It’s not even June but I’m already wishing for summer to be over. A single bead of sweat quickens at the end of its long trail down my leg, and the flushed neck in front of me, which I only now realize I’ve been staring at, turns as if he could hear the sweat splatter and sizzle on the hot pavement. But he looks right past me, surveying the latest people to join in line, then turns back toward the pastel-colored ice cream truck as the quirky, staccato music loops again, and a dark, wet shape spreads like a butterfly across the back of his gray shirt.
My brother stands next to me, shifting from one foot to the other as though that might cool him off. He must be wondering how so many people, like us, ended up here, and I know I’m right because we’re related but also because it’s quiet enough to hear each other’s thoughts here. It’s too hot to make conversation anyway, and again I know he agrees.
Not long ago we were standing in Union Square, still chilled from the AC and lingering in the five minutes when the heat outside feels good against your goosebumps. I’d asked him then if he’d wanted to get ice cream, fishing out my Metrocard before he’d said a word.
What I wouldn’t give for goosebumps now, we think, moving forward with the line as though square-dancing to the ironically saccharine music, inching back each time we’ve stepped too far. Is this heaven or hell, I can’t tell, and my mind loops in the monotony of the tune. I get nervous once we’re only a few feet from the front of the line because now it starts to feel like Sunday communion — no one orders, no one pays — and when the man in front of me finally steps forward, he stretches the darkened wings across his back to accept his ice cream, then turns to walk away. The bright tangerine swirl is visible only in glimpses over and under the man’s grey sleeve as he lifts the cone to his face.
There are no substitutions, no special requests, and no complaints. And there isn’t a single sign that says so.
When it’s my turn I step forward and hold out my hands to take the tangerine swirl from the smiling girl inside. She doesn’t speak and it’s so hard to smile against a smile. I find myself tangled in a curtsy and it’s uncomfortable not asking for what I wanted or paying for what I got. I walk away, holding my ice cream up against the truck, scanning for its match in the sunset wash painted across its exterior. The color is more apricot than tangerine but tastes like it doesn’t matter.
It’s melting and it’s melting faster than I can lick and I wonder if the color will stay as brilliant down to the end.
Even on that dim April day, when the air outside was thick and everywhere gray — the sky, the streets, our skin tones — inside the studio was bright and crisp.
People stood differently under its open ceilings, and in the light that surrounded them their eyes roamed farther, higher. It had been been the kind of week in New York when the weather seemed warning that our pre-summer days were as limited as the light. The days when you carry around an umbrella if only to explain the amount of moisture on your forehead.
Spencer Finch carried the same lightness, his tone refreshingly casual, as he stood slim and clean around a large table scattered with paint tests where violets and apricots, baby blues and ambers, mingled in watercolor abandon.
The hardest part has been finding the actual truck, Finch said as he began to explain what we had come to see. He laughed at the premise, an ice cream truck that translates the colors of the Central Park sunset into free soft-serve, inviting us all to do the same, but as you looked across the range of watercolors on the table, taped next to windows, and shining through colored glass tiles, you wondered if he had found alternate skies.
Finch spoke in the casual way one does about their solar-powered, sunset-colored ice cream truck. His blue eyes sparkled when he described testing different consistencies for the ice cream, and I wondered what color he would call them. He spoke quietly and the room let him, coming to a hush whenever he did.
More color swatches were taped along many of the large windows, in pinks and oranges and blues that couldn’t have come from the grey puddle of Gowanus sky outside. Gowanus Sky, now there’s a color for Benjamin Moore. But Finch playfully pulled out a handheld tool to explain his process of measuring colors: by sight which I understood, and by color meter, which I did not. I nodded anyway, as you do.
Soon I realized that a color meter was just a device that measures colors, which makes more sense than a mere rephrasing of the words would suggest. Colors interact with one another within the human eye, and that, along with light and shadows, can make two colors appear entirely different next to one another than they appear alone. But a color meter? When else does one get a chance to objectively identify something despite its context? To admit that our own eyes might be wrong?
Across the table sprawled with sunset studies sat jars of Talenti gelato now filled with the murky grey of watercolors past, far from their once pristine hues of Tahitian Vanilla or Sicilian Pistachio. The labels betrayed their contents and yet it seemed appropriate, here. Flavors are quite similar to color in the way they interact and change value in context, and as Finch held the color monitor still, I thought there ought to be a tool for objectively measuring taste, if there isn’t already. There probably is.
