HOUSTON, TX – Back in late April, the ice cream man came to our street. It was a quiet spring day, a reminder of why we lived in Houston while the rest of the country dug out from the previous weekend’s snowstorm.
Thoughts of an endless summer of heat, humidity and hurricane warnings did not cloud the sapphire sky. He parked his truck at the end of the block and waited. It was a blue van with a white roof, not very big, with a picture of Shrek on the side facing me and a stop sign on the door. “Caution. Children Crossing!” it announced, and cars dutifully stopped, like they are legally required to do for school buses. The only law enforced here is the law of childhood – that kids have the right of way when it comes to ice cream! A jaunty tune played on what is supposed to sound like a circus calliope but is really a synthesizer in a studio somewhere. No one cared. The endless loop of music floated on the afternoon air, and like the Pied Piper’s song, drew out the children.
The scene reminded me of the many ice cream trucks we raced to daily in Washington Heights. They would ring their bells as they came down the street, and we would stop whatever game we were playing and yell up to our mothers in the 4th and 5th floor apartments. “Ma!” “Ma-a!” Coins wrapped in napkins would float from the windows like a brigade of parachutes, and we were ready, waiting on the sidewalk, for the Bungalow Bar Man or the Good Humor Man to park his clean, white truck. We already knew what we wanted: red, white and blue ice rockets, sundaes in a cup, toasted almond, chocolate eclair…
The Bungalow Bar truck looked like a little house on wheels, Good Humor was a big box, and both were decorated with mouth-watering decals advertising their many treats. We didn’t care which ice cream man came because it wouldn’t be our only ice cream for the day! If we had a strawberry shortcake now, we could get a rocket later. And that didn’t count nighttime ice cream, when the grown-ups sat watching us play under the street lights, and they treated us when the trucks rang past one more time before retiring until the next day. Nor did it count the occasional walk to Mr. Solomon’s, the candy store on Broadway.
Mr. Solomon sold everything – candy, ice cream, soda, comics. He would stare down at us as we lined up in front of the counter and ordered ice cream cones with sprinkles. Vanilla fudge was an adventure! If one of us didn’t have enough money, we improvised. Everyone had bubble gum – Bazooka or Dubble Bubble. It didn’t matter. We chewed feverishly and mashed all of our gum together into a giant wad, stuck it to the bottom of a long string and someone went fishing for coins. The subway grating outside of Mr. Solomon’s store was over eight feet long. In the winter, it provided a warm respite from the cold as we walked from Broadway to Fort Washington Avenue and toward the Hudson River. But in the summer, it was a sunken Spanish galleon. People threw trash into the grating, but coins often fell out of unsuspecting pockets only to be retrieved by us months later. So one of the boys – Jimmy or Frankie or Dean – would lie on his stomach and fish for coins. We always got enough money so that everyone could have a cone.
The ice cream man would park and step out of his cab around to the back while we waited on the sidewalk, rolling our coins around in our sweaty palms. He opened a freezer door that guarded heaven and reached through the vapor cloud into paradise. He didn’t even have to look. Magically he knew where every treasure lay and out emerged a fudgesicle (we pronounced it “fudgeickle”), a vanilla pop, a coconut cream. We sat on the stoop of our apartment building or the steps to the schoolyard and carefully unwrapped our treats, pushing the paper to the base of the pop to create a makeshift cuff that caught any stray pieces of chocolate or chunks of delicious.
We each had a different way of eating our ice cream. The boys just bit into it and suffered major brain freezes in the process. The girls gingerly broke off the chocolate borders with our front teeth, then daintily lifted off the solid chocolate squares with our fingertips. The vanilla underneath had softened by then and just melted in our mouths. And everyone tasted everyone else’s ice cream, even if we had just eaten the same thing an hour or two before. No one was grossed out. No one had cooties. At least not when it came to ice cream. We all held on to the sticks long after we were done, sucking the wood dry until it splintered on our tongues.
When it came to ice cream cones, we were alike. We licked and licked until the dome of ice cream was even with the cone. Then we bit the bottom of the cone and sucked the ice cream through the hole. Finally, the paper came off and we bit the cone like feverish beavers in ever-shrinking concentric circles until it was gone. We licked off our fingers, wiped our hands on our clothes and went back to play – until the next jingle of bells.
So on that spring day two or three months ago in my Sugar Land neighborhood, what struck me as odd about the ice cream scene on my street was how quiet it was. The only sound was the music from the truck. The kids walked quietly, almost robotically toward the sound and stood patiently as the man dispensed ice cream from a freezer just behind him. He never came out of the truck, but I could see that he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts, not the starched white uniform and crisp cap of a real ice cream man. The kids got their ice cream and quickly returned to their houses before it could melt. They didn’t compare choices, they didn’t unwrap their treats, they didn’t taste each other’s treasures. They didn’t speak. They just hurried back home and ate their ice cream in the air conditioning behind closed doors. The street was quiet and empty again.
The ice cream man hasn’t been back since.