THURSDAY: Be of Good Humor

BY PHILIP COHEN

Copyright is held by the author.

WHEN YOU’RE a kid, nothing better caps a summer day of swimming, biking, and general horsing around than the sight of the Good Humor Man trolling the street just as sun is setting. The man in white ranks up there with Saint Nick and the Tooth Fairy, a man capable of bestowing gifts of astonishing magic. And unlike the Tooth Fairy, he’s really real.

The endless variety of treats the Good Humor man dispenses from the heart of the mysterious dark temple of his freezer, cold steam spilling out as he reaches into its depths to extract your confection — are nothing short of divine. At the end of a hard summer’s day, licking even a cherry popsicle, the cheapest item off the truck, becomes an exercise in pure transcendence.

In my town, the Good Humor Man, an old fellow named Steve, would drive up the street mid June ringing his bell, just as the school year was winding down. He’d continue on his appointed rounds until near the resumption of school, early September. He’d wear a bowtie and white hat shaped much like a policeman’s.

Steve retired the summer of my 11th birthday to be replaced by Bob, who could have been Steve’s doppelganger, thin, tan, and all dressed in white, old. Bob wintered in Florida, returning to our town on the Jersey side of Philly as we prepared to chuck school for the summer.

When the ringing bell echoed up the street, kids would pour out of their houses clutching coins they’d skimmed off their parents’ dressers or kitchen, or had been handed to them by doting grandparents. Someone would yell, “Hey, Ice Cream!” and Bob’d stop, get out of the truck, and we’d line up with a patience never exercised in school. He’d dispense chocolate and strawberry éclair bars, ice cream sandwiches, ice cream cups — half vanilla, half chocolate — fudgesicles and creamsicles and popsicles and other treats, all for a pittance, for pocket change. He wore a change maker on his belt. Expertly, he’d insert and dispense coins, a wad of mostly dollar bills swelling his breast pocket over the course of the day. He smiled and joked with us before mounting the truck again, as we ripped off the paper separating us from the frozen confection at hand and had at it before it became a gooey, melted mess, swiftly deconstructing in the warm summer night. We tasted heaven.

And if, every now and then one of his customers was a nickel, even a dime, short, he’d let that go. “Next time,” Bob would say in the spirit of generosity, even if “next time” never came. It was even said of Bob, concerning the occasional penniless waif standing at the end of the line looking forlorn, that he’d pull a purple popsicle out for her and never ask for payment. That girl’s face would light up like July Fourth and for her the world at that moment was simple, uncomplicated.

The summer before my senior year in high school, early in the Good Humor Man’s season, I was walking quickly to my girlfriend’s house, a lit Marlboro in my hand, smoking cigarettes having become a newly acquired habit in my unending attempt at coolness. I passed Bob, who’d been moseying down the street ringing the bell. I waved to him with a smile, and said, “Hi Bob.”

Looking my way, he stopped the truck and got off. Giving me his most disapproving look, forehead bunched together, he said, “Those things will kill you. Maybe not tonight or even in 10 years. But you keep smoking till you’re old like me, smoking’s gonna do something to you.” He looked toward the truck, then opened one of the freezer doors and pulled out a Wonder Pop, the single most expensive thing on the truck. He handed it to me. “Put that frigging cancer stick out,” he said, and I did. As he drove off, I heard him mutter, “That’s what killed my Rosie.”

But I strutted away in that manner of high school students, who, filled with their own immortality thought nothing of huffing on Marlboro. By the time I got to my girlfriend’s, the Wonder Pop had disappeared and I became the Marlboro Man once again.

I remained a smoker, but not without the realization that, even at 17, Bob remained a kind of hero, a constant of my summer life, a happy diversion from the world, a remnant of my childhood that was disappearing. Such as when Frank from across the street failed to return from Vietnam. When that happened, when family and neighbours formed a long line outside of Frank’s house and onto the street to give his parents their condolences, my 17-year-old self grew distant from my 11-year-old iteration.

I may have seen him again before that summer ended, but this moment of fatherly concern constituted my penultimate memory of him, a moment in which he recognized me as an individual needing advice and not as some anonymous kid clutching two quarters to do business with him.

My ultimate encounter came sometime later.

