Dispatches

Ice Cream Dude

JILL MANDRAKE

Photo by Wikimedia User Famartin

My brother Milt had trouble finding work in 1996. His girlfriend Theresa suggested he rent an ice cream truck. “Everyone loves ice cream,” she said. “How can you lose?”

Milt wouldn’t drive the Mr. Polar Bear truck on weekends, when you made the most money, because his two teenaged boys were horrified that their dad was the ice cream man. They didn’t care if he drove on weekdays, when they were at their mother’s. On weekends, when they were with Milt, he pretty much did what they wanted because he missed them all week.

Theresa went along with Milt his first day, a Monday, and they made $28, which they split between them. After that she couldn’t go any more because she got part-time work at Muffins Plus, where the pay was a little better. From Tuesday through Thursday, when Milt went on his own, he made only $7 each day. He couldn’t drive on Friday because his kids would be coming over before it was time to park the truck. I had Mondays off, and wanted to solve the mystery of why Milt couldn’t make as much money on his own as he could with Theresa. I offered to accompany him the next Monday.

You had to pay $25 each day for truck rental, plus an average of $10 per day for gas, plus the GST on the ice cream. You received one-fourth of all ice cream sales, minus that first $35 you had to sink into the truck. This really meant only about 18 percent once you paid the GST.

Even so, Milt would have to sell less than $50 worth of ice cream each day to net only $7. It seemed he could do better than that, even on a weekday. I mean, he was out all afternoon in traffic-dense areas.

Prices were reasonable enough—the most expensive ice creams were the $2 Superpremiums. These were artfully moulded ice cream suckers with gumballs attached. The in-betweens, familiar items like Fudgicles and Creamsicles, went for $1.50. Delectable as they sounded, I hadn’t eaten any since childhood. The cheapest things you could buy were Popsicles at $1 each, and we’re talking gourmet Popsicles, like bubble gum flavour and cotton candy flavour.

Milt and I agreed that we’d split whatever we netted at day’s end. We also agreed that he would do all the driving unless he got tired, because I’d never driven a truck before and we couldn’t afford a fender-bender.

We set out at ten o’clock that morning. All the kids were in school and the streets were eerily vacated. Cruising at 20 k in the urban sprawl, I tried to think of a marketing strategy.

When we pulled up behind Applegate Shopping Centre, I couldn’t help but notice how rundown the area looked since I’d seen it last. I was wondering just when in fact I’d seen it last, when a man and woman came over and asked for one Popsicle each.

“My mouth gets dry and so does hers,” the man explained, “but we don’t have $2.”

“We can’t afford to give them away,” I said, gravely.

Milt didn’t say anything. He doesn’t like to talk much.

The two people dug around and found a dollar apiece. “We don’t care which kind,” they said, so I gave the woman cotton candy flavour and I gave the man frangipani.

“Play some music,” said the man. We hadn’t turned the music on because I thought we’d be a disturbance in the deathlike quiet. The many stretches of three-storey apartments were like an echo chamber.

Our Mr. Polar Bear sound system had four songs in its repertoire: “Turkey in the Straw,” “Pop Goes the Weasel,” an excerpt from “The Entertainer” and something without a name. This last one wasn’t really a song—it sounded more like a cuckoo clock. I felt “Turkey in the Straw” was the most uplifting, and the man danced an authentic three-metre jig on the sidewalk, glancing back from time to time to see if we were looking. He grabbed the woman’s elbow but she didn’t want to join in.

No other customers were about, so Milt put the truck in gear and drove ahead with the music on. The sound definitely brought some attention. A basset hound tied to a fence bayed along with the music as we went by. A few pedestrians appeared and seemed magically drawn to us, though no one stopped to buy ice cream. Three blocks later, someone did: another man wanting a Popsicle, but not at $1.

“At 7-Eleven they’re only 60¢,” he sneered.

“But 7-Eleven doesn’t have to buy gas,” I replied.

“I don’t care,” he said, with another sneer.

“But we come to you; we bring this to your neighbourhood,” I said, my pleading tone taking me by surprise.

As he walked away I yelled after him, “What do you want us to do, follow you around with the 7-Eleven building?”

“Don’t take it personal,” Milt interrupted, steering the truck away. “It’s embarrassing when you take it personal.”

We drove along until twelve o’clock, when the bell rang at the junior high school. For the next hour we sold a lot of items, mostly Fudgsicles, to the kids milling about or walking home for lunch. By one o’clock everyone was gone. Milt turned the music off and we drove to Silver Lake.

It wasn’t tourist season, so no one was there except three guys leaning against the locked-up concession stand. Each of the three had a shaved head, except for a ponytail sticking up in the middle. Their ponytails were black, with the sort of hair dye you get at the loonie store. One of the guys was holding a camera. “Hey look,” he pointed, “let’s get our picture taken with the ice cream dude.”

They strode toward the truck. I knew Milt had driven to Silver Lake to watch the geese and take a break; he wasn’t keen on getting his picture taken.

“Let’s just go,” Milt sighed as he started the motor.

Even though our Mr. Polar Bear truck was slow and lumbering, the Silver Lake gang didn’t bother to chase us down.

We drove back toward Applegate Shopping centre, mostly because I needed a washroom and the ones at Silver Lake were closed—not that we would have stayed there. In the parking lot another man and woman wanted a Popsicle.

“A dollar?” said the woman. “When I was a kid they only cost a nickel.”

She looked about my age, and when I was a kid they cost a quarter, not a nickel. I don’t know where she got off thinking they were a nickel. I said, “A loonie buys today what a quarter bought thirty years ago. We can’t help it.”

“You’re taking it personal,” Milt mumbled.

The couple bought one Popsicle to split in half. They said they didn’t care which flavour as long as it was cold and wet, and I gave them a peppermint twist.

Milt and I drove around most of the afternoon, trying not to use too much gas, but we weren’t selling anything. Finally Milt shut off the music and pulled over by Lakeview Cemetery. Even though it wasn’t quite three-thirty, we were worn out.

“How about we count what we’ve taken in so far?” I suggested. “If we’ve made any profit, we’ll stop now.”

I knew we must have made something, because we had sold about fifty items at lunchtime. I counted the money and said, “We’ve netted $8.70. According to my calculations, shouldn’t it be more like $13.50?” I wondered if we’d been giving out incorrect change.

Milt confessed that while I was in the public toilet at Applegate, two little kids had said, “Is that ice cream for free?” Milt had said yes and given some away. He said he’d done the same thing on the previous three days, but they were different kids each time.

I told Milt he could keep the $8.70 rather than split it with me. I had a steady job; he didn’t. He had kids; I didn’t.

On Tuesday he wasn’t motivated to rent the truck, and I went back to work. On Wednesday the wrecking company he used to work for called to offer him a temporary job. He phoned the Mr. Polar Bear fleet manager to say he wouldn’t be renting a truck any more.

Milt has most of the ingredients to make a no-fail ice cream dude: compassionate, likes kids, likes ice cream, good truck driver. Something’s amiss. In the words of Milt, “It’s scary out there.”

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JILL MANDRAKE

Jill Mandrake writes strange but true stories and leads Sister DJ’s Radio Band, featuring rhythm and blues covers, post-vaudeville original tunes and occasional comedy bits. https://hido.bandcamp.com/album/the-neti-pot

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