How an Ice Cream Scooper and Aspiring Actor Spends His Sundays

Denzel Rodriguez has mastered the ice cream scoop.

“The flick of the wrist is important,” said Mr. Rodriguez, 21, who goes by Zel. “You also want to wet the scooper. And once the ice cream is in the cup or cone, give it a tap with the scooper to make sure it’s a perfect circle.”

This is his third summer practicing his technique, working May to September at the family-owned scoop shop Sugar Hill Creamery in Harlem. In his free time he also writes songs, but his true passion is acting. He has appeared in several television shows, including CBS’s “Blue Bloods,” and a film released in April called “Showing Up,” starring Michelle Williams, Hong Chau and André 3000. “My character was there to spark up some fun,” he said.

Mr. Rodriguez, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Honduras, grew up in public housing. “I’ve seen the bad and good in this neighborhood,” he said. “That’s taught me that life isn’t about your environment, and your environment doesn’t define who you are. What you do and your actions define who you are.”

That thinking, he said, has pushed him to work harder on his creative pursuits and “surpass what society expects me to be.”

Mr. Rodriguez lives in West Harlem with his parents, Toribia Rodriguez, 56, a home attendant, and Saul Rodriguez, 56, a maintenance worker, and his 28-year-old sister Lillian.

MUSIC AND MOVEMENT I let my body wake me up around 9 or 10 a.m. I say a prayer about my day and thank God for everything. Tomorrow isn’t always a promise, so I’m just thankful for today. For the next hour, I work out. I throw on some tunes: a hip-hop, R&B mix of 1,059 songs. I start off with weights, do some planks and end with cardio.

My parents are already up when I walk into the kitchen. My mom is nice enough to make me a hot green tea. She’s usually cooking, or she’s on the couch next to my dad, who is watching soccer while music is playing. They do a lot at the same time.

SEEKING INSPIRATION I chill in my room and scroll Instagram while listening to beats on YouTube from the TV. I don’t have a specific artist or type of beat I listen to. I play whatever until something catches my ear. I try to apply lyrics to something that speaks to me. I’m writing songs on my phone. I’m storytelling. Sometimes it’s my fantasies or what I want for the future. Sometimes I rap and speak my truth. I have 12 songs completed. It takes me a month to write one. I want to perfect it, but I’m learning to let the song be what it is because I have to put it out there. It’s therapeutic and a way to express myself.

FAMILY LUNCH My mom made salmon and rice earlier, so I’ll have that for lunch. I love living with my folks. New York is really expensive. I didn’t go to college, but I’m working hard, and they know that, so they don’t give me a hard time about moving out. I’m mostly in my room doing my thing, but it’s comforting to have them here.

TV TIME I watch basketball highlights on YouTube or “The Shop: Uninterrupted,” about young Black celebrities talking about life and their success, like Michael B. Jordan, LeBron James and Damson Idris. I just finished “Beef” on Netflix and “Swarm” on Amazon Prime. Now I’m watching “I’m a Virgo.” It’s a trippy show about a giant trying to navigate the world.

SHIFT STARTS By 3:40 p.m. I’ve showered and dressed for work. I take the M2 on 130th and 7th Avenue, or ride a Citi Bike, and head to work. July and August are prime time, where the store is hitting its peak. We have 32 flavors, plus four main ones: Brown Bombshell, blueberry cheesecake, vanilla and peach cobbler.

I go right into work mode. I can scoop for 50 to 60 people during a shift. From 4 to 6 p.m. we usually have more kids than adults. They’ve been to the pool or the park; they come in with friends or with their parents. Most people are from the hood, but we also get tourists who are visiting Harlem. The kids love adding gummy bears; the adults like colored sprinkles, which are a classic, or Oreos. If I’m not scooping, I’m doing online orders, cleaning and ringing up customers. Everyone does everything here.

NEXT WAVE I have a 30-minute break either at 6:30 or 7 p.m. I’ll go to the corner store and get a turkey, bacon, egg and Cheddar cheese sandwich. This is the post-dinner crowd. Families come in. Online orders become intense. A line forms, which can go from inside to outside. The longest line I’ve seen happened during the pandemic: It went around the corner and up the block. We sell more brownie sundaes during this time, or people get pints to go so they can eat it after dinner at home or save it for the week.

EVENING RUSH From 8 to 10 p.m. the line gets bigger and more online orders come in, because people want ice cream before we close. We limit tastes to two, because we are so busy. My favorite is seeing repeat customers or when people ask me my name, because that means I did a good job or they like how I approached them. I make their scoop with love, as if I’m making it for myself.

I hit a wall at 9:30 p.m. but push through. At 10 p.m. the closed sign goes up. Someone is always trying to get ice cream after we close. I offer them a pint, and if we didn’t put away the scoopers, I’ll give them a scoop.

CLOSING UP We clean up until 10:45 p.m. I walk home because it’s summer and nice outside. At home I visit my friends Eric and Siah, who live in my building on the ninth floor but in separate apartments. We play NBA 2K, a basketball video game, where we are on the court playing against each other. Then we listen to beats and rap freestyle.

By 12:30 or 1 a.m. I’m back home. My parents are knocked out in their bedroom. I shower and watch some anime on YouTube. Right now its Netflix’s “Naruto,” which is about a young ninja hoping to be accepted by his friends and trying to be a leader of his village. I fall asleep watching that.

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