ERIE, Pa. — We knew something cool was going to happen before we even stepped into Fat Lenny’s. We knew it because it was called Fat Lenny’s, but also because of the life-sized human-cat mannequin.
Our party had split up at the top of Federal Hill after lunch at the smokehouse and window-shopping at the tattoo shop. Just across from Dapper Dan’s barber shop — “A major key in swagger complimentation” — we snuck into a junk shop — “I’m closed, but you can look around” — and left with a box full of dusty treasures. We had divided when I ran the box back to the car, our good friend and Erie expert Zon in tow.
It had been raining quite purposefully, and was still hazy and drizzling. We were wrapped in jackets even though it was mid-August, and there was one umbrella for the five of us. It wasn’t the day for ice cream, but of course it was the ice cream that drew Melani, Trevor, and little Jilly away down Federal Hill past the high-end vintage store and the taxidermist.
Or maybe it was the cat.
In any case, the cat, the candy, and the ice cream are the lure, and being served by Fat Lenny’s owner Scottie Freeman is the catch of the day.
He’s a big presence in his bright, little store, with a sharp tie-dyed shirt and a smile like the cat post-canary. He stocks more than sweets; there are tchotkes like superhero bobbleheads, fidget spinners, and Trump toilet paper. There’s a rack of tie-dyed shirts for sale, plus plastic severed hands, and tin signs with messages like, “I dream of a world where chickens can cross the road without having their motives questioned.”
San Diego transplant Freeman calls this a punk-rock candy shop, and his eclectic tastes are reflected in the menu: Raspberry Beret sherbet, Dark Side of the Moon ice cream, Help Me Scrape the Mocha Off My Brain.
The rest is pure theatre. Freeman freeze-dries ice cream or soda on a cold plate, adding fruit, Oreos, chocolate sauce — moderation is not a virtue here. That’s right, guys: frozen soda with stuff in it.
The secret ingredient is personality, which Freeman serves on the side.
Freeman put together a Harvey Milk for Zon. “People here don’t even know who he is,” he said with a chuckle. “I’d say, ‘Well, there’s Froot Loops in it …’ but they just look at me blankly.”
Midway through the recipe, two tattooed men from Black Eagle Goods come in, share a few friendly words, leave through the back door. We’d see them again, in the vintage shop up the street, and note the easy way the business-owners on this small funky strip interact with each other.
“I think what is happening is very organic,” Freeman says of the community, later in an email interview. “I have always said ‘like things breed like things’ and as a few of us alternative-type shops moved into the area, it gave rise to the others. I hope I am at least somewhat responsible for that but certainly not solely.”
He also owns the Hippie and the Hound vape shop on the street.
He grants that his upbringing as the youngest of six children with a single mom helped nurture his entrepreneurial spirit.
“Mom was often working and so if I wanted something to eat other than cereal when I got home from school, I was on my own, so I watched and learned and did what was needed.
“I did many things to make money, from mowing lawns to collecting pop bottles to even catching tarantulas for a guy making paperweights. And while I have not always been my own boss I seem to have always been trying.
“I do things I want to do and what brings me joy, and hope others come along for the ride.”