How Mona Simpson began her writer’s life at an ice cream shop

Illustration of author Mona Simpson.
(Joe Ciardiello / For The Times)
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The first person besides my mother who believed in me was a man whose last name I never knew. He was my boss, the manager of Swenson’s Ice Cream shop.

Six foot five, in high topped converse, Ron was 28 and carless in Los Angeles. We knew little about him, except that he made the ice cream store his life. He set about to improve everything, including us. He insisted we tie our hair back tight against the head(so unflattering!). He made us practice scooping until our ice cream balls weighed exactly 3 ounces. He put an end to mixing a new 10 inch can of tuna in with already-made salad when the first colonies of mold were spotted. He herded the dishwashers in from the back alley, where they inhaled whippets, confiscated their cream canisters and scolded them about the dangers of chemical inhalation.

We pelted Ron with questions about his personal life, which he refused to answer. At that time, we lived only for our personal lives. But he fascinated us in his single-mindedness toward something so far outside himself.


FULL COVERAGE: Festival of Books

We asked where he lived, if he had a girlfriend or a boyfriend, or any friend. He wouldn’t say. The most I got out of him was that he was 28, from New Jersey and he wanted to be a writer someday.

My head ducked down. That was something I’d thought of privately because I loved to read, but I’d never tried yet.

That summer I’d been awarded a fellowship from the National Science Foundation. They placed me in a UCLA neuroscience lab. Under the supervision of two dweeby graduate students, another high school kid and I performed surgery on cats. We implanted electrodes in their brains then stimulated their masoteric impulses during sleep. They had what looked like electrical plugs sticking out of their heads. We gave one cat too much anesthesia and he stumbled around, bumping his head against walls. I took this botch-up hard and asked to bring him home, but lab cats couldn’t be adopted.

I was beginning to distrust the whole notion of the “fellowship” with its privilege of working for free. My main contribution there was the mural of Yosemite I painted on the refrigerator where we kept chemicals and our lunches. Every evening when the other kid got picked up by her mom, I biked the hilly miles of Wilshire Boulevard to Swenson’s, made myself a milkshake with walnuts and jimmies in it for supper and started my paying job. Ron jogged at that time of day. None of us had ever seen him eat ice cream.

The kids at Swenson’s were different from the student in the lab and the kids in my honors track classes. The scoopers and dishwashers weren’t good at school, but they were responsible at work — about which, Ron made me understand, you could be just as serious.


At the end of the summer he named me assistant manager. I felt inordinately proud. It was the first time a man had singled me out for anything. I stayed past midnight counting the money to deposit in the wall of the bank on my bike ride home. The music pounded as I sat in the booth counting bills. “I wanna sleep with you in the desert tonight,” the Eagles sang, “with a billion stars all around.” I hadn’t slept with anyone except my mother. I was a studier who lived in a house without a stereo. I was thrilled to be learning the words to songs.

One night, a co-worker turned up for her shift carrying a suitcase. She was a pretty girl and diligent. She planned to hitch after work to her dad’s. But her dad had two new babies. She didn’t know if his new wife would let her stay. Seeing that 15-year-old work with her hair pulled back, her full cheeks tight trying not to cry, saying “thank you” to each of her customers, I knew that something important was at stake here that wouldn’t be detected by any college board.

At closing, Ron took money out from the tip jar, asking us for permission, to send her to her dad’s house in a taxi. He gave her enough to take the taxi back to my house, if her dad didn’t let her stay. He made me call my mom to ask. I took this as a sacred duty. My mom said yes, I told Ron, as he tutored a dishwasher for his GED in a booth.

The stories here were urgent, and I felt alive in a way I didn’t in school. This was long before I became a writer, but I knew that I wanted to work in a medium that involved real stakes, desperation and terrible effort. The NSF fellowship would look better on my college applications, but all I’d done was paint a refrigerator and harm a lab cat.

One day we came to work and Ron had quit. He’d left a note for the owners, two overweight men who lived in the valley: No car, no cans, too many promises broken…maybe Hawaii will be better.

I moved through my shift, terrified. Though not of losing my job; my fear was more general. Ron had cared; he’d cared about doing something as well as it could be done, even if it didn’t matter to his bosses, he’d cared about making us better.


I liked that he cared.

I’ve often wondered if Ron became a writer in Hawaii. I’ll never know because he wouldn’t tell me his last name.

Simpson is the author of “Casebook.”

Festival of Books

What: “The Human Condition” panel with Mona Simpson, Elizabeth Crane, Jennifer Gilmore and Jenny Offill, moderated by Sara Nelson
Where: Seeley G. Mudd, USC
When: 1:30 p.m. Sunday
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