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In the summer between two years of grad school in Spokane, Washington, I did a lot of temping. As a fast typist who knew Word, I was in the top tier of desirably disposable clerical chum. But as someone just looking for summer work, the unreliable, changeable nature of temping lost its sexy allure by the eighth gig in four weeks. Like any student with zero ambition, I wanted something more fulfilling and yet somehow also less demanding.
Imagine the thrill of finding a classified ad for ice cream truck drivers, all shifts. The summer rush was on at Wells Blue Bunny Ice Cream Novelties, and while I hadn’t exactly cherished the dream of driving an ice cream truck, it certainly would count as a novelty. The ad described the only requirements as a valid license and the ability to drive a stick shift. I had the license, and I spent an evening grinding the gears of a terrified friend’s Volvo beater sedan in a grocery parking lot to learn the fundamentals of manual transmission.
This was a few years before the food truck renaissance, so vehicular food service came not with hipster cachet, but rather (at best) low-rent nostalgia. From what I can tell, Wells is a respectably massive corporate brand, so I suppose the sketchy dispatch warehouse operation at the classified ad’s address was a down-at-the-heels local franchise licensee.
The warehouse was small, with two open bays allowing ice cream trucks to enter and exit. The warehouse could be small because the trucks were small. These weren’t the glorious dairy tanks of classical ice cream truck iconography. Rather, these were small, three-wheeled utility carts that sported semi-open cabs and an insulated payload crate in the cart bed. To transact frozen novelties, you had to stop the “car,” park, get out, clamber up onto the rear bed, and lean down into the freezer to distribute the goods to the surrounding mob.
I filled out the barest-minimum application form, had my license photocopied, and was hired on the spot, along with the two other people who showed up. The manager was a late-middle-aged guy, name and face long forgotten, who radiated despair and peevishness in equal measure. He was meticulous about explaining and enforcing rules, while seeming as if doing so brought him intense mental anguish. He told me and my two new colleagues we could start immediately—as in on-shift in 20 minutes—or Friday of the following week. We all opted to start right away, with varying levels of enthusiasm.
Clearly wanting us to hit the road and start earning, the manager compacted our training into approximately four minutes of barked restrictions and directions. Be on time or lose your shift. Stay in your assigned territory. Thirty-minute break for lunch. Drive at a walking speed of three miles per hour when selling, and always have your music on. Never put your truck into reverse — shift neutral and get out to push it backwards, if needed. This was because reversing ice cream trucks had a high chance of hitting a child, and as the manager told us brusquely, “running over a kid is a firing offense.”
And do not forget the Count. Every shift begins and ends with the Count. This means carefully tallying up all types and quantities of ice cream currently in the insulated crate on your truck, which also must be kept cool with a sufficient lump of dry ice in the bottom. Before you drive out at shift open, you count the ice cream and top off anything you’re short of. Most drivers didn’t get to “own” their truck, and each of us just drove whichever rig was open when we came in. Only a few select multiyear veterans were allowed to claim particular rigs, making their Counts and inventory easier to deal with. The Count sheet had a separate column for ice cream the driver personally consumed while on shift, which would be charged against your pay at a small discount.
Mistakes or inaccuracies with your cash at shift’s end were largely ignored if less than a few bucks. But an inaccurate Count of ice cream? No. Doesn’t match what you left with and what you marked as sold? Count it again. And again. Almost every shift ended with several parallel bickerings between drivers accusing each other of screwing up the previous day’s Count on this or that truck. The manager would rule in this or that driver’s favor, apparently randomly, as far as I could tell. My Count was often off by a couple ice cream novelties due to my bad Counting, not because I was gorging on the product. I love ice cream, but not once was I even tempted to eat on the job. An inaccurate Count was charged against your pay, though still with the discount.
On my first day, I immediately stalled out my truck before I even left the warehouse parking lot. Turns out my one-night stand with a stick shift hadn’t prepared me to handle one of these three-wheeled beauties. The manager wandered out at the noise, sighed, and told me it “might take some getting used to” and advised steady pressure on the clutch and smooth gear shifting. Good advice for life.
The Wells Blue Bunny Ice Cream Novelties Co., Spokane, divided the city into sectors for each driver. The veterans got the choicest territory: downtown along the riverfront parks and recreation areas. As a newbie, I was banished to a rectangle that marked off North Division Street, land of office parks and strip malls, with a few adjoining sleepy neighborhoods. Still, I was driving around in summertime, outside all day, and selling ice cream! And I had music.
Yes, the famous ice cream truck jingle-music klaxon. Our trucks had a switchbox with four settings. Option #1 made a beeping sound, which we were probably supposed to use for backing up. (I never did.) Option #2 was “Turkey in the Straw,” a jubilant tune that didn’t make sense to anyone for ice cream selling. Option #3 was “Pop Goes the Weasel,” which will turn anyone homicidal after more than two play-throughs. My second week on the job, an enterprising prankster jammed one of the driver’s music boxes to this track exclusively. He came back to end the shift with blood in his eyes.
Everyone chose the fourth option: “The Entertainer.” This song is a marvel of madness, an apparently accidental work of subtle psychosomatic programming. It’s okay for the first half-hour, possibly even endearing. Then it becomes incredibly annoying over the next hour. Then the tune burns its way into your reptile brain so thoroughly that you stop hearing it. After six solid hours of “The Entertainer,” you realize you are tapping every extremity along with the music, and when you turn the music down to stop and sell ice cream, you’re quietly humming it yourself. Just listening to the opening bars, years later, I am instantly ready to clamber back up into my ice cream cart and start cruising.
The territory I patrolled was slim pickings for ice cream sales. There was a busy commercial strip along Division, but I was frankly terrified to drive my little three-wheeled cart in fast traffic. I mostly stuck to the neighborhoods, but these seemed sparsely populated with children. It was maddening going so slowly, with little to no response. On the other hand, it wasn’t like I had “sales goals” to speak of. As long as the Count matched at day’s end, no one noticed or cared if I brought in a light or heavy cash pouch. Maybe there was a bonus I just never found out about due to my lackluster performance.
Even so, the best territories were hotly contested and rigorously enforced. I used to drive past some of the choicest parks and greenspaces on my way back to the warehouse. Once I saw two other Wells Blue Bunny carts parked next to a swath of greenspace by the riverside. I’d never seen two trucks together, but there was big crowd milling around. Maybe they needed that much ice cream. As I got closer, though, I could see the two drivers rolling around on the grass, ripping up clods of earth and wrestling clumsily while they bellowed curses. Later I heard they patrolled neighboring sectors, and this scrap was the result of a perceived border violation. Both were on duty the next day, driving as per usual, none the visible worse for wear.
More out of boredom than anything else, I grew frustrated with how bad I was at selling ice cream. A grizzled old-timer (probably 35) advised hitting those otherwise dead office parks in my zone at lunchtime, when people going in or out might impulse-buy a treat. Brilliant. The next time I went out, I picked a choice office building, low and unassuming but with a jammed-full parking lot.
I drove a full circuit of the parking lot, blasting “The Entertainer” at top volume. But by the time I got back to the building’s entrance, not a soul emerged. Well, maybe it takes a minute for people to succumb to temptation. So I drove the full parking lot again, even slower this time. Back to the entrance, now having gone through almost five full plays of “The Entertainer,” and still nobody. Puzzled, I drove out, and that’s when I saw the building’s sign. It wasn’t an office, but rather, a funeral home. The full parking lot indicated a service likely in progress. I hope they enjoyed the jaunty tunes, even if they couldn’t come out for ice cream.
I don’t know if someone at the funeral home complained to the manager, but I was never called back for another shift.
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