Ill-Humor Man

How selling ice cream is a lot like dealing crack


| July-August 1996


Summer is finally here, bringing with it that characteristic sound, the sound that, more than any other, defines summertime existence for city dwellers. It’s Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” and it blares from a thousand tiny loudspeakers wherever children congregate, signaling that their old pal the ice cream man is on his way.

Two years ago, that man was me. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The want ad said merely “Fun in the Sun” and promised daily pay, no experience necessary. Now, of course, I know that any ad that promises anything more pleasant than “Grim Wage Slavery—No Future” is to be regarded with suspicion, but at the time I was more naive.

Let me tell you something about the ice cream business—it’s a huge scam. It’s structurally identical to the crack trade, as far as I can tell, except it’s legal. This is how it works: Some smart johnny with a little extra cash goes out and picks up five or so of those weird little Cushman trucks like the ones golf course groundskeepers drive. He paints them white, mounts some coolers on them, and gets a connection with the sort of ice-cream-novelty wholesaler who traffics in lumps of green ice in the shape of a turtle’s head. Because these are made out of nothing but water and toxic waste, he can buy them for something like four dollars per long ton.

Then he builds a stable of street-level dealers (like me), who buy the product for about three times what he paid for it. He assigns each dealer a piece of turf. The dealer then goes out and pushes the product on schoolkids, who, like drug addicts, have zero sales resistance to the product—the only limit to the amount they’ll buy is the amount of money they can beg, borrow, or steal. The street dealer takes a cut of the incredibly marked-up street value.

The omnipresent fact of an ice cream driver’s life is, without a doubt, the music. This issues from a nasty little metal box on the dashboard that has four settings, corresponding to the four songs that will provide the sound track for the day. “Pop Goes the Weasel” is pretty much out of the question: Building as it does to its absurd little climax every nine seconds or so, it’s the sonic equivalent of Chinese water torture. “Turkey in the Straw” is OK for a while, but pretty soon it starts to make you feel like you’re on Hee Haw.

The third selection is a simple two-tone progression, the “dee-dum” that big trucks are required to make when they’re backing up. For a while, this one seemed to have promise as a sort of electronic mantra, and I managed to amuse myself by pretending it was the new Philip Glass record, but this wore thin after a while. There’s no way around it: You’re stuck with “The Entertainer.”