Melting ice cream dreams

I feel bad for the old ice cream truck fella, an icon of hearty Americana who once, back in “Leave it to Beaver” times, was known as the Good Humor Man, and who now is definitely not in a good humor.

Yet here he is, making the rounds at 3:30 each afternoon without fail, rumbling through the neighborhood, tinny tunes jangling from a rusted rooftop megaphone, the Pied Piper of Popsicles. Are those tear stains on his cheeks?  

These are mournful times and, unsurprisingly, the traveling ice cream business is way down, what with parks closed, or only slowly reopening, and the pandemic pandemonium roiling unabated. I hear the music and look out to see two or three tykes clamoring at the truck window instead of the bevy that used to get all Wonka-Bar crazy for the latest frozen thingamajig. 

It’s almost painful watching the face-masked driver handing out melty treats to the wan crowd. What once took a frantic 15 minutes or more is now a few-moments pause, a hiccup with the motor running. (Melting? Maybe my heart.)

Better days for the ice cream man.

What I also notice is how the truck’s musical tootling has changed over the summer. Going from upbeat circusy music, this might be the only ice cream truck whose jingle is by Beethoven, namely “Für Elise,” a strangely moody tune to play from a Day-Glo magnet for giddy children.

I suspect our fraught racial climes have affected the ice cream man’s tune. He used to play the hokey folk song “Turkey in the Straw,” which goes like this. Some argue that the song, which confectionary vehicles nationwide blare as a Pavlovian call to calories, is actually a 100-year-old minstrel ditty that’s grossly racist. Revisionists refute that. 

Not Wu-Tang’s badass RZA, who’s updating “Turkey in the Straw” with a hip-hop twist. CNN reports: “RZA came up with a new ice cream truck jingle because the old one was used in minstrel shows.” Last month, Good Humor even ordered all ice cream truck drivers to stop playing the outmoded number because of its sullied history. 

As if the nameless driver doesn’t have enough woes without the cursed and forever corny “Turkey in the Straw.” The children disperse wearing ice cream lipstick, scampering back to homebound quarantines or kicking balls in the street. I picture our quiet hero despondent, driving off with his forehead resting on the steering wheel, enduring the same few bars of Beethoven’s old melody played over and over on something between a strangled street organ and a broken music box, with that creepy carnivalesque tang.

The music echoes down the block and through the trees, an earworm for the dwindling masses, calling out: eat me

Spring’s atonal symphony

To sit outside on a warm spring day, breeze swirling, sun sparkling, is a thing of momentous good fortune to be savored and cherished. Ah, springtime. It is beautiful, what with nature’s flowery plentitude, cloudless azure heavens and a frenzy of insects. (Ah, bugs.)

A medium-size translucent spider — a nasty arachnid, not an insect, let’s be clear — descended on me from the heights of the patio umbrella. I broke its silk safety line and, holding it by the shiny thread, released it on the deck to do its venomous butchery. 

Next, a frisky mosquito could not be shaken from my index finger, its blood-sucking proboscis neatly jabbed into my flesh. I removed it with a violent flick. It tumbled through the air, probably trailing my bodily fluids.

Then, despite the umbrella’s yawning roof, pollen-like detritus from a tree landed on my lap and in my hair. Not enough specialness? I soon started breaking a minor sweat and I felt kind of itchy.

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That is the ballad of spring for me, a symphony of notes glorious and galling, a sun-soaked wonderworld of short sleeves and short pants, tiny athletic socks and expensive sunglasses to avert instant blindness. Sunscreen is for chumps, but the coconutty perfume forever wafts in the light, distinctly welcome breeze. 

Ah, springtime. If you can’t tell yet I am one of three souls in the universe who is totally divorced from the purported pleasures of the season. (I have tallied my woes here previously. Patience, reader.) 

I’m like an albino who can’t be out in the naked sun, with pink eyes that scorch in the light. I’m like The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. I’m like Nosferatu: a sliver of sunlight will reduce me to a writhing pile of ash. 

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The sun kisses Nosferatu. He is not pleased.

I don’t do heat. Sweating is an international incident. Shorts render me a fashion calamity not even the “Queer Eye” guys can fix. (I used to be a strict “Never Shorts” guy. Read about us here.) Bugs are a basic annoyance, but pollen triggers sneezes 8.0 on the Richter scale. 

I appreciate the silken loveliness of verdant trees, crazy-quilt flowers, blue skies and those velvet breezes. But then one must contend with lawnmowers, street fairs, movies in the park, barbecues, pedal boats, lakes, life jackets. Enough.

And that’s just spring. Summer multiplies it ten-fold. It’s no longer a respectable symphony, it’s a full-bore, drug-fueled rave, with shirtless throngs tossing hair and sweat across a mass of herky-jerky bodies, electronic dance music throbbing, the western world teetering on collapse.

Not a thing to be done about it. I will, as usual, suck it up and scrape by. I’m a trooper like that — whiny, but a trooper. Twice already I’ve worn shorts with little tiny socks and I pulled through. The mythic ice cream-truck tools and tootles through the streets, children titter and play outside till 8 p.m., the public pool just opened its gates and I smell the carcinogenic bouquet of burning charcoal in the air.

It’s happening. Now. If you can prod me outdoors, I’m the guy huddled in the shade, shielded from the sun, far from the water, book in one hand, beer in the other, grinning and bearing it, with only the vaguest curl of a scowl on my lips. The symphony roars on.

A scoop of nostalgia returns in its seasonal glory

Day-five of spring, it’s 50 degrees out and there it is (no, not already): the tinkly, telltale tune of the ice cream man and his ramshackle, rainbow-colored truck, plastered with cartoons and photos of the products he’s pulled up to peddle.

He’s making the rounds, up and down streets and avenues, Pied-Pipering children to chase his truck until he stops, the chugging engine idling in the middle of the road and kids, some on tippy-toes, pressing at the sliding glass window, jostling for a sweet treat.

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This is tradition in action. Didn’t we all have an ice cream man tooling around in a boxy little mail truck or van, delivering Drumsticks, Push Ups, Choco Tacos, Fudgsicles and snow cones? One assumes it all started with the folkloric Good Humor Man in the 1930s, but who really knows.

And who cares when sprinkles-dipped delectations await? (Even if they do average a swindler’s $3 to $4 each. In my day …) At the window today is a globe-shaped man with a ruddy face and hairy arms. He’s as nice as can be without being creepy.

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But back to that tootling, anodyne jingle we all know and loathe. That unmistakable melody that, in some grade schools, has become the innocent singalong “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” (Another popular truck song is Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” aka the theme to the classic film “The Sting.”)

Here’s where things get ugly. That song, the one our local confectionary vehicle and thousands nationwide blare as a Pavlovian call to calories, is actually a 100-year-old minstrel ditty that’s aggressively racist. I don’t want to plunge into that swamp here, but you can read all about its malignant history at NPR. It’s shocking; the story even comes with a reader caution.

So if lawn mowers aren’t quite buzzing yet — last week’s season-flouting snow is still busy melting — other sounds are filling the air, those of yelping children by turns asking for money from tall people and chirping orders for Bomb Pops, as well as some questionable earworms swirling out of megaphones atop Skittles-hued trucks and vans.

It’s a bi-seasonal symphony — just wait for the clamor come summer — that I’m a bit old to partake in. (The last thing I bought from an ice cream truck was a Diet Coke.) Still, the view from afar is fine. One delights in forbidden treats vicariously, observes the joy of mass satisfaction, and maybe takes a sweet nostalgic journey all the while.