You see, high school ended and in the blink of an eye I found myself finishing my sophomore year of college in need of a summer job. Sell ice cream, I thought. I looked into driving a Good Humor truck, figuring I might follow in Bob’s glorious footsteps as the Pied Piper of vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry–in another town, for Bob, as far as I knew, still drove the streets of Willingboro, New Jersey.

Jobs with Good Humor were available, it turned out, and the terms of employment seemed reasonable. The driver earned twenty five percent of the daily receipts. In return, Good Humor maintained truck, filled the tank, and so forth. I would be an employee of the Good Humor Company paid on commission. Having no car, I would need to resolve the problem of how to get from New Jersey to Good Humor Headquarters in Philly to pick up the ice cream laden truck, but I figured I’d solve that problem when I got to it.

Meantime, my father Irv had other plans for me. He’d lost his job with RCA and had been out of work for a long term. Having time on his hands, he explored summer employment possibilities for his beloved son, and he discovered in Mount Holly, one town over, an ice cream business called Carnival Bar managed by a guy named Tony.

The Carnival Bar model differed from Good Humor’s. Their drivers ran their own business. They paid a daily rental on the truck, paid for the ice cream, covered the cost of gas and any tolls, and kept the truck through the summer, plugging it in at home at night to recharge the freezers. The daily truck rental, if memory serves, was around $15. This being 1972, 15 bucks a day was no a triviality, especially given that we agreed to a seven day per week obligation. The drivers paid for the ice cream, which they then sold at a hundred percent markup.

Tony promised my father a prime territory, Upper Darby, a Philadelphia suburb perhaps 30 miles away. I would have a round trip commute of 60 miles not to mention the miles driving around the neighbourhoods ringing the bell, and the toll over the Walt Whitman Bridge. Gas was cheap in those days, as was the toll. My overhead for the week reached around $135 plus the cost of the product. This meant I needed to sell $270 worth of ice cream a week to break even before I could turn a profit, around $40 a day.

I’d make a fortune Tony guaranteed. After overhead, I’d make a full fifty percent of sales. Tony told my father selling well over a hundred dollars a day was nothing. At $100 of sales, I’d clear 30 bucks, or $210 per week, or $4.20 an hour for a 50-hour week. Not terrible for 1972, especially since we would pretty much avoid the IRS. But no one sold a mere $100 daily, Tony assured Irv. Two hundred dollars a day was a piece of cake, 300 on a hot summer day–no big deal. And July 4 and Labor Day? Mama mia! I’d come home with my truck completely empty and my pockets a-jingling. Irv left Tony, stars in his eyes; his son, he believed, was headed for ice cream riches.

I bought the Kool-Aid, ditched the Good Humor plan with its paltry 25% commission, and cast my summer lot with Carnival Bar.

Filled with dreams of the open road, of an army of elated kids chasing after me, fists filled with small change, shouting “Hey, Ice Cream!” With hopes of bringing frozen vanilla, chocolate and strawberry goodies into the world, I began my summer career as the much-adored ice cream man, the icon of summer. Not required to dress in Good Humor White, I bought a black bowler hat and donned it as my brand.

Well, let’s begin with rainy days. Nobody runs outside shouting “Ice Cream!” on rainy days. Then, too, summer’s not always a swelter of humidity, requiring the reward of a popsicle at day’s end. Sometimes summer weather becomes cool, even cold. No “Ice Cream!” when it’s cold. It turns out, selling $100 a day on a regular basis, even on hot days, is no picnic in the park. If I’d done the math, I might have understood things better. Using 1972 prices as best I recall them, to sell $100 worth of ice cream required unloading around 250 pieces a day. That’s quite a few chocolate éclairs.

Then, concerning the prime real estate of Upper Darby which had promised such endless riches, it turned out, I was an interloper with higher prices to boot. There was an adored local ice cream business of three trucks, Angelo’s, that had earned the fierce loyalty of the locals, something Tony apparently was unaware of. And the locals exercised their loyalty not only by not buying from me except when Angelo had passed them by, but spreading inane rumors about me and my product. I cheated in giving change. (I’d spent the previous summer as a toll collector on the NJ Turnpike; I was an expert change maker.) My ice cream sandwiches were somehow moldy (they were not!!). There were quarters frozen on the top of the water ice. (I never understood this one. It was apparently a bad thing to open your water ice to find a quarter frozen at the top of the cup, not to mention plain weird.)

