BY ALEX EBRAHIMI | Mikey Cole hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s just in his corner. Championship round’s coming up. He’s not fighting for the belt. He’s defending it. And it’s not Angelo Dundee in his corner saying, “You’re blowing it.” It’s the Notorious B.I.G. reminding him “Sky’s the Limit.”
The round before, the pandemic had him down but not out. His stores closed one by one, Harlem first, then the West Side kiosk, and finally the flagship at 199 Avenue A. Like an uppercut straight to the jaw, it sent him reeling.
“I felt I wasn’t Mikey anymore,” he said. “But what I was able to find through this whole thing was Michael J. Cole Jr. again. I found myself.”
If shutters on storefronts had epitaphs, they wouldn’t read R.I.P. but COVID in graffiti font bombed as bright as flower bouquets. The buds left behind for Mikey’s flagship didn’t smell like roses. A pot dispensary replaced his flagship location.
“When I had a beautiful mural on my gate, my s— never got touched by graffiti,” he noted.
Only once. And the kid came back with his father to apologize.
“Mikey,” the kid said, “I’m sorry I disrespected your gate like that. Give me a chance. I know you. You used to sell weed to me, motherf—er.”
“We cool as ice,” Mikey said to him, “continue to move like water. But when you want to show your talent, don’t put it on a f—ing wall, put it on a canvas.”
Now, according to Mikey, the kid’s in gallery shows.
“We went through pain together,” he said, “to make something good.”
That pain goes way back to the days when Mikey was hustling with a duffel bag and a dream that turned into a nightmare: a six-month sentence in Rikers for pushing the product now being sold out of the dispensary that replaced his flagship. The day he was released from Rikers, he was hit with another roundhouse.
“My mom told me my aunt had passed,” he said. “That let me know, ‘You deserve this pain.’ I didn’t know what my aunt meant to me till she was gone.”
Her name was Luciana, and he called her Aunt Lucy. Back then, the kid they called Mikey only wanted to play ball with the Lilian Wald Houses kids, or the Jacob Riis kids, or go to the Boys’ Club. But sometimes Aunt Lucy had other plans.
“Boys’ Club’s closed today,” she used to say. “You coming with me.”
So she would take him to the cooking classes she was attending. He was the kid in the corner with a whisk and a bowl. At first, he tried not to make any noise, but before long something clicked inside of him.
“Nah, hold it down,” he said. “Hell yeah, and I started doing the do.”
One day the chef teaching the class had everyone make pineapple upside-down cake.
“Man, by the time they brought out all them cakes,” he recalled, “the best one was made by young Mikey in the corner.”
His new purpose hit him as hard as his aunt’s recipe book that fell on his head when he was cleaning out her apartment all those years later.
The book lay there on the ground, opened to a recipe for vanilla ice cream.
“A canvas of white gesso,” he called it.
So the painter painted. And painted. Pint after pint in his mother’s kitchen. Vanilla took him too many months. Chocolate took him too much money.
“I’m telling you, man,” he laughed, “my mom still thought I was selling drugs!”
His mother would open up the pints and dig in with a spoon for the stuff. That’s how good the new product was. Pint after pint and day after day, customers were coming by the apartment.
Soon he would go out on the corner of 14th and First, selling scoops out of a pushcart that sported a beer logo he couldn’t afford to change.
“Right where Panda [Express] is,” he recalled. “Out there in the hot-ass sun.”
Soon he would enter competitions. He was undefeated in the ice cream crawls. Pound-for-pound the best ice cream man out there. One day, Jay-Z called to set up a meeting with Mikey. The rap superstar’s 40/40 club needed an ice cream man.
“I was so happy,” he said. “I walked all the way home from his office. I ended up at Astor Place. So high on happiness.”
Then, walking over to Avenue A to get back up to Stuy Town where he was born and raised, he passed a shuttered storefront. The number 199 hung above his head like his aunt’s recipe book. All Mikey had to do was reach.
“I can’t stop. I won’t stop. I’m a bigger boy,” he noted. “So to get up the court it takes me twice the inertia. My parents are from Sierra Leone, West Africa, man. They faced [having to have] two, three jobs. Makes me feel like: ‘Do I stop?’”
After opening the East Village flagship, he soon opened a second store way up on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, and soon a kiosk on the West Side. Next it was Los Angeles calling. Then Miami. Followed by Atlanta. But as Mikey now admits, it all came too soon.
“My father once told me a phrase from Sierra Leone, ‘You rush too much, you put a hole in your pants.’ I realized, I’m rushing. Let me stop and patch up these holes real quick. So I can really operate.”
The pandemic didn’t give him a choice. The last of the three stores he closed, on Nov. 1, 2022, was the first store he had opened.
“The blackout in ’90-something made me understand,” he said. “We both don’t have power today. I ain’t mad at you. Don’t be mad at me. It’s 8 o’clock in the morning. But I’m gonna turn this s— back on for you. For us. Ain’t that what the Lower East Side is about?”
A woman and her dog walked by the bench we were sitting on together in the Stuyvesant Town courtyard.
“Good to see you, Mikey!” she called out.
“Enjoy the day,” he said back to her.
Then, turning back to me, “So you wanna know what the next journey is?”
“I was just about to ask,” I said.
“Growth,” he said. “Growth for every child. Going into the school system. Giving them ice cream. Giving them a chance to shine. I’m gonna put a Mikey’s back in the Lower East Side coming real soon. But the next one I put up here’s gonna be part of an academy — like another Boys’ Club or Girls’ Club. For kids to learn: Lemonade Stand 2.0.”
In the meantime, he’s taking his pushcart, which now features his M cone logo, wherever they call. From the American Museum of Natural History to Harlem’s Kingdome basketball court. And he’s going wholesale. From the East Village delis and bodegas to supermarkets across the country. As for the factory, he’s traveling there every day, too, sometimes not getting home till 6 o’clock in the morning… .
“We’re hiding right now. I tell people it’s in Red Hook,” he quipped.
He’s thinking locally, but going global. The message hasn’t changed.
“I’m gonna teach kids you don’t have to have a wicked jump shot, you don’t have to sell crack rock. Put down the gun and pick up your heart,” he said. “Live the phrase ‘Sky’s the Limit.’”
That’s the name of the first Mikey Likes it flavor. The way Biggie Smalls liked it: milk chocolate ice cream with butter crunch cookies. And as for the color of the old school ice cream man uniform he wears…
“Look up,” he said gazing up at the sky above Stuy Town, blue as his bow tie. “You know, man, if I had tattoos, there’d be three tattoos on me: the M cone logo, the words ‘Leader of the New Scoop,’ and the third would be the words ‘Spreading Happiness One Scoop at a Time’…and if I had a fourth, it would be my Aunt Lucy.”
Every year, on her birthday, he goes out to Queens, where she’s buried. Bringing a bottle, pouring some out for her, talking to her: “Auntie, how we did this year? And next year?”