I Warned You Not to Touch That

Tag: ice cream

Mr. Softee

by on Jan.15, 2010, under Essays

The screech of brakes applied moments before impact with a bicycle is a memorable sound.  Unforgettable as this noise may be, it doesn’t compare with the carnival tones played by the ice cream truck.  Since my childhood home rested in the Connecticut equivalent of Outer Mongolia, these lilting notes never drifted past my ears.  The cost of gas, even at nineteen cents a gallon, made a trip by my house financially imprudent.  I believe that’s the view shared in the assembly room before those crisply uniformed Good Humor drivers hit the road.  Having never been a part of such camaraderie, I can only speculate, but I imagine a rich conversational fabric.  Things like, “Has anyone seen my hat?” and “I gassed up for eighteen cents a gallon down at the Sunoco.”  Possibly even, “I just missed hitting the Hardcastle kid.  He didn’t even look before he rode his bike out into the street.  I must’ve laid a month a rubber on the pavement.”  Followed by, “Next time, try a little harder, Lou.  You’ll get him.”

Did Good Humor drivers have their own union?  Perhaps the United Brotherhood of Amalgamated Ice Cream Vendors.  They are truckers, of a sort, so perhaps they were Teamsters.  Maybe it’s the Jimmy Hoffa connection but I think of Teamsters as a more rough and tumble bunch.  Brawlers.  They don’t seem likely to wear a short-sleeved white shirt, thick black belt, pressed white pants, black bow tie, shoes, and white hat with black band and visor.  The kind of hat the Statue of Liberty would wear, if she sold ice cream.

I’m sure Good Humor drivers were carefully screened.  Besides questions about their driving record, math skills and mental stability, there had to be a joke section on the application.  Maybe they selected drivers after examining their funny bone.  I imagine weeks of classroom time with subjects like, Ten Ways to Break a Twenty, Every Penny Counts, and Stain Removal, Do’s and Don’ts.  Inventory management was critical.  It doesn’t do you a damn bit of good to pull up in front of a sweet-toothed crowd if you can’t find the ice cream sandwiches.  Good business practice means never having to say, “I guess we’re all out.”  Appearance counts too.  In many ways, the uniformed drivers who met the public were the face of the company.  The link between delicious creamsicles and corporate profitability.  

Sadly, they are all but gone.  The trucks, the drivers, the way of life.  Swept under the waves after years of financial imprudence and ill humor.  Washed away by a force of nature known as soft ice cream. 

Ice cream on a stick seemed like a good idea when it first came out in the 1920’s.  The problem with the stick concept is gravity.  Pieces of toasted almond crust would separate from the vanilla core and fall.  If you were wearing grass-stained shorts covered with a fine patina of dirt, the delicious coating would miss you completely on its trip to the ground.  These toppings aren’t stupid.  Why sacrifice yourself on an already trashed set of threads?  They’re cagey, waiting until you’re wearing your Sunday-best, white button-down shirt and black wool pants.  Like a guided missile, the slab of sugar would nail each article.  There was no controlling the stuff.  If you nibbled like a hamster until you reached the wooden stick, you were still doomed.  By then, the bottom layer had melted and chunks would separate and crash into you.  Napkins?  They’re as useful as an umbrella in a monsoon.  These devious fragments have a keen eye and evade all such impediments.  Any way you lick, nibble, chew, you’re beat.  Yes, it may taste good, but this momentary delight comes at a terrible price.  Your cleanliness. 

If manufacturers of ice cream on a stick had devised a solution to this problem, soft ice cream may never have gained a foothold.  But, they didn’t.  The soft ice cream industry not only solved this problem, they eliminated the need to search for freezer-burned flavors.  How?  By limiting selection to chocolate and vanilla, or combining the two and creating vanocolate.

In the 1970’s, to make up for a childhood deprived of such pleasures, and because I was desperate for work, I decided to pursue a career in soft ice cream.  I answered the following ad:

                                       Driver wanted.

                                       No exp. necessary.

                                       Must have valid

                                       driver’s license.

During the Nixon years, opportunities like this were plentiful in the classifieds.  I called the advertiser, a guy named Jerry, and he went over the basics on the phone.  “The route’s all set up.  I been drivin’ it for years.”  That’s not exactly the way he said it because he had a thick accent, no doubt the result of growing up in the Boston suburb of Revere.  Ordinarily, one might assume the correct pronunciation would mimic the tone of Paul Revere, whose name the city appropriated.  “Ree veer.”  No.  That would only serve to identify you as some hapless interloper from Dubuque.  Any self-respecting Greater Bostonian knows the correct pronunciation is “Ree vee ah.”  I don’t know what caused the aversion Bostonians have to the letter “r.”  They use it at the beginning of words.  After that, all bets are off.  The standard, “Shoot at me again an I’ll rip yah haat out thru yah eah” has the proper inflection.

I agreed to meet Jerry where he kept his truck, right off Mass. Ave. in Dorchester.  No one ever says Massachusetts Avenue.  It’s just wrong.  To be a successful driver, knowledge of local parlance is important.  If only Good Humah had known.  I arrived for my interview a few minutes early and discover I’m over-dressed for the occasion.  Gone were the glorious uniforms of the Good Humor era.  With Mr. Softee, every day is casual Friday.  The other driver’s jeans and t-shirts seemed like a breach of trust.  Just what face was this firm showing?  Having driven Good Humor trucks off the road, I’d say a profitable one. 

I waited for Jerry.  Just who was the mogul behind this soft ice cream empire?  Finally, a timeworn Cadillac the size of a parade float pulled up and out crawled Jerry.  He was a stunning mixture of slimy and hangdog.  He was wiry and his thinning black hair seemed immune to the benefits of shampoo.  With a Marlboro dangling from his thin lips, his rodent eyes measured me looking for signs of larceny.  Intelligence was secondary.  Was I, for two dollars and ninety cents per hour (with a possible raise in a month to three dollars per hour), likely to give him the full daily take?  The rest of his face looked so beaten down I had a hard time getting into the spirit of skimming. 

After provisional approval, he brought me into the truck.  I felt like I was treading on hallowed ground.  The front was what you’d expect and, I guess, the back was too.  It was, after all, an ice cream truck, not a tank.  Still, I loved my new set of wheels.  I was to become a purveyor of a fine assortment of milkshakes, cones and sundaes.  He spent most of the time showing me how to use the ingredients to create the perfect mix.  This is where skill came in.  Like mixing edible epoxy.  If you put too much hardener in, it would barely manage to worm its way out the machine.  Too little and you were peddling vanilla soup. 

Jerry taught me how to make the ice cream and showed me the route.  Despite this, he breezed over the most troublesome aspect of the entire job.  The music.  It was a twenty second repeating loop of cheerful festival-like tones.  Had this been a union job, the torture would’ve been limited to three five-minute bursts every hour.  Earplugs would be in the contract.  “What flavor did you say you wanted?  I can’t hear you.”  Scarier still is there are words to go with the merry rhythm.  Words.  I’m not making this up.  Fortunately, I didn’t need to sing along.

To control noise pollution on its streets, the City of New York proposed a ban on the wail of the Softee trucks.  The citizens of this beautiful city raised such an outcry that Gotham felt compelled to allow it to continue.  I had no choice but to turn on the twinkling tune when driving Jerry’s route.  I can imagine the gasps of delight, and dread, upon hearing my approach.  For the kids, picture the Pied Piper morphing with Pavlov.  Every young Sean, Caitlyn and Mary on my South Boston route perked up and swung into action.  “Please Ma.  I promise to go to confession.  Can I please get a Softee?”  Parents developed temporary deafness or hid the change jar.

Long before Southie became gentrified, my route encompassed the finest projects and war zones it had to offer.  With some luck and good timing, I might catch a fistfight or an interleague softball game.  Mercifully, I could shut the music off at the game.  Here I could sink back and relax to the calming moan of the truck’s generator. 

At first, I looked forward to sampling the product.  I would make sure I had the mix just the right consistency.  By the third day, the smell of stale chocolate, jimmies and other toppings had taken its toll.  That, and the music.  How much punishment could I bear for two dollars and ninety cents per hour?  Eventually, I found ways to cope.  Thorazine, while pricey, is a lot cheaper than long-term care at the asylum.  After paying for the medication, I figure I netted about a dollar per hour, before taxes. 

I searched for places with large crowds.  Crime scenes, street brawls even the unemployment office.  Barring those, I’d keep my eye out for regulars.  These folks were easy to spot.  Massive ice cream consumption makes for large people.  Sometimes, to boost the day’s earnings, I’d slow down as I passed looking for converts to my sweet religion.  The siren sound of soft ice cream wafting through the air.  I could smell a sale.  They were mine.

One day, I pulled up to one of my usual stops, halfway up the hill on East Seventh Street.  I noticed the mix was particularly hard.  Too hard, I thought.  I’ve learned, short of waiting for it to soften, there really isn’t a solution for the problem.  If you wait, the kids get antsy and will leave.  I hated to lose a sale.  I felt like Jerry counted on me.  Occasionally, he’d meet me at the end of the day asking, “How’d ya do today?  I hope good ‘cause I lost a bundle at the track.”  It took me a while for the meaning of this to sink in.  Even now, many years later, I find it painful to swallow.  The incessant sound of Mr. Softee music was driving me nuts.  My life and limb were at risk on the front lines of a war zone, so Jerry can…gamble?  I felt my enthusiasm beginning to melt.

I began to wonder if a career in the soft ice cream industry was for me.  These doubts surrounded me as I considered my options with the hard mix.  As if sent from heaven, Jackie, a fresh-faced first grader, showed up at my window with a dollar.  A whole dollar!  I sized him up and then asked if he’d like to have the world’s largest ice cream cone.  Well, you’d have thought he’d witnessed the second coming of the Lord.  Or, at least St. Patrick.  His eyes lit up like high mass. 

At the time, a small cone had three loops of soft ice cream and went for fifteen cents.  Twenty cents got you four loops and, for a quarter, you got the large cone with five loops of bliss.  I did some arithmetic and determined twenty loops would be a fair serving for a dollar.  The question was, could twenty loops be done?  This was new ground.  Never in the history of ice cream had anyone attempted such a feat.  If little Jackie was game, so was I.

First, I filled the inside of the cone, carefully bringing the hard vanilla snake up to the lip.  Then I wound it around slowly.  I could hear the machine whispering, “I think I can, I think I can.”  Loop after loop, the tower rose.  Eighteen.  Nineteen.  Almost there.  One more.  You can do it.  My concentration, pure as a Tibetan monk’s.  Twenty.  I made it.

This was a masterpiece.  A landmark.  A structure so memorable you could, and should, sell naming rights to it.  The old Boston Garden became the Shawmut Center, then the Fleet Center and now, TDBanknorth Garden.  Similarly, this cone should become the centerpiece of a corporate marketing strategy.  The Autolight Glass cone or the Pine Sol cone.  It was majestic.  A sight burned into our collective consciousnesses for the rest of our lives.  As I gingerly lowered it out the window, I had to finesse it under the opening’s upper lip.  Finally, it was free.  It was like giving birth to a church steeple – for an arctic church. 

There was hushed awe for young Jackie, the financier of this edifice.  Flagler had the vision to build his railroad.  Ford his Model T and Carnegie his steel mills.  Jackie was the undisputed ice cream visionary of South Boston.  Southie, the poor Irish stepchild of Boston, would now take its place in the world order.  All because of Jackie.  Sometimes, the planets align and the forces of nature combine to make something magical happen.  Jackie, his pals, and I were fortunate to be a part of this moment.  Years from now, when walking into a pub on Broadway, Jackie would hear, “You’re welcome to the best we have Jack but your money’s no good here.”  This moment would change all our lives.  I watched with a mixture of admiration, pride, and joy as this little big man left the side of my truck.  His own distinguished walk into destiny.

After I recovered, I served the murmuring throng.  I knew they all wished they were Jackie.  That they had the guts to see something this big through from start to finish.  Yet, there was an unspoken agreement.  Jackie had dared to be great.  They would not challenge him.  Not on this day.  The rest would have to choose from the usual offerings.  Small.  Medium.  Large.

I had just finished serving everyone and was easing myself down into the driver’s seat when I heard a disquieting noise out on the street.  I checked my rearview mirrors.  There was a woman screaming about something.  Another day in paradise.  I started the truck and, as I was getting ready to pull away, I heard banging on the service window.  Loud, angry banging.  She must really want a cone.  Then I realized she was directing her wrath at me.  “Whad ya mean takin’ a dollah from my boy for a cone?”  She must be from Revere.  I went to the window and explained his was an extra special cone made to world record proportions.  She said, “I don’ care if it’s made outta gold, there’s no way in hell I’m spendin’ a dollah on a cone!”  She was getting madder every second. 

I started to explain the particulars when I caught a glimpse of Jackie some distance away.  The look of triumph had vanished.  It was replaced with the sheepish look a dog gives you after being caught stealing a sleeve of Girl Scout cookies from the living room table.  I noticed he was cradling some sort of white log in his arms.  A dripping, white log.  I gave screaming Mary her dollar and never looked back.

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