on life. Everybody had a childhood, and a favourite ice-cream man.

The weather here is generally truly lovely — the excessive urban heat of August has rolled off and now we can see the sky at night. Leaves are beginning to brown around their tips and the milkweeds are packed with silk. Large drifts of air; and the sun lower, as if it’s going home. My days are taken up mostly with renovation work in the apartment and up on the roof. Tools and practices here are surprisingly different from in Europe — I feel at times as though I’m learning a whole new trade. The wiring is wild everything is done with these little caps coloured according to how dangerous you want the connection to look, and you call the live “hot”. My evenings are quiet if you discount the urban symphony of South Second Street. I eat tinned sardines and read, sometimes look out the window. The Koolman ice-cream vans come up and down often and deep into the night. They have a tune they play in passing to pull the children out. It is one all of Brooklyn knows.

Only tonight there’s a little something different you can’t quite define. All the drivers have dull eyes but this one’s on the slim side and doesn’t seem to have that same sugared lure. There’s no-one coming out for a cone, and only the flies play company. He’s been down there throbbing for twenty minutes now. All you can see are his hands on the counter in the yellowed strip light, turning their rings around. You stand up in the window and start a count to twenty: on nineteen and a half the palms slap down and withdraw a foot guns the engine and the van’s tootling off down the street. They’re top-heavy and always chuck and throw in the potholes — it makes the music box pitchbend; sometimes almost miss a beat. You glance back to the spot he pulled away from and standing in the gasoline heathaze there’s a woman. The air’s still warbling as she looks up at you, and then goes clear.

I live in the front room of the apartment which I try to keep clean as best I can. The other three are a fury of dust and scree: I had to take down all the walls that were water-damaged and one of the ceilings too. That’s always the worst for dust pneumonia, because of drop and blast, and the old horse-hair plaster. On account of noise considerations I usually stop around nine in the evening, wash, eat the tinned sardines, read. I sleep on a yoga mat beside the refrigerator. I have a little table and a clamplamp, a kettle. A naked bulb. There always seem to be empty cans of beer underfoot. Nights are accompanied by the clattering of footsteps on the street outside and the passings of the Koolman ice-cream van. Sometimes I follow them with my ear, and sometimes with my mind; there’s a map in the cracks and shadows of the ceiling. They are wending ways for love and, they will wend that way forever. With their minds.

The thing about the moon is ….

The woman on the street outside is of course beautiful, with that kind of cruelty that gets administered by a Polish mouth. But it is not so much the cut of her svlotky you find so unnerving as the way some horrid fear mounts in her eyes, and then snicks off into a smile. You start a count to twelve but you’re screamed out on four by tyres and metalslam and splintering glass — you look across and see the Koolvan tumbled to its side you look down and the woman’s gone you look across and there’s the back left wheel still spinning and slowing up on high. The Kooltune winds down and dies into a diesel night. It’s not the kind of tank to blow. In the brief quiet you catch her footsteps turn down Berry, hurrying, then a fire hydrant opens up and there’s a lowspewed arc of water, followed by car alarms. Now the thing about the moon is — it looks so lonesome sailing on through the trees.

Brooklyn’s palette of night noises is rich to the paranoid insomniac, garish to the light-sleeper. Even the car alarms play a fugue of five different themes; gas stations broadcast Pepsi adverts when triggered by a hand upon the pump; and Puerto Rican stereo culture is bold in volume. I still can’t get away from a suspicion that people talking in real New York accents are putting it on, pretending that they’re in the movies. To be honest I think they are pretending a little: everyone in this town has to have a character, and display it a fortiori.

You take the fire escape down and cut along Bedford. She’s wearing boots that would crack a clock tower and they leave the pavement bleeding. You can hear them again by Broad Street and by North Fourth you’re tailing her from in front; it’s a handy trick if you can keep in mind how Orpheus lost his Eurydice. She takes a right on North Seventh, so you take Eighth and come around the block — you think for a moment you’ve lost her but it’s only the subway staircase that’s been swallowing up souls on this corner. And so you go on down.

Jonny’s lost love Ursula lives in an apartment block adjunct to the Koolman Depot. She describes how around three am the whole jangling phalanx of Koolman vans reconvene in the empty lot, all playing the Koolman melody. We are not sure if the mechanisms are imprecisely built, or if it’s the spills of ice-cream and cola goo, but each van is slightly off his neighbour’s key and a turn out of time. They approach one by one and from all directions to create this terrible thronging tintinabulation. It’s a host a hundred strong, chiming in dysphony, gathered round the one Kooltune. It builds and builds, then thins. At last the final ignition key is turned back, withdrawn from the dash, and Koolmen go off to sleep out the end of their diesel night. There’s not much left of her fingernails. The Koolman vans used to sell drugs too but that side of the business has all been cleaned up now. I’m not too sure how the drivers cope without.

When you get down into the subway station there’s no immediate sign of her, but the clattering of those boots on tiled concrete would have knocked a ghoul’s teeth right out. You follow it down the passageways she’s getting faster and you find yourself breaking into a run. Then the whole substrata starts to shake the lights the girders you can feel the wind and the train taking up distance the sound smack your hands clenched brittle like porcelain can you feel the wind and the iron air ringing and time spike you’re still running as the train crashes in you’re still and blows the spine rigid, rattling through vertebrae, shocking down carriages. It’s like a chain snapped tight and you blink in pain.

There’s a Philip Larkin poem which starts ‘I work all day/ And get half drunk at night.’ There is a Philip Larkin letter which reads ‘This is the last one from me before I’m forty — you should have it framed and put it up on the wall like a British Rail sandwich.’ Philip Larkin can be fairly bleak. I am reading an anatomical book called The Human Machine about all our moveable articulations. Pulling down ceilings and carrying sacks of cement up to the roof can be fairly astringent. You feel it lying on your back at night, when you’re lying there following footsteps. That’s when the body screams at you. Your spine it does.

Before you even see the platform you hear a flat blare and the closing of train doors — as you arrive it slumps off into the tunnel, square-nosed, silver, blind as a worm. And you’re standing there on the platform listening now to that sound go. The swirling pulse in your ears slows down, and the knowing that you lost her comes in. Pressure in your lungs builds, then thins. It’s quiet, empty, losther. You look up and suddenly you see her face — she’s there, only this time paper-thin and twelve feet high, pasted to an advertising billboard. It’s repeated up and down the whole length of the station wall. Her eyes look out at you, scared, but the fear is snicked away by the curl of her mouth, and the brightly coloured ice-cream cone she is holding. LISTEN! in bold capital print beside her temple, then a tissue of notes, then, COME INTO THE KOOLMAN WORLD! WELCOME. Welcome. And you stand looking at the billboards. Somewhere up subway tunnels a blind man busks with his herdegerde — he turns a handle, and those old koolnotes pour on out: dcha-da-dum dadadah … you’ll be lonely …

So I put out the last cigarette and listen to the last koolpass before he tools off in his little van over to where Ursula can’t sleep. And I turn over. Tomorrow will be flashing the chimney breast.

September 16 2003, New York