Brian O'Neill: Many will remember this ice man warmly

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Gerardo "Jerry The Ice Man'' Contristano Jr., a fixture of Downtown mornings for decades, left this life the way he lived it and worked it -- singing Sinatra.

No one could hear the words. Esophageal and stomach cancer had weakened him to the point that Mr. Contristano could only mouth the lyrics to a small group of friends and extended family who gathered in his Banksville living room for his 83rd birthday, Valentine's Day. But his wife, Lorraine, knew the song her husband of more than 50 years was dying to share: "My Way.''

The final curtain closed on Mr. Contristano early the next morning, but the stories about the man surely will play on.

Mr. Contristano began running ice and coal with his brothers and father as a kid in the Hill District. He worked in construction and hauling slag for the steel mills when he got older, and around 1972 he began helping his older brother Louie with a Downtown ice route he'd started in the 1960s. When Louie died in 1989, Jerry took over dropping ice by the bag to bars, restaurants, coffee shops and lemonade stands.

He made each run a celebration. He'd awaken at 5 a.m. -- because, as he put it, "I ain't right'' -- and drive his red pickup, with paired American flags out front, to the old family home in Beechview. (The Contristanos moved there about a half-day ahead of the wrecking ball that took their Hill District home in the late '50s to make way for the Civic Arena.)

Ice machines filled the patio and garage at the old homestead. Mr. Contristano would load his truck bed seven mornings a week and drive Downtown with Frank Sinatra blaring from his tape deck. He'd pull over, throw a 50-pound bag on his shoulder, and then charm the socks off every counter worker he met.

Some said he looked like Uncle Junior from "The Sopranos,'' but he was about as threatening as a hug. He carried ice but generated warmth, singing and joking and flirting with every female customer. He'd make a beeline back to his truck before a parking ticket could reach his windshield. Most of the time, he made it.

He kept going even after triple bypass and appendix surgery, not letting go of the last ice bag until the end of 2006 when he was 75. Not surprisingly, he wasn't much for sitting still in retirement.

"He always loved an audience,'' said Mrs. Contristano, 75, who married him in 1962.

Every morning, she said: "He was like a little kid with a new bike. He wanted to get up and get on it.''

She'd make him stay in bed until 6, but he'd be fussing "like a racehorse at the gate. Finally, I'd say, 'OK, Jerry, you're off.' ''

He'd make his coffee, his toast with butter and jam, and be out the door by 8. He'd walk the 21/2 blocks to the BP station on Banksville Road or another nearby business and loaf with friends for an hour or two before walking back home for lunch.

He'd pick up litter along Potomac Avenue, so friends gave him a reflective vest, and then a white hard hat with "Jerry The Ice Man'' inscribed, and finally a little traffic flag. There were times when he'd direct traffic, his wife said.

"He'd slow people down, and they thought he was for real.''

He was diagnosed with cancer in January 2013 and began chemotherapy. By June, he didn't like what that was doing to him and ended it. He started to look healthier and gained some weight, but then grew weaker and his wife began driving him to his friends on Banksville in the morning. He could always find a ride back.

Mr. Contristano was known for saying, "When the ice is gone, the party's over.'' More recently, he'd tell his wife, "I just hope I can make it to my next birthday." He succeeded.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Contristano is survived by his daughters Marion Muck and Angelina McCandless, three grandsons and a great-granddaughter. Friends are welcome Saturday and Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. at William Slater II Funeral Service, 1650 Greentree Road in Scott. A blessing service will be held there at 10 a.m. Monday.


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.

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