The faint sounds of festive music coming from an ice cream truck caught my attention. I hadn’t been in the city for a long time, and the music was bringing the memories back.
At sixteen years old and fresh from my junior year of high school, my world changed after I answered an ad in the newspaper and got hired as an ice cream truck driver. I had a full-time job. No more part-time summer jobs mowing lawns and running a paper route. I was entering the real world, the adult world. A new experience I knew nothing about. But I learned.
When I got to work in the morning I had a routine. I’d check in at the office, then head out to the wooden garage in the back. Once inside the cool, dark building I’d breathe in the smell of wood, gasoline, oil and tire rubber. After my eyes adjusted to the darkness I’d hit the light switch and eight Chevy trucks with red, white, and blue paint jobs would sit gleaming under fluorescent lights.
Customized for their specialized purpose, the trucks waited. They were just an ignition key turn away from starting their daily journey loaded with frozen cargo, broadcasting nursery rhyme songs at super fast speed from their sound systems, and making their way across the city, bringing relief and summer sounds to young and old alike. As the sun bore down and the blacktop baked, there was no sweeter sound than that of the Swell Time Ice Cream Man coming down the street.
I was the youngest employee. I came early and left late. If they would have let me, I would have moved into the garage and slept in my truck. I had just gotten my driver’s license and at the time had no vehicle of my own, so my truck was my ticket to travel. I drove all day, met people and got paid. Life was wonderful, and I was really happy to have the job. The other drivers just scratched their heads when they saw me bouncing around getting ready to hit the road. They were older men and it wasn’t a fun adventure for them. It was work. Long, hot hours, kids running after their trucks begging for free stuff, but they did it because we got paid in cash every night.
Every morning I’d open the garage door and start the trucks, test the sound systems, and drive them outside and park them in a row. I loved the sound of all of them running and playing music at the same time. No two systems had the same music, so it sounded like a circus band gone crazy. However, that would only go on for couple of minutes until the owner would start hollering from his office door; “Okay, okay, I hear them. They work. Now shut ‘em off, you’re wasting gas.”
The owner, Mr. Silvey, was an ex-carnival man and he ran Swell Time Ice Cream like a midway barker runs his game. It was a hustle and you had to draw people in. He loved hot weather; the hotter the day, the better business was. If you could get the kids going early enough in the day, you might be able to get them to buy twice by coming back later. Once they got used to the frozen treats and the happy music, they were yours. He knew some parents disliked him for sending his noisy trucks into their neighborhoods and riling up their children, but he had the stuff kids wanted and in the end the parents would buy. Convenience stores like 7-11 and Quick Stop hadn’t sprung up on every corner yet, so it was much easier to buy off the trucks than to make a big trip to the market on a hot day lugging the kids.
The day he hired me, Silvey gave me his “Swell Time Speech” explaining his way of doing business, then he gave me a map with three routes outlined on it, twenty bucks for change and a change belt, then tossed me a set of keys.
“Okay, kid, you’re on your own,” he said. “ Just follow the map. Those are good routes. You’re lucky you got them. I usually give them to older wiser guys, but you seem to want to work, so I’m going to try you. Today you’ve already got a full load, but from now on you’ve got to load it yourself from the freezer back there.” He pointed to a large freezer door. “The prices are in the truck. You run out of ice or product, come back and get some more. Fill up with gas from our pump when you come back and write down how much you use. I’ll deduct for that, the cost of your stuff, take back my change, and you’ll get what’s left in cash. If you work hard, you’ll do good; there’s a good markup in ice cream. Remember, cash every night.”
I worked it. It only took a couple of days to figure out which of the routes I had were the best. In the early morning I’d head east towards the Air Force base where the military families lived. They’d be up and the kids would drag their mothers out to the truck, mostly simple sales like pushups or Popsicle’s, but once in a while a mom would buy a pint or half pint of ice-cream or sherbet.
Then I’d head back into North Sacramento and cruise the streets, ending up around noon at Woodlake Park where I’d park. That was a good spot with kids playing ball and swimming there, and the adults from the surrounding businesses would be eating lunch and I was a great place to get dessert. Plus, I wasn’t burning up gasoline.
After the lunch crowd dwindled, I’d head southwest, crossing over the Del Paso overpass to the edge of downtown Sacramento and the housing projects off Richards Boulevard. They were low-rent government-subsidized family apartments, and there were lots of kids there. Even though most of the people there didn’t have much money and you had to watch for kids trying to rip you off, it was a good spot. Everyone had a little cash, and volume made up for lack of big-money buys. Sometimes I’d swing back by the garage and get more product if it was really hot and I was selling good, then head back out by the air base again and back into North Sacramento until it was too dark to see. Then it was “back to the barn,” as the older guys said; gas up, give Silvey the receipts for gas and product, hang around for a few minutes, get paid and go home.
