"Yesss!" the kids cry in unison. Chubby is a traditionalist with standards and style. He wears white every day in the summer and makes it a point to thank every customer. When a child is short a nickel, it isn't a problem. "That's all right," he says. "Give it to me tomorrow." Birthday kids get free treats and a ride around the block. And instead of the tinny, repetitive tape on the Mister Softee trucks, he pipes Sinatra and Crosby, plus Italian love songs. "I get the old men, the old ladies coming out dancing," he says.
But it's the kids who keep Chubby on his appointed rounds. "If you don't like kids, you're in the wrong business," he says. "Kids, I love." Kids like Christine Ferrantelli, who makes a dash for the truck as it turns down the street.
"A Hyper Striper," says Christine, 10, in her Winnie the Pooh T-shirt.
"What else?" asks Chubby, rummaging through the freezer.
What else is a Chipwich and two chocolate sundaes. The sundaes are for Anthony, 13, Christine's brother, who orders the same thing every day. "As long as I can remember," says Anthony, "I been buying from Chubby. I never bought from any other ice-cream person in my life."
To people along his route, Chubby is more than just a salesman on wheels; he's one of the threads that bind a community. "Sometimes he's our eyes and ears," says Cliff Rosenthal, assistant principal at the Cunningham Intermediate School, where Chubby parks his truck each morning and afternoon. "He'll see kids that don't belong here, or a situation developing, and he'll let us know. Chubby is a fixture. He is one of the constants in a changing neighborhood. We have a word for him in Yiddish: mensch."
Chubby, who grew up in nearby Borough Park, got his nickname from his dressmaker mother. "When I was a baby," he explains, "I was very fat." His father, an Italian immigrant, had a shoe-repair shop, and Chubby and his 10 brothers and sisters—three died from influenza as children—learned the virtue of work early on. At 11, Chubby would hop a subway to Times Square, where he shined shoes for five cents a pair. "I made two, three dollars a day," he says. "All the money I gave to my mother." When he was 15, his father died, and Chubby quit school to work full-time. Three years later, in 1944, he put in his apprenticeship with Good Humor, pedaling around Brooklyn on a three-wheeler, selling his vanilla and chocolate pops out of a front-end cooler filled with dry ice.
After a year he left to join the Army. In fact the two years he spent at Fort Dix, N.J. (plus two weekends, later on, in Upstate New York), are the only times he has ever been away from Brooklyn. "I never went on a vacation in my life—not even a honeymoon," says Campanella.
In 1946 he returned home, bought an ice-cream bike and set out on his own. Soon he had a Model A Ford, then a Model T. Today he drives a 1971 Chevy truck with "Maria," his daughter's name, on a red sign on the front. Campanella has three grown children (and five grandchildren) with Rita, 67, his wife of 47 years: Frank, 40, a deliveryman; Roseann, 38, a homemaker; and Maria, 34, an aspiring actress and full-time college student. All remain in Brooklyn. Maria has been helping Chubby make his rounds for 14 years and is known around Bensonhurst as the Ice Cream Girl. "When I was young, I was like the Queen," she says in a serious Brooklyn accent. "It was like, I was the idol because my father drove me to school in the ice-cream truck. Forget about it. I felt like gold."
These days, Maria is almost as famous on the route as her father. Since Chubby's heart attack in 1993—he subsequently dropped from 225 to 150 pounds—she has been trying, with little success, to get him to retire. "Believe me, we tried to stop him," says Maria. "But I know this is what makes him the man he is. Take this away, and he'll feel like nobody. He don't want to sit home and water the garden."
Chubby agrees. "I gotta keep busy," he says. "I love the ice-cream business, and I love talking to people." Most of all he loves when the old kids, now grown, return to visit their families and introduce him to their kids. "They say, 'Chubby, you still here?' It's a thrill for me."
While Chubby's route hasn't changed through the years, the neighborhood has, with newly arrived immigrants from Russia and Asia taking their place in the ethnic mix. Chubby helps out newcomers who don't speak English by pointing to the pictures of products on the side of the truck. Nowadays, instead of a dozen choices of ice cream there are 60 or 70. Plus items like Spice Girls gum and lollipops, which are so popular that Chubby has a hard time keeping them in stock.
But pulling up in front of the Cunningham school, Chubby quickly forgets his frustration. School aide Angela DeChirico is there with her daughter Jennifer, 11, who runs out to buy a Strawberry Shortcake. Angela calls Chubby "Pop."
"Pop's been here forever," says Angela. "I have seven brothers and sisters. We all grew up on his ice cream. My mother used to walk me to school, but if one day she couldn't, she knew Pop was watching. It's the same for me with my girls."
Meanwhile, 12-year-old Melissa DeAngelis is making a purchase. Chubby shakes open a brown paper bag and drops in a dozen Spice Girls gums, two Spice Girls lollipops and a piece of Bazooka gum. She says she is stocking up for one last binge before she gets her braces.
"Enjoy it," Chubby calls after her, even as another little girl in pigtails puts a nickel in his palm.
"I owe you five cents from yesterday," she says cheerfully.
"Thank you," says the ice-cream man. "You're a good girl."
Eve Heyn in Brooklyn
On Newsstands Now
- Brad's Devotion: The Inside Story
- Oklahoma Tornado: Heroic Rescues
- Michael Douglas on Catherine's Health
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine