by Maria Schulz
Now that the temperatures are starting to rise, there are signs of spring everywhere. The trees are budding, the flowers are blooming, and the birds are singing. But most telling of all is the siren song I hear in the distance: the ice cream man cometh.
As a kid, the only thing that could break up a game of running bases or wiffle ball was the “Ring Ring” of the ice cream truck. This was never to be confused with the “Gong Gong” of the blade sharpening truck that made us yell “CAR, CAR, C-A-R” because there was no “TRUCK, TRUCK, T-R-U-C-K” chant equivalent.
When the chime of the ice cream truck finally drifted across the breeze, we would cock our heads just so; do the math to approximate distance and estimated time of arrival; and run for our houses like grim death was running after us. You had to get home fast, shake the change loose from the couch cushions, and get back outside to follow the ringing bells or you risked missing the ice cream man.
Sometimes, I’d hop on my lavender banana seat bike with the daisy-studded wicker basket and ride towards the sound of the clanging bells. I could usually track him down, the same way a bloodhound can find an escaped convict by catching his scent on the breeze. It was best to always take action, since you could never be sure if he would remember to come to your block.
Ice cream was serious business when I was young. God forbid you got money from your mother/father/brother/sister and then came home with your booty…but forgot to get theirs. In some parts of my neighborhood, this was a capital crime, or at least a federal offense. You could be certain to never get money from them again, and after all, how many times can you find enough change in the couch cushions to support your ice cream habit?
The most fortuitous ice cream man spotting (like spotting a whale on one of those Cape Cod sailing excursions or getting your picture taken with a Yeti) occurred once or twice every summer when your grandparents were around.
I would go into Flushing to visit my grandmother on the hottest, stickiest days. We would walk to Main Street slowly, watching the heat rise from the sewer covers and trudging to conserve energy. My grandmother didn’t have a car and she couldn’t see the sense in jumping on the bus to go 10 or 15 stops when you could just walk. She was from Puerto Rico, so a little heat didn’t bother her.
Mom, Nanny and I would walk three across, like those monkeys in a barrel that looped arms. Sometimes, I’d break the chain to walk with my brother Chris, who was strolling behind us.
We’d saunter into Korvettes, soaking in all the air conditioning we could get, and hit the record aisles. Chris would look at all the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin albums and then make fun of me for wanting Linda Ronstadt’s Living in the U.S.A.
Next we’d hit the toy aisle, where I would beg (and sometimes convince) my mother and grandmother to buy me a Julia or Cher doll. Barbie Sweet Sixteen would have to wait on the shelf until my birthday came along.
We’d venture back out into the dense, humid air just long enough to duck into one of the local stores like BANG BANG, where we would look at all the disco clothes and laugh while we danced. Then it was back out into the hazy day with a quick stop under the train trestle. If we were lucky, my grandmother would spring for a pair of moccasins or jewelry for me and a baseball cap or bucket hat (a la Gilligan from Gilligan’s Island) for Chris.
Then we would begin the long, scorching walk back to her apartment house. It was so hot sometimes that I felt like Lawrence of Arabia, trudging through the desert, dying for a glass of water and the first glimpse of civilization.
And then, a miracle occurred: Mr. Softee was on my grandmother’s corner.
I would begin praying silently until I heard my grandmother say in broken English: “Let’s get some ice cream.”
Before she could change her mind, my brother and I ran to the ice cream truck and got on line. There were usually some soaking wet kids in front of us who had just come from splashing in the open fire hydrant. Other kids from local apartment complexes who were lucky enough to have a pool stood on line too, looking a lot more refreshed than Chris and me.
I would read over the list of goodies. Sometimes I’d go cheap and get an ice cream sandwich or an ice pop. Once or twice, my mother and grandmother told me to pick out a sundae that we could all share.
Of course, I’d have to go with the Shaggy Dog, which was a few scoops of vanilla ice cream, with a coconut “face,” sprinkles, and “fur” that was actually chocolate fudge sauce. Man’s Best Friend!
Alas, Mr. Softee didn’t come to my block very often. He was the Cadillac of ice cream trucks and we were more of a Buick neighborhood. The Good Humor Man came around, though, and in the words of Martha Stewart, that was a very good thing. I could always scrounge enough change for a chocolate éclair, strawberry shortcake or toasted almond bar.
At some point in my childhood, my brother’s friend, Bobby, began driving an ice cream truck. This was great for several reasons:
- My mother felt compelled to support Bobby once or twice a week; The Good Humor Man was not one of her causes
- Bobby would tell us, “I’ll come by around 7 or 8,” so I didn’t have to take ice cream orders from my entire family and scour the neighborhood, following the chiming bell like a demented Pavlov’s dog.
- He sold soda! Chips! Candy! So if I’d already had ice cream or felt like something else, I wasn’t automatically left out
Bobby’s ice cream truck was like a rolling party. You knew that when he and his girlfriend showed up, music would be blasting and there would be lots of laughs. Plus…ice cream! What could be better?
Even Bobby’s mother wasn’t sadder than me when Bobby rang his bell for the last time and went off to college. I missed our standing 7 or 8 pm date, and was sorry to be back on my bike, riding all over Queens in search of the ice cream man.
After another long winter, filled with a massive hurricane, a Nor’easter, and a blizzard, my ears immediately perked up when I heard the clearest sound of Summer: the clanging bells of the ice cream man.
Like those love scenes where you see two people rushing towards each other, arms outstretched, I raced out my front door towards the sound, ready to embrace my ice cream man and welcome him back. I hoped I wasn’t going to cry.
But then…it wasn’t my ice cream man. It was a different truck. It was Mr. Softee!
Oh, beloved giver of ice cream in my youth, what were you doing on my block?
For years now, we had been buying our ice cream from Larry, the ice cream man whose low-rent truck reminded me of Bobby’s from so long ago.
I felt conflicted. If I bought ice cream from Mr. Softee, wasn’t I violating some kind of pact I’d entered into with Larry, “my” ice cream man? Wouldn’t this betrayal make Mr. Softee more likely to come back, thereby increasing the likelihood that I’d stray again?
But then, the one bit of information I actually retained from my Economics class taught by Mr. McCullough back in high school occurred to me. In a Free Market Economy, isn’t it important to foster competition while supporting ALL of your local business owners?
About 30 seconds later, I was munching on a candy crunch bar from my old pal, Mr. Softee. The next day, when Larry came ringing his bells, I bought some ice cream from him too.
It sure beats riding my bike around the neighborhood, searching for either of them.
Okay, so I don’t eat as much ice cream as I once did. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like a delicious frozen treat every once in awhile. Here are a bunch of recipes for Sorbet that may inspire you to make something light and delicious at home. No scouring the neighborhood for Mr. Good Humor required.
So Hungry Lifers…do you have a thing for your ice cream man? What’s your favorite ice cream treat? Do you remember Korvette’s or Bang Bang? Please leave a comment and let us all know. Thanks!