Before I got a chance to offer up my taste-to-color-comparison, Finch was back to listing the perils of locating the right ice cream truck on Craigslist, lest the conversation veer too theoretical. He only needed the shell, he said with a fake sigh, since they would swap out everything to make it solar-powered. But that made it hard to get the shell to Gowanus, given that most weren’t in driving order.
Out the window, the roof of an artisanal ice cream shop hovered below, no doubt readying itself for the summer months, when patrons would sit eating flavors like sweet corn and blueberry pancake, or black sesame with ginger — crystallized in house, of course.
Oh, just vanilla, Finch said when asked what flavor his ice cream would be. But he would color the soft serve himself, having its sunset-hue change, as the sunset does, throughout the day. Oohs and ahhs resounded through the studio, and Finch smiled.
He pointed to what initially looked like a painting on the far wall, with some glue-like substances dripping down it, and said that’s where they had been charting their ice cream trials to get the consistency right. An older woman behind me suggested an ingredient immediately lost to my memory, but one which excited Finch, and they talked shop using a lot of words that sound, in my memory, like lactose.
The primary concern was getting the ice cream’s coloring right, so Finch would be doing it himself, like a chef who starts growing their own produce, taking on all the unexpected discoveries, and minor failures, that may come with that. But the failures are what often lead to the most palatable errors, like a fallen lemon soufflé, served with nectarines, mascarpone, and freshly torn basil.
If there was an obsession with getting the soft serve palette (and palate) right, it’s as if Finch seems to enjoy nailing the concept first, then figuring out how to make the logistics work later. That may be the part that delights him most — mastering the challenges of an entirely new industry with each experiment — but in each there’s also a fascination with context. Countless labels were taped around the studio’s white walls, high up by the ceiling, next to the large windows, and even down low along the back walls. At each one, Finch had marked the color he saw with a small swatch. All across the studio, now bright and evenly lit, the small painted marks looked vastly different from their surrounding wall, showing how the same white could change based on the context — the time of day, varying shadows, and sunlight. In one corner the white wall had once been nearly charcoal, in another, the color of fresh lemonade, so warm you could almost feel the sunlight that had caused it.
Finch’s work is understated, and even with our eyes wide open and ears tuned, he did not try to extrapolate past the experiment itself, or explain what it meant to him, why it mattered. But by showing us the way colors interact and change, he also shows us the limits of our own perception. He lets us see how where we stand (in every sense of the word) can make us blind even to the simplicity of a color, the trick of a shadow.
I left feeling like I could finally see and like I didn’t trust my eyes at all. If one of our greatest fears, as people, as artists, is being misunderstood, then it is no wonder we are fascinated with colors, and with the logistics of sight. You can watch a sunset with someone, you can hold their hand while you do it, but there’s no way to really know how they see it — or you.
What flavor is it? my brother asks as he finishes his cone.
I tell him I’m not sure and fight a smile. I wonder when the color changes, I say.
He is already looking around at the trees, in a part of the park he has never seen. He doesn’t hear me, and it doesn’t matter. You marvel at whatever bright, fleeting color cone you receive, and if you stay long enough, at someone with an entirely different color marveling at theirs too.
I don’t know it yet, but this is the first and last time I’ll make it to Central Park all summer and the last time I’ll see my brother for three months. Soon we’ll be holding tight to the last of the long, warm nights and remembering that feeling when summer had just begun.
The sunlight is so blindingly white above us now that it seems blank, but I know that’s not true. I lift my hand toward the sky and suck the last of my ice cream through the bottom of the cone.
The bright pastel covers a plain vanilla, but I can still taste the sunset.
Meredith Russo is a recent graduate of The New School’s MFA program in Creative Writing, with a concentration in fiction. She currently lives in New York City, where she is finishing her first novel and is an adjunct professor at Parsons.
Another one of Spencer Finch’s projects, “The River that Flows Both Ways,” can currently be seen along the High Line in New York City, and more on Finch’s work can be found at spencerfinch.com.
59. DReunion w/ drDOCTOR
Not unlike the Entourage Movie, “the boys are back” to DReam large and live large, talking all things: turkey; the kids these days; passion projects and podcasts; Visions of Cody by Jack Kerouac; existence as it precedes essence; Sam’s travels and Luke’s travails; the upcoming Season 3 of the drDOCTOR podcast.