The Iceman Cometh by Alice Travis

I never knew his first name. I never heard anyone call him anything other than Mr. Jackson. Two or three times a week we knew that he was coming because he told us as he arrived. One could hear him a city block away lyrically resounding, “Ice Maaaaa…n!” “Ice Maaaaa…n.” That cry set everything in motion. Usually my grandmother would instruct that either my little brother or I run outside and order a $.25 cent ‘bit’ or a $.50 cent ‘bit’ for our icebox, depending upon what she had to spend…or what we needed. No details were ever shared.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a great deal about Mr. Jackson. I don’t know what happened to him after everyone on the block purchased a refrigerator. Initially, I did not know why my mind kept traveling back to Mr. Jackson’s era more than 60 years ago. Now I know, and the revelation has economic lessons for unemployment today. Certainly we do not need icemen. But that is not the point. The lesson is: Mr. Jackson was an entrepreneur. He provided a service well, turned a ‘profit,’ sheltered and fed his family. And, he was creative. Ice melted quickly under the hot New Orleans, Louisiana sun. So Mr. Jackson built a shelter in the shade for his ice blocks. He then used a wheelbarrow covered with burlap to move a few blocks quickly before they melted. The ice was dripping by the time it was inserted in the icebox, but by and large the blocks were intact. No one felt cheated and people were grateful and willing to pay for the delivery service so that they did not have to make trips to an ice warehouse located an unmanageable distance away. Mr. Jackson was also an employer. He hired a teenager to assist him. Maybe the young man was his son.

Fast forward to today. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate for those aged 16 to 19 in May 2011 was more than 24 percent. In May of 2000 the rate was less than 13 percent. Interestingly, between 1948 and 1951 (60 years ago) male black American teens had lower average rates of unemployment than white teenagers. Since the era of Iceman Jackson, black teenagers, however, have steadily lost ground. All teenagers seeking work today are competing with older workers and college graduates for entry-level positions. Those groups with measurably marketable skills and whose members demonstrate a strong work ethic fare better. Those groups which seek jobs as reparations for their plight must demonstrate new behaviors or the race for jobs will be over even before their members have lined up at the starting gate.

America now stripped of its AAA credit rating by Standard & Poor’s must cut spending if only to stave off a further downgrade of credit worthiness. Even if Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are momentarily spared, more than 3 trillion dollars in spending must be cut from the federal budget over the next 10 years. This will have a direct and invasive effect on state budgets and government jobs at all levels. For those who since the early 1950s and 1960s have come to see the federal government as a messiah, the awakening will be rude and the impact brutal. We are seeing signs already. Violent “flash mobs” of teenagers appear out of nowhere in Philadelphia and Chicago. There are reports of senseless beatings of strangers by young adults in Wisconsin. Educators in Atlanta admit to cheating on standardized tests because of their belief that the children entrusted to their care are unable to pass No Child Left Behind tests on merit. These are ominous clouds, pre-hurricane warnings.

Society will survive and law and order will prevail. And it is within the realm of possibilities that some extremists will propose draconian measures requiring, for example, that offenders be corralled in their own neighborhoods behind concrete barriers and chain linked fences. This would be a pretty ugly America.

In Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, the down-and-outers who lived at Harry Hope’s saloon and rooming house hotel existed in a stupefied state sustained by alcohol and dreams of a better tomorrow. But of course tomorrow never comes.

Is there hope in today’s unstable economic climate? Yes. It lives in the legacy of Iceman Jackson’s belief in the dignity of work and the freedom that flows from noble entrepreneurship. Mr. Jackson was a black man. Mr. Jackson was a white man. Mr. Jackson was everyman who knows what it means to be a free man.

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