I couldn’t believe my good fortune; my school friends couldn’t either. They had boring part-time summer jobs ranging from yard work and washing cars to bagging groceries. But I had a full-time job cruising all day on my own, and got paid in cash daily.
I was trying to save the cash I got for a car. My parents were letting me do that provided I lived by the rules of the house, somewhat restrictive in the eyes of a sixteen year old. But the thought of having my own car was enough to keep me in line. I just knew the key to happiness was being mobile and thanks to the job, I was most of the time. Soon I’d have my own wheels to really get me around.
One night when I got home my dad was waiting for me. “Come on, we’re going for a ride,” he said. I knew I wasn’t in trouble, I hadn’t done anything and my dad was proud that I actually had a job, but I was puzzled.
“Where are we going?” I asked as we headed down Broadway.
“To get a car. Do you have your license with you?” he asked.
“Well, one of the guys from work is being transferred to Portland and he’s getting rid of his wife’s car. It’s a good car and they’re letting it go at a good price. I’m going to buy it for you and you can pay me back with your ice cream money. It’s not a hot rod mind you, but a damn good car. Solid, dependable and well worth the price.
He was right, it was no hot rod, but a maroon four door 1952 Chrysler. It was a middle aged person’s dream, but it was mine. I had wheels of my own, and it was so big I could carry a lot of people. At first I felt funny driving it, like a little kid in dad’s big car, but that went away after the first time my friends and I went cruising down K Street with the rest of the cruisers. No one laughed at me, my car ran good, didn’t burn oil, and was very clean. But it was huge compared to the smaller hopped-up Fords and Chevies that made up most of the cruising crowd.
Life got better. I was allowed to go out in the car after I got home, but couldn’t stay out too late because I had to get up early to go to work. Still, I made the best of the time I had. My buddies and I met a lot of girls that summer. Mostly at the drive inn restaurant on the corner of Seventeenth and J Streets. It was common practice to park, order a Coke or Pepsi, then walk around and mingle with everyone.
We went to a high school in downtown Sacramento and most of the girls we met there were from schools in different parts of town, so our lead-in line was, “What school do you go to?” That would start the conversation if they were interested. A few weren’t, but a lot seemed to be; after all it was summer, it was California, and it was fun to hang out and talk. We got invitations to parties all over and met people we would have never met without transportation. Since we always went places as a group and the girls did also, nothing ever developed past friendly flirtations, but as young guys we felt we were broadening our horizons quite nicely!
As summer rolled on I became quite skilled at being the Swell Time Ice Cream Man. I’d dropped the slower parts of my routes and concentrated on the busy spots. I knew shortcuts that saved gasoline and had a solid group of regular customers. It was a hot summer, which helped, and the kids liked me because I wasn’t that much older than a lot of them. I also learned what, and what not, to carry on my truck. Some items flew out the door, others did nothing. I’d paid attention and listened to the other drivers and it was paying off; I was almost finished paying off my dad for the car.
But an ominous sign loomed ahead as late August rolled around: the State Fair was about to begin. That signaled the end of summer for school kids. The fair ended after the Labor Day weekend and school started right after that. Swell Time would keep operating on a limited basis through September and would be cutting back to just a couple of drivers. However, I had a shot at getting a good part-time job with a friend of mine after school and weekends at a tree and plant nursery not far from my house. I wanted that job so I could continue to make some money and maintain my car, but it wasn’t going to be half as much fun as driving the truck.
I spent one day brooding about the approaching end of my perfect world, then my sixteen year old mind went back to the task at hand: being the ice cream man.
Of the many streets I’d traveled that summer I had one that was my favorite. It was a street in North Sacramento called Boxwood. It was about six blocks long, running north and south from Arden Way to El Camino Avenue. Near the north end there was a ball park and in the evenings when I swung back down Boxwood I’d pick up quite a bit of action from the fans. There were lots of softball leagues, so almost every night it was a different crowd. It was a good stop; hot summer evenings and families, a good combination. During the day I had my Boxwood regulars. Mostly kids, a little on the wild side, but happy and full of good energy. They liked to try to trick me with their little games and make fun of my music, but all in all I got along well with them.
