Friday, 6 August 2010

Choosing ice cream: the gelato girl responds

This is the gelato girl's response to my post on The Ethics of Ice Cream

So I’m just getting to the end of my shift – I don’t mean the bookstore, that’s weekends: on Thursday I help out at dad’s shop. I’m nearly finished for the night, and this guy walks in, all loud and scruffy, waving his arms and talking pell-mell with some other guy, on and on and on, while I’m standing there smiling like a dumbass waiting for them to order.

Twenty minutes till I’m out of here. I hope dad arrives early, I’m dying for a smoke. Typical Thursday: splitting headache, feet are killing me, fingers puffy and numb from six hours scooping gelato. I'm meeting my supervisor in the morning. Starting to panic. She thinks I’m losing my grip on the thesis – she doesn’t say it, but I can tell she thinks it.

Finally this guy stops talking and looks my way – he could really use a haircut; reminds me of one of my dying tomato plants at home, all dry and weedy – so I ask if he’d like to try a sample. Oh yes, he says. You should see him then: hands behind his back, leaning over, staring wide-eyed like he’s never laid eyes on a tub of ice cream in his life.

My supervisor knows I've been stalling, finding ways to avoid her. I cancelled our appointment twice in a row, told her I’m writing – always writing, yes yes, it’s really coming together – but of course I've got nothing, niente, not a single word.

Dad would flip if he found out. He’d throw his arms out like Jesus Christ Almighty and bellow “The fees!” while mum would be crying before you can say P-h-D, moaning “Every cent your father gave you – and this is how you repay us!” In dad’s eyes, every bloody vat of gelato is a down payment on my glorious future. Putting me through uni, building my career one sticky scoop at a time. Not that you can get much of a career out of a philosophy PhD. “The Ontology of Political Liberty in Isaiah Berlin.” I’ll probably still be working here – they can pin the degree up on the wall beside the coffee machine.

I can't believe this guy, he’s still examining the flavours one by one. If he had a magnifying glass, he’d look like Sherlock Holmes at the scene of a crime. God I really need a smoke. I tell him the melon is great, just to hurry him up. I offer him a sample and he says “Yes please, I’ll try the melon and the bacio.” So I tell him he’s only allowed one sample – and now he goes all serious on me, starts explaining that he can never make up his mind about anything unless he has at least two options. Jeez, get a life. I give him a nice smile, try to calm him down. I tell him I’m sure he’ll like the melon, freshly made this morning. He seems confused, mumbles something about choice, but I give him the taste.

After our last cancelled appointment, she got all cold and serious. She wants to see what I’ve written this year. “I want to see it, Julia,” she said all stiff and Sydney-like, her lips as thin and pale as lemon sorbet. I promised I’d give her the whole chapter – you know, the one I’ve been talking about all year, on Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty. So here I am, Thursday night, smiling and handing out gelato and hanging for a smoke and so sick with worry that I have to pray I won’t throw up all over the rum and raisin.

Apparently Mr Tomato Plant doesn’t like the sample, now he’s begging for another one. Honestly, some people have no self-respect. He tells me it’s impossible to make a proper choice unless he has more options. I can’t give out any more samples, but I tell him I think he'll like the chocolate. Everyone likes chocolate. But no, it’s not good enough for him. I’m looking at the clock wondering when I can get the hell out of here, and he launches (I'm not making this up) into this lecture, oh so patient and superior, explaining why there’s some kind of logical inconsistency in giving out only one sample blah blah blah. Who is this guy anyway? Probably a washed-out school teacher. Does he even have any money, I’m starting to doubt it, or does he just want to stand here all night arguing about samples?

I think I’ll need a good strong coffee before I leave. If I start writing as soon as I get home, who knows, I might have something by morning. A whole chapter by tomorrow morning? Who am I kidding. What am I going to do. What am I going to tell her? I mean it’s not as if I’ve been slack. All I ever do is read read read, tucked away in the library, burying my bedroom in index cards and articles and sticky notes. My life's a merry-go-round of positive and negative liberty, individual and collective interests, value pluralism and conflicting values, self-determination and necessary conditions of non-interference...

I can’t believe this guy: he must have seen I wasn’t paying any attention to the lecture, so now he’s switched tactics. Big puppy dog eyes, little melancholy smile. Can you believe he’s actually trying to flirt with me now? For a taste of gelato? Dio caro, I feel like giving it to him just to get rid of him. How can I type tonight with these swollen fingers? “I’m sorry, I really can’t give you another sample – what if we did it for everyone?” They'll never pay off my fees if we start giving gelato away for free. I don’t even know what the chapter’s meant to be about anyway. I could start by saying that Berlin’s work is misunderstood whenever negative liberty is isolated from his analysis of values, especially situations of conflict between incommensurable values. That would be something – it would be a start. Finally! He’s gone all sour and sulky, but he’s finally chosen a flavour: wasn’t so hard now, was it. I scoop up the caffè gelato for him. Maybe two strong coffees will help get me started, after oh God a smoke. He gives me five dollars. I could start by saying that Berlin’s analysis is very pertinent today, when the idea of freedom is more and more viewed through the prism of consumer choice. The caffè flavour’s no good today – dad spoiled the batch, but there was no time to start again – but I'm not breathing a word, gimme a break it’s only gelato. He takes the cup and spoon. Oh I know, I’ll start the chapter with Quentin Skinner’s reading of the Two Concepts, that'll be a good opening. I hand him fifty cents change. Skinner, then Hayek, then right into Berlin. He turns to go, but then surprises me with a short, shy smile, almost as though – as though he’s grateful to have just one flavour instead of all the samples. He holds my eye a moment, then walks out in the night with his cup of bad gelato.

At last dad arrives to close the shop. I stand out front and smoke a cigarette. Dad brings me coffee in a paper cup, black and strong the way I like it. There's a cold wind in the street. I button my coat. It won’t be morning for another twelve hours.

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