Ill-Humor Man

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Image by Flickr user: markshoots / Creative Commons

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.”

The music is with you always. You can’t turn it off. You can’t even turn it down, because you need to give the kids in the next block sufficient lead time to somehow acquire the fistfuls of grubby change you’re about to fleece off them. You basically need to give them about two minutes, the length of time it takes an 8-year-old who’s holding his breath to turn blue. The music blasts at top volume eight hours a day, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Strangely, it’s not as bad as it sounds. After only an hour or so the music stopped bothering me, and it never did again. It’s as though the receptors in the driver’s brain that process “The Entertainer” just get burned out. You don’t even know it’s there.

The other distressing reality the driver has to contend with is the never-ending cavalcade of children. God knows, I’ve never been the world’s biggest fan of these little hellions (during my tenure on this job, a friend took to calling me “the ill-humor man”), but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which you could see the youth of America in a worse light. People have this idea that children are born into the world innocent, trusting souls, full of charity and the milk of human kindness, and that society corrupts them as they grow into adulthood. Nothing could be further from the truth. Children are born perfect little greed machines, free of any decency whatsoever. They have all the moral feeling of a jackal at a fresh kill, and their single-minded pursuit of the pleasure principle, at any cost, is doubtless the envy of sharks worldwide.

Oh, in twos or threes they’re all right. God knows, one gets tired of being asked “What do you have that’s free?”–a sterling example of child wit–but small groups are manageable. It’s when they descend in scores, as full-throttle Lord of the Flies mob psychology kicks in, that you have to be careful. They try to break into the cooler. They try to steal your money and cigarettes. They steal each other’s money. On at least one occasion they started shaking the whole truck as if to turn it over.

Sometimes it’s best just to hop in the truck and bolt, although there appear to be few stronger drives than the drive of a child to hurl himself under the wheels of an ice cream truck. (The driver is, of course, legally liable for any trampings, stab wounds, or other mishaps that his presence may incite.)

Still, it’s precisely the deep and abiding appetite of the kids that makes the whole thing such a sweet scam for the operator. Daily cash that comes in pretty much under the table is hard to beat, though if I were a parent I might want to consider exactly what type of person needs about 60 dollars in cash every day. Perhaps the most telling, if embarrassing, recommendation of this job is that I went back and applied for it again at the beginning of this summer. They never called me back. Bastards.

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