Unlike the streets in the wealthier Woodlake neighborhood of North Sacramento, Boxwood was far from being a street of mansions. Houses on the street ranged from nice to run down. It was working-class North Sacramento and had a variety of races and lifestyles. One house in particular stood out. It was just about half way between Arden and El Camino. It was rickety looking and sat up off of the street on a sort of platform foundation, much like older houses near rivers that sometimes flood. The stairs led from the street up to the porch that had a broken-down sofa and table on it. The windows were always shuttered and the house appeared to be tilting to one side. The screen door was crooked and the roof was bad. In the driveway sat two cars, one was a Pontiac, which was drive-able, and the other a Cadillac that I never saw move.
One day during my first week of driving by the house, a little girl was waiting at the foot of the stairs and I’d stopped. From then on she was there every day. She was very shy, probably nine or ten, blonde, with glasses whose frames were held together with Scotch Tape. Her clothes weren’t new or fancy, but they were clean and neat. There was always someone standing on the porch behind the screen door watching, but I couldn’t make out if it was a man or woman or an older kid.
I’d stop the truck and get out.
“Hi, what would you like today?” I’d ask.
She would look down at her shoes and kind of shuffle her feet getting ready to speak, then look back up at me. “A pushup.”
A pushup was a cardboard cone filled with ice cream on a stick that was pushed up from the bottom, and they cost fifteen cents. She never had more than a dime held tightly in her small hand, but every day I gave her one anyway I didn’t have the heart not to, and I never told her they cost a nickel more. Just looking at the house made me think nickels were in short supply.
“Thank you,” she would whisper, then shyly smile, turn, and run back up the stairs into the house. The door would shut and I’d start back up the street.
For some, August is too hot to do anything, but it was working for me as the heat blistered. Because I kept regular times on my routes, people knew when to expect me and they’d just send the kids out for a minute to pick up refreshments. It was door-to-door delivery without having to battle the heat of the day. I didn’t mind. If I got too hot I’d stop and open up the freezer door in the back and stick my head in, the old “ice down” trick.
As it inched on towards the end of the season I was putting in even more hours to pick up extra money, often tripling the amount of times I hit an area. One evening I was back in North Sacramento going down Boxwood for the third time when I glanced at the weird house and saw a girl, not the little girl, standing on the stairs. She waved for me to stop, which I did.
She walked up to the truck and said, “Hello I just wanted to thank you for giving my sister the ice cream every day. I saw a truck like yours the other day with the prices of stuff on the door. What she’s been getting costs more than a dime and that’s all my dad ever gives her. Can I give you some money to make up for it?”
I turned off the truck motor and sound system and told her, “No, don’t worry about it. She’s a nice kid, but really shy isn’t she?”
“Yes,” she said, “she’s a good sister, but shy and self-conscious because of her glasses. Some of the other kids around here make fun of them, but she has to wear them. I’m hoping she can get some new ones before school starts.”
“Well, you tell her the ice cream man thinks she’s real pretty in glasses and looks very smart. So, do you want anything?”
“No, thanks, but let me ask you something. You look about my age. Do you go to High School?”
“Yeah, I do. McClatchy.”
“I go to Norte.”
“That makes us rivals.”
She smiled and said, “I know, I was on the rally squad last year. I was there when we beat you in football.”
“Oh, yeah, I remember. I was there, too. I probably saw you from across the field.”
“I’m sure you did,” she said.
I told her I was going to be a senior. “What about you?”
So there it was; after a summer of working and being coached by the older drivers, the nights of cruising and talking with my buddies about how to deal with girls, this was the time to put all the lectures to use.
“Hey, would you like to go get a Coke or something sometime? I’ve got a car.” As much as I’d thought I’d learned about being a fairly cool guy, I couldn’t keep my nervousness from creeping in.
She may have expected it, but it took what seemed to be a long time for her to answer. “Well, sure, that would be fun.”
Something new was beginning; two teenagers who shared youthful curiosity had just met. Just as my life had changed when I was hired at the beginning of summer, it was about to change again.
A few nights later I stood in the hot night air pumping gas into my truck for the last time. I’d never had a real full-time job before, and now I was used to working with the public, keeping track of money and inventory, and being responsible for my own success. I had my own car– paid for–and money left for school.
I didn’t know if I’d ever drive an ice cream truck again, but I would miss it. I’d miss the speeded up version of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” playing constantly, the feel of the truck gliding down the road, the smells of the truck garage, the conversations with the other drivers, the smiles on the kid’s faces, and most of all, the freedom to actually be my own boss.
Later that night as I shook hands with the Silvey and the rest of the guys for the last time, I had mixed emotions. I’d grown a lot over the summer and it was sad saying goodbye to people, once strangers, who had become friends, but at the same time I was happy to have had the experience, and excited to have a new friend entering my life. As always, Silvey put it best: “You’re just starting out, Kid. Hold on to the good, learn from the bad, don’t forget where you came from, and keep moving on.”