My non-customers must have passed these and other rumors on to one of my competitors, who, feeling protective of his young clientele, approached me one summer’s eve.

That night the Angelo’s guy and I found ourselves on the same street. The Angelo’s guy stopped his truck and waved to me. I stopped my truck, figuring maybe we’d say hello, trade ice cream sandwiches, and talk shop. But as this husky looking fellow crossed the street, I observed that he was wielding a baseball bat in his right hand. Manifestly, the Angelo’s driver wasn’t interested in exchanging ice cream sandwiches nor engaging in a bit of batting practice.

He came right up to the driver’s side window, menace sculpted on his face. “You get out of town, motherfucker,” he said wielding the bat. Then he took a small step back and swung the bat at my side window and shattered the side-view mirror. This moment constituted the singular time in my life I wished I’d owned a gun; a nice, small pistol to put a nice small hole in his head. And although I felt like the anti-John Wayne, a man who never bailed from a showdown, there was little purchase in climbing down from the truck and confronting this guy, he carrying a bat, me armed with but my untrained fists. So, out of Dodge I went. I surrendered Upper Darby to the man with the Angelo’s truck and the baseball bat.

My hometown of Willingboro hove into view. I realized this burg wasn’t hosting a Carnival Bar truck on its highways and byways. No tolls, I realized, no 60-mile commute, no ten gallons of gas per day, no Angleo’s guy with a bat. I could roll out of bed, unplug the truck, and ring the bell to my heart’s content. So, for the remainder of the summer, Willingboro it would be.

I roamed my home town, all over this town of some 50,000 souls, sounding the clarion call for ice cream. I found a few locations to park the truck, like Little League games, and outside of the town’s several pools, and I made some sales, even had the occasional longish line of kids with coin in their sweaty palms. One day Irv accompanied me, I think to see for himself what a generally mediocre gig this was, to make certain I wasn’t shirking my job. “A $100 day,” he kept saying to me, indicating the bar that would yield some profit.

And so, it went.

One day as the sun began to set and I had my eye on covering a few more streets, sell a few more popsicles, who should be coming down the street toward me, but the Good Humor Man. And as we approached each other, who should be behind the wheel but Bob. It struck me as curious that this was our first encounter, but Willingboro was a large enough town that we’d simply never crossed tracks. I enthusiastically continued my ramble down the street, ringing my bell in friendly competition with the bell rung by my childhood hero, who approached me ringing his bell with the generosity I imagined hearing in its ding-a-ling-a-ling, as I drove toward the man who had back in the day warned me off of cigarettes.

At that moment, I now realize, I experienced a feeling of success as if I was driving up to Dad. You know, like, hey Dad, I’ve entered the family business. What a good boy am I! Enthusiastically, I took my hand off the bell ringer and waved to a long-lost friend, my Pappy of yesteryear.

Wait. Was that a scowl I saw plastered on Bob’s Florida tanned face as we slowly passed each other in opposite directions? Ah, but he, too, paused from ringing his bells, and gestured toward me, no doubt to wave at his protégé. Nope. It he was not engaging in the enthusiastic greeting of a long-lost friend. Most definitely, he was energetically aiming his middle finger toward me. And though I couldn’t hear him well over the distance between us, from his lips he formed the words, “Fuck you.”

Two “fucks” from two competitors in two months. Selling ice cream off a truck, beside not as enriching as promised, was, on top of that, an angry business. Banished by the man with the bat, now seen by my boyhood hero as a threat — was all so, I don’t know, life busting.

But wait. Isn’t life all about experiencing its hard lessons, growing from them and becoming a more mature, even a better person?  Maybe that’s too much to claim for one summer driving for Carnival Bar. I wasn’t murdered or disfigured. (Lord knows what might have happened to me driving all summer over the Walt Whitman in that rattletrap of a truck.) Yet summer ended with a bit of idealism spinning down the drain. I finished the summer a chastened man, older, a little wiser, and not much richer.

One comment

  1. Doug Hawley

    Takes me back, even though we didn’t have a regular Ice cream truck. It was more of a three wheel cart. I was about the same age as in the story.

    Didn’t have regular ice cream service until I was in my forties or fifties.

    Very evocative.

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