American Exceptionalism on Ice

  • 2016-07-27
  • The New Yorker

Ice did not strike me as American until I was in Germany. I wanted to make margaritas for my German friends. I biked to our local Kaiser’s supermarket.Wo ist das Eis? I asked a clerk. Überall, he might have replied. Everywhere. The famed Berlin winter was coming; the collective anticipatory despair that prefigured its arrival already chilled the aisles of the Kaiser’s.

Then the clerk registered that I was American; he better understood my need. He held up a finger—Warten Sie hier. Wait here. Twenty minutes later, he reappeared. He surreptitiously handed me a small bag, filled with what looked like shavings from the ice-caked walls of a meat freezer. Our exchange reeked of geopolitical illicitness; we were mere kilometres from the Bridge of Spies, where, during the Cold War, prisoners were traded.

When I returned to America, I recalled a lifetime of abundant, lawful ice. Ice was überall in America, and it did not bring despair. At general stores in rural areas: milk beer gas ice. I saw ice machines in every hotel and motel. Had I ever been to a hotel without ice, free ice, the plastic ice bucket a hotel-room fixture even in those rooms without